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'Owed': Poems That Celebrate Denigrated Places And People


An ode is a typical kind of poem, a celebration of an object or a person or place. Joshua Bennett's new poetry collection is full of these types of poems. His book is even called "Owed," but he spells it O-W-E-D, as in something that needs to be repaid.

JOSHUA BENNETT: What I wanted to do in this book was to create those kind of poems of celebration for places and people that were denigrated, right? So they're also poems of reparation for me.

PFEIFFER: There's a poem called "Owed To The Durag" and one called "Owed To Your Father's Gold Chain."

BENNETT: I had in mind all of the people, places and things that I'd been taught to be ashamed of. I was thinking about what I thought was beautiful when I was young, I had long forgotten when I wrote this book.

PFEIFFER: Forgotten, he says, when he went to private school, then college and then on to grad school. So when I spoke with Joshua Bennett last week, I asked him to read part of a poem about his time in private school. It's called "Token Sings the Blues."

BENNETT: (Reading) You contain multitudes and are yet contained, everywhere you go, confined like there is always someone watching you. And isn't there? And isn't that the entire point of this flesh you inherited, this unrepentant stain? Be twice as good, Mama says, as if what they have is worth your panic, worth measuring your very life against. And you always remember to measure your hair, your volume, your tone over email. You perpetually sorry. You don't know why. You apologize to no one in particular, just for being around and in your body at the same time. You know your body is the real problem. You monster. You beast of burden. You beast and burden. You horse but human. You centaur. You map the stars and pull back your bow to shoot the moon in its one good white eye. You are everything, your big sister says. And on your best days above ground, you believe her.

PFEIFFER: That line about this flesh you inherited, this unrepentant stain - I actually wrote that down in my notes because it was so powerful. How did you come up with that?

BENNETT: I didn't come to think about Blackness as anything resembling an unrepentant stain until I was a teenager. I grew up in a household where Blackness was celebrated. I went to a church that had a Black Jesus on the wall. Once I got admitted, though, to this elite private school in upstate New York, Rye Country Day School, it was really one of the - it certainly wasn't the first time I encountered racism, but I think it was the first time that I realized there were all these sorts of pervasive negative social meanings attached to Blackness and to Black people. And that followed me wherever I went.

PFEIFFER: You also have a line that says, you affirmative-action action figure. Did some people make you feel that way?

BENNETT: A hundred percent - there was always this sense that the Black people that are here, the brown people that are here, they're here to serve a certain social function. And it has very little to do with their brilliance. And so that contradiction, that silliness and absurdity inspired me when I was turning to this book as well.

PFEIFFER: Joshua, you've talked before about your writing process. And you've said, this is your quote, "I'm finally learning how to be comfortable in a space of nonproduction." I think most people feel anxious when they can't produce, you know? The dreaded writer's block. How did you get comfortable with dry spells in your own writing?

BENNETT: Well, I think therapy helps a lot.

PFEIFFER: Literal therapy?

BENNETT: Yeah, literal therapy, working with my brilliant therapist Sue (ph) and realizing that I was assigning entirely too much of my personal value to what I put on the page, what I was publishing. My entire life had been about going to elite schools so I could get a good job one day. It was - my mother was the only person I knew that had a degree growing up. And her sense, though, was that, you know, her boy was bright, and that meant that he could go to, you know, all these fancy schools we saw on TV. And unbeknownst to her, I think, in the midst of that, I developed this really problematic relationship to the work I put in the world. What does it mean to - every time you go outside and you look at a tree, the tree starts to turn into a poem automatically? That craft process then became, OK, how does this fit into the next collection? - instead of really just diving into the aesthetic beauty of the natural world.

PFEIFFER: It started to feel unhealthy in a way that every time, as your example is, you looked at a tree, you felt like you had to turn it into a poem.

BENNETT: For sure, I needed to get back to having sort of religious experiences every day. And it's only recently I've gotten the space where I feel like I can just be alive and to lighten this moment, especially with my son coming into the world. That's a real lesson I want to pass onto him.

PFEIFFER: Would you read another poem that's very much about your dad? It's called "America Will Be." It's on pages 78 to 79.

BENNETT: Sure - "America Will Be," After Langston Hughes.

(Reading) I woke up this morning, and there were men on television, lauding a wall big enough to box out an entire world. Families torn with the stroke of a pen. The right to live little more than some garment that can be stolen or reduced to cinder at a tyrant's whim. My father knows this, grew up knowing this, witnessed firsthand the firebombs, the Klan, multiple messiahs love-soaked and shot through, somehow still believes in this grand blood-stained experiment, still votes, still prays that his children might make a life unlike any he has ever seen. He looks at me like the promise of another cosmos, and I never know what to tell him. All the books in my head have made me cynical and distant, but there's a choir in him that calls me forward. My disbelief built as it is from the bricks of his belief, not in any America you might see on network news or hear heralded before a football game but in the quiet power of Sam Cooke singing that he was born by a river that remains unnamed that he runs alongside to this day some vast and future country, some nation within a nation, black as candor, loud as the sound of my father's unfettered laughter over cheese, eggs and coffee. His eyes shut tight as armories, his fists unclenched as if he were invincible.

PFEIFFER: I feel like you're trying to tell us something about hope or resilience or progress or progress when there seems to be no progress. What's the message?

BENNETT: Yeah. I mean, hearing your beautifully stated question, you're making me think about James Baldwin and why he said he was an optimist. And he said the reason was, who will tell the children there is no hope, right? And I think with my parents, they always told me there is hope. Who am I to tell my parents - right? - a sort of reversal of the Baldwin quotation. Who am I to tell my parents there's no hope to be had? What have I survived in comparison to them? And so I'm trying to say something there about hope, something about education and something about the people that have lived and thrived at the underside of modernity, you know? - poor and working people, Black and Indigenous people who have given us so much. And he really does look at me like the promise of another cosmos, another world. And even with, you know, the Ph.D. and the other degrees, there's no way I'm going to tell him anything else, you know?

PFEIFFER: You have a baby due next month.


PFEIFFER: Do you think you'll end up staring at that baby in his crib, having the same hopes your father had for you?

BENNETT: Of course. Of course. I just don't - I don't know any other way. I think so. I think that hope will remain.

PFEIFFER: Joshua Bennett, thank you for coming on the program.

BENNETT: Sacha, it was an honor and pleasure.

PFEIFFER: Joshua Bennett's new book is called "Owed" - O-W-E-D, not O-D-E.

(SOUNDBITE OF REAL ESTATE SONG, "GREEN AISLES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.