Joshua Bennett Touches Perfection
As I sit down to write this review of Joshua Bennett's performance at the Mary Low Coffeehouse last Friday, I find myself stuck in a strange situation: how do you write a review of a performance that was near-perfect?
I mean, there were a few minor problems. The lights were way too dim, so it was hard to see this wonderful man in front of us. There weren't enough couches and chairs to accomodate everyone. We ran out of hot water for tea. Silly, minor problems. So how do I write this one-sided review?
I suppose I'll start with how lovely Joshua Bennett was as a person. He was funny, literate and incredibly humble. This senior from the University of Pennsylvania interned with Google and performed for Barack Obama at the White House. Interned with Google? Slammed at the White House?! Are you kidding me? And he talked about all of this as though he were telling us he ordered a buffalo chicken calzone from WHOP last night.
His slam poetry performance was near-impeccable. As a part-time slam poet myself, I was bowled over by his poetry's sheer emotional weight. Many of his poems used images of fireflies, mason jars and the internal organs of the human body. When he spoke of opening mason jars to release fireflies, it evoked ideas of captivity--entrapped by race, by class, by gender, by love--and escaping these confines through artistic expression. It also reminded me of the simple internal glow people radiate when theye are in love.
I love slam poetry because it presents the personal in a way that makes it accessible, so that the public can appreciate and respect it without being turned off or overwhelmed by the intimacy. Bennett slammed many poems about the problems of his family (and perhaps all families) in realistic, non-sentimental ways. His last poem called "Tamara's Opus" -about his failure to learn sign language to communicate with his deaf sister-really shook me. He didn't let the shame of his failure hold him back or twist his telling of the story. He was honest and Truthful (yes, with a capital "T") so that one could discern the poem wasn't just about his sister; it was about the shortcomings we all share as human beings and as members of families. As a writer and audience member, I appreciated his candor.
Bennett's delivery was a treat to witness as well. Many slam poets, especially amateurs, follow a very linear trajectory of vocal inflection. They tend to start at a relatively stable emotional space, and as the energy grows and grows, the poet is almost shouting or frothing at the mouth with passion. While this can be an effective way to slam, it can also become predictable--or worse, cheap and maudlin. However, Bennett had near-complete mastery over his delivery. While the emotional gravity and energy of his poetry did grow, he proved that one can convey the importance of one's poems with an understated performance just as effectively (if not more so) by screaming them. It's all about the peaks and valleys in vocal delivery, baby.
Although many literary theorists and critics would disagree or disapprove of me, I love slam poetry mostly because of the pleasure it elicits. Every single one of Bennett's poems gave me chills, and that's no overstatement. They did. Kudos, Joshua Bennett!
I write for a music blog (theillinmusicthread.wordpress.com), and often end my posts urging my readers to see the musician or band live, or to at least listen to them. I will continue this trend here: see Joshua Bennett. He will blow your mind. In a place where art usually takes a back seat, especially on weekends, Bennett filled up the Coffeehouse on a Friday night with people listening to a man expressing a heart full of love and pain.