The People’s Poetry Archive

2023-24 Mellon Faculty Grant

Covers of Joshua Bennett's books, courtesy of Penguin Random House.

Uniting voices with a living archive of African diaspora poetry


Joshua Bennett’s The People’s Poetry Archive is a public humanities project to digitally preserve canonical and contemporary poems from across the African diaspora, as well as historically under-theorized works in the realm of spoken word performance.

Inspired by the Black feminist poet and educator June Jordan’s vision of “a people’s poetry”—a term she traces to the democratic imaginings of Walt Whitman—the creation of the archive represents an opportunity to address modern questions about the vitality and utility of poetry through sustained cross-pollination between institutions and social scenes. 

The project is an opportunity for those unfamiliar with poetry’s standard protocols to be surprised, enchanted, and drawn into the fold. Through a combination of live events, invited submissions, and collaborations with university libraries across the country, Bennett creates one of the most capacious living archives of the literary arts—a database featuring not only individual poems, but also recorded interviews, video footage, and a range of other historical materials—anywhere in the world.


Past Events

The People’s Poetry Archive with Terrance Hayes
March 29, 2024 / 5:00 – 6:30pm
Killian Hall (14W-111) 

The Life of the Spoken Word
Cambridge Science Festival
MIT Museum
September 29, 2023 / 6:00pm


Joshua Bennett is professor of Literature and Distinguished Chair of the Humanities at MIT. He is the author of five books of poetry, criticism, and narrative nonfiction: The Sobbing School (Penguin, 2016)—winner of the National Poetry Series and a finalist for an NAACP Image Award; Being Property Once Myself (Harvard University Press, 2020), winner of the MLA’s William Sanders Scarborough Prize, Owed (Penguin, 2020); The Study of Human Life (Penguin, 2022); and Spoken Word: A Cultural History (Knopf, 2023).

Biography: MIT Literature
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John Murillo is an associate professor of English and director of the creative writing program at Wesleyan University. He is the author of the poetry collections Up Jump the Boogie (Cypher, 2010; Four Way Books 2020), which was a finalist for both the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the Pen Open Book Award, and Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry (Four Way, 2020); the winner of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and the Poetry Society of Virginia’s North American Book Award; and a finalist for the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, Believer Poetry Award, Maya Angelou Book Award, Hurston/Wright Foundation Legacy Award, and the NAACP Image Award. 


Presented/supported by the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology.

In the Media

“To bring a taste of that rich tradition to MIT and supplement the small-group discussions at the heart of this course, Bennett organized a public event series called The People’s Poetry Archive.” – Finding the heat, Poet Joshua Bennett Invites MIT Students to Gather Around Black American Poetry, MIT News, June 2023.

“The New York University professor and award-winning poet and literary critic appears as part of MIT professor Joshua Bennett’s public humanities project, The People’s Poetry Archive.” – Cambridge Day, March 2024.

“It is in the telling that the true magic of spoken word, and Bennett’s intricate exploration of its origin stories, comes alive. ‘Spoken Word’ is an engaging meditation on the history of a literary and cultural movement that would take hold in the realms of music, theater, film, television and, of course, poetry.”

New York Times: How Poetry and Performance Combined to Become a New Genre: In “Spoken Word: A Cultural History,” Joshua Bennett traces the roots, rise and influence of a movement that continues to reverberate.