The People’s Poetry Archive
2023-24 Mellon Faculty Grant
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.
The Life of the Spoken Word
Cambridge Science Festival
September 29, 2023 / 6:00pm
Independent Activities Period (IAP) Workshop
January – February, 2024
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).
Lillian-Yvonne Bertram is an associate professor of English, Africana Studies, and Art & Design at Northeastern University. Previously, they directed the MFA in Creative Writing at UMASS Boston. They have previously taught at St. Lawrence University, Ithaca College, and Williams College, and also direct the Chautauqua Institution Writers’ Festival.
Aracelis Girmay a poet, was born and raised in Santa Ana, California. She earned a BA at Connecticut College and an MFA from New York University. Her poems trace the connections of transformation and loss across cities and bodies.
Jesse McCarthy is an assistant professor of English and African and African American Studies at Harvard University. He is the author of a novel, The Fugitivities (Melville House, 2021), and a book of essays, Who Will Pay Reparations on My Soul? (Liveright, 2021), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
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.
Kevin Young is the Andrew W. Mellon Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. He previously served as the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Young is the author of 15 books of poetry and prose.
DJ Troy Frost is an artist, educator, and event curator from Boston, Massachusetts. She started DJing in 2013 and completed Scratch DJ Academy’s certification program in 2015. After graduating from Barnard College in 2017, she worked for the Boston Public Schools in varying roles. In 2019, she piloted The Breaks, an enrichment program which gave 15 Boston youth an introduction to the pillars of Hip Hop. She is currently working on growing Purple Produce, an event series focused on Hip Hop, wellness, literacy, and community collaboration.
Presented/supported by the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology with additional support from xxx
“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.