Bailey-King Author Series: Joshua Bennett proves a tour de force

“God bless the lightning bolt in my little brother’s hair.” 

This line (three lines, actually) begins “Benediction,” a poem by Joshua Bennett, who read from his work Feb. 10 during an Upper School assembly as the visiting author of the sixth annual Bailey-King Author Series. The words, the image conveyed by those words, and the idea behind that image offered some of the first clues that Bennett’s visit would be a one-of-a-kind experience for the Thayer community. 

The award-winning poet and Dartmouth College professor kept students, staff, and faculty spellbound for roughly an hour that morning. Poems like “Say It, Sing It As The Spirit Leads” and “America Will Be” squarely addressed a Black experience in America marked by dehumanization and destruction at the hands of external forces — the latter poem lauds a father born “in the throat of Jim Crow Alabama” — but emphasized the resilience, grace, and sheer joy of a culture that can withstand such forces. 

“God bless everything that survives the fire,” is how the last line of “Benediction” reads. 

Other poems, such as “Balaenoptera” and “Dad Poem (Ultrasound #2),” evoked the simple but powerful joys of love and newfound fatherhood. 

Throughout it all, Bennett displayed warmth, empathy, and a magnetic personality. He told students some poems take 20 minutes to write while others take 10 years. He discussed poetic influences such as Gwendolyn Brooks but also favorite hip-hop artists such as Biggie Smalls and André 3000. Topics ranged from the size of a blue whale’s heart to Bennett’s time performing at the White House to his love for the city of Yonkers, his Bronx-adjacent hometown. 

“Confidence is a muscle,” he told students, who in turn led a standing ovation that only ended when they needed to return to class. 

As visiting author, Bennett also spent the school day with Upper School English and theater classes before meeting after school with members of Thayer’s ISOKAN, OMEGA, and Creative Writing clubs. 

Later that night, Bennett addressed a more intimate gathering in Southworth Library. The poem “Barber Song” served as an ode to barbers and barbershops everywhere and featured the line “a cut so close you could see the shimmering of a man’s thinking.” Another poem lauded the plastic covering on his grandmother’s couch while another, “Owed to the Durag,” praised the sometimes controversial headwear as billowing “like a sham poltergeist.” 

Similar to that morning’s presentation, Bennett’s far-reaching knowledge and charisma shone forth best during the question-and-answer session; interesting asides included best practices for memorizing spoken word poetry, shout-outs to Yonkers natives Mary J. Blige and Ella Fitzgerald, and a mention of his father’s beloved dog, a Great Dane named Donna. 

Bennett spoke eloquently of his father, Bruce Bennett. “He was a postal worker who loved people, and he was brave,” Bennett told the morning’s audience. His father, Bennett said, desegregated his high school in Birmingham, Alabama, and also volunteered to serve in the Vietnam War so that one of his brothers would not have to serve. His father taught him, the younger Bennett explained, that “strength is somehow inextricable from tenderness.” 

Billed as “An Evening with Joshua Bennett,” the nighttime event included both in-person audience members and those watching virtually via Zoom. Retired English Faculty Jim King P ‘01, ‘04, ‘06 thanked all guests and said his words were echoed and amplified by retired English Faculty Betty Bailey ‘63, who viewed the reading online from her home in California. 

King ended the night’s festivities by reading “Coming and Becoming,” a spoken word poem of his own, in the spirit of the occassion. 

While King thanked many people that night, he singled out Benelli Writing Center Director and Upper School History Faculty Karen Jersild, who also serves as director of the Bailey-King Author Series, calling her “the master chef in the kitchen behind the scenes.” 

Bennett’s books of poetry and literary criticism include The Sobbing School, Being Property Once Myself, and Owed. His narrative nonfiction book, Spoken Word: A Cultural History, will be published next year.

Established in 2016 through the generous support of Amelia and Todd Slawsby '88, the Bailey-King Author Series endeavors to celebrate the written word through annual author events at Thayer Academy. Named in honor of the aforementioned Bailey and King, the series hosts highly regarded authors on campus to educate budding student writers about careers in writing and inspire them to seek new depths in their own voices. Past Bailey-King authors include: Derek Green (2017), Dominic Tierney (2018), Kirsten Greenidge (2019), Mira T. Lee (2020), and Brit Bennett (2021). 

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Award-winning poet and Dartmouth professor Joshua Bennett addresses the audience during the sixth annual Bailey-King Author Series. 

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From left: Benelli Writing Center Director and Upper School History Faculty Karen Jersild, who also serves as director of the Bailey-King Author Series; BKAS visiting author Joshua Bennett; and retired English Faculty Jim King P ‘01, ‘04, ‘06. 

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Head of School Chris Fortunato P ‘26, ‘28 welcomed guests to the Bailey-King Author Series. “What an exceptional talent, and what an honor it was to have (Joshua Bennett) on campus,” Fortunato said of this year’s visiting author. 


 

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