Wholly Familiar and Utterly Alien: A Writing Workshop with Joshua Bennett

Today , I had the extreme pleasure of participating in a workshop led by one of the most talented individuals I have ever met. His name is Joshua Bennett, and he is a spoken word poet. Let me take you through some of what the experience of working with him is like.

He introduces himself with a poem. The poem is not specifically about him. Instead, it touches love, and reaches out from there. He rails against immoral values and deprecation. He digs into familial love. Like much of his poetry, it is uplifting, incredibly hopeful and also at the same time terribly, terribly sad. You feel his emotions, based on the closest thing you have to a touchstone to them in your own life.

After just talking with him for a bit, doing introductions and such, he begins a writing practice for you. He tells you to write down five things that you know you are. Then, he tells you to write five things down that you know you are not. He specifically tells you not to try to be deep, just write down the first things that pop into your head. Then he tells you to look at your list of things you are not, and to circle an item at random. He gives you a short period of time to write as if you were that thing, to be completely outside of the norm.  (I wrote about being an aardvark. It ended up being surprisingly philosophically deep, all about dichotomies created by “us” and “them”.)

Then you all share your new creations. Surprisingly, when you read them aloud, you find that they fit into a rhythm. Caring only about the words and the meaning, not about the grade or the grammar, creates something you might not have known that it would be. You hold in your hand the beginnings of spoken word. You may not be performing it for an audience larger than a tiny group of people who just did the exact same thing as you, but they have done something utterly different. You look at them, acknowledge the prowess you knew they had and snap your fingers because this is beautiful, and it reaches out to what you knew of them already but also shows you a side of them you’ve never seen.

After sharing your work, you ask Joshua questions. He freely talks about where he has been, what he has done, where you are. In a school setting, much of what you say would be taboo. But those restrictions are gone here, flown out the doors when you walked in. They left at the same time as conventional grammar.

Then you chat for a while. He tells you about some really cool experiences he has had. And also some of the not-so-cool ones. You begin to understand something about Joshua. His poems are structured almost like prose, but some words stand on their own and some sound alike and it creates a dialogue that is not a cacophony, but is instead a beautiful combination of syllables. Grammar matters, but the sounds fit together so cleanly that it does not have to. He prepares each poem intricately, and he puts hours of work into each one that he performs.  The way that he speaks is similar but not quite the same. He speaks without the same rhythm, but the sounds still come together the same way as in the poems. Sometimes a word will pop up in the middle of a sentence, the same way that it might show up in the middle of a line, and it will seem to strike a chord within him and he just moves onto the subject that that word draws him to. He feels very strongly about so many issues and so many beautiful things that it is impossible to pin any of it down with a single word.

His background is thoroughly convoluted, drawn against a backdrop that is a story not of oppression, but of hope disguised as such. His is not an escape story; it is a story of love. He is a teacher. He is a student. He is a poet. He is a performer. He mentions that he runs a journal. He is a PHD student. He seems perfectly happy where he is, and seems to rather enjoy the fact that it is difficult to pin him down just from the introductory lines of a conversation.

One common thread is the same with every part of your time with Joshua. When he performs, it calls to what you register as familiar. But you realize how entirely separate you are at the same time, and on some level that’s devastating. Then when share your own words, you do not feel shy at all. Because you are a writer. You identify as such, and so you welcome judgement but also brace yourself for it. But here, you find no judgement, because people nod along to what they know of you, and they embrace the new and the strange with open arms that wrap around you, because you are safe. When you all talk, just about anything and everything that shows up in the conversation, you realize just how open-minded you are not ordinarily.  And you begin speaking about the topics you know, because that is safe, but you learn over the course of the conversation that the new topics are far more interesting and fun, although they are rooted in the softer ones that describe how you understand the world.

To use one of Joshua’s metaphors about something else entirely: The basic ideas we usually articulate are anchors. We have defined opinions about them and those opinions stay put. But when we stretch our minds, we find that we can become jellyfish—some people see through us straight to the surface, because they are not looking at us. But others look into us and understand the complexity and full flexibility of what we may do when we wrap ourselves around the whole world, not just a specific spot in the sea.

In short, I am failing miserably to describe the extraordinary experience I had the pleasure of being a part of today. I learned something about myself, and I learned a lot about everyone else in the group. I learned something about the man on the stage, too. When he gets off of the stage, he is human, too. And honestly, he is so in touch with his humanity, every element of it, that just talking with him for an hour helped me to redefine my horizons, and stretch out a little more. And I am beyond thankful for the time spent with him today. Many thanks to the group in the workshop as well: it would not have been as positive an experience without you.


Here are some links to some of Joshua Bennett’s performances:



One thought on “Wholly Familiar and Utterly Alien: A Writing Workshop with Joshua Bennett

  1. Pingback: Stories told in Simple Sounds: My Experience at a James Arthur Poetry Reading | memoriesonapage

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