The Archive and the Everyday

Joshua Bennett

In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 168.

Once I realized that what I was looking for was not simply a single, incandescent voice within a larger tradition, but a sprawling, trans-temporal collective, an endless ensemble—to borrow a phrase from the literary critic La Marr Jurelle Bruce—a window in my mind flew open. The work has a different purpose and texture now. I can hear the music everywhere.

Over at Penguin Classics, I edit an anthology series with my friend Jesse McCarthy. It’s called Minor Notes. Our shared project is to seek out largely unsung Black poets and recover their work for a contemporary audience through the publication of yearly collections featuring their poems. Minor Notes: Volume 1 was published in April and features seven poets who wrote during the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries: George Moses Horton, Fenton Johnson, Georgia Douglas Johnson, David Wadsworth Cannon, Angelina Weld Grimke, Anne Spencer, and Henrietta Cordelia Ray. At the core of our practice, our process, is the idea that by deepening our understanding of these brilliant, individual writers and their roles within the robust social scenes they inhabited, we can ultimately help create a fuller image of their shared context. The poems are at the center of our concern, of course. But they are not all that exist within the chosen frame. We set out to sketch a world.

For a while, I thought of this project as work meant to exist primarily within the realm of my life as a literary critic. My poems have always been informed by the study of Black literature, culture, and history: My first book, The Sobbing School (Penguin, 2016), opens with a poem dedicated to Henry Box Brown, a nineteenth-century abolitionist and autobiographer who escaped enslavement by mailing himself in a wooden crate to his supporters in Philadelphia. But I have more recently deepened my sense that an intentionally archival practice in the writing of poems is key. That is: a practice of not only returning to the sites and sounds of my own life, but to those of the literary forebears who helped make my practice possible without my knowing—the writers rarely mentioned in our working memories of the past, whose influence I picked up primarily through poets they taught directly or inspired from afar.

Put another way, I’ve gone in search of bandmates across space and time. I’m learning new ways to converse with the dead and the living, especially the innovators whose names were never offered to me—those whose contributions were never broached in my training or mentioned in polite conversation. I’m listening out for the minor notes in my daily routine. And not only the poets: the entomologists, historians, high school teachers, jazz composers, architects, and philosophers of science. The gardeners and librarians. The explorers. Across genre and form, era and discipline, I’m in search of the echoes of questions I already hold dear, as well ones I’ve rarely considered.

Where are the minor notes in your own life? Who are the writers, past and present, in need of further study, attention, and care? How do we elevate their voices in our work? Welsh author and critic Raymond Williams defined tradition as “the selection and re-selection of ancestors.” Gwendolyn Brooks once wrote that her “best allegiances are to the dead.” As we return to the page in our daily practice, let’s think on the affirmations of these ancestors, and their allegiances to the writers who cleared the way for them to flourish, experiment, and live. We write poems to remember. So let’s renew our habits of remembrance with an eye toward those excluded from the record. As we are building our own, living archives, let’s make as much room as we can. May our attention, our celebration, also be an act of recovery.



Joshua Bennett is the author of five books of poetry, criticism, and narrative nonfiction: Spoken Word: A Cultural History (Knopf, 2023); The Study of Human Life (Penguin, 2022), which was a winner of the Paterson Poetry Prize, longlisted for the Griffin International Poetry Prize and the Massachusetts Book Award, and is currently being adapted for television in collaboration with Warner Brothers Studios; Owed (Penguin, 2020), a finalist for the New England Book Award; Being Property Once Myself (Harvard University Press, 2020), winner of the MLA’s William Sanders Scarborough Prize; and The Sobbing School (Penguin, 2016), winner of the National Poetry Series and a finalist for an NAACP Image Award. For his creative writing and scholarship, Joshua has received fellowships and awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Whiting Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Society of Fellows at Harvard University. This summer, he will join the faculty of MIT as a professor of literature and distinguished chair of the humanities. He lives in Massachusetts.

Art: Eugenio Mazzone