“Build Yourself a Boat” Explores the Heartbreak of Black Womanhood
Camonghne Felix on using poetry to tell the story of surviving trauma
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
Camonghne Felix’s debut poetry collection, Build Yourself a Boat, is about the trauma and pain of black womanhood. Felix explores what it means, politically to be a black woman in a world of Trump and personally, exploring the ways heartbreak and other points of pain change a person and their body. She uses memories, both her own and those close to her, to explore this trauma, allowing the reader to uncover more as they go along.
Felix a poet, political strategist, media junkie, and cultural worker. She received an MA in arts politics from NYU, an MFA from Bard College, and has received fellowships from Cave Canem, Callaloo, and Poets House. A Pushcart Prize nominee, she is the author of the chapbook Yolk and was listed by Black Youth Project as a “Black Girl from the Future You Should Know.”
Build Yourself a Boat was exactly what I needed to read, and revisit, this season as men decided what women should do with their bodies and as I learned to manage heartbreak. Felix and I spoke on the phone about being black women, working through generational trauma, and how black families tend to keep secrets as a way of healing.
Arriel Vinson: The epigraph for Build Yourself a Boat is from Solange’s A Seat at the Table: “ I’m going look for my body yeah—I’ll be back real soon…” From the beginning you set the tone for black women’s body being lost or not having control over one’s body. Can you tell me about the choice to have that epigraph but to focus on that theme in the collection?
Camonghne Felix: One of the first things I was thinking a lot about is the way that the literary world requires us to categorize ourselves in order to be legible or readable. Something I wanted to push back at really hard in this collection was using the word Black as a way to define Blackness. Among all of the other things happening in the book, I think what’s at its core is the trauma of being a woman and the trauma of being a black woman. I felt like Solange, that one message, that one lyric, almost signifies an anthem black women tend to own. Constantly going to look for our bodies, constantly discovering and rediscovering our bodies and re-building them. In service of also trying not to superimpose or hyper-impose the idea of blackness or something that is inherently black, I wanted to give it context more so than color. And Solange’s lyric was the context it needed.
AV: In the collection, it’s not just about blackness but black womanhood and what that looks like for you in particular. I also noticed that in the George Zimmerman Trials poems, you focus on Trayvon’s mother. While you talk about black boys and men in the collection, you continue to make black women the focus of those poems. How did you do that and were you thinking of that as you were writing, or was that something you tweaked as you revised?
CF: It’s something I’m always thinking about. As black women, one of our first responsibilities is to take care of the men around us. So, if you are a young woman and you have brothers and you’re the oldest, your job is to make sure the boys are okay. In a lot of ways, especially over the last decade—I date cis men and I date women, too, and I try my best to date black men—a lot of our collective black trauma has been centered and contextualized within the black male body. Which is not necessarily something that is wrong or incorrect. Black men are absolutely under threat and have always been, and hopefully will not continue to be. But as it stands right now, they are. That’s just what it is. However, we also know that black women do not disappear in those narratives. That most of the time, they are the anchors to those stories, they’re the fighters behind those stories and the protectors. It’s important to me to not erase the very true fact that black men are under threat, but to add some color and add some texture that shows the way black women remain under threat under the foot that black men are already under.
It just felt like with the Zimmerman poems, Trayvon had died and in large part, depending on how you think about death, he wasn’t alive to see what his mother was going through. In the last decade, we see a lot of young men who have been killed by police or killed by vigilantes and their mothers are taking up the charge. There’s a cohort of those women called Mothers of the Movement. One woman ran for office in Georgia. Black women are constantly who pick up the mantle and it feels impossible to tell the story about Trayvon and all of the other men without telling the stories of the women who champion them when they’re gone.
AV: That’s important. I was reading it and I was like, “Here we go. This is how you do it.”
You mentioned your dating life, and some of the poems are about romantic relationships and heartbreak. I heard you talk about this a little on the VS podcast, but why was this type of pain, particularly for black women, also important to display in Build Yourself a Boat?
CF: People forget that black women bleed. And I know that’s really hyperbolic and of course people know we bleed, but at the same time, it’s so often that you talk to cis heterosexual men and you try to explain the way the behaviors they perpetuate romantically are the same behaviors that people who are not in romantic relationships with black women perpetuate. Whether that’s silencing them, abusing them, erasing them. It feels disingenuous and dishonest to tell the story about how black women come to who they are and how they do what they do in the world, without talking about the way their hearts get broken.
Even in this book, I had a hard time figuring out where to put it. I have another book that explores black women’s romance as resistance, but Build Yourself a Boat is a pretty big book in terms of scope. But it felt really critical to the story and to my folks to say, “hey, my heart’s broken and that’s just as important as the fact that I maybe can’t give birth or the fact that I’ve been raped because all of these things come from systematic ills and impact me systematically.”
AV: I see that in the placement of the poems and how the collection moves between motherhood, then your trauma, then Trayvon’s mother–how it continues to move and the way the black woman/person is connected or related to the government, and a variety of things. It is a big scope but it’s all personal.
But even though you’re talking about trauma and pain, there’s some avoidance of trauma and pain, too. In the poem, “The White House”, the speaker says, “but I had shit to do.” A lot of black people say that: “I wanted to feel these feelings but I had shit to do”. Tell me more about this theme of avoiding pain but also confronting it both in the collection and outside of it.
CF: The reasons why I put it in the book, even though I’m not all the way sure I understand why I do that, is because a big part of the book is me understanding myself as a caretaker. Of my mother, of my siblings, of my family and my friends and myself. A big part of being a black woman in general, as a whole, is being a caretaker. In order to be a good caretaker, in order to be present, I have to completely distance myself from my own pain and make it small in order for me to feel prepared or healthy enough to help other people. I’m not going to say that writing about it has helped me change it, I don’t necessarily know that that’s true, but I do think that it’s those little nuances that we find in our poems that show us–at our core–who we truly are.
I think in general I take on a very—and I don’t know if it’s because I’m a Capricorn or whatever-—but I tend to take on a very sacrificial lamb kind of position in the world. Like, “Okay, well if no one’s gonna do it, I’ll fucking do it. Whatever.” Which is literally the trope of being a black woman. But part of what I love about poetry is, even though it wasn’t necessarily intentional that I put that in there, poetry is one of those things where no matter how much you try to shape, edit, or curate yourself, those little things about you that you don’t want other people to know come out.
AV: I like that you said curate yourself. A writer will curate a speaker or a version of themselves.
CF: Right. One of my friends, Natasha Oladokun, she’s a poet as well, and she said the other day, “every narrator is unreliable.” And I was like, “bitch, yes!” That is exactly how I feel. And I’ve been trying to find the language to define that. There is not a narrator you can trust because nine times out of 10, the narrator does not have his/her/their pulse on everything that’s happening in the work. That’s the reason we are writers because to an extent, what we write does live a different life and it does have different expectations. This is a perfect moment of remembering no matter how educated we are, we’ll never be able to completely control the narrative or what we’re writing. Sometimes the work itself has to take control and do the thing. And that makes the narrator unreliable.
AV: Right, and I think that’s part of writing the poem is a narrator who doesn’t know everything.
Even in BYAB, some of the speakers were keeping secrets. For example, the poems titled “Cutting w/ JB”, exploring both of the definitions of cutting, and the poem “Contouring the Flattening”, exploring secrets with the speaker’s mother. What about secrecy was important to BYAB? I find that secrecy or keeping information under wraps is a common theme for some black families.
CF: Another thing that I wanted to push back at is the category of black poetry and the idea that we come to the page to unload our family secrets and troubles. While, on one hand, I do think there is that—truth telling does kind of necessitate an airing of laundry—but I don’t necessarily see my book as truth telling. There are no lies in the book, but I’m not trying to get to the nitty gritty of something. I’m just trying to tell you how it is and what it is.
Part of what makes black people black and black women black, especially black millennial women, is that natural interiority, that sort of fundamental understanding that yes, of course there are things we don’t talk about or are no one’s business. In black culture in particular, depending on the day or the context, that can either be harmful or liberating.
When it comes to sexual assault and trauma, it’s almost always harmful that we never say anything and never end the cycle. But I think when it comes to other things like the way me and my mom got the chance to grow together, I don’t think me writing the book necessitates me spelling out every part of that. There’s a part of me and my mom’s relationship that has to stay secret, that needs to retain that interiority so we can continue to grow together.
AV: You also did that in the footnotes you used. I was so intrigued by those and then got to the end of the book and saw what they were. I wanted to hear your process on those footnotes—which were about swimming and knowing/not knowing how. What about the relationship with you and your mother also made you save that for the last pages of the collection?
CF: Me and my mom—and I think this is true for a lot of people—are really, really, really close. And I think closeness also creates pockets of trauma that you may not be able to be in control of. Learning who my mother is and learning her as an individual—as a person, not just as my mother—really shows me just how many parallels she and I share. I was thinking me and my mother were super, super different and yes, we are, but also we aren’t. Through trying to unlearn my own trauma and trying to work through therapy and things like that, and just getting to know her as a person and hearing her own stories, as I got older I found so many parallels of continuous meaning that could trace back to my grandmother and then to my great grandmother.
In terms of curation, it was really important to me to write a book about my mother without writing a book about my mother. I do completely realize that that’s what I’m doing at the end, but my mom has never been raped. I’m the only one out of my mom and my sister, from what I know—fingers crossed—that has been raped in the way that can be categorically described as raped. So when I was younger, my mom kept trying to relate to me by being like, “Well, there was a time when it almost happened but I can’t remember it.” It wasn’t until I got older and I’d already left my home and was in grad school that she was able to recall the entire memory. She called me and she was going to tell me and I was like, “Wait, no. Don’t tell me, just write it. Type it out and send it to me.”
Reading it from her as a letter and reading it in her voice versus her telling me gave me so much room to really see her humanity as a woman and as a mom, and to see the little girl that my mom was at that time. All these little moments of parallels that I didn’t want to overstate, like how me and my mom are clearly both fighters, how me and my mom both really enjoy water but she’s afraid of water and I’m a little more liberal with water. It just felt like a really important way to double down on the fact that in black culture, black women come in and get the chance to edit our mother’s narratives but for the most part, we are continuing them. And we are the sum of our ancestors. We don’t always want to think that because we fear that that can be limiting. But for me, it was just really liberating and really freeing. I wanted to share with the world how free I feel being able to relate to my mom on that level and being able to see her recall her memory and pieces of herself she thought she lost.
AV: I’m wondering about the trauma that both of you are working through—in the collection, in these emails, and as you’re going through therapy—and how you were able to write this collection without reliving it, or did you relive it? What did it feel like to get those moments/traumatic things onto the page?
CF: I won’t say I had to relive them. I think the cool thing about poetry, the thing I love the most about poetry, is that you wind up writing the same poem over and over again your whole life. So every poem in this book, I’ve written in some way, shape, or form, at some point. Part of why, in the disclaimer I say, “the body is not a sight for revelatory shame” is because I want to dispel the notion that in order to reclaim your body and reclaim your trauma, that you actually have to go through that or experience it, which is what I think the idea of building yourself a boat means. You get to choose what you go through, what you float over, what you navigate, and for me in this collection, it was not necessary to relive my trauma in order to tell the story of surviving trauma.
I think that decision is obvious in the poems in the sense that people always say, “These poems have a lot of trauma and have a lot of blood but they don’t feel that way.” That was really important to me. I did not want to write a book about trauma that re-traumatized people or that forced people to have to contend with trauma in a way that forced them to internalize it. I also understand that there is an inherent sacrifice there. That by not leaning in to the full violence of trauma and me not leaning in by re-experiencing it, that something may get lost. There’s a possibility for something to get lost but I’m okay with that. I much rather write poems that allow me to be free while still reclaiming myself. I don’t think that it’s necessary to make ourselves ill or hurt ourselves. I think there are some poems that require that, and when that happens, that’s okay.
And I have poems in Build Yourself a Boat that do that. There’s one poem in there, the abortion poem. That was the hardest poem I’ve written in a decade. That’s why I wrote it with all that spacing and distortion. Because it was a hard poem to write and a hard poem to read, and I wanted my readers to go through that with me. And that’s another thing I love about being a writer and learning how poetry works. You learn techniques that teach you how to bring people in and how to experience what you want them to experience. For me, the abortion poem was the only time that I was willing to subject my readers to the same pain that I had experienced because it felt like something I was not willing to carry by myself.
But the rest of the poems, ya know, it’s like everywhere people die, flowers grow. And to me the poems are where the flowers are growing. In the death and not really the death.
AV: I love that. Lastly, what are you working on now and what’s next for you?
CF: I am working on another collection called Dyscalculia. It’s still in its very infant stages. I have taken 6 or 7 months away from it and now I have to get back to it and I’m really nervous about it. But it’s very much about heartbreak, about centering heartbreak as its own world and not necessarily something that is a symptom of racism or a symptom of sexism. Of course, all of those things impact and affect the way you attempt to love and romance. The same way white women and white women poets get to write whole books about their breakups, I think black women deserve worlds where they can write about things that are banal as well. I want to tease out that banality of what it means for black women to be free and integrated enough to be able to write into that banality without it being seen as banal.
Back in the day, when Zora Neale Hurston was trying to write about some of this stuff, Baldwin wasn’t really into it. Neither were a couple of other black folks in the Black Arts Movement. They thought that it was, again, banal. They thought it was repetitive. They thought she was trying to imitate whiteness. Now, in 2019, I find that so offensive—the idea that talking about love and talking about romance is inherently white or Western.
So, that’s what I’m working on. I’m really excited about it and have no idea when I’m going to be anywhere near done, but God bless and Godspeed.