The Conversation is an eight-part series put together by Aziza Barnes and Nabila Lovelace and hosted by The Rumpus. Read more about the project here. These poems and conversations from Joshua Bennett and Camonghne Felix are the sixth installment.
In Defense of DMX
No one knows Ella Fitzgerald
was raised in Yonkers,
which probably makes you
the most famous person
to ever hail from Yonkers & most days
I’m pretty cool with this gap in the archive
if only because of that part in the Grand Champ intro
where your homeboy says fact is, I trust dogs
more than I trust humans & I feel pretty
much the same way only
you should switch out dogs
for written agreements
or Apple products in my case.
I love how you love the ostensible
subhuman. How you praise even
the unworthy muse. How even
your prayers sound like fighting,
which reminds me of my mother & her Bapticostal
ilk, the way they would bless the air
when kin grew sick or shut in, every line
of holy petition invisible & yet swinging,
this knot of bodies locked to mama’s tone.
You are churchy too, but in a dangerous way
& I respect that. Such multiplicity is no doubt born
of your nameless hometown & no friends to speak
about such things with, the lack of empathy for boys
from yet-unpopular wars. When strangers ask
where I’m from, I either lie (some nonsense
about a BX birthright by maternal bloodline)
or invoke your name to laminate my hood credentials.
It never works as intended,
but I don’t blame you.
Our voices occupy different spaces
on the Trust, You Don’t Want No Problems
spectrum, & I usually follow up any claim
to our home, our beloved, mutual shame
by mentioning the Ovidian qualities
of your more recent work & you know
how it is, Earl. You know nothing beautiful
comes from where we come from.
So when I talk about you like that,
I think it confuses people.
Camonghne Felix: What’s missing?
Joshua Bennett: Contentment. As of late, I have been much better about intentionally cultivating happiness on a daily basis, and consciously engaging in the activities that I enjoy most— i.e. pan-searing salmon, playing Madden, shooting free throws with ankle weights on for no readily identifiable reason—but I sometimes struggle to find the middle ground between the joy I work toward and a kind of persistent melancholy that I am all too familiar with at this point in my life. I also can’t find my copy of Final Fantasy VII or the memory card that would make finding it a worthy cause for celebration so I’m pretty sad about that.
Felix: How does your work engage with the idea of displacement, an issue inherently relevant to the South because of its relevance to enslaved bodies?
Bennett: The vast majority of my work is in one way or another about what it means to be always be out of place in one way or another, to live without a claim to any one place that the State recognizes. Put differently, I am interested in what Brian Wagner and others might term blackness as statelessness, the stories of the people who constitute this flagless collectivity, this nation within the nation. I am interested in the invention of The American Negro and the inventiveness that tends to characterize black expressive cultures, what those said to have nothing, be nothing, have made and continue to make in the present moment. One fairly concrete way that I try to do this in my first book, The Sobbing School, is by returning over and over again to the figure of the black student, specifically the black teenager, trying to navigate a predominantly white high school, trying to make sense of this entire structure that was, historically speaking, not intended to serve them in any meaningful way. To follow that, briefly, I guess I’m also always thinking about the ways in which my access to black social spaces meant that there were all sorts of moments where I felt radically included over and against what I had internalized in school or daily public life, like I had a space where I could belong, and do so in a way that was not uncomplicated but nonetheless worth the price of the ticket, so to speak.
Felix: Tell me about your family’s migration from North to South?
Bennett: My grandma came up here in the 50s to do hair. Like thousands of other folks during the same period, she journeyed towards New York City in search of a certain kind of unfettered possibility, a black future she could believe in. Grandma owned two salons in Harlem back then, and ended up living for years in a South Bronx apartment with her mother, her husband, my mom and her six siblings. My grandma, my mother, and all of my aunts and uncles still live in NYC to this day.
My father’s migration story begins with his big brothers. His eldest brother, Paul, to be specific, who left Birmingham, Alabama for Brooklyn when they were all still teenagers.
Uncle Paul made his way out here on his own and then made room for all of the younger siblings to follow. About half of the siblings moved back down South—one of my uncles is currently the pastor of a Baptist church in Virginia—but my dad, my aunt Emma, and Uncle Paul stayed put.
Felix: What moves you?
Bennett: Unexpected falsetto runs for sure but also donuts, hearing my nephew explain anything having to do with astronomy—direct quote: “the stars are fire and not fire at all really”—, Rilke’s eighth elegy, double-breasted wool suits, that moment when almost everyone I love is in the club with me and “Return of the Mack” comes on.
Felix: What causes migration in your body?
Bennett: Tough to say. Used to be fear. That, or a rage that I mistook for power. Now on most days when I feel what I think you gesturing toward here, this almost palpable sense of being alive, it is because I am in the presence of great beauty. Indeed, each and every day, I can feel myself being transformed by the beauty that breaks into my life.
Bennett: What do you want that you don’t have?
Felix: Time. Space to be wrong. Space to be small. Space to be vulnerable. An algorithm that gives me a close estimate of when I’m going to die and by what means. A roadmap written by god, written for me, that tells me how exactly to do this here thing called life that I’ve submitted to. A clue. An impetus to backpack through Europe.
Bennett: Tell me about the first collection.
Felix: Yolk is about a lot of things, but most urgently about youth. In a lot of ways, my childhood was disrupted and corrupted but also preserved in very unfamiliar ways. When writing the poems that would later become the manuscript, I kept getting stuck in the question of whether or not I actually had a childhood, if it was so violent. I finally came to the conclusion that, yes, I had a childhood, and that it wasn’t just marked by violence. There were fissures within the scenes of violence that actually produced much joy and allowed youthfulness. Yolk endeavors to smash all these complexes up against each other.
Bennett: Does anything scare you in the current work?
Felix: What scares me in the current work is how much I trust the concept, what I’m trying to achieve. I don’t actually know that the manuscript/collection will achieve what I am reaching for, but I trust the tools I’m using and trust the language I’m holding on to. This scares me because, for so long, I’ve found comfort in the unknown in my writing. Writing into the unknown is something encouraged in the arts world, but writing into what you are sure about, what you know to be true, is discouraged because the writer might close herself off from new discoveries. In this work, I am open to new discoveries, but very interested in working through the discovery that fell into my hands when I figured out what this work is all about.
I turn off the Ferguson feed
and there is a Trader Joe’s bag on
the table, my love hunched over a bowl beside
it, metal meeting mouth, a motion meant to nourish him.
I turn off the Ferguson feed
and there is this Trader Joe’s bag on
the table & in the pinch of the trifold
there is a Pilgrim man holding a cylinder telescope but
I totally think it’s a mullet, or a gun (if I’m going to
attend history, I might as well be accurate about it).
I turn off the Ferguson feed & sit quiet in my list
of generational traumas, reach for the man I want to marry
and pinch at the deep whiskey(d) skin for clarity – am I here?
Is he here? What is an existence under perpetual threat?
– A lisp
– A limited limb
– An identity of friction – An identity of function
It’s complicated when the self contradicts
It’s complicated when I want my feminism
to serve everybody but that night a man slaps
the bold from my mouth, Soho’s feminism
is a stiff frame choosing to mind its
It’s complicated when they’re running
and dying and sitting in my classroom
and one of my Seniors says “Miss
Camonghne, I don’t give a fuck about
the cops,” and I’m all ssssssh habibi,
end of the month quotas need filling
It’s complicated when he says, “I’m just
trying to go to college so I don’t have to
deal with this shit anymore,” and I’m not
sure if it’s better to leave him with the lie
or tug all the romance out of it
It’s complicated when my star-eyed partner
says, “I couldn’t do anything, babe, he had
me by the balls,” About every dynamic in
which white men are present
(always by the balls, always hanging from fucking something).
It’s complicated when he says “this is
chess, babe” and I just want to know
what happens when we move
White girl says
“when they stare or say things to me on the street, it makes me uncomfortable, it makes
me feel like a piece of meat,”
A piece of meat gets shot in the face on a doorstep while seeking help after a car accident.
A piece of meat is shot 11 times on a residential street corner.
A piece of meat is rolled up dead, left to expire in a gym mat,
A piece of meat is shot blind in the middle of the night.
The dead pieces of meat are left to slow bleed on public platforms, like a trees or highways and street corners.
This is how the butchers’ display their prime cuts with pride.
A piece of meat is anxious in a Greenpoint grocery store.
Pieces of meat fight over how to respond to being pieces of meat in this Greenpoint grocery store. The pieces of meat deliberately move faster, the pieces of meat deliberately move slower, the butcher stands by, clean knife to be deployed, two flies and a honey trap before midnight.
I turn off the Ferguson feed and there is a Trader Joe’s
bag on the table. In the pinch of the trifold
there is a white man holding
Joshua Bennett is a doctoral candidate in the English Department at Princeton University. Winner of the 2015 National Poetry Series, his poems have been published or are forthcoming in Beloit Poetry Journal, Callaloo, New England Review, the Kenyon Review and elsewhere. Penguin Books will publish Joshua’s first collection of poems, The Sobbing School, in 2016.
Camonghne Felix is a poet, political speechwriter and essayist. She is an MA Candidate in Arts Politics at NYU, a 2012 Pushcart Prize nominee, and the 2013 recipient of the Cora Craig Award for Young Women. You can find her work in various spaces, including Youtube, and in publications like Apogee, Union Station, and Poetry Magazine. She is also the author of the chapbook Yolk, published via Penmanship Books in March 2015 and in May of that year was listed by Black Youth Project as a “Black Girl From the Future You Should Know.”
The Conversation continues tomorrow with José Olivarez and Nate Marshall.