By Laurie Hollinger
Robin Coste Lewis closing out the Spring Poetry Festival, on April 27, 2016. Click the image to view more photos from her visit.
On April 27, the Center for Poetry hosted a visit by Robin Coste Lewis, author of the 2015 National Book Award for Poetry winning Voyage of the Sable Venus. I had the distinct pleasure and privilege of speaking with her about many things, including her own voyage leading her to this point in her life. And what a fascinating and inspiring voyage it’s been, from L.A. to interning at Kitchen Table Press, to Harvard’s Divinity School, where she focused on Sanskrit and African American religious literature, to recovery from brain damage—which led her to poetry—and back to L.A., where she’s now a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Southern California with a fellowship in Poetry and Visual Studies. Here are a few postcard notes from her journey, as told to me in the tiny hour we could fit in between scheduled activities that day.
Carson, CA: Part of “The Great Negro Test”
Born in 1964 in Compton, California, a suburb of Los Angeles, Robin Coste Lewis’ family moved to nearby and newly incorporated Carson when she was five. “I used to call it the ‘Great Negro Test.’ It seemed to us then that real estate developers in Los Angeles were suspicious, after the Watts Rebellion, to see whether black people could actually own real estate,” she told me, sarcastically. “My mother still lives there; in fact, I just moved back.” Part of the Second Great Migration, Lewis’ family had come from Louisiana. “I appreciated growing up in a middle class black neighborhood. To be in the black middle class in the ‘70s in Los Angeles was a really profound experience. And to think it was a test!”
One of several black neighborhoods in Los Angeles where older black southern migrants owned the entire neighborhood of 300-500 homes, Lewis’ neighborhood in Carson sounded friendly as she described it to me. “Everyone knows everyone,” she said, “and there are only two ways to get in. At one time there was a plan for it to be a gated community. There’s still a very active neighborhood association. If you don’t say ‘hi’ to everyone when you drive down the street people get understandably offended. You know, we’re all southern, so it’s fantastic that way. Which is to say, we have manners.”
New York, NY: Where Audre Lorde peels her an orange
Carson and Los Angeles couldn’t hold her forever though. She was in her late teens when she left for New York City. One of the first places she went was Audre Lorde’s office at Hunter College. “I just knocked on her door. Can you imagine? I mean this was back in the day when these things happened more often,” she told me. “I said ‘my name is Robin Lewis. I ran away from home, I read Zami, and I wanted to come meet you. And she was fantastic.”
Lewis secured an internship with Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, which she describes now as a very formative time. “There I was, this little teenager, loading and unloading boxes of books, setting up mics and things like that,” for readings of feminist literature by women of color. Kitchen Table Press events would regularly and easily draw crowds to sold out halls. “To go to a Kitchen Table reading was a profoundly spectacular cultural event. Barbara Smith, of course, was at the helm, but she also had an incredible staff and board—not to mention the writers! So there were people like Jewelle Gomez, Leota Lone Dog, Alma Gómez, Cherríe Moraga, Cheryl Clarke, I mean, you name it, those women were there. Rosio Alvarez was there as well, so, it was jubilant.”
One memory of this time stands out for Lewis. “So Leota Lone Dog, who did finance for Kitchen Table, lived on the third floor of a brownstone. I lived on the first floor, and the second floor was vacant. [It was] this huge brownstone in Brooklyn before the neighborhood became what it is today. I remember we had a meeting at our house once, and Audre Lorde was late coming to this meeting. And because I was so young and really did not understand half of the stuff I was listening to in terms of how you run a press, even though it was an incredible experience, in my teenage boredom or angst, I went outside for some air for a minute. I was sitting on the stoop, and here comes Audre down the street and she was really, really late <chuckling>. I mean it was like an hour late, but instead of going in and apologizing profusely about being so late, she actually stopped—as she always did whenever we saw each other since that first day I showed up at her office—to ask me how I was. Then she pulled this big navel orange out of her bag and peeled it for me. Can you imagine? And then if that were not enough, she fed it to me, section by section. And then she said, ‘so, how are you?’
“We must have talked for a half hour. So she was an hour and a half late. But really, [she was] inquiring like a big sister or an auntie about my well-being, because she knew I was a teenager living alone in New York City, and interning for Kitchen Table was all I was doing.”
Of course it’s clear now, as it was then, the groundbreaking nature of Kitchen Table’s work. As the first press run autonomously by women of color, Lewis said, “the contributions that Kitchen Table Press made to American literature is greatly underestimated, because they filled a huge absence that was not even attempted [to be filled] by the white feminist presses. The issues and the demographic and the kind of work they were doing, not just in terms of who they were writing about but how they were writing about these characters and what kind of literature they were writing; it should not ever, ever be underestimated.”
Lewis went on to Hampshire College for her undergrad after a false start at New York University (NYU). “This lived literary life that I was in with Kitchen Table was far more interesting to me,” she said, “than the studied literary life at NYU. My classes were very staid in comparison, so I dropped out, and stayed with Kitchen Table. I got a job, I don’t remember doing what, to pay the bills. Temping I think. Back in the day, you could make a good salary if you knew how to type quickly. Typing had been a required course for girls when I was in junior high school. I used to type 100 words a minute. So I often fell back on temping as a way to pay the bills when I was a teenager on my own. Many younger writers—of all genders—temped at the time.”
It was tough to move away from this beloved topic, but as we began to, Lewis stopped me. “The other thing I want to say about those Kitchen Table Press readings,” she said, “ is this: you could have, say, a benefit, you could have a Sweet Honey in the Rock do a performance, and then Audre would read, and then Sapphire read and then Cheryl Clarke would read, too. I mean, can you imagine, all in one event? It was really a tremendous, tremendous time. I miss it very much. It was magic.”
Cambridge, MA: Harvard Divinity School and the Literature of Myth
Following her undergrad at Hampshire College, Lewis went to Harvard to do a Masters in Theological Studies in Sanskrit. I asked her how she came to decide on what seemed such an esoteric major.
“My family’s from Louisiana. The rich other worlds of myth and folklore are as present in our culture as you and I sitting here today,” she told me. “For me to go to Divinity School seemed completely logical because I grew up in a home that was profoundly affected by the ancestors and the dead, with myths and certain ritual practices that we had to adhere to in order not to incur the wrath of some angry uncle who was on the other side, or some jealous aunt who just wanted to sit down at our table even though she had died ten years before. The spiritual world was very active for us. So for me, it made perfect sense that I went to Divinity School. I’ve been engrossed in the literature of myth my entire life.
“Sanskrit myth and epic in general, from all over the world, is where most of our contemporary narratives originate. We’re all stealing from epic, whether we’re aware of it or not, but pretty much anything we write about has been done before for thousands of years. I’m writing about this in a translation I’m doing of a 9th century hymn, about the goddess Durga. For example, one of the first so-called ‘alternative insemination narratives’ is in the Mahabharata, several millennia old. So you see, we think we’re so post-everything, but in actuality, we’re right where we started. For so many reasons, epic remains one of my favorite genres.”
While at Harvard, in addition to studying Sanskrit, Lewis was in African American studies, both as a student and as Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham’s research assistant. “It was at a time when African American studies at Harvard included Henry Louis Gates [Jr.], and Evelyn, and William Julius Wilson…it was such a profoundly powerful place in terms of intellectual rigor.”
After completing her MTS at Harvard, Lewis joined the faculty at Wheaton College in Massachusetts as the Samuel Valentine Cole professor of Creative Writing, teaching South Asian and African Diaspora literature. She was then invited to join the faculty at her alma mater Hampshire College, where she taught creative writing and the same Asian and African diaspora literature she’d taught at Wheaton. “I really tried to keep my curriculum and pedagogy to literature from outside the U.S., just so we keep the international conversation and the global conversation always on the table,” she told me.
Unexpected Detour: TBI, The Slow Art of Poetry, and Sharon Olds
It was while on the faculty at Hampshire College that she would have the accident that changed the course of her life. The traumatic brain injury (TBI) sustained in that accident stopped everything, dropping her into fifteen years of rehab and recovery, leaving her initially unable to read or write, and with tremendous memory and physiological challenges, as well as unspeakable frustration and rage. “It’s this incredible marriage of tragedy and inarticulation,” she told me. “You can’t explain to people; you had to have known it, firsthand.”
“There’s this movie I recommend that everyone see, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It’s really challenging emotionally for me to watch it, but I try to watch it once a year, because it reminds me never to forget.” The protagonist in the film suffers a stroke, resulting in paralysis from the neck down, in a condition known then as “Locked-In Syndrome.” Lewis continued about the film, “What’s common about this is there is a spectrum, which is to say there is some aspect of this sensation of being locked in everyone who has TBI experiences. He couldn’t speak but he was totally functional within. [TBI] feels often like that, just not always that extreme, but sometimes, certainly. I suffer a great deal from aphasia. My face grows numb several times a day. I forget my beloved’s name daily, especially when I’m tired. It’s horrifying. And it’s also excessively intriguing regarding what is the self, really?”
Along with memory impairment and rearrangement came a very real shift in self awareness and consciousness. “I lived in a very mysterious place for over a decade, in terms of memory,” she continued. “I looked the same, relatively speaking, but that person I was died wholly and I became a new person. That’s a fascinating experience, to literally become a new person that looks the same and sounds the same and talks the same and has the same history, but isn’t the same at all. You want someone to reach out to you and take your hand and say, ‘Tell me who you are now,’ but no one knows you’re a new person because you look like the same person they once knew. The construction and architecture of the psyche—there’s nothing I find more mysterious. I used to joke with friends that I’m a ‘walk-in.’”
With new limitations on her immense, rigorous intellect, there was still no keeping her from words and language. “You know,” she told me, “I used to read Hannah Arendt for pleasure, Arendt and Stuart Hall, Julia Kristeva and Hazel Carby—all these brilliant, black genius theorists, and then suddenly, I couldn’t read. And I couldn’t talk.” She realized that poetry was the re-entry point to her intellectual life. “Brain damage is a hard diagnosis,” she said. “It’s a hard one to swallow. If you don’t find something to which you can hold on, you can really unravel psychologically. Poetry was the way that I could work out the immense loss of the self, as well as the neurological cognitive intellectual loss of my brain. After years of studying philosophy, religion, critical theory—and not being able to do that any longer—the metaphorical economy of poetry allows me to make up for lost time.”
She began taking a class here and there, once staying on a friend’s couch for three months with her then infant son, to take a class with Marilyn Nelson. “I was trying to make up—and I’m still trying to make up—for so much lost time,” she told me. “I lost 15 years of my life, and I’m still losing time. I mean I’m sitting here talking to you, yes, and my book did really well, yes, and I’m deeply pleased and hopeful that in some way my book is of help and of service in the world,” she explained. “But the time that you’re living in and the time that I’m living in is a different time. I’m not travelling at the same speed that you are. This conversation will not make you feel sick or weak. You won’t have to take any medication or sleep any extra hours simply because you’re sitting here with me talking. Anyone with a TBI has to pay for their pleasure later, behind closed doors. I don’t mind paying the band for the dance. I’ll choose the dance every single time. It’s just that now I know dancing hard requires a well planned strategy. And you hope your dearest friends understand.”
She continued: “Even though I’m highly functional and back in the world a bit, I still have to take weeks off to rest, and by rest I mean no reading and no talking – no emails. I live in a slower world of time than most people do. That’s fine, that’s how my body is and I accept that.
“But poetry is a slow art too. It helps me to be able to do that work, or do the work that my mind wants to do but can’t do in other genres or modes. Poetry does not require speed. It requires the incredibly arduous skill of being truly still. You can’t dial in a poem. Poetry isn’t an assembly line. ”
She eventually landed in NYU’s creative writing MFA program as a Goldwater fellow in poetry. It was there she began studying with Sharon Olds, one of three faculty members she acknowledges in that section of Voyage. I asked her what it was like to study with Olds.
“You won’t believe the first thing that comes to mind is gentle,” Lewis revealed. “It was gentle. And it was dangerous, simultaneously. I knew from reading her work that Sharon could go as unconventional and traditional as I wanted to go simultaneously. Which is to say, I knew I found one of the most profoundly talented teachers of my life.” This was also true of teachers Toi Derricotte and Marilyn Nelson.
Lewis continued about Olds. “The first poem I ever gave her for my workshop was Plantation, a poem I first wrote at Cave Canem. From that moment on, her demeanor to me she was a sort of, ‘Okay, let’s go then.’ It was that kind of feeling between us.” Lewis was halfway through her research for the poem Voyage of the Sable Venus with the poem residing for several years in her head. “I thought, if ever there’s a person to do this with now, this is the woman. Not in terms of Sharon being a historian of African women in art; I’m not saying that. I’m saying in terms of her profound daring as an artist. I mean this is the woman who wrote ‘The Pope’s Penis’ and ‘I go back to May, 1937…’ Like the other feminist writers I’ve mentioned, I knew that Sharon would not in any way try to limit me or manipulate me into some closet of good behavior. That’s what I mean by gentle; she was gentle as in fierce, gentle as in a profound horizon. From reading all of her own work, I knew she would just let me go and she did. The only critique Sharon ever offered me was regarding craft or technical suggestions. But [with the content] she was just always willing to let me go as dark as possible. Not only willing—but celebratory!”
Pro-slavery image leads to Boarding the Voyage
I asked Lewis how her work on her 79-page narrative poem Voyage of the Sable Venus began. “I saw the image Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies. It’s both a compelling image and a repulsive image. Here you have this exceptional visual performance that is singular for the time— there is a black female in the middle of the canvas, the paper, the page. A black female as a central subject of a visual performance had never happened really. We [were] always, up until that moment, serving. I’m talking about in the western historical art canon, always, in some kind of secondary position of subservience—always performing service.
“I can’t even explain my glee, almost to the point of tears. But then, when you look at the image, Neptune or Triton, this celestial figure, instead of carrying a trident, he’s carrying a flag of the Union Jack. So it turns out it’s a pro slavery image. It’s a redux of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, except that it’s a black female figure and instead of her arriving into the world fully formed to be the goddess of beauty, she’s being drawn through the Atlantic to be enslaved in the Caribbean. What’s even worse—if such things can ever be measures—is the image is based on a pro-rape poem [by Isaac Teale, 1765] that says you can rape a white woman or a black woman at night, but their race doesn’t matter actually. At the time having sex with a black woman was considered distasteful—let’s just put it that way—but this poet is talking about how it doesn’t really matter when you rape a woman because if the lights are out you can’t see the color of the skin, or more specifically, their genitalia.
“So I started thinking about this image and the thing that was more compelling to me, ironically—and perhaps this is part brain damage, part poet, part literature person—the thing that was even more compelling to me about all of the above was not the image but the title, Voyage of the Sable Venus. I started thinking, had I ever seen ‘sable’ or ‘venus,’ – which is to say dark and beauty—in the same sentence in my life, ever? And the answer, of course, was absolutely, positively no. And I’m talking now as a scholar, never, in all of my reading, both ancient, colonial, modern, postmodern, had I ever seen those two signs, those two words in the same sentence.”
She began researching other art titles, thinking maybe she’d write a three-page found poem. But the art titles of pieces depicting a black female just went on and on. “You know, there’s a brush with a black woman carved in the handle, or there’s a button, or a spittoon, you name it. I think I came across every object imaginable. The real question is, is there any object that doesn’t include black women as ornamentation? Chair legs, pens, barrettes, basins, tripods, fountains…”
Pathology, Mythology, Release
By the time she had sifted through thirty centuries of such depictions, she could see that it went beyond “just a little bit of hate. This is deeply, truly and deeply, wrong. You start off thinking, Wow, these people are really racist. But what we should think about is that racism is a pathological sign of insanity.”
I wondered how, during this kind of immersive research, did she protect herself from this kind of pathological insanity. She told me that at one point in her work, she began researching work by black women. “It was a wonderful relief,” she said, “and I took on their work as an homage. Their subjectivities started to enter, the celebration and the agency. It was just divine. Regardless of what the visual work is doing, the titles totally reflect the history. And that was fascinating to me. It was fantastic, I don’t know, it was kind of a coup. I loved it.
“The work was a great medicine for me. It didn’t upset me at all. The first ancient Greek and Roman catalog upset me because it was my first steps into the project. The material was hard to swallow, certainly. But once I really saw how saturated the ancient world was with racism toward black women, I felt like I was given a key and a gift. Like, Oh, human beings have been completely insane not just for a few centuries, but for millennia.“ The western idea that black bodies and black females in particular are in some way a kind of contagion that must be subjugated—that idea is so old and sick, it clearly has nothing to do with black women, but it tells us more about the minds that have harbored and nurtured that idea.
“After I got through the ancient period I would just start laughing hysterically—not from humor, but relief. Every step of the way, it felt like some huge discovery of a code that unlocked my own world for me. I took the pathology that had been projected onto black women for millennia and put it back in its rightful place, which is to say, I put it back onto the face of white imagination.
“It no longer had anything to do with my body or any bodies like mine, for thousands and thousands and thousands of years. And the only response that I could have had was jubilation, even though the jubilation came from walking very slowly through this heinous history. I try not to use the words free or freedom because I don’t think it’s real. I think it’s propagandistic sign we’ve yet to see achieved. But I felt incredible release and relief and possibility. And I tried to give that to the reader in that poem, the experience of being released from the mythology of whiteness. But more importantly, much more importantly, I wanted to give the reader the experience of a profound black joy, a joy independent of whiteness.”
Her next projects, three of which were largely completed during her time at NYU, include a history of colonialism in the Arctic that started as a biography project on Matthew Henson with poet Yusef Komunyakaa; a double erasure of the “heinous, disgusting” 1932 children’s book The Pickanniny Twins, called The Pickanniny Wins, which includes both a pastoral antebellum love poem between two women and a performance/homage to the “Mammy” trope in American literature; and a concordance on Sylvia Plath’s use of color, illuminating Plath’s use of the color black as a color of agency in her work. Lewis describes the Plath book as a love song to her.
At USC, she’s currently working on the intersection between the migration and history of black photography and the migration from Louisiana to L.A., a project born from the hundreds of photographs left by her grandmother.
She is also working on a memoir about brain damage.
Final Words of Advice for Undergraduate Writers
As is our custom at the Center for Poetry, I asked Lewis what advice she had for undergraduate writers. “Read everything,” she said, without hesitation. “And really talk to your teachers. Ask who they’re reading, who they wish they could teach, but don’t, for whatever reasons. My experience has been that my teachers have been a gold mine for me, and the more appetite that I show up with at their offices, the more they’re willing to share with me.”
And on what to read? “So many people don’t even know who Gwendolyn Brooks is, and, you don’t know modernism if you don’t know Gwendolyn Brooks, or Marianne Moore’s poem Marriage. Read outside of the U.S. and Britain, for the love of God, read outside. Read someone other than your friends. Read poets form the Caribbean, read poets from Latin America, South America, read poets from so many countries in Africa, read poets from Asia, and read trans-historically. I love reading medieval Chinese court poetry. It’s brilliant, it’s genius, it makes us look so rough around the edges compared to the level of sublime rendering that they achieved.”