Robin Coste Lewis was a 51-year-old doctoral student at the University of Southern California when her first poetry collection, Voyage of the Sable Venus, was published, in 2015. Her book—which Alta Journal’s California Book Club will discuss at its June 17 gathering—explores the meaning of motherhood, desire, gender, and slavery through the elusive and oft-obscured figures of Black women in the Western world. And it quickly became recognized as a groundbreaking achievement of extraordinary merit: not only did it receive the National Book Award for Poetry, but it was also the first debut by a Black American writer to win the award.
Following this success, in 2017, Mayor Eric Garcetti named Lewis the poet laureate of Los Angeles to cultivate the city’s literary community and represent its unique cultural contributions to the wider landscape of literature in the United States. In a press release, Lewis said the following about the honor:
“The role of the L.A. Poet Laureate is two-fold: first, to celebrate and curate an ever-widening cross-city appreciation for poetry of all kinds, from all cultures and nations; second, to celebrate the rich and diverse history of Los Angeles poetry. Poetry is high art, sure, but it is also an exceedingly accessible cultural game that anyone can play. From the elderly to prisoners, I try at all times to remind my students that the only difference between a great poet and a lousy one is practice. Poetry isn’t rocket science. It’s merely love.”
Lewis’s appreciation for Los Angeles (and California at large) is manifold. In particular, she has expressed that being an artist in the City of Angels is especially unique because of the Mexican border, the Pacific Rim, and how Indigenous and migratory histories are foundational to the place. This perspective led her to a project she worked on during her three-year term as poet laureate: it is titled “Poetic Truths and Reconciliation Commission” for Los Angeles, and Lewis describes it as “an experiment in historical redress wherein we will use poetry and international models of reconciliation to engage and in some ways, hopefully, correct the atrocities and ongoing struggles enacted upon numerous communities within the Southern Californian basin.” Over the course of a year, the project showcased a series of readings and conversations, which used poetry to think through such topics as community, healing, and solidarity.
Given the project and larger themes of Voyage of the Sable Venus, it is no surprise that during her tenure as poet laureate Lewis sought to consider the meaning of history and memory in a new light. To hear more of Lewis’s work, join Alta’s California Book Club gathering on June 17 here.•