Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus—a poetry collection that explores the intersections among beauty, gender violence, and art history in the elusive and obscured figures of Black women in Western art—is groundbreaking in its literary range and artistic depth, perhaps unlike any poetry collection hitherto published. Last night, at the ninth installment of Alta Journal’s California Book Club, host John Freeman began the gathering by acknowledging this very feat: “In poetry, every decade or so, there’s a book that entirely shifts the field of how we talk about beauty, of how we frame beauty, of how we narrate beauty,” he said. “One of the remarkable things about Voyage of the Sable Venus is it does this on an epic but also intimate scale. This is a book of poems about the body.”
“Last time we were together, we spent several hours in a car, crossing Los Angeles,” Freeman then said to Lewis. “I wonder if we can start in that reality of being in Los Angeles—you’re always in a car. How does that change the way you look and the way you occupy space as a poet and the way your poetic eye and visual eye interact?”
“The car is home in L.A., or it can be an extension of home. There was a saying when I was little—somebody would say, ‘Come go with me?’ I don’t know if you grew up that way, too, John? ‘Come go with me to the store or the dry cleaner,’ ” Lewis began. “I know it’s really easy to think it’s a question of nostalgia, but it’s actually a question about history and politics and landscape and sprawl and urban planning and public space.… I particularly think that spaces of public encounter—and the sidewalk particularly is one of my favorite spaces.… Everything takes place on a sidewalk: I think that’s because there’s a lot of intimacy with the public on a sidewalk, and I think that intimacy is just as compelling.”
“How does one create intimacy in a poem?” Freeman promptly asked.
“I can only tell you how I create it. I don’t know how others do it. I think it’s difficult. I think it’s difficult to pull off,” Lewis said. “I think I whisper a lot in my poems. I try to hold my reader very, very close. I try not to pontificate or kind of speak down to my reader. I assume my reader knows a great deal more than I do, so it puts me in a position of humility. I try to make sure my language is seductive but not obviously so, so that the reader doesn’t know that I’m singing to them with sounds and meters. Most of all, I try to tell the complete and honest-to-God truth so the reader can trust me, and I try to do that in Voyage. I try to do that with the first and last poems.”
Freeman then commented that Lewis’s poem “Plantation” was “one of the most mesmerizing and seductive poems” of the collection. “Each time as you get to a kind of moment of lucidity where you think, ‘OK, this is what’s happening in the poem,’ ” Freeman said. “At each point along the poem where it comes to a point where you think it’s going to become more legible, it becomes more mysterious. And I guess I’m curious, What is happening in your mind in the poem?”
“Well, first of all, I think you answered your own question. I think that was an excellent description of intimacy,” Lewis responded. “I wish I could see the audience because I would love to say so much about what John just said to you. Because what I would say is, Y’all know what that’s about, right? Isn’t that what intimacy is about—you don’t know where you are; you don’t know where the floor is. The object of your desire’s often shifty, or you think your love object is one person and he/she/they are another. You think they’re a human being and it turns out they’re a beast. You think you’re in a great relationship but it turns out you’re stuck.”
“I think it’s really easy—and I do think it’s really easy to talk about how the world is a really sick place,” Lewis continued. “It’s really easy; anybody who’s even remotely sentient can tell you that the world is an awful, awful place, so I don’t want to talk down on my readers and go, ‘The world is an awful place.’ They already know. They already know! I don’t need to preach to my readers. But what I do like to explore is the ways in which that awfulness manifests in our very lives. The abyss is not outside the window; the abyss is in our bed. You roll over, there’s the abyss. OK? The political abyss. The historical abyss. The spiritual abyss. It’s so much closer than we let on.… What I really wanted to examine is how history and politics interrupt our desire and how much we don’t even know who we are. We reach out to someone and you don’t even know what your hand is—that your reach is a historical reach.”
Even though Lewis could not physically see book club members, there were plenty of questions from the audience, buoyed and amplified by the warm and robust energy of the Zoom chat, which propelled and guided the second half of the CBC gathering.
After Lewis read a selection from the centerpiece poem of Voyage of the Sable Venus, which indexes the titles and descriptions of Western art exhibitions in which the figure of a Black woman is present (or present through her absence), Freeman said: “Someone in the audience has asked about spacing in your work and how you place it on the page. This is in tercets with a final couplet. How did you decide on these forms, because a museum exhibit is often quite boring? Many museum exhibits are in a square every six feet with a light over it.”
“There was a part of me when I was putting the long kind of poem together or during research, I’d read a title and I’d go, Did it just say…? You know? If I were in an exhibit, I was constantly having that feeling,” Lewis said. “If I were in an exhibit and didn’t know that this title was supposed to go with that object, that title is kind of truly, darkly jacked up, right? And that’s what was really amazing to me: all of us were going around and having the same experience, I’m sure. I do not think that I saw something that everyone else didn’t see.… But we look away. It doesn’t say ‘Head of a Negro Girl with a Lion with Her Head in Its Mouth.’ We pretend that it didn’t say that, but it says that.”
The event neared its end with Freeman asking two audience questions about Lewis’s process of writing, editing, and revision: “Do you write by hand and then type it out? At which point do you show it to another person, or is there a group of readers?”
“I figured out the way that I wrote seven books and didn’t know it was that I write everywhere on anything and everything,” Lewis said. “So I find emails I’ve written to myself or voice recordings when I’m driving or little messages or texts. But I’m an avid diarist. I’ve had a diary for 40 years, every single day except for the first seven years of my son’s life.… Every now and then I’ll ask a friend to read something, and luckily I have really good friends.”
Alta’s California Book Club will return on July 15 (at 5:30 p.m.) in conversation with William Finnegan. We’ll be talking about his Pulitzer Prize–winning autobiography, Barbarian Days, which charts Finnegan’s surfing adventures from his childhood to his adulthood. For more information, click here.•