California Book Club: Robin Coste Lewis Transcript

Read a lightly-edited transcript of author Robin Coste Lewis's conversation with California Book Club host John Freeman.

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David L. Ulin: Greetings, everybody. I hope you're all doing well on this sweltering Thursday night. I'm David L. Ulin. I'm the books editor at Alta Journal. I'm talking to you from Los Angeles and I want to welcome you to this month's edition of the California Book Club. We are a book club every month. We have a conversation about a work of enduring California literature. Tonight, we will, John Freeman will be in conversation with my friend Robin Coste Lewis about her magnificent book, Voyage of the Sable Venus. Before we get to that, I want to go over a little bit of housekeeping. First, I'd like to introduce our partners without whom we wouldn't be able to bring you these interviews. We're partnered with Book Passage, Books, Inc., Book Soup, Bookshop, Diesel- A Bookstore, the Huntington USC Institute on California and the West, the Los Angeles Public Library, the San Francisco Published Public Library, Vroman's Bookstore, Narrative Magazine, and ZYZZYVA. And I also want to introduce a sale for California Book Club members for $50 a year. You can get a full year of Alta Journal, a CBC tote bag —I'll do my little NPR promotion here and hold up the tote bag. Sturdily made with outside pockets, as I like to say. And one of our upcoming California Book Club books, you can find out more about that at, and watch tomorrow's thank you email for a link to this deal.

I'd also like to remind you all to visit the Alta Clubhouse after tonight's event, to keep the conversation going. The Alta Clubhouse is a space where California Book Club members can keep, can dig even deeper into Voyage of the Sable Venus, share questions, discuss the event, upcoming California Book Club books. To participate, go to and request an invite, or watch for a link in your next CBC newsletter or tomorrow's thank you email. I'm really excited and eager to hear this conversation. So enough of me, let's cut to John Freeman and Robin Coste Louis. John, take it away.

John Freeman: Sorry, I'm waiting for my video to come on here. But while I do, I just want to welcome everyone back to the Alta Book Club. It's so nice to be here, especially because we'll be talking about this extraordinary book, The Voyage of the Sable Venus, and other poems by Robin Coste Lewis. I think in poetry every decade or so, there's a book that just entirely shifts the field of how we talk about beauty, of how we frame beauty, of how we narrate beauty. And one of the remarkable things about The Voyage of the Sable Venus is it does this on an epic, but also intimate scale. This is a book about poems. This is a book of poems about the body, which begins in the body, and then moves beyond the body to how projections of fantasies wound up on black bodies through many millennial. It's a triptych of poems.

In the first part, we see the poet moving through space in her own body. In the middle of the book, Robin Coste Lewis has taken titles and museum descriptions of Western art dating as far back as 38,000 B.C. and up to the near present in which the black woman's body appears and has montage them into a series of poems, which create a profound commentary on the way that we look at and are told to look at black female bodies. And then the final section of the book, we have these poems, which reframe the framing, and show us the poet learning how to frame, how she sees.

As a youth, Robin Coste Lewis was born in Compton, and grew up there. And in Los Angeles, she took a Bachelor's from Hampshire College, where she studied Comp Lit, and a Master's in Fine Arts from N.Y. U., and a Master's of Theological Studies from Harvard, where she studied Comparative Religions and Sanskrit, and a Ph.D. from U.S.C., where she is a professor and a writer in Poetry and Visual Studies. I love her work so much. I think she has moved forward the way that we look and think, but also has written some indelible poems about the body and beauty. Please join me in welcoming her now, Robin.

Robin Coste Lewis: Hi everyone. Thank you. I wish I could see you all. I'm very emotional. Can you guys hear me okay? I left my AirPods at home. You hear me okay?

So, okay. I'm just going to do a California thing and ground. So David Ulin is my office mate, or used to be, and now we're not the same office. I'm in our old office, David. So, I was already feeling emotional. It's coming to campus for the first few times, and then seeing you, John. For the audience, I really appreciate all the words that were just said, but I just want to say for the audience, if you don't know these two gentlemen, do yourselves a favor and research John Freeman and David Ulin. I'm always honored to be in their company. I'm always on my toes. Talking about changing the world through literature, these two do it every single day. And the devotion to the book is unsurpassed. So I'm honored, by your words, both of you.

And I also want to say thank you to the California Book Club. That is just the most delicious-- those are the most delicious to me to put together, right? I think a lot about the prejudices of the literary world, particularly the centrism of the Northeast Corridor, and publishing, and I don't know. California Book Club, and then to hear about all the independent bookstores that sponsored this and are in conjunction with this, it just touched my heart. I want to shout out to the independent bookstores. I've been in every one of your stores many, many times, year after year. So, I saw all the great P.R. you're doing for this event. I want to thank you. You have no idea how much I admire the work that you do. I'll shut up. I can keep gushing [inaudible] I'll be quiet.

John Freeman: Oh, well, you know, the last time we were together, we spent several hours in a car crossing Los Angeles.

And I sort of want to begin there because your book is so deliberately and delicious and intelligently embodied. And I think there are poems in it that are also on the street and that are out moving around. And I wonder if we can just 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 that your poetic eye and your visual eye interact? And, do you, are you driving across town slowly piecing poems together ever? Or are you mostly just hating traffic?

Robin Coste Lewis: First of all, I remember that car ride, we took very, very affectionately. It felt like home and 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, dry cleaner, groceries, whatever. It was always, come go with me. And recently I reunited with one of my dearest, oldest friends, and we had this very fancy plan to go to a fancy restaurant and sit outside and we ended up getting to go and sit in the car by L.A. Public Library and the park, and just talked for hours in my car. I don't know, six hours. So it's an excellent question you're asking. I know it's really easy to think. It's a question about nostalgia, but it's actually a question about history, and politics, and landscape, and sprawl, and urban planning, and history, and public space, and who can be on that sidewalk.

You know, the sidewalk has a history of not being accessible to people of color and women for many, many, many, many centuries in many, many, many, many countries. So, I particularly think that spaces of public encounter and the sidewalk, particularly. It's one of my favorite spaces. I didn't realize how much I write about it, but there's sidewalks all over my work. And in my new books and other new poems, math, we were talking about it today. The sidewalk, everything takes place on the sidewalk. And I think that's because there's a lot of intimacy with the public on the sidewalk. And I think that that intimacy is just as compelling historically, and politically, and spiritually as any other.

John Freeman: How do you create poetic intimacy?

Robin Coste Lewis: I can only tell you how I created it. I don't know how others do it. I think it's difficult. I think it's difficult to pull off. 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 that 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 that the reader can trust me. And I try to do that in Voyage. I tried to do that with the first and last poems, so that would know that I wasn't going to bullshit them from the start, and that they were safe with me as readers. And as I hope to be safe with them as a writer. It's about trust. I think it's about trust.

John Freeman: Yeah. Talk to me about "Plantation." It is one of the most mesmerizing and seductive poems, I think I've ever read.

Robin Coste Lewis: That's so funny that "Plantation," the title poem called "Plantation" is captive and mesmerizing. Okay. What do you want to know about it? I love that. Thank you. By the way, to also John and David, for the articles you wrote for Alta, and thank you Alta, for all the amazing work that you do. I saw that you wrote about "Plantation" in that article, John, thank you.

What do you want to know about it? I love that you observed the media and meter arrest, the beginning of it with the word 'and'. It's one of your favorite words.

John Freeman: Yeah. And the way that you use couplets and the poem is constantly kind of pushing us along. But I went back to Wanda Coleman as I was getting ready for tonight. And she has this poem in Mercurochrome called S.N. Language, and she writes, "I'm compelled to protest the demise of the deliciously clandestine." And one of the things I find so compelling about that poem is it feels clandestine, even though we're sitting there watching. And each time as you get to a kind of moment of lucidity, where you think, okay, this is what's happening in the poem. Okay. The speaker has been someone else in a cage. And, so, therefore they're trapped.

And then it sounds more like a romantic kind of get together. And 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?

Robin Coste Lewis: Well, first of all, I think you've just answered your own question and answer it, but I think that was an excellent description of intimacy. I wish I could see the audience, you guys, because I would love to say so much about what John just said to you and hear about 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 this, your love object is one person and he, she, they are another. You think they're a human being, it turns out they're a beast.

You think that you're in a great relationship, but it turns out you're stuck. Claudia Rankin and I once had a conversation about this poem. And I said, yeah, 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. 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 to my readers and go, the world is an awful, awful place. They already know. They already know, I don't need to preach to my readers. But what I do like to explore how, the ways in which that awfulness manifests in our very lives. So I jumped to Claudia. I said, the abyss is not outside the window. The abyss is in our bed. You roll over there's the abyss. Okay? Political abyss, the historical abyss, the spiritual abyss. It's right-- it's so much closer than we let on. And I also, I joke with friends, I was like, also, I was mad at a lover at the time.

Yeah. I was pissed off and I was, I wasn't pissed off at a lover. I was pissed off at love, or what passes for love, I think, and how-- I was going to call that poem Love Boat. Remember that stupid show on TV? Or Love Boat American Style. Because I would, it's really, 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. You reach out to someone and you don't even know what your hand is. You don't even know what, that your reach has a historical reach. There was that kind of stuff. Was there a place, is there a place that hasn't been contaminated by history and politics? And I can't find one.

John Freeman: I could tell you the black side of my family owned slaves. I realized this is perhaps the one reason why I love you. I mean, I've read interviews with you in which you talk about how much you write a single line to sort of try to compress as much as possible in there. And that those two lines contain kind of a, an entire biography of a love affair. And I guess I want to know, beginning in this space, the history and desire and-- are all entangled together. And I guess I want to know why you want it to begin here too, rather than begin with the middle section of this book.

Robin Coste Lewis: Excellent question. Because that's, this is where we are. And I don't want to pretend not forever, not any, I'm so sick of all the propaganda that we engage in every day, you know, it's just really exhausting.

I never ever want to pretend that we're not in America, not ever. Which is a blood-soaked country, a place of theft, contentious borders. Right, I could just, I could go on and on, but I don't need to say that to my readers. I don't think, I would hope not. Right. But I do want to start from fifth gear and with that word 'and,' and say, you know where we are, let's not pretend this is where we are, so let's move forward. And it's a sad, gorgeous, disgusting, promising, pock-filled, blood-soaked bed, where you and I are together. And what are we going to do with it? What are we going to do with it?

John Freeman: Later in the book, you talk about frames and photography, but in the first section, there are these poems that actually work in a very visual way. That have in their stanzaic form almost a shape of a square photograph.

And it's almost like you're inviting us to look in a new way, especially the poem "Mothers," which is one of my favorite poems, I think, ever, about two women. And because you can't tell reading it, if it's just two women being tender, two women who are lovers, maybe two women who are very different ages, and you could kind of read the poem endlessly. And, before I ask you to maybe read it for us, I wonder if you can talk a little bit about how your visual sense was developed prior to the Ph.D. you have now, because you've studied Black, African-American, early African-American poetry and Black photography and their interactions with each other. But how did it develop for you? Were you around people taking photographs? Were you given a brownie camera or like a tiny camera?

Robin Coste Lewis: Oh, God, John, just stop with yourself, John. So, I just finished my new book two days ago. Part of it, a big part is about the history of Black vernacular photography. And, now that I'm finishing it, that I'm like, oh, yes-- because it's hundreds of photographs I've been looking for, really, 25 years-- going, this is where it started. That smell of my grandmother peeling a Polaroid and shaking it. Not the new ones, the young ones'll go, no, not shake it like a Polaroid. Not those. Older ones. Right? Where if you peel it too soon, there's a really great gold streak and all that, yeah. So the smell of a photographic chemicals is a smell that is very potent for me and I think it's a way that my family located itself after migrating from New Orleans and located its assimilation. I think, visual assimilation and visual migration is actually as powerful as actually geographical migrations. So yes, I guess the answer is yes, but I would never have put it that way, John, God damn you. Yes, thank you. Yeah. My grandmother and my grandfather were avid photographers. Vernacular, just of our families. Yea-

John Freeman: Do you have the photographs-

Robin Coste Lewis: I inherited a private archive of my grandmother's photographs, over 300. And I've been looking at them for two decades and yeah. I'll talk more about it as my book comes out next year. Yeah, sure.

John Freeman: Would you read "Mothers" for us?

Robin Coste Lewis: Sure. What an incredible question you just asked me. Jesus, John. This is why I like to take walks with John. Before I read it. I just want to point out to readers, if you guys weren't aware, if you know this poem of mine, but it's a redux Gwendolyn Brooks's is Kitchenette Building. And I just want to put Gwendolyn Brooks's name in the room because every day is a day to put Gwendolyn Brooks's name of the room. If you guys want to talk about that poem, I brought it. I could read it. But almost every word or gesture in my poem is engaging with her poem and her entire body of work, including the title.

Robin Coste Lewis:

So "The Mothers."

We meet—sometimes—between the dry hours,
Between clefts in the involuntary plan,
Refusing to think of rent or food—how
Civic the slick to satisfied from man.

And Democratic. A Lucky Strike each, we
Sponge each other off, while what's greyed
In and grey slinks ashamed down the drain.
No need to articulate great restraint,

No need to see each other's mouth lip
The obvious. Giddy. Fingers garnished
With fumes of onions and garlic, I slip
Back into my shift, then watch her hands—wordless—

Reattach her stockings to the martyred
Rubber moons wavering at her garter.

And I'll just say to answer John's question. These are two mothers who are in madly in love and having a relationship within Gwendolyn Brooks's "Kitchenette Building," and they only get to meet in the bathroom that Brooks wrote so well in her own poem.

John Freeman: I know, it's the sexiest re- interpretation of Gwendolyn Brooks ever. I saw her read in 1992 and it was just an incredible experience. And I wonder if you could talk about what her use of kind of poetic vernacular makes possible with intimacy.

Robin Coste Lewis: I don't know how to answer your question because I'm not smart about Gwendolyn Brooks's kind of vernacularity at all. But I will say that her work as a modernist poet is unsurpassed and she should be read right up there with Marianne Moore and Ezra Pound and all those other modernists, but we don't do it because the cage. The cage, I talked about, and plantation because of racism and misogyny. But she acts that out, and maybe this is an answer to your question, she acts it out most potently in her syntax and her caesuras. she has some serious caesura magic. I mean, she will break a sentence up three times in one line, right, long before the 1990s and postmodern literature. You know, Toni Morrison would go on to do it in Tar Baby. We don't talk enough about Toni Morrison's line breaks either.

But anyway, so I still just marvel. And then she also just, the pressure she puts on a word to mean like 20, have the 20 definitions or the pressure she'll put on a line. You know, she taught me a lot about metaphor and in Sanskrit poetics, there's this idea called suggestion. You know, where I guess the grossest translation of it would be connotations, kind of like mood or tone, how a word can have so many intersections, not just four roads, but like 25, that kind of stuff she taught me. I hope, I'm learning and I'm still learning.

John Freeman: There's a poem by her at the end of the second section, which is sort of a kind of poetic epilogue to the end of that project. And before we talk a bit about the second section, I want to talk about one more poem, which is "The Road to Sri Bhuvaneshwari," which is I think a gorgeous poem, it's structured like, this is how it looks on the page, which is like these sort of folding cliffs of lines. And it's a poem about motherhood, it's a poem about journeying, it's a poem about the soul, it's a poem about actually going somewhere, about witnessing something. And you've always said that you're kind of involved in the aesthetics. Your aesthetics is the aesthetics of black joy. I feel like this is a poem where you go from that to the metaphysics of black joy.

And because you've talked about Sanskrit and somewhat your background in studying comparative religions, I wonder if you can talk a bit about the metaphysics that are at work in this book, because you're dealing with the experiences that you've had as a poet. You're reinterpreting the poems of poets before you who are no longer with us. And then you're also in this long second section, kind of re- montaging the titles of art objects, which were based upon or often drawn from living people. So there's a metaphysics at work here that's quite interesting and you've no doubt thought about. And so I guess I want to ask you about what that project was in this book.

Robin Coste Lewis: Well, I'll start with "On the Road to Sri Bhuvaneshwari," just the politics behind it is, early on, I wanted to do a comparative PhD at The School of Oriental and African studies in London between comparing the south Asian diaspora and the African diaspora, and more particularly the east coast of Africa and the west coast of south Asia. And there's that incredible... People are just starting to study it now. But back in the eighties, there's was a great scholar, Vina Doss, who said, Darwin, you have to wait about 30 or 40 years. You can't do it. Like there's, there's just not enough infrastructure in academia to support your research. And I think about that all the time, because I think deep down inside, I really wanted to be a archeologist or a filmmaker who makes films about the ancient world. And this poem "On the Road to Sri Bhuvaneshwari" was kind of my way of going, how dare you, I will do what I want. And I don't have to wait for the world to think about the fact that the south Asian and African diasporas have been in communication for millennia.

And I figured out a way to do what, I don't know how. But I'm saying that as a way to answer your question, that I am very seriously engaged with and surrendering to my obsession with the ancient colored world. And I don't plan on looking back. And I don't care anymore, I'm just doing it. And the reason why I was told I could not do that PhD was because I wasn't including Europe. Right, of course. Right? It sounds crazy now, but you guys I'm sure, I don't know if you guys are old enough to remember, but that was a serious reason for turning you away from doing a particular kind of inquiry. And so I think both with this book, and I hope with all the work that I do, that I absolutely refuse to use anything European or American as the crux upon which my research spins.

I just refuse. The world is so rich. I mean, as a scholar of like ancient languages or whatever, colonialism, there's just so much. And I think that's in that arc where we're talking about where I say that black joy is my aesthetic. There's so much in the world, as we all know who travel or who look outside the window, there's so much in the world. There's so much in the world. And if I continue to live by the Judaeo Christian timeline, I'm going to miss out and I'm not getting any younger. And so I have every intention of pushing that aesthetic as hard as possible and asking my reader to come along with me. I think it's freedom for the reader, too, frankly, to say no, we didn't begin 400 years ago, or even in 16, 19, or even 2,500, or even 6,000 BC. You know, in my new book, I have a line that says there wasn't a land mass that had not bore our footprint over 40,000 years ago. And that's true, right? That's true.

So I'm not in the mood to continue to concede to some shameful cotton picking history where all I do is locate my identity and the identity of my people in slavery. I'm not conceding to that. That's a sleight of hand called colonialism. I expand. There's a book on my shelf right now that I was reading today, right, it's about archeological digs and Senegal. Most of the people in Louisiana, the people who were enslaved and brought to Louisiana were from Senegal. They were Bambara. They don't teach us that, they go, oh, no, this is where you start in this sugar field, in this cotton field. And I think my aesthetic, even though I think it's very quiet, I'm surprised you even noticed it, John, most people don't get it, but it's a refusal of American borders and American ideas of time.

John Freeman: I love it because you've almost you reclaimed the epic in that gesture. There's a line towards the end of the poem where you say, for years, my body ran away from me when I flew charred through the air [inaudible] of impossible mountains. And the way that those four lines kind of carom you out of this tiny cage that you've described sort of in the first poem is really remarkable.

And it makes the juxtaposition between this section and the second section all the more potent, because suddenly you throw us back into the world of Western art and, and kind of images and the tropes that it's been plying for 40,000 years. [crosstalk] I want to ask you a little bit about just the method of putting those palms together. And the second segment. Did you realize what you were doing sort of 10 years prior to it and think, okay, everywhere I go, I'm just going to write some things down. Or did you just have notebook after notebook full of these phrases? Or was it something that you did more after the fact from a library?

Robin Coste Lewis: No, all of the above, all of the above. I can't pinpoint exactly when I saw the first image, Voyage of the Sable Venus. But I remember, I talk about this in the paperback epilogue, I remember thinking this disgusting son of a dog who did this image, because it's a pro-slavery image, but you don't know it at first. And the pro-slavery image is based on a pro rape poem. So it just gets darker and darker and telling you all, don't research, don't research your European and Western art because it is a dark, dark thing. Contrary to all the white virgins paraded before us, I don't think there's anything darker than Western art on the planet, seriously. That said, but it's like, I fell in love with the title. Like the artwork was disgusting, but the title was hot. I was like, wow, you know?

And I was like, well, how many other titles can do this? And I thought, I'm going to write a poem one day and it's going to be about three pages. That's what I thought. And so everywhere I went, I was traveling all over the world for personal reasons, I would write, I would go on museums. I'm a big museum lover, and I would go to museums and it just got sicker and darker and sicker and darker and sicker and darker. And it went on for years and years and years. And then finally, when I started my MFA, I was studying with Sharon Olds and there was a particularly racist classmate of mine who liked to write poems about black women's bodies and using them sexually in really heinous ways. And it was my way of bringing a different experience into the room.

And I don't know that I would have written, I don't know that I would've written that poem if I hadn't been so completely insulted. I don't know. And it just grew, and by the time, but by the time I got to NYU, it was probably, I don't know, thousands of pages. I don't know how many. I feel like it's an aesthetic that I now, I've used some of it in a couple of more projects, it feels very sculptural to me. Like, I know what sculptors are talking about when they say they look at a block of something or they look at a piece of something and they can see some kind of form. I feel that way very deeply now about my Erasurist projects, which I have way a lot of. Where it's like, I can just see it. And I don't know how, don't ask me how, I don't know.

John Freeman: One of the remarkable things, you've taken the punctuation out. That's the one alteration that you've made with the other exceptions. And yet you still, in sculpture, there has to be some armature and typically in a poem that the armature is, is bolstered by the punctuation. And you've, you've taken that out. And so I'm curious how you managed to make these hold together as poems. If you were doing it through sound or syllabics.

Robin Coste Lewis: Yeah. Everything. Sound, syllabics, form, we mentioned the couplets of the ancient poems, right? That was an homage to the epics and epics by people of color that we don't talk about. We're not taught anything about them. The great painter, Julie Mehretu just mentioned this ancient language, Dag. I know nothing about it, from Ethiopia. I was like, what are they talking about? She was like, there's this ancient language that my father knows it's called Dag. So now I'm like, why the hell? I have to start all over and go back to school. Right? So anyway that's what's so sexy about poetry, is just a wild, elegant beast. You can do anything with it. And if you really take your time and do it well, your reader is so relieved that you've also freed them from the rules of a particular language that they want to go with you on the back. Right? And you're just galloping. You can do it, you can do it. You know?

And so, Jeffrey D'echelle has this fantastic novel, SM, it's so jacked up. There's no punctuation in the whole novel. And the novel is about this horrible breakup. And I remember when I read it years ago, I was like, this is brilliant because the getting used to reading a novel without any punctuation whatsoever, it's just like getting used to the loss of love. Right? It's just messy. It just runs everywhere. And so I thought about that when I was doing Voyage, but I also thought about other languages, like, Arabic and all it's extraordinarily beautiful diacritical marks. And Sanskrit, too. Sanskrit's insane what you can do. But most of all, I was raised by Afro Creole's from New Orleans. And if you want to know what English can do, hang out with some people from Louisiana, it's extraordinary.

And so I just felt really free to do anything I wanted. And moving a period a few places or a few lines, that felt very much like post coloniality to me. It's like, I can do with English, whatever I want. And it felt very like black. It's like, no. But that took, you guys, I don't want to sit here and pretend like I've been this way since birth, decolonizing your mind, which is safe to say, decolonizing your language takes years of therapy and years of politics and years of historical research. Thank God for Fennel, that's all I have to say, and all the others. It's a political act to change language when you've been taught Toni Morrison in Tar Baby, she's the first person to ever do it, naw. John, you'll appreciate that. Now that you're at [inaudible], right? In Tar Baby she has a line that just says just says, N A W period. No apologies.

Now, every black person or every Southern person in the audience is going, oh yeah, I know exactly what that is. I remember it was the early eighties when she inserted that performance of black culture into the American literary record with three alphabets and a diacritical mark called the period.

John Freeman: Yeah. Albert Murray has, in his Scooter trilogy, which became a quartet, I think, in the end, he has the also and also.

Robin Coste Lewis: Yes. Or Hilton Als it's in The Women. Yeah, he has also and colon. And it comes after he has shredded something for pages unapologetically. I'm not going to go into it. He just shreds it. And you think by the time he gets in the end, he's going to apologize, but instead he goes also colon, right? Like I'm not done and I will continue. So there's all these little small ways that I think diacritical marks or Wittgenstein says, theology is grammar. My main man, right? Grammar is a political tool. And I tell my students all the time, you guys are wasting so much fire because you're not paying attention to the mechanics.

John Freeman: Lucille Clifton also moved poems without punctuation in this extraordinary way.

Robin Coste Lewis: Totally.

John Freeman: People talk a lot about Merwin, but no one could move a line the way that she did. I wonder if we could hear you read one of these poems from the second, which is a long poem, essentially, because I love the way that-

Robin Coste Lewis: Sure, John, you said "The Ships Inventory" was what you were interested in, right?

John Freeman: You can actually can pick any poem. I would just sit here and-

Robin Coste Lewis: I love that poem, and I love that you asked for it. People never asked for these poems because they're so crazy. And the early ones they really never ask for. So anyway, this is called The Ship's Inventory for the audience who don't know the book. You're listening to nothing but titles of artwork or objects, historical objects that include a black female figure, including the title, "The Ships Inventory."

Four-Breasted Vessel, Three Women
in Front of a Steamy Pit, Two-Faced
Head Fish Trying on Earrings, Unidentified.

Young Woman with Shawl
and Painted Backdrop, Pearl
of the Forest, Two Girls

with Braids People
on a Ship with Some Dancing
Girls. Our Lady of Mercy, Blue.

Nude Iconologia Girl
with Red Flower Sisters
of the Boa Woman Flying a Butterfly.

Kite Empty
Chair Pocket
Book Girl

in Red Dress with Cats and Dog’s Devil.
House Door of No Return. Head-of-a-Girl-
In-the-Bedroom in the kitchen.

Contemplation Dark-Girl Girl.
In the Window Negress with
Flower Sleeping Woman

(Negress with Flower Head
of a Woman-Nude in a Land
scape) —Libyan Sybil: Coloured, Nude-High

Yellow Negro Woman
and Two Children—The Flight
of the Octoroon: the Four Quarters of

the World, Holding
a Celestial Sphere.

John Freeman: I love this poem. Someone in the audience has asked about spacing in your work and how you place it on the page. This is tercets with a final couplet. How, how did you decide on these forms? Because a museum exhibit is often quite boring. Many of the museum exhibits are just in a square. There's something every six feet with a light over it.

Robin Coste Lewis: Yeah. I think, there's a part of me, when I was putting these long kind of poem together, or doing research, and I'd read a title and I go, did you, did it just say? You know? Like, wow, if I wanted an exhibit, that was what I was constantly having this feeling, if I wanted an exhibit and I 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 is that all of us were going around having the same experience, I'm sure. I do not think that I saw something that every everybody else didn't see. People were like, oh my God, how did you see that? It's like, you saw it, too. I know you did. Right? But we look away. We pretend 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, it says that, and it says it often in Western art.

And that's okay because that's what it is. But we need to slow down and go, that's what it is. That's what it is, truly. That's what it is. Right? So I spent a lot of time just, I think John, I've been trying to figure out what my project is. All my students are like, my project is this, my project is that. I said, I don't have a project. And then lately I've been thinking, actually, if I do it's time, my project is time. The whole shebang, the whole history of it. 14 billion years to the present for this current universe. You know? And I say that because I think the reason why I was able to engage the titles the way that I did is because I was moving more slowly. I was just being really quiet. I had lots of years alone where I was just very quiet.

John Freeman: Yeah. Do you want to talk about why that happened?

Robin Coste Lewis: Sure. I had a really, what they call a catastrophic accident, and I fell through a floor to another floor and landed on my head multiple times that I have permanent brain damage. It happened about 21 years ago, and we could talk about that till the cows come home. But the thing that is interesting for me is my left side of my brain got very badly damaged. And so, that's how I became a poet. I was constantly making really crazy mistakes because I had really bad aphasia, but the mistakes were so much more interesting than anything I could ever have said on purpose. And the history was in the mistakes, too. Like one time I put the milk in the oven, I found the milk in the oven, I found a gallon of milk in my oven. And I just started laughing so hard because it was a mistake, it was a brain damage mistake, but it was like, that's pure poetry, right?

It sounded like some Yellow Wallpaper gone completely off the rails. You have no idea about misogyny actually. So, that's how I got there. And because I was so sick for so long, I didn't work for, I don't know, 15 years. I was really, really sick for a long time. I had to learn how to walk and talk and all that again. And so, I spent a lot of time alone and I would go in museums. I think reading is really interesting experience for me. Sometimes I can't do it. Sometimes I just put books down, and sometimes I have to read really slowly. And so, I think that kind of speed that I need in terms of neurodiversity, I don't know.

One of my neurologists talks about how brain damage really... Language is a organ like a liver or a kidney or a lung, and my organ of language got very badly damaged in my accident. And then it had to rebuild itself all over again, and I felt it. Physically, I could feel it in my thoughts. And when you have that happening, it's kind of like what we're all experiencing now coming out of quarantine. You go, "Wait a minute. Did that building always have a brick facade? Because I didn't notice it before." And now that's what it was with language. It was like, "Wait a minute. Could English always... I didn't know that." And that's what my accident did. And so, then I ran into poetry's ever loving arms, and I'm not going back.

John Freeman: One of the attendees is saying, "I want to put this in the chat that as a stroke survivor with brain damage, as soon as I read Lewis' book, I knew her approach to fragments and her wonders poems just had to work to get back into the university to finish my undergraduate to put her work in my dissertation."

Robin Coste Lewis: Hi, sweetheart, whoever you are. [crosstalk]. Hello. You can do it. Look, the closet reason why I did three graduate degrees like a fool is that they didn't have rehabilitation for intelligent people. If you could put a subject verb and object together in a sentence, they discharge you from speech language therapy. I was trying to get back to reading Hannah Arendt. Okay? So, yes, do it.

John Freeman: I'm going to combine a question also by [Grave], that was really basically about influences and what you love to do. But on top of that, were there any poets or writers that lent themselves to reading in fragments while you were rehabilitating?

Robin Coste Lewis: I wasn't reading that kind of work, I don't think. I mean, Gwendolyn Brooks, again, she doesn't get the credit she deserves about so many kind of projects that are taking place on each line of her work. Like Gay Chaps at the Bar, her incredible sonnet secrets about World War II veterans. That quote you quoted, [inaudible] voyages. She also has it those sonnets as well. We never did learn how to fight and find white in the Bible. This is coming out of the voice of a veteran. I mean, she's just constantly messing around with not translating Black English into White English. She won't do it or she'll take White English and, and break it apart, or just crazy stuff.

I think that the African-American poetic tradition is actually a really great archive to look at people playing with collage because what they're collaging is history, not necessarily English, but American history. They're saying it's already in shambles. We're saying it's already in shambles. Let's put it back together and we'll put it back together for our purposes. I just think that American English and America itself is a site of incredible fragmentation. And personally, for me, that's my superpower. I'm not a victim. I'm not in some kind of, oh, woe it's me. I'm like, great, great. If it's already broken then I can really play with the fragmentation.

John Freeman: There's a question from the audience about the publishing journey of this book. Was it difficult, easy, in between, because it is such an unusual book and then once you've read it, it makes absolute sense that these sections have to be together. But that could be said you won the first national book award from it debuted since 1974. So, it's all hindsight, but what was it like when it went out?

Robin Coste Lewis: I know I'm verbose. I know I don't answer questions well, but this story is so long. I don't even know how to tell you. It was all luck. I hate publishing. I don't like having a public. I don't like any of this. The only reason why I do this is because I know that we're all here together and the person who just said brain damage. I just know that for me, when I was a reader, still am a reader. Certain writers saved my life. So I have a debt and I'm going to just do what I need to do and hope it helps.

So, I'm saying all that to say is that the great Alice Quinn, editor of the New Yorker and ex E.D. of Poetry Society of America had heard that I wrote three books as a graduate MFA, and asked me to send them to her. I refused. Got a letter from my editor, who's now your colleague, took me a year asking for manuscripts. It took me a year to respond. I have issues. I'm working on them. That's the slow story. That's I mean, that's the short story, see aphasia. That was brain damaged for those guys who want to know what it looks like. That's the shortcut. I have serious issues about publishing. I really do.

And then on top of it, I'm typing, and I want the book to be exactly how I want it. I want every word, every comma, every everything to be absolutely well considered. And photography to answer your earlier question now that I'm working with these photographs, John, it's interesting because I was like, "Oh my God, I'm writing poetry but with photographs." In terms of how I'm editing the book, the order that the photographs are coming in. Yeah, I don't know if I answered your question, but eventually I had to, and it was very painful. I think I developed heart disease over Voyage because I'm not one of those people who enjoy all of this. I enjoy books. I enjoyed the world of books.

John Freeman: It's slightly sneaky because I've heard you read from other poems and in various locations and I thought, "Wait, that's not Voyage of the Sable Venus." And at some point, I'd heard enough poems that it was several different products that were flipping out into the public. I thought, "Wait, when is she going to publish another book? Or maybe she has?"

Robin Coste Lewis: I am now. I finally broke through this year. You know why? Both that I'm working with my grandmother's archive, but also mortality. I thought, "Well, Robin, maybe you want to, maybe you might want to." And then I have the best editor in the world and they've been incredibly patient and understanding. Yeah, I have about seven books in profoundly strong rough drafts. And I think I'm going to start publishing again. I know, I know I finished three at NYU. That was amazing because I thought I will never get a chance to write full-time again. So, I burnt it at both ends for three years. Yeah.

John Freeman: This is very exciting. Everyone is sort of going crazy in the chat. Do you think you can read-

Robin Coste Lewis: I don't read the chat because I can't... See, brain damage, I can't do that and listen to you at the same time. So, hi, everybody. I can't read your chat because I'm not good. If somebody wants to tell me what they say, I'm happy to listen, but I can't do that.

John Freeman: I'm sort of reading with one eyeball and looking at you with the other.

Robin Coste Lewis: Exactly.

John Freeman: I look a bit confused if that's only why. Do you think you could read one of the newer poems? I mean, there's so many to choose from.

Robin Coste Lewis: Oh, sure.

John Freeman: We talked about "Math," but if there's another poem you'd rather read-

Robin Coste Lewis: The only ones I brought, "Math" is not in my new book. Oh, my God. Anyway, that's in another book. Anyway, that's hilarious. Where is it? Well, maybe I didn't bring it. Okay. It's in the printer. So, I'm reading "Math," y'all. I was going to read them "Using Black to Paint Light", which is a poem I actually like. That's the other thing. I don't know about y'all. I don't actually like my work quite often. They don't think it's worthy of you. I don't want to waste my reader's time. So, I have to, I have to work hard. Anyway, this poem was called "Math," and I noticed that whoever made the slides for the event put up an excerpt from my poem Frame that's in the book and talked about how English was a kind of dim math. So, this is actually a response to myself about that "Math." Okay?


And then (at some point) as you step more vigilantly into the middle of your life, you begin to realize that they are all dead. Or more honestly (it takes even more years), you begin to realize that—perhaps—they are not all supposed to be dead. Or. You still remember. You can still feel yourself there. Standing. Knee-deep. In cement. A particular square on the sidewalk. There were dandelions. That odd, eternal sun. When a dear friend, your sister’s best-best friend—drives by—stops her car in the middle of the street. And then tells you. Screams out of her car window. And says it: your first beloved—that boy for whom you were slowly unfolding yourself from inside outward—that boy, whom you had yet to kiss, but would one day soon kiss certainly—that monumental boy, who smiled at you differently—that boy—had just been shot and killed. By strangers. Just for fun.

You are fourteen. And it is the beginning—it is the very first day—when the World confirms that new gleam of suspicion layered on the surface of the dark violet lake inside, that, Yes, slaughter is normal.

Slowly, over the years, you train yourself not to want this—you—a body in your bed with whom you can have a real conversation—a body with whom you can walk anywhere, talk anywhere, hear anywhere. At some point, you gave up expecting to be understood. English was too many red languages at once. And History was just a very small one—a ledger, and always in the black. You took out your sheerest sword. Your tongue: a sheath of arrows.

Perhaps, not by coincidence—once you began to trip around fifty’s maypole—you and your sister find together the courage to do the math: of all the boys whom you had known as children, at least eighty-percent were all either missing, in jail, or dead. Blood on the streets, bullets in the walls, the police always flying overhead. In your head. You thought it normal. When boys disappeared, were shot, killed, cuffed or thrown onto a black and white hood for simply walking down the sidewalk. Or asking merely: What have I done? Normal. As expected as the orange poppies, your quiet state flower, blossoming on the side of the streets year-round.

And then. Finally. You and I. Our bodies. Together. For a few hours: Time loves me. Every minute a gift so tender, each second announces itself. And then, just as quickly, equally: every second is stolen—erased—washed away—you. I understand, somehow, it will be another four years until I see you again. We walk through the night, arm and arm, across the wet sidewalk, and—besides my son—I am the happiest I have ever been with another person. But it is a silence. A happiness that rare. Unexpected. Quiet. And I wait. And wait. And no one shoots you afterward. Or. Maybe this night was God’s way of saying to me—finally: Yes, I do realize you exist. And this one night—just this one night—is all the complete happiness you can ever expect from Me.

John Freeman: What a poem.

Robin Coste Lewis: Thank you.

John Freeman: The poem is structured on the page like a prose poem?

Robin Coste Lewis: Yeah. So, it was published on, if you guys don't know about the Academy of American Poets website, they're an incredible website. So it's a prose poem. It's a block, maybe four paragraphs on one page.

John Freeman: It's just incredible.

Robin Coste Lewis: Thank you.

John Freeman: We're running short on time. So, I'm going to bring in two more questions from the audience. Lana is saying is also a fan of on the road. And Eddy Parker has a question. I could probably combine these, which really has to do with, I guess, editing and showing, which is do you write by hand and then type it out? And at which point do you show it to another person? Or is there a group of readers, and when does someone like me, but obviously lesser than me get involved?

Robin Coste Lewis: You mean an editor?

John Freeman: Yeah.

Robin Coste Lewis: Oh, so I have figured out the way that I wrote seven books and didn't know it was that I write everywhere on anything and everything. And so, I find emails I've written to myself or voice recordings when I'm driving or little messages, texts in the thing. But I'm an avid diarist. I keep a diary. I've had a diary for 40 years every single day, except for the first, I don't know, seven years of my son's life where I forget that, nobody could do that. I see the chat right now. Keep the combo going in the clubhouse. I'm happy to come and join y'all. I want to see your faces so I'll come in afterwards, if somebody sends me a link. Okay. Anyway, so I'm not a part of a writing group anymore and I really miss it and I'm not in an MFA. So there's nobody expecting me to bring a poem in, that sucks.

So, it's just me and the echo chamber of my little office. And every now and then I'll ask a friend to read something and luckily I have really good friends. Dana Johnson, I was just, who's going to be here. Y'all go see Dana Johnson whenever. I think she's in another too much. She's one of my favorite writers. Another LA writer, her office is just down the hall, but she has an incredible ear. Or I actually asked my friends who aren't writers a lot. I'll read them something. And my friends are scathing and they're also snotty. So there'll be like, "Yeah." That's an incredible gift. I have friends who will not flatter me and that I keep them close because for every reason, not just my work but life. There's no reason for pretending that you think you're something when you're not.

So yeah, I don't do that. But when I did do that, what I did was I created writing groups with friends. If that's what the question is really about, how can you engage your writing more? You can just get a group of friends together. I loved writing groups. I miss them so badly. You get together every three weeks, every six weeks, and you just read. One writer, whoever's in the group. One of those writers work for the whole day and give crit. I would kill to be in a writing group. I would kill. I don't have it anymore. I think something happens. I don't know what happens, John, do you know? Do you have a writing group? As I snap over my Pellegrino, it's not a beer, I swear.

John Freeman: Hey, it's beer o'clock. You're entirely allowed.

Robin Coste Lewis: It's martini o'clock.

John Freeman: I don't, if only because I don't know. I have one or two friends that I send things to and depending on how much I want to be or not. I have a friend, I send it to her basically there who I know will be supportive and say, "Yes, keep going." And then I have other friends who are more like CrossFit instructors who are like, "I want you to [crosstalk]."

Robin Coste Lewis: I have to say that I am a good editor of my own work. I'm too critical. And so, by the time I show it to somebody I know very intimately. You can't see the back of your head. That is a really true adage I believe in. But if I'm showing somebody my work it's already been worked over for five years. It already has. Yeah. And so, by the time it gets to my editor who is John's colleague, she'll see something I don't see. I'm not saying I can see everything, but I rarely will write a poem and just not revise it. I revise for years.

John Freeman: Well, speaking of years, I would love to just keep this going for years and years. You're one of my favorite people to talk to-

Robin Coste Lewis: You are John, you are.

John Freeman: [crosstalk] which is probably the least conducive place to epiphany the American sublime, but they can happen next to you. And they happen on the page with you. I'm so grateful for this book and for this hour with you, I'm sad it's already over.

Robin Coste Lewis: Thank you, me too.

John Freeman: And thank you.

Robin Coste Lewis: Thank you. Wait, can you I just say, thank you California Book Club and Alta, and David, and Beth, and Blaise, and all of you. Thank you. This has been really extraordinary and someone send me a link and I'll come and join the after, whatever it's called. Okay. This was really special. I just also want to say, you guys, I am so underground right now. I've not been hanging out. I haven't seen friends. I haven't talked to friends. My phone's off. The text messaging was off, but when it said it was a California Book Club, I was like, "Hell, yeah. Absolutely." To be with Californians reading, that's nothing like it." So, thank you for the invitation, truly.

John Freeman: David is speaking, but his mic is on. I don't think...

David L. Ulin: I have two. I have a mute on my actual mic as well as on the computer. So, my apologies. I was just saying, thank you to both of you. That was a remarkable conversation, really moving. I would sit here and listen for another three hours or so as well. So, thank you Robin, for your generosity and your spirit, and just for your presence. Thanks, John, for a terrific interview. This interview has been recorded and will be available at

As Robin was talking about, or as the chat has been talking about, you can visit The Alta Clubhouse to keep the conversation going. The link is in the chat towards the bottom of the queue. So click over there and feel free to visit tonight or visit other times. As I mentioned, it's a place where the conversation continues. We keep talking about the books and the club. Next month's book is William Finnegan's memoir, Barbarian Days. So join us, please on Thursday, July 15th for the California Book Club discussion with him. And as a reminder, I want to remind you again, of the sale on Alta membership for California Book Club members. Go to Please participate in a two minute survey that will pop up as soon as we end the event and stay well, stay safe. See you all next month. Take care, everyone. Have a good night.•

Voyage of the Sable Venus: and Other Poems by Robin Coste Lewis

Knopf Publishing Group
Beth Spotswood is Alta's digital editor, events manager, and a contributing writer.
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