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Poet Robin Coste Lewis evokes the black female form across history

December 29, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT
"Voyage of the Sable Venus," the first collection from Robin Coste Lewis, is the winner of this year's National Book Award for poetry. Lewis discussed her debut, her readers and her influences with Jeffrey Brown at the Miami Book Festival.
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GWEN IFILL: When the 2015 National Book Awards were announced last month, Robin Coste Lewis, a fellow at the University of Southern California, was awarded the poetry prize for her first collection of poems, “Voyage of the Sable Venus.”

Jeff is back with their conversation, conducted at the Miami Book Festival.

JEFFREY BROWN: There are many personal poems in this.

ROBIN COSTE LEWIS, National Book Award for Poetry Winner: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the long poem that anchors the collection, the “Voyage of the Sable Venus,” has a very particular focus, right?

ROBIN COSTE LEWIS: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: The history of African-American women, their bodies in art.

ROBIN COSTE LEWIS: Yes.

It’s actually the history of black female bodies in art. So, that’s part of why I did the project. It exceeds the national boundaries and even the history of America by several millennia. It goes back even to 38,000 years, into prehistoric images of black female figures.

JEFFREY BROWN: And why? Why did you want to explore that?

ROBIN COSTE LEWIS: Well, I didn’t want it to go back that far. I didn’t know that would happen.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

ROBIN COSTE LEWIS: And then once I started doing research — and I have a background in ancient languages, and so, of course, I went into the ancient world as well to see what was going on there.

And, of course, I found images of black women in subservient positions, or as the tripod of a lamp, or the handle of a razor blade or handle of a knife. And I thought, well, how far back does it go? How long have we been doing this to each other? That was my primary question.

And everywhere I looked, regardless of the time period or the continent, it was happening. And so then I couldn’t look away. I had to keep going.

JEFFREY BROWN: But why is that poetry? Why through poetry? Because that’s a huge subject. It’s a fascinating, important subject.

ROBIN COSTE LEWIS: Right. Right.

(CROSSTALK)

JEFFREY BROWN: But why through poetry?

ROBIN COSTE LEWIS: Because poetry is song. Poetry, first and foremost, is the lyric. It’s the music.

And epic is one of the oldest forms we have as human beings. And I thought that it would be really helpful and also mirror the history itself if I showed — if I tried to capture this history of how we have looked at black women visually in epic form.

It made sense to me, as opposed to writing, say, an essay. I mean, essays are fine. I love them. And I write them as well. But to do it with poem, it’s like poetry is almost primordial for us, like breathing. Everybody — lullabies. You know, we all know what it means to be sung to.

And poetry is very close to that. So, I wanted do it that way, so I could keep my reader close. I didn’t want to put distance between me and my reader.

JEFFREY BROWN: Voyage of the Sable Venus is an actual — is a painting, right?

ROBIN COSTE LEWIS: It’s an etching, yes, from the 18th century, 1787, I think.

JEFFREY BROWN: An etching, yes.

A kind of allegory of a black woman on the passage, right, from Africa to the Caribbean?

ROBIN COSTE LEWIS: Right. Right.

So, it’s a redux of Botticelli’s Venus on the Half Shell, but, in this case, it’s a black woman on the clam shell. And she’s being drawn through the water by Cupid and Triton or Neptune. I’m not sure. But instead of Neptune having a trident, right, he has a flag of the Union Jack, so it turns out to be a pro-slavery image.

And it is based on a poem, also “Voyage of the Sable Venus,” titled “Voyage of the Sable Venus,” that speaks about how — it’s a pro-rape poem. It’s disgusting, how to rape a white woman or a black woman slave at night is the same, because you can’t see their bodies, 1782.

So, when I heard the title, “Voyage of the Sable Venus,” this is the whole experience of looking at that image, where you’re both completely compelled — it’s a gorgeous image — until you realize that it’s pro-slavery.

And then the title itself was so gorgeous to me, “Voyage of the Sable Venus.” Right? So, the complete contradiction of what the image performed and what the title said seemed to me to be a cue to look further. And so the more I looked and the more titles I found, the weirder it got and the more interesting it got.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you — is it important for you, at least for you work, that poetry connect with things, with history, with…

ROBIN COSTE LEWIS: Yes, it is.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes?

ROBIN COSTE LEWIS: Yes, because, I mean, this is just me, right?

I’m not saying that all poets should do this, but I feel like I’m here in the body at a particular time, right?

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

ROBIN COSTE LEWIS: And that time is completely impacted by very large and very small movements by human beings, whether it’s on grand historical scale like wars, or small historical scales like, I had a baby.

All those things are about our time. They’re all impacted by how we treat each other, how we live in the world. So it’s important to me that that be reflected in my work, for sure. Otherwise, I feel like I’m wasting the reader’s time. I don’t want to waste my readers’ time ever. My readers are very important to me.

So, if I’m going to — I don’t want to pretend that they’re not there. I don’t want my work to pretend that they’re not there. I want them to know at, every moment, I’m thinking of them. I don’t necessarily need to please them. I don’t necessarily need to entertain them, but I take very seriously, with great respect.

JEFFREY BROWN: Engage them.

ROBIN COSTE LEWIS: With great respect.

And I also assume that my readers have great intelligence, so I also don’t want to talk down to them. And so all those things go into how I present the work on the page.

JEFFREY BROWN: And who do you look to for influences?

ROBIN COSTE LEWIS: Oh, that’s such a hard question.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes?

ROBIN COSTE LEWIS: Yes.

I mean, who don’t I look to for influences. On the one hand I look to, you know, visual artists. And there is a long list of those people. And then there’s musicians, with whom I can’t live out, Shirley Horn, Charlie Parker. I don’t know. You name it. Astor Piazzolla, someone was talking about his work today.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

ROBIN COSTE LEWIS: And I look to poets, sure, but it’s just a large, lush, saturated field that I go to.

Toni Morrison was a big influence on my work since I was a teenager, what she did with English. I joke that I think she speaks 20 Englishes simultaneously, that she knows how to do that. It’s just huge. It’s a long list, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Robin Coste Lewis, her book, the “Voyage of the Sable Venus,” winner of the National Book Award for Poetry.

ROBIN COSTE LEWIS: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Congratulations.

ROBIN COSTE LEWIS: Thank you so much.

JEFFREY BROWN: Thanks a lot.

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