Asking to Be Written: Robin Coste Lewis at UMMA
When the first poem in a book is titled “Plantation,” you should probably just go ahead, pour yourself a drink, sit somewhere quiet, and prepare to be transported.
I suppose you should expect to be transported, too, by a book called Voyage of the Sable Venus, especially since it won the National Book Award for Poetry.
On Thursday, Feb. 21, Robin Coste Lewis read her work as a part of the Zell Writers Series. I don’t know how it is possible that an auditorium feels cozy, but that was the vibe in UMMA’s Helmut Stern Auditorium that evening: warm, relaxed, somewhat dark.
And democratic. A Lucky Stripe each, we
Sponge each other off, while what’s greyed
In and grey slinks ashamed down the drain.
No need to articulate great restraint,
--Robin Coste Lewis from “The Mothers”
The first poem Lewis read was Gwendolyn Brooks' “Kitchenette Building.” She asked the audience who among us didn’t know that a kitchenette building was. After several hands sprung into the air, she described these houses and apartments that are chopped up into smaller units, their inhabitants living in very close proximity to each other. As she read the poem, it sounded familiar to me; that’s when I realized what Lewis would momentarily tell us, that her poem “The Mothers" was inspired by Brooks’ poem. Here two women are together, taking a moment to themselves away from the duties and responsibilities that they face. Lewis describes this poem as one that captures a moment of pleasure within the context of being poor. She noted that this is not “a performance we see in literature.”
I am fascinated by watching other people, and in this crowd, I was not positioned in a place that allowed me to examine the rest of the audience with the attention I prefer. But throughout the reading, there was a lot of appreciative sighing. Perhaps this is a regular thing at Zell Series readings, but I like to believe this audience was so taken with Lewis' work and her words about the work that they forgot to control their instinctual noises.
Among the poems Lewis shared was “Felicité" and she spoke a bit about her writing process, telling the audience she doesn’t really experience writer's block. "Some poems ask to be written for a long time,” she said. "Felicité" is a poem that had taken around 20 years for her to write. She shared the poem with other writers at Cave Canem, an organization dedicated to black voices in poetry, nervous how this poem would be received since it reveals that the black side of her family had owned slaves. She found out after she read the poem that “people still loved [her].” Felicité was also the name of one of the enslaved people who belonged to her family. That woman and also gave life to some of her family. Of all things, Felicité, this enslaved person’s name, means happiness.
Lewis earned a Master of Theological Studies and Sanskrit from Harvard Divinity School and an MFA from New York University’s Creative Writing Program. You wonder, what would make someone study Sanskrit. According to a Guardian piece on her, she wanted to go back in time to one of the world’s oldest languages. She wanted to see what these languages had to say about race.
“The Wild Women of Aiken” is a poem Lewis wrote in response to Oscar Wilde’s 1882 tour of the United States. Lewis described him as a bit of a diva whom the press didn’t know how to handle. Lewis’ description of Wilde led me to the internet looking for images of him. He’s not one of the figures I’ve paid much attention to beyond knowing his name and seeing a plethora of quotes attributed to him. During his American tour, many disagreed with Wilde’s idea that anything could be beautiful. Photographer, J. A. Aiken staged a photograph in response to Wilde’s thoughts on beauty, choosing items that he judged to be aesthetically displeasing among them: a large sunflower, a face-shaped vase, highly patterned fabrics, and a black woman. Lewis’ poem challenges notions of what is supposed to be beautiful and the quiet defiance of existing, of being what one is. As what almost sounded like an aside, Lewis mentioned to the audience the irony that the photographer is long dead but this striking image he created of this woman and her surroundings lives on. The poem, while about Wilde’s tour, is really also about this woman.
Before reading selections from the poem "Voyage of the Sable Venus," Lewis talked about the poem’s origin. The poem is about the history of the depiction of black women in Western art. It is constructed from the language used to describe the art. Titles, catalog descriptions, exhibit descriptions, and ephemera are among the piece’s reference material. In the years she spent researching this piece, Lewis had discovered that black women were everywhere and that she had to expand which art objects would be included, adding, for example, items like spoons and table legs. She decided the project would also include art created by black women artists whether or not the art featured a black woman. As she moved through time, Lewis realized that she felt it was important to include queer black men in this project due to their contributions to the way that their work often questions ideas of race and gender.
I found this poem to be difficult. Maybe that isn’t correct; maybe I found the work to be overwhelming. Maybe I just had a case of poetic indigestion. Maybe it made me feel uncomfortable as if I had overeaten just because I was tasting new foods. Maybe I felt as if I was watching descriptions of my own image as described through some perverse funhouse lens. Maybe I just need to spend some more time with the work, take it slowly.
It was definitely a relief when Lewis moved on to the next poem, “Pleasure and Understanding,” which she describes as a Persian form meeting the blues. Then she shared newer work including erasure poems based on source texts such as Octavia Butler’s "Parable of the Sower" to Thoreau’s "Walden" and the work of Lucy Terry Prince, the author of the first known work of African-American literature.
As the evening continued to unfold, I saw that Lewis' work travels everywhere. But through the post-"Voyage" part of the evening, I couldn’t stop thinking about objectification, the idea of being thought of as an object, and where the line is between that and being interpreted as an actual object. Then, I pondered what it means to have a voice, to claim one’s voice, to give voice.
Time to pour another drink and sit somewhere quiet again.
Sherlonya Turner is the manager of the Youth & Adult: Services & Collections Department at the Ann Arbor District Library. She can be found diving headfirst into all sorts of projects over at sherlonya.net.