Robin Coste Lewis by Matthew Sharpe

“I don’t accept the idea of my history as tragic.”

Robin Coste Lewis Bomb 02

Detail of William Grainger’s 1794 engraving after Thomas Stothard’s painting The Voyage of the Sable Venus.

I met Robin Coste Lewis in the summer of 2002 in the MFA program at Bard College, where she was a student and I was on faculty. She was then working on a nonfiction narrative about the history of her family in Louisiana. She had received a graduate degree in Sanskrit literature from Harvard Divinity School, and had been a professor at Hampshire College. Shortly before I met her, she’d suffered a traumatic brain injury, was no longer able to teach at Hampshire, and was, in a profound sense, starting over. I did not realize at the time the extent to which this was the case, given her lively presence and the speed and agility of her mind both in conversation and on the page. Not long after that summer, she put aside that family history project, at least in the prose form it then occupied, and took up poetry. She reported some years later that she had told a fellow poet that “brain damage has turned me into a poet,” to which the other poet replied, “Oh thanks a lot, Robin.”

Trauma—historical trauma—is central to Voyage of the Sable Venus, Robin’s debut book of poetry, indeed her first book of any kind, which won the National Book Award last year. The title poem, some seventy pages long, is, as Robin writes in her prologue, “a narrative poem comprised solely and entirely of the titles, catalogue entries, or exhibit descriptions of Western art objects in which a black female figure is present, dating from 38,000 BCE to the present.” So “Voyage” depicts 40,000 years of systemic violence, objectification, and distortive caricature residing in what Western civilization has often construed as the domain of the beautiful. The paradox, as Robin told me, is that many of the artworks she invokes are indeed beautiful. So, emphatically, is the poem. We spoke at length about this paradox, and about her feeling both angered and liberated in the process of the writing, feelings that a reader is also likely to experience in a prodigious poem which, to paraphrase Audre Lorde, uses the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.

Matthew Sharpe I want to ask you what the genesis of your title poem was—where it came from, how it evolved, how you arrived at the rules that you set for yourself. When did you know you were going to write this poem? Or, how did you come to know you were going to write it?

Robin Coste Lewis I came across the eighteenth-century etching “Voyage of the Sable Venus” maybe ten years ago. It’s really horrible. It’s beautiful and horrible simultaneously. It’s a redux of the Botticelli Venus on the half-shell, except this “Venus” is a black woman. Like Botticelli’s Venus, she’s attended by all these classical figures, but then you notice something in Triton’s or Neptune’s hand. Instead of the usual trident, he’s carrying a flag of the Union Jack! So it’s a pro-slavery image. And I remember two things about first seeing this. One is, I thought this is exactly what it feels like to be an American, for anyone, but more specifically for African Americans. On the one hand you have this myth of democracy and it’s all beautiful, so you’re compelled by the propaganda of nation—but at the same time you’re repelled, because you know the history, you know the country is blood-soaked in every way. The second thing is I thought the title, “Voyage of the Sable Venus,” just that one line, was an epic in and of itself. And I just wanted to luxuriate in the title, “Voyage of the Sable Venus,” forever. Then I started to think about that, how a title can be an epic, and I wondered about other images of objects that contained black figures and asked myself: Well, what are some of the other titles?

I started just looking around me and, as you know, I go to museums all the time, and at some point I thought: Well, I wonder if I could write maybe a two- or three-page poem, using a few titles to tell the story of the history of the black female figure in Western art. And that happened maybe six, seven years ago—and then I started collecting them in this OCD kind of way. The more research I did, the more heinous it became, the larger it became, the more I realized that the entire Western world is saturated by black female figures, everywhere. Even if it’s not in the painting, it’s in the frame that someone carved to house the painting. In certain frames you’ll have black female figures carved in these subservient postures, or even a beautiful mahogany chair with black female figures as the legs, or holding up a basin. And that shocked me so much that I quickly realized that the project was going to have to expand. I was traveling a lot at the time, and so once I gave in, I would go to every museum in every country I was in and take notes.

What I started to discover was that this practice went on for millennia. It wasn’t just what we tend to think about America, that it’s limited to these four heinous centuries where we haven’t learned how to respect each other or behave well. Instead, it was something that human beings had been doing since we were upright, which is to say that we’ve been hating on each other for a long, long time. And not only that, but we wanted to visualize our hate in these images and these objects. We were quite comfortable with our hate (laughter). We wanted to celebrate it, and even make hate pretty. That was the thing that completely took me out, and that’s what kept me going and made me want to do more and know more and learn more. And that’s why the poem grew into the seventy pages that it is now.

MS In your prologue, you call “Voyage” a narrative. When I look at a poem like, say, “On the Road to Sri Bhuvaneshwari,” even though I feel silences in that narrative, I still recognize it as a narrative: a figure, or figures, moving through time, to whom things happen, or who do things, and there’s some kind of transformation… I guess now that I’m enumerating my list of things that I think constitute narrative, I feel those in “Voyage”—but still, can you talk about what narrative means to you in relation to that poem?

RL Well, I love what you said, just now, as you started talking: “Oh right, I can see how this is a narrative.” But I also think the thing you said about “Sri Bhuvaneshwari,” around the use of silence in narrative, is incredibly important to me, and I’m very conscious that I do that. I love using silence as story, as a way to convey something that happened, and I’ll talk more about that with regard to the whole book. But just with regard to “Voyage,” I want to talk about fragmentation as narrative. One of the things that is intrinsic for anyone within this period, but especially for people of color, or anyone who’s been repressed, people in exile, anybody that’s lost the floor in some way, whether nationally or culturally, is that we learn that absence is as much a presence in our lives as anything else—if not the greatest presence of all. So I tried very deliberately to have absence be the main character in that so-called story. And it’s very important to me that fragmentation be something that’s not only present, but that I also celebrate. I don’t accept the idea of my history as tragic. I refuse that in every way that I possibly can. And in order to do that, I have to embrace and celebrate situations that many people quite understandably renounce.

MS Yeah, your title poem is constituted of the language of the oppressor, into which you have made an intervention.

RL Absolutely, thank you. And so, then, if the reader feels like, “Well this isn’t really a story,” then that’s a good thing, right? That’s what I want. I want that poem to interrogate the whole notion of a narrative to begin with. I love it when you’re traveling in London, when you get on the train there are all of these signs that say, MIND THE GAP. I always laugh to myself because I feel like that’s what I do, constantly. That’s where I am. My work is in the gap, that dark place that we can’t see—if we fall through—where the bottom is. I like that place; that is a narrative for me. You can’t tell what’s going on? Well, no shit. Neither can millions of other people! We haven’t been able to tell what’s been going on for millennia with regard to the majority narratives about black people. What has been projected onto us is so insane, so pathological, that we don’t know either.

Someone said to me recently, “It’s so sad what your book exposes about what’s been done to black women.” And I said, “No, what it exposes is white pathology. It exposes a failure of white imagination, and the need to fetishize that failure to the point where we’re carving black women into the handle our razor blades.” Why would a person need to hold a black woman’s body in their hand while they shave their face? That’s not a black sadness, to me. That’s a white, pathological, tragic sadness that has really nothing to do with me.

And so to swing back to the narrative question, that to me is a story: in this poem there is a handle of a cistern with a black woman or a handle of a razor with a black woman, and I’m hoping that the reader goes, “Wait a minute. Someone actually carved that? Someone held that? Someone desired to use that? Well who was that someone? And why?” And I don’t need that story to be present on the page—in fact, I think it’s better if it’s not. That’s where I like silence, that’s why I like silence so much.

MS My own sense of the poem was that black subjectivity is not explicit in it, except toward the end as you begin to include titles of artworks by black artists. But what I hear you saying is that white subjectivity is really the subject.

Still, as I was trying to orient myself in this poem, there was a moment of deeper understanding for me, and it was that line in the “Medieval Colonial” section: “Negro man strapped to a ladder, Being.” You put a period after “Being.” You used punctuation and enjambment to create a moment of black subjectivity in that poem where I just had to pause and be with that man.

RL Yeah, in the artwork of the colonial period, there really aren’t any black people just being. In fact, what they’re often being is slaughtered. (laughter) So I wanted to try to retroject back some kind of subjectivity into those images. And so that gesture of being occurs a few times in the colonial catalogue.

Also I think black subjectivity becomes more present in that poem toward the end precisely because I begin to use work by black women artists, and the titles themselves become more subjective. And I think that says a lot about the work of black woman artists and their curators. They become so much less concerned with the white world. And the titles, I think, reflect what was actually happening with the country and the world at the time. From civil rights movements and independence movements onward, you see this incredible saturation of and celebration of black subjectivity and the black interior like never before. It was just such a refreshing place to arrive at in the research after all the atrociousness.

Oh, and I want to tell you one other thing. So, Sharon Olds was my advisor and my professor at the time that I wrote “Voyage”—I wrote it in her workshop. I reread all her work that summer before classes began, and I knew that Sharon was dark enough and crazy enough and brilliant enough to understand what I was trying to do. Especially after I read “The Pope’s Penis” again. I was like, “It’s on. Sharon’s my girl. Sharon is my girl for this moment.” And, so in addition to going to her class every week, I met with her individually, and I remember one time she asked me, as the poem got darker and darker and darker, “Robin, are you okay?” I just started laughing hysterically. And I was like, “I’m fine. This poem is not about me. It’s not about black people. This poem is about your people.” And we laughed, but it’s true.

MS But I could see that as the very reason why it would be incredibly difficult to write this poem.

RL I felt incredibly liberated by it, like: Oh my God, all these years, my whole life, since as long as I could remember, I’ve been walking around with this horrid, disgusting illness in my body that is race, just thinking that something was really intrinsically wrong with me. Add, of course, the Judeo-Christian tradition, and their whole gender thing—I was deeply religious as a child. So that means all my life, from representations of race, and religious representations of women, as a girl, I was like: Okay, then, God says I’m disgusting triply. I was born disgusting. The fact that I have ovaries makes me disgusting. Everything about me makes me disgusting. We tell this to children, we actually expose them to these so-called narratives. For me, that’s not a narrative either! God only knows what is going on in the psyches of our children because of our inability to integrate these so-called master narratives.

MS Which themselves are riddled with holes that don’t advertise themselves as holes.

RL Yes, you’re staring at a hole, and you know it’s a hole, but you’re being told it’s a god.

I remember I saw Cornelius Eady, one of the co-founders of Cave Canem, at a party, and I was working in the ancient period, and he said to me, “What’s going on?” and I said, “I am so fucking angry, Cornelius. I’m working on something that’s making me very fucking angry.” And he goes, “That’s okay, write about the anger.” And I think that ancient catalogue holds together because I just happened to bump into Cornelius and he is both the poet that he is and the teacher that he is. He didn’t even know what I was working on. I never told him. He just knew I was seething. But then at some point, the part of me that’s a ’70s person in a dashiki was like: Yeah, these motherfuckers are crazy (laughter).

MS But there’s also your epigraph to that poem, from Reginald Shepherd: “And never to forget beauty, / however strange or difficult.” The pathology of the narrative that you’re documenting and intervening in is abundantly obvious, so can you talk about where the beauty was for you in the writing of that poem? And can you talk about what Cornelius Eady’s advice has to do with also never forgetting the beauty?

RL First of all, perhaps most importantly, I believe anger is beautiful. I think it’s an exquisite emotion that we need to respect and honor and celebrate more. If someone is angry it’s usually for a damn good reason. Whether they handle it well or it’s justifiable, that’s another story, but anger is as much a song as anything else is, and it’s really important to honor it.

MS But you can’t describe what your anger was responding to in this case as beautiful.

RL Well no, but I’m just saying that it takes, especially women, a long time to embody anger and to claim it as our own without apology because we’re always told to smile and make nice.

But I want to get back to answering your beauty question. So, my dad, born in 1923 in New Orleans, saw a lot of things that no person should ever have to see, like most people born during that time: the Klan, murders, he was drafted for the war when he was still a teenager, he was one of the people to “liberate the Jews” during World War II. Right after he came back, he was forced into labor at Charity Hospital, cleaning the mess pans of white veterans who had shot at him during World War II in so-called friendly fire. He saw a lot.

For my whole life I was constantly at the table with my father, talking, and him telling me his stories. And I used to always say, “Dad, I don’t understand, though, because if all what you say is true, why do you laugh all the time?” And that’s why that poem “Second Line” is in the book. Because this man constantly laughed. He was a very jolly, good fellow, and I never was able to understand that because I romanticize my pain (laughter). And he didn’t make light of his, not by any means—but he constantly just brushed the flies away like, “Oh girl, please.” And I always, and still do, admire that so much, because joy was a weapon for him. He used his joy to fight the demons in himself and in the world.

MS I was struck by the phrase in “Second Line”: “my pencil you sharpened with your switchblade.” That is a powerful image because there is such care and tenderness in your father doing this for you as a little girl going off to school, and yet he’s repurposing this weapon used in deadly fighting.

RL And it’s also a weapon for protection. I don’t know any man or woman when I was growing up that did not have a switchblade in their pocket or pocketbook. And I don’t remember when I had my first switchblade, but I was definitely a child (laughter). Everyone had switchblades because we needed them; we were being hunted by the police. Anything could go wrong. I was listening to a speech that Ta-Nehisi Coates gave in a Baltimore in a church, and he was talking about how what people don’t realize is that black people are afraid. We live our lives often in fear for our physical well-being. And so my father having a switchblade was not only completely normative, but it was smart. And he used it for everything. And my mother had one too, and so did my aunts in their furs and pearls and pocketbooks—speaking of beauty and horror existing simultaneously.

MS As you freely translate the Buddha in “Pleasure and Understanding,” “It’s all a mixed bag. Shit / is complicated. Everything’s fucked up. Everything’s gorgeous.”

Speaking of which, can we talk about karma? Like toward the end of “Sri Bhuvaneshwari.” The speaker is the mama water buffalo who must turn around and acknowledge her dead calf, and she is the dead calf, and the road, and herself.

RL Oh yeah, absolutely. In Sanskrit epic, the ways in which karma is played with, and reincarnation and transmigration is played with, are so fantastic and fabulous that I couldn’t resist—that’s why I studied Sanskrit epic in graduate school. That two lovers could fall in love and then never see each other again, but then meet again eight lifetimes later, and they’re enemies on a battlefield, and just as one is lifting the sword to cut the other’s head off, they remember. Right? That’s fantastic narrative drama that you don’t see in Western epic or scripture because our ideas of the body are so limited, I think. And I really was attracted to that ability to play with life and death.

In “Sri Bhuvaneshwari,” the narrator becomes every being because I think that is what life asks of us, to identify with and feel empathy for and connection with everything, even at those moments that are most challenging.

And then that poem is an homage to the goddess. The whole idea, for me, about the goddess is that you have to see her in every form.

MS And so if you see gods and goddesses in every face, how do you see them in the pathological faces who are the perpetrators of this history that you are—

RL This is a great question and Sanskrit—of course I’m joking—has the answer for it. Do you remember there’s a part in “Sri Bhuvaneshwari” where the narrator’s joking with the driver about why Shiva didn’t believe Parvati, and why did she have to prove that she was pure by jumping into the fire, when he should have just believed her? And then there’s a line that says, but maybe “embodiment is so bewildering, even God grows / wracked with doubt.” That occurs in Sanskrit epic over and over and over again. The gods are constantly forgetting that they are gods. The gods are constantly making a mess and acting out. Rama is one of the classic examples. In The Ramayana, when Sita is abducted by a demon, and Rama, the god, loses his woman, he completely loses it. Mind you, this is the incarnation of Vishnu, the creator of the entire universe. But he loses his shit. And his best friend, Laksmana, takes him by the shoulder and shakes him and says, “Rama, Rama! Stop losing your shit, you’re a god, dude! Come on!” This scene has always stayed with me. Even God forgets that God is God.

And so when I think about the ways in which we act out, and have acted out collectively upon each other, what I tell myself in order not to go mad sometimes, is “That person has forgotten that they’re God.” Hitler forgot he was God. Slave owners forgot they were God.

MS And then in “Summer” you have: “And cursed God—His arrogance, / His gall—to still expect our devotion // after creating love.” Can you talk about that line?

RL (laughter) No.

MS Maybe I’ll just tell you my two different interpretations of it. The first is: when humans learn to really love each other, we become too much competition for God.

RL That’s very Jewish of you, Matthew.

MS (laughter) Yes. I was just at a friend’s daughter’s Bat Mitzvah and the amount of prayer and glory that God requires from us—he just is in constant need of reassurance that we like Him. Good Lord.

RL Yes. God is a jealous motherfucker.

MS My other reading of your line is just that love is so appallingly difficult and painful, why would we still believe in God after suffering through it.

RL Yeah, my point was the latter, although I like your first reading, too. I mean, this is another poem about silence. No one’s talking; there’s nothing to say. And not only is no one talking, but it’s got to the point where the narrator is so silenced by love’s presence and absence, simultaneously, that even the animals have started trying to get the speaker’s attention (laughter).

MS All right, I can’t leave the karma thing alone. In my cartoonish version of karma, the person who forgets he’s a god and does something terrible to another being is required to suffer in the next life. So what happens to the master who spends his life abusing and whipping and raping his slaves? What happens to that being?

RL Are you asking my Afro-futurist filter?

MS Well, sure, why not?

RL I’m joking. I don’t fucking know. That’s partly why I think that disorientation as a mode of representation in literature is so important. I don’t know how to make sense of any of it. There’s a lot of God in my book—but I am, on a good day, an agnostic.

MS Why is that a good day?

RL Until the gods change this love thing for me, they’re going to have to do something else to get me back in the fold, is all I’m saying.

MS Does being an agnostic on a good day mean that on a bad day you’re an atheist?

RL On a bad day I just think that no one knows.

MS But isn’t that agnosticism?

RL Yeah, but—

MS So, you’re an agnostic on a good day and on a bad day?

RL (laughter) Exactly. Agnosticism, I think, means that people know something’s going on, they just don’t know what it is. And they believe in something, they just don’t know what to call it. But my bad day is this: I believe in something and what I’m calling it is “Fuck You!” I do have a very active, rageful, loving relationship with something out there. But it’s not pretty.

My sister is deeply religious and she read “Summer” and was appalled (laughter). She’s like, “You can’t say that,” and I was like, “Yes, I can say that.” If I can’t say that I think God is arrogant to God then who can I say it to? Then we have no relationship.

But I was also thinking, Matt, about “Plantation,” because I know you wrote me about it.

MS Yeah.

RL I’m thinking about it with regard to (laughter) reincarnation. I’m laughing because I think in that poem, people are reincarnating in their own body many, many, many times within one lifetime. I think that’s what I do with my study of karmic doctrine, or the kind of shape shifting that Sanskrit epic offers us. I take it and run. So then one body can become many genders and many ages and be, on the one hand, a paradise, and on the other hand, a total hell, all within one lifetime, or one moment, or one encounter. Talk about karma. It’s like: Wait, I thought you were my love? And suddenly you’re an idiot. Or, I thought you were a really lovely woman, but actually you’re a grabby, ill-mannered, reductive fourteen-year-old boy without any communication skills to your name! Or, wait, I thought we were going to be okay, and that could be fun, you being a fourteen-year-old boy, okay, but now you’ve gone and changed into a three-year-old girl crying on my shoulder. I can’t keep up! I can’t find the terrain! I think the shape-shifting that occurs in “Plantation” is directly one of the ways in which my training as a Sanskritist and theologian finds its way into the postmodern context of desire and race. That identities can move even if the body stays static (which is to say repressed).

MS On rereading “Plantation,” I’m really struck by how you start in medias res, “And then one morning we woke up / embracing on the bare floor of a large cage.” And in the last poem in the book your bird is in mid-flight. I just love that this book begins and ends with ongoingness.

RL Yeah, you know, several people have remarked on the editorial choices about the book in general, but those two poems specifically. And that’s Deb Garrison, my editor at Knopf. At first we were just going to publish the long poem, “Voyage of the Sable Venus,” with the prologue. That was going to be the book. And then Deb asked me to send some poems, just to look at them and see. She read them and she goes, “I have an idea. I want to have ‘Voyage’ and these other poems as well, and she listed all these names in the email. And I wrote her back, “Wait a minute! Are you saying that ‘Voyage of the Sable Venus’ and ‘Plantation’ can be in the same book?” I was so high at the thought of it, and also terrified. I was like, “That’s just sick” in the great way, in the black way, like “That’s sick! That’s badass!” Honestly, I could never have had that thought, editorially. I’m way too indoctrinated. Deb is much more free. 

MS It’s brilliant because I see all those other poems so much in conversation with “Voyage,” and for me they provide context, they provide biographical detail that amplifies “Voyage.” A poem like “Frame” allows me make up my own genesis story about “Voyage,” with its depiction of how in your grade school only four troubling images of black people were offered.

RL I’ve been preoccupied with the visual my whole life. That poem “Frame” is about the kind of racialized hypervisuality I experienced as a child, but also the ways in which we offer certain narratives without any words; we offer them visually to children without any real or healthy mediation. And so I regularly only saw four photographs of black people throughout my education as a child: MLK’s assassinated body. Somebody bending over picking cotton, “a slave.” The lynching photograph, there was always a lynching photograph in our books, etc. And so you’re right, “Frame” is kind of like “Voyage,” because regardless of what the book said, to me there are still those images staring back at the child reading the book. And what I saw was, “There are four things a black person can do in this world.”

And so that’s why “Voyage” was so important for me, once I really gave in to it, to go in as deep and as long as possible to see how long have we been doing this? Cause it’s a horrible feeling to be a seven-year-old Negro child in a class with a white teacher who then tells you to turn to page 242, and there’s a black person hanging from a tree—that is not okay! That is violence. I don’t care what anybody says. We need to learn how to teach our children better. The converse to that—my son just came home recently with a double-page spread in his history book where Condoleezza Rice is being offered not as a war criminal, mind you, or a murderer, but as a “great African American hero.” So now we’ve swung the other way, I imagine. Neither is acceptable.

Matthew Sharpe’s novels include The Sleeping Father, Jamestown, and You Were Wrong. He teaches in the graduate writing program at Columbia University.

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