The PEN Ten with Robin Coste Lewis

The PEN Ten is PEN America's weekly interview series. This week, guest editor Nicole Sealey talks to poet Robin Coste Lewis, the author of Voyage of the Sable Venus (Knopf, 2015). A Provost’s Fellow in Poetry and Visual Studies at the University of Southern California, Lewis is also a fellow of the Los Angeles Institute of the Humanities. A finalist for the International War Poetry Prize, the National Rita Dove Prize, and the Discovery Prize, her work has appeared in various journals and anthologies, including The Massachusetts ReviewCallalooThe Harvard Gay & Lesbian ReviewTransition, VIDAPhantom Limb, and Lambda, amongst others. She has taught at Wheaton College, Hunter College, Hampshire College, and the NYU Low-Residency MFA in Paris. Fellowships and awards include the Caldera Foundation, the Ragdale Foundation, the Headlands Center for the Arts, and the Summer Literary Seminars in Kenya. Born in Compton, California, her family is from New Orleans. She received her MFA from NYU in poetry, and an MTS in Sanskrit and comparative religious literature from the Divinity School at Harvard University.

When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?
I can’t remember ever wanting to be anything else but a writer. My parents always indulged my desire for books without reservation or limit. We were by no means wealthy; we were barely middle class. So their insistence on giving me book after book after book was an enormous feat, especially since, for our first few years, our town didn’t have a library. This is not to say we weren’t awash in creativity. Our neighborhood was saturated by brilliant aesthetic expressions of migration. Almost daily there were vivid, sharp, necessary celebrations of what was left—practices and stories the families told were so rich they could shame Homer. It was high art, but it wasn’t written down.

Then, when I was about six, my Aunt Patrice came to visit us in California. Although she was born in New Orleans too, she’d lived in France and New York. Here we were, a gaggle of barefoot children, running around, climbing all over the half-built buildings of then-undeveloped industrial Los Angeles. Farms and freeways. Of course, I found Patrice excessively intriguing. She was nuts for architecture, art, and she also loved books. I didn’t know the words “architectural design.” I knew “that’s a pretty building.” On her visit, she listened intently to me, and asked even more questions—that radical gesture an adult can make toward a child—like, “What’s especially pretty about it?” Her visit was that exceptional yet common “I Was a Negro Nerd and Another Negro Nerd Found Me” story—a story I’m sure all artists have in different form. One day, noticing I always had a book in my arms, Patrice asked what I wanted to be. And then the strangest thing happened. When I answered, “a writer,” she stopped everything suddenly and took me for a walk. Back then, there were parts of Los Angeles—namely, the black parts—where the city still hadn’t found time to pave the sidewalks. Our sidewalks. So Patrice and I walked through the dirt to the store. I remember this very well because I was upset her elegant shoes were getting dusty. When we arrived at the store, about a mile from our new suburban home, Patrice bought me—of all things—some pencils and a blank notebook. I can still smell the day, the sunshine. I still remember the turquoise and white canvas polka dot dress I wore —so ’70s. When we returned home, Patrice sat me down at our kitchen table, opened the notebook, gave me a new pencil, then told me, "Now write this: 'Today, I, Robin Lewis, will write a novel.'" I was six. My blood shimmered rubies.

Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?
Well, I am already a very accomplished thief. I don’t steal narratives, or lines, or concepts—as a rule—but I do study and practice numerous gestures, movements, syntactical play, economies, concerns, and the aesthetic and political courage of many artists, writers included. I’m very compelled by work that grapples with the ideal of home and exile. I’ve learned a great deal from studying South Asian writers whose work engages the Partition, such as Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Bhapsi Sidhwa, Saadat Hasan Manto, just to name a few. Besides the immense contributions their work makes to a specific history, it teaches us all to investigate better and with more nuance the notions of border and home. Home is an ideal I break, crack, cut, and split in half. I think I learned to write about this phenomenon more instinctively by carefully reading South Asian writers from this time. My family is from Louisiana, a colony that changed European hands before it became a state. It took race mixing to a whole other level, and not just recently, but for centuries. So in my own biography, where so many nations and countries were “lost” or contested, post-colonial literature is immeasurably supportive, thematically and aesthetically. It helps me to think about how one can write not one, but several lost countries into history simultaneously. More importantly, it encourages me to think well, I hope, about the human psyche, colonialism, forced migrations, incalculable loss. Other writers whose work helps me with this: Ben Okri, Rohinton Mistry, Baldwin of course, Hansberry, Simone Schwarz-Bart, Patrick Chamoiseau, Eduardo Galeano, Cesaire, Ama Ata Aidoo, Camara Laye, etc. It’s just a long, long list. In short, I ate Heinemann’s catalog every year. These writers helped me to think about the very rich cultural home—Louisiana—that my family left. They helped me to think about bilingualism more sharply, particularly when one of those languages is dying right before your eyes, and there are only a few words left, and rarely spoken in the mouths of your parents. American literature could not help me with that, ironically. I am also very partial to epic, to mythology. Often I find ancient literature more compelling than contemporary. The characters are more flawed, more magical. All of this work helps me to discover a means to offer the same kinds of space—basically air, breath, magic—to my own writing and history in the United States. I guess I needed to find models that were not domestic—or domesticated! Perhaps my unending desire to expatriate has been acted out more via literature than geography. So perhaps that is what I steal: the idea of a broader, larger world.

Other thefts? I’d kill to have Toni Cade Bambara’s ear. She was a genius of the highest order. Her ability to absorb, document, critique her own historical moment, and to do so via the voice, is something I will always envy. She was a heteroglossic mastermind. Her work reminds me to try always to use my own very specific experiences to push English as far out as possible, to transform it into an aesthetic tool. And she knew how to show the soft side of a character without fetishizing catharsis or tenderness. The fact that she often did this mid-sentence, mid-joke, is what really blows my hair back. You can be skipping along with her, eating potato chips, laughing hysterically—Because when you say Gorilla, my love, you’re supposed to mean it—and then the next thing you know there you are completely destabilized, all weapons down, stripped, without cover, nowhere to hide. Danzy Senna is one of those rare authors who shares that ability. Like Bambara, Senna is a cultural critic of the highest order, but never shows her hand. Of course, ZZ Packer, of whom I am a great fan, also has this witchy skill as well. But I don’t know how to bring humor into my work. It’s an incredible skill. I can’t tell if I’m still too young, or just too stupid to engage language with such verve, but I so admire writers like Bambara, Senna, and Packer, who can feed me a burning hell, spoon by spoon, while smiling. I think that’s a more effective gesture. It gets more work done, work that can affect more people. I also admire Rohinton Mistry a great deal. His work is just masterful. I love how he possesses this very traditional genre, and yet you never feel beaten over the head with the idea of the novel. You aren’t even aware of all the architecture at play. I try to do in a sonnet what Mistry does with a novel. Marilyn Nelson, another master I target for theft, is a genius at this. To take a traditional form and write it so well that it disappears is a feat not many can achieve. Of course, Toni Morrison—Morrison, always Morrison—was and will always remain for me the original goddess of language. I am particularly floored by Tar Baby and Jazz. Tar Baby was the first novel of hers I ever read. I was a teenager. I ditched high school and went to her reading at UCLA. Someone asked a question about Tar Baby’s ending, and Morrison responded that she wished to write the kind of books that make you throw them against the wall when you’re finished. That’s a skill I’d like to steal. I could go on and on, obviously. Grace Paley forever. Toi Derricotte, Sharon Olds, Lucille Clifton forever and ever. Their names are all engraved on the garnets of my rosary. Certain queer writers, especially African American gay male poets, like Essex Hemphill, or even older, like Nugent.

With regard to poetry, Rita Dove and Gwendolyn Brooks are always in my head. Dove’s line breaks, for example, are often so brilliant they disgust me. How does she transform something as simple as a line break into an astute philosophical inquiry? Sometimes I read her poems just to watch what she does with the air at the end of a line, how she leaves you there, and then catches you from a different cliff entirely. If my line breaks are ever compelling in any way, it’s from studying intently the work of Rita Dove. Regarding Brooks, I’m mostly wordless. She’s in her own galaxy, a place I try to visit often. I steal the right to be anything from her, which is the grandest theft of all. And her exceptional caesura mastery. Obviously, I’m finding it difficult to choose just one person, just one book. Jamaica Kincaid’s first book, her debut, At the Bottom of the River, still feels like a sacred text to me. Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead, Elizabeth Alexander’s American Sublime, all of these books showed me what might be possible in a collection. But perhaps my favorite of all: Michael Ondaatje’s incredible Handwriting is a collection that opened for me what I knew to be possible, a way to integrate ancient history with empire without sacrificing history. Many of these writers showed me how to tie epic concerns to the contemporary collection, and basically, I’ve been attempting to accomplish that ever since.

Where is your favorite place to write?
Geographically? Any place quiet. For me, the whole fantastic point of writing is that it’s cheap, accessible. Virginia Woolf wrote brilliantly about the economics of a writing practice, so no need to go into that more here (I steal from her too, by the way—such diction, such syntax, such a consistent exploration of the mind), so I try not to be too precious about the actual act of writing, or to put any bourgeois pressure on my creative drive. None of that “I can only work here…” or “I can only write with this kind of pen” or “…only that kind of paper will do.” Why complicate an art whose primary beauty is its mysterious accessibility and commonality? This is not to imply that writing is an easy art. Indeed, I think it is one of the most difficult, perhaps because you have to take something as quotidian as language—sounds, grunts, syllables—and transport the reader momentarily to another place, with just a handful of random symbols. Writing is hard enough without me complicating it by making demands on it occurring in a certain location, under certain conditions. All I need is that invaluable commodity called quiet. However that arrives, I’m deliriously grateful.

Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?
No, I haven’t, but that’s surprising considering my tongue, my temper, and the intense police brutality and harassment so prevalent during my childhood. When I was a child, the police presence in my neighborhood was constant, day and night. Without doubt, we were under siege. Our neighborhood had just two entrances, so it was very easy to trap us inside. And they did, often, blocking the entrances with several squad cars. There was no place to run. Over several years, many people, adults and children, were either murdered by the police, or thrown into jail for defying the police. Little boys were regularly ticketed for doing something as intensely criminal as riding their bicycle on the sidewalk, or crossing the street (in a residential, middle class, suburban neighborhood). The police shot at as us regularly, and laughed about it while shooting. So I don’t quite comprehend why I am not in prison right now, actually. So many people with whom I grew up are either incarcerated, or they are dead. I have a list poem that just states the names of the boys we lost. Indeed, police violence was so prevalent, so normative, and so connected to white supremacy for us that I used to be haunted by KKK nightmares as a child. I always thought they would come into our neighborhood and kill us all while we were sleeping. It wasn’t that farfetched. Then and now, California has one of the largest populations of white supremacy groups in the nation, more than some states in the south. But we didn’t need any research organization to tell us that back then. We were living it. For example, when I was just a child, Tom Metzger, a Grand Wizard in the KKK, ran for office—fully hooded—in San Diego. Democratically, he stomped the campaign trail and paraded before the news cameras dressed in white sheets and a pointy hat. I saw this as a child, and it only confirmed what we saw on our streets: those who were supposed to be protecting us were actually intent upon murdering us.

And so the idea of what is criminal and what is legal is very complicated for me. Why didn’t I ever go to jail? Was it cowardice, indoctrination, or repression that made me bite my tongue and say “Yes, Sir,” my submission telegraphed within my enunciation? I wonder often why am I still alive when so many of us, boys and girls alike, were arrested or eventually killed, without committing any crime, except perhaps the crime of asking Why? or screaming the word Stop! My own indoctrination as a girl, my internalized misogyny, which most often manifests in a social performance of good behavior, seems to me to be the most psychologically criminal thing in which I have participated. And that I have policed my own body, my own psyche, is deeply embarrassing most of all. Those boys and girls who died, died with dignity because they would not submit. I am alive because I did. Who is the criminal?

Perhaps this is why, when it comes to the page, I dare myself to put my body on the line. My writing is where I can be most unlawful, and where I can perform countless crimes, literary and otherwise, without any real retaliation. If I am going to repress myself 24 hours a day, if I am going to smile and speak politely, not lose my temper, say please and thank you, even while being detained in a cage of micro-aggressions (at work, or even within my most intimate relationships), I simply refuse to concede any thing on the page itself. It’s mine. It’s the only thing I have, this tender sliver of a murdered tree. And so I push myself sometimes to do what I want with it, regardless of what anyone thinks, I most of all. This is not to say, however, that I believe in the gratuitous use of shock in literature. I don’t care for that kind of work, just writing something one believes to be scandalous in order to jolt the reader. To me, that’s just lazy. When I speak of writing with a criminal aesthetic, I don’t mean that I write in order to harm, or to cut, or to surprise, or even to retaliate. Revenge isn’t interesting to me. What I mean is that I challenge myself to simply write what is asking to be written, whether I approve of it or not. It’s the very least I can do. Sometimes what wants to come out is embarrassing, is harsh, is hurtful. I try to stand there anyway. But ultimately, I think the most criminal stance I can take is the softest, for it betrays my need to hide, to defend, to perform. By being tender in a poem, I am perpetrating a crime against my own mask, my well-behaved girl. And I hate those moments, those moments when my psyche wants to say something of which I do not approve, but I write it anyway.

Obsessions are influences—what are yours?
Obsession is my obsession. I’m fascinated by it. I’m particularly interested in exploring how we struggle with desire, how that struggle manifests especially with regard to projection and perception. I have never cared for masks. I’ve always been able to see through them, my own uncomfortable hair vest of a face most of all. I have always been keenly interested in the human being once they went home and the pearls came off, the tie untied, in the dark, middle of the night, what then? Who and what are we thinking about? To my mind, those concerns are where I can find more honest subjects. For example, rather than it being a site for shame, I rather like the closet. I like passing. I like what these seemingly private repressions (transgressions?) tell us about the fragility of all categories and performances. Hence, I tend to honor obsessions, however impossible, however ill-advised, in others and in myself, because I feel as if obsessions reduce us all to our least common denominator. Having a haunting crush, what’s more universal than that? Obsession is what makes us human—the mind. This is not to say I believe in entertaining every obsession, necessarily, but I am not foolish enough to ignore them. For example, if there is some hook upon which my mind chooses to twirl and spin for years, I know there is something there I cannot yet see, something inside me trying to find its way out, and an obsession is usually the royal red banner that lets me know it’s time to do some work to aid that along. Being out of control can be immensely informative. But it doesn’t end there, of course. It’s what one does with it. You mustn’t let the horse ride you, as Simone Schwarz-Bart wrote once, you must ride it.

I’m influenced by writing and art that engages a certain kind of vulnerability (obsession) within the context of history. I’m compelled by projects that are, on the one hand, aware of the grander frame in which we all live, while simultaneously rooted very deeply in the specific. Perception, what we think we see, what we cannot see, what we hope to see, what we can’t get over having seen, and what we will never see again—all of those ways desire manifests visually, influences me too. I should say all of this, for me, occurs within the context of post-colonialism, war, violence. It isn’t merely that I’m interested in obsession without history. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. What I’m interested in is the ways in which history shapes and ruptures our obsessions.

What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
It’s a tie between two poems: the first, “Plantation,” is an extended allegory on race, desire, sexuality, and repression. It skates along through a symbolic narrative regarding how challenging it is to actually allow oneself to feel love, or heaven forbid, desire, within the context of internalized racism and homophobia. It explores the tragedy of our quiet emotional violence towards those we most desire, or cherish, but nevertheless abandon due to heteronormative ideals, ideals of respectability, nationalist ideals. It’s a critique of sex as a mask for intimacy, too, I guess, how sometimes it might be safer—if not slothful—to be sexual with someone rather than to actually look at the person or oneself. I also wanted to challenge myself to really write about the effects of historical constructs on intimacy, to do something more poignant than saying simply, the world is bad. I didn’t want to give the reader a lecture. I wanted to touch the reader, to hold the reader, and I wanted the reader to touch me too, to feel this place inside where the world is rotting and festering because of our unimaginative notions of separation, and of the self. With “Plantation” my psyche dared me to say some things in certain ways, and I tried not to let her down.

The second poem, “Lure,” is an exploration of incest and its long-term impact on survivors. That was challenging to write because, again, I wasn’t interested in being shocking, or even cathartic. If all I can do is to get my poem to go “Boo!” that might be thrilling for a second, but it would be cheap, gimmicky. I’m also disinterested in catharsis as a goal. As a tool, sure, but as a goal I remain suspicious. So what if we all cry. Who cares? A poem is not an Oprah episode. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against crying. I hope my work allows the reader to access sensations that have been locked away or ill-considered. But when we make that the sole mark or goal—“I cried...” —we miss out on poetry’s deeper properties, which can take us far beyond emotional release. And so when thinking about how to write about incest, I knew catharsis was not enough. I wanted more. I assumed my reader was more intelligent than me, so then there was no need to over-explain, or to trick my reader with a gimmick, even a gimmick about abuse. Also, I never want my work to be a sly narcissistic invitation that requires the reader to look at me instead of the poem. With “Lure,” it wasn’t merely that I wanted to write about the fact of incest—in fact, I have resisted writing about it for decades. Instead, I wanted to open a door inside the poem, a door where the reader could participate in creating meaning. Most of all, I wanted to learn how to be tender with violence. Needless to say, I was terrified to write about the subject. And then one night I finally felt safe enough I suppose. The poem was just sitting there in my lap saying, Robin, it’s time. I wrote it first of all to see what was there in that closed room, was there anything helpful to offer? Then, after I wrote it, I debated a few years more whether to publish it. I was worried about what others might think, say, do. I feel differently now. I care about the response, but not enough not to write about it. While I was gnawing on these issues (or while these issues gnawed on me), I held on to the work of writers like Toi Derricotte, Lucille Clifton, Sharon Olds, Toni Morrison (it’s a long list I could cite here), without whose work I would never have found my way. I was also thinking about younger readers, people who might not have heard the work of Toi, Lucille, Sharon, etc. I wanted to include at least one poem in my book that did not shy away from real experiences they might have had as well. I wanted to offer younger readers the same affirmation I encountered in the work of those mentioned above. Publishing “Lure,” however difficult, was a way for me to repay a silent debt I owed countless writers for the courage I’d encountered earlier in their work, and which anchored me, and still does.

What is the responsibility of the writer?
To write well! <snort> No, just kidding. Honestly, I have no idea. I’m not the kind of human being that goes in for telling an artist what his or her responsibility should or should not be. Art is such a private endeavor for me. I only share a sliver of what I actually make. And so having someone tell me how and what to write or produce would be like having someone dictate what kind of pajamas I should wear. We simply don’t know each other that well. I understand that’s a bit naïve on my part, but I try to separate art from capital as much as I possibly can, at least while I am creating it. I also do this because I was born in the ’60s, and still have a little aftertaste of some reductive, isolationist thinking, which I’ve internalized. All those propagandistic one must, one should, one does not. It was exhausting. What if I want to write about my grandmother’s roses? Or her greenhouse, what it must’ve been like for her to grow orchids after a life of terror in Louisiana, after surviving the Depression, the Klan, etc., and so many other private and specific wars? I don’t want to breastfeed the nation. What if sometimes I don’t want to save anyone? What if I want to kick you out of our boat and watch you drown, slowly? Am I allowed to write about that? I know I’m not there yet, but I want my work to be both complex and to also have breadth. And how will I ever arrive there if I’m worrying too much about “my responsibility as a writer”? After a lifetime of rigidity, I’m trying to learn how to fail better, how to intentionally disappoint certain notions of uplift and respectability. I don’t understand where anyone could possibly find the audacity to crawl inside my mind and dictate the forms of my own ideas back to me.

Now, once a work is published, however, I become a different animal. Once the work becomes a public performance, for me, it’s fair game. That is, if I produce work that others find offensive, especially if the offense is intentional, I must be prepared for whatever response I receive, with curiosity, grace, generosity, and most of all responsibility. Naguib Mahfouz said once, “I defend freedom of expression, and society’s right to counter it.” I agree with this completely. Personally, the only responsibility I hold up to my own work is that it not be lazy or rushed or cheap. I am deeply suspicious of my desire to create art, so I watch my impulses perhaps too carefully when it comes to publishing. Ultimately, my responsibility is to try and write very compellingly about what I perceive. I have a responsibility to history to get out of the way and try as best I can to document what I see, even if it is internal, because I believe deeply that the internal is one of the richest sites of history. Unfortunately, what I see isn’t anywhere near what I hope to capture. It’s very frustrating, wanting to write at a caliber I am not sure I will ever achieve.

While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?
I’m not certain, first of all, that the ideal of the “public intellectual” was ever truly in fashion, except amongst other intellectuals. The idea itself felt more like some kind of infiltration of the academy by the desire for iconicity, celebrity. Or perhaps it’s the idea of the public that was simplified by that idea? I’ve always stared at that term a little strangely. I do think we’ve witnessed a commodification of the intellectual, and of cultural production. For the most part, I think (hope?) it was mostly done with integrity. Writers and public intellectuals are and are not different animals. We simply work in different genres, genres that grow more fluid every day, thankfully. Do writers have a collective purpose? Again, this is a question of language. This notion of “writers,” plural, disturbs me, I guess. There are thousands of writers in the world with whom I have absolutely nothing in common. Writers and their practices are as diverse as any other population. So I am hesitating to comment because of these vast differences. I happen to be a part of certain writerly circles where our purposes are more aligned politically and aesthetically, but within that alignment there’s an incredible array of differences, differences that I adore. That’s a very rare and cherished experience, one I hope never to lose. But ultimately, I simply hope my work is helpful.

What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?
Well, it depends on the government, I think, yes? But whatever I sent, I would go about it seductively. Art is seduction. So I’d try love and romance and sex, something warming and loving, instead of blaming or politically persuasive. I’d send a guitar, and drinks, and a fire outdoors. And someone very effing lovely to read the book aloud. I’d try to figure out what books stood the greatest chance of removing someone’s armor. So: Neruda’s love poems are insanely effective in that way. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God changes you each and every time you read it. Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance also leaves you with a new skin. Anything with that kind of redemptive power. I just read a remarkable children’s book with my son, Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, and it opened me in a way no adult novel ever could. So children’s literature, perhaps, something to appeal to our first selves, The Mahabharata, say. And if this hypothetical leader is an intellectual, Ondaatje’s Handwriting again. And perhaps Edward DeGrazia’s brilliant tome about literary censorship, Girls Lean Back Everywhere, which is such a necessary book about why societies need delicious and complex narratives.

Where is the line between observation and surveillance?
By the state? I think observation is a sentimental synonym for surveillance. By a writer? Observation is an art; surveillance a commodity.


Poets Robin Coste Lewis, Jericho Brown, and TJ Jarrett will read from their recent collections at The New School’s Wollman Hall on November 4, 2015, at 6:30pm. Visit Cave Canem's full calendar here.

Nicole Sealey is the Programs Director at Cave Canem Foundation and the author of The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named, winner of the 2015 Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry Prize, forthcoming from Northwestern University Press. Her honors include an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant, the Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize from The American Poetry Review, a Daniel Varoujan Award and the Poetry International Prize. Her work has appeared in Best New PoetsCopper NickelPloughsharesThird Coast, and elsewhere. Nicole holds an MLA in Africana Studies from the University of South Florida and an MFA in creative writing from New York University. Nicole will be interviewing a distinguished and diverse group of Cave Canem fellows and friends for The PEN Ten. Visit her at nicolesealey.com


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