This Compton Native Is L.A.'s New Poet Laureate
On Thursday, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that Robin Coste Lewis has been named as the city's newest poet laureate. Lewis, who was born and raised in Compton, studied Sanskrit at Harvard Divinity School, and serves as a writer-in-residence at USC. She published her wildly acclaimed debut poetry collection Voyage of the Sable Venus at age 51. The book, a meditation on the black female figure through time, was later awarded the 2015 National Book Award for poetry—the first time the award had gone to a debut collection in more than four decades.
“Lewis’s poetry is both tender and arresting. She is an astute cultural critic, alert to the complexities of race and the black female voice,” said City Librarian John F. Szabo. Lewis replaces outgoing Poet Laureate Luis J. Rodriguez (Rodriguez succeeded Eloise Klein Healy, the city's first poet laureate, who was appointed to the post in 2012). She will serve a two-year term.“The role of the L.A. Poet Laureate is two-fold: first, to celebrate and curate an ever-widening cross-city appreciation for poetry of all kinds, from all cultures and nations; second, to celebrate the rich and diverse history of Los Angeles poetry,” Lewis said in a statement.
Lewis is known as a deeply political (and lyrical) poet whose poems "stare unflinchingly at evidence of some of America’s most shameful sins," according to the L.A. Times. Her National Book Award win was "all the more significant because it points to a sea change in American poetry, and the formation of new values both on and off the page," according to poet and critic Jay Deshpande.
Poetry was a salvation for Lewis after she suffered a traumatic brain injury 15 years ago that left the English professor grasping for language. "[F]or me, an English teacher, the most challenging part of brain damage was this: Language literally made me sick. Talking made my face go numb. Writing made me dizzy. Reading made the room spin. Paragraphs drifted off the page," Lewis wrote in O last year. In an attempt to limit the stress on her brain following the accident, her doctors forbade her from reading or writing, which for Lewis was like being asked "not to breathe." Eventually, the doctors gave in, and told her she could read and write one line per day.
"One line," she recalled. "How much life could I pull out of or put into one puny line? If I could read and write only a single line, I decided, it would have to be the best line I could come up with, the finest I could find, which is how I found my way to poetry."
"Poetry saved me," Lewis writes, explaining how it allowed her to regain her grasp of language.
USC professor and acclaimed author David Ulin applauded Lewis' appointment. "It gives me faith that the city is at least doing one thing right," Ulin told LAist. "Her poems are operating in many different territories at the same time and I admire that."
The mammoth title poem in Lewis' collection, which Ulin describes as "an incredible collage act," is 79 pages long. It is, as Lewis writes in the book's 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.” Ulin marveled at "the research skills, the curatorial skills, the creative skills, and the vision sense" needed to piece the poem together, comparing it to Jonathan Lethem's seminal essay The Ecstasy of Influence.
"It's poem of found phrasings and found titles and found documents that actually connects and makes sense—but is also like a sledgehammer, in terms of what it does to you emotionally," he said. "I look at that and I'm like, 'I have no idea how you even began to think about doing this.'"
Ulin, who has edited a number of anthologies of Los Angeles literature, said that Lewis draws on "personal and collective history" in her work. "I was drawn to her as a writer partly because she was using the personal to get at a broader social notion, but it was also local to the city I know and to issues of city history," Ulin said.
"I don’t know if I understand myself as an LA poet — to me that image has always been represented as white, Venice Beach, a little Beat, folks who came here and invested in the very manufactured stereotype of LA," Lewis told the Los Angeles Review of Books last year. "Much of this work remains disinterested in LA’s history of jubilant and tense migrations from all over the world: so many Asian countries, South and Central America, the Gulf States, just to name a few. "
"But I do understand and celebrate myself as an LA native," she continued. "Or perhaps I’m interested in redefining what 'LA Poet' means. And what that means has nothing to do with the representation of Los Angeles in the media. 'LA Poet' for me means people like Wanda Coleman, for example, or the Watts Writers Workshop, or Garret Hongo, Juan Felipe Herrera. It means Samoan poetry and Korean poetry, and the politics of la linea. Of course, almost primarily, it means Mexican and Chicano poetry, Salvadoran poetry, Filipino poetry. Do you know what I mean?"