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Book Club: Join Robin Coste Lewis and other Black poets in an ‘extraordinary’ time

Robin Coste Lewis and her poetry collection, "Voyage of the Sable Venus."
(Knopf)

Good morning, and welcome to the L.A. Times Book Club newsletter.

L.A. poet laureate Robin Coste Lewis doesn’t mince words with her college students: “The world’s on fire. We’re just trying to survive.”

But she offers them a refuge: art. “I feel like my job, more than to transfer information, is to try to make all of my students feel extraordinarily safe,” she says in a recent interview.

Lewis is USC’s writer in residence. Her poetry collection, “The Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems,” won the National Book Award for Poetry in 2015 — the first time in the National Book Foundation’s history that a debut by a Black poet had been awarded the prestigious prize.

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Born in Compton, Lewis grew up in a part of Gardena that had no libraries, so her family had to scrimp to buy her the books. She went on to study at Hampshire College, Harvard University and New York University before earning her doctorate from USC.

“Lewis is a poet who won’t let you look away,” Jeffrey Fleishman wrote in 2017 after she became the city’s poet laureate. “Her verse reaches through racism and history; the best of it startles and amazes with vivid, sly and subtle turns of phrase that conjure demons still not extinguished.”

On Thursday, Lewis will join our book club’s first poetry meetup for a conversation with arts reporter Makeda Easter about her work and this moment.

“I am full of hope and bravery and celebration about what the Black Lives Matter movement is doing right now,” she says. “It’s extraordinary. We’re never going back. Never. Not ever.”

Amaud Johnson, Ashaki M. Jackson, Robin Coste Lewis
TOP ROW FROM LEFT: Amaud Johnson, Ashaki M. Jackson, Robin Coste Lewis, Khadijah Queen, jayy dodd, Natalie J. Graham, Kima Jones, Douglas Kearney.
(Victoria Smith/Jason Gutierrez/K. Miroire/Michael Teak/jayy dodd/Maya Washington/Kima Jones/Bao Phi)

The meetup

On Sept. 24, Lewis also will read her poetry as she joins a lineup of poet performers sharing their experiences in verse with Times readers.

The free virtual meetup, Black Poets in a Time of Unrest, starts at 7 p.m. and will be livestreamed on the L.A. Times Facebook page, YouTube and Twitter. Sign up for for a reminder.

Book club readers also will meet and hear from these poets:

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Natalie J. Graham is the author of “Begin with a Failed Body,” her debut poetry collection, and chair of the African American Studies Department at Cal State Fullerton.

Ashaki M. Jackson is the author of “Language Lesson.” She works as a social psychologist and program evaluator in Los Angeles.

Douglas Kearney is the author of six books, and his next, “Sho,” will be published next year. He grew up in Pasadena and now teaches creative writing at the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities.

jayy dodd is the author of “Mannish Tongues” and “The Black Condition ft. Narcissus.” Her film and performance work has been shown across the country in classrooms and museums.

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Amaud Jamaul Johnson is the author of three poetry collections, “Red Summer,” “Darktown Follies” and “Imperial Liquor.” Born and raised in Compton, he directs the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Khadijah Queen is the author of six books, including “I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On.” Her latest book, “Anodyne,” was published in August.

Kima Jones is a Los Angeles poet and essayist who founded Jack Jones Literary Arts. She is co-host of the event with the L.A. Times Book Club.

What would you like to ask the poets? Send your questions in advance of Sept. 24 to bookclub@latimes.com.

Keep reading

A new accolade for “The Vanishing Half”: August book club author Brit Bennett’s novel made the National Book Awards fiction longlist announced Friday. The fiction list concludes a week during which the National Book Foundation also announced nominees for translation, poetry, young people’s literature and nonfiction. If you missed our evening with Bennett and Times writer Carla Hall, you can still watch it here.

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From book to TV: The Los Angeles Public Library has compiled a literary guide to the 2020 Emmy Awards, noting the nominated shows that were adapted from books. Go deeper inside the (virtual, at-home, pandemic-era) Emmys with The Times’ guide to Sunday night’s show.

More prize news: Southern California novelist and USC professor Viet Thanh Nguyen has become the first Asian American member of the Pulitzer Board. He won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for “The Sympathizer.”

“A Promised Land”: Barack Obama’s new memoir will arrive right after the presidential election.

The Chicano Moratorium’s legacy: The Times project on the 1970 Chicano Moratorium, which played a pivotal role in the fight for civil rights in Los Angeles, is now available as a zine. There are posters too. And you can still watch the community forum with editor Steve Padilla and writers Carolina A. Miranda, Daniel Hernandez and Robert J. Lopez.

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An indie bookstores update: Dorany Pineda checked back on Diesel, Vroman’s and other local bookstores struggling through the pandemic, and the report is grim. “We hate, hate, hate the idea” of asking for donations, says Diesel co-owner John Evans, “so we resisted doing it, up until two weeks ago.”


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