L.A.’s poet laureate isn’t mincing words: ‘The world’s on fire. We’re just trying to survive.’
“The world’s on fire. We’re just trying to survive.” Robin Coste Lewis, the outgoing poet laureate of Los Angeles, doesn’t mince words with her college students.
“I feel like my job, more than to transfer information, is to try to make all of my students feel extraordinarily safe,”she explained during a call last week.
Lewis may not be able to keep her students safe from the wildfires or safe from COVID-19 or safe from police officers on the street, but she can provide the refuge of art.
“I’m trying to show them that this is in fact what most literature is about,” Lewis said. “Being a comfort to you at hard times. Even if it’s a comedic literature. Even if it’s absurdist literature. Even if it’s something that’s light and fluffy and pastel. All art, hopefully, if it’s good, will give comfort in the most trying of times.”
Lewis joins L.A. Times Book Club readers on Sept. 24 to talk about her work, her journey and this moment of pandemic and protest.
When Mayor Eric Garcetti selected Lewis to succeed Luis J. Rodriguez as poet laureate in 2017, her life had already been turned upside down.
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 the prize was awarded to a debut by a Black poet.
The white fence is new but the tree she planted as a child still stands in front of the wood house, now stucco, pale yellow and cracked, forgotten Christmas lights hanging from its eaves.
Lewis, who was born in Compton, grew up in a part of Gardena where there weren’t any libraries. In her poem “Frame,” she writes about her mother buying books for her with money left over from her father’s job as a janitor.
“my mother ordered books, the kind with immature
titles only the seventies could have produced:
Famous Afro-Americans, which had the same amount
of pages as Dr. Seuss.”
Lewis went on to earn a bachelor of arts degree from Hampshire College; an MTS degree in Sanskrit and comparative religious literature from the Divinity School at Harvard University; an MFA in poetry at New York University; and her doctorate from USC.
“I can’t tell you the great abyss of grace that I fell into,” Lewis said about becoming the city’s poet laureate, “and I’m still swimming around in the honor of it all.”
Her life became more complicated when she was named writer-in-residence at USC. But her many obligations made the time she spent in her role as poet laureate all the sweeter.
“I got to hang out with kids,” she said. “That was extraordinary. Lots and lots and lots of kids.”
Lewis worked with 826LA and Get Lit, organizations dedicated to supporting young writing students and promoting literacy. She also judged poetry prizes for teenagers and came away from the experience impressed with the talent and dynamism of the city’s young poets.
“I wish I could tell you I was trying to flatter these young poets,” she said, “but I’m not. They are on fire!”
On one occasion, Lewis was asked to read after a courageous performance by a student young poet left her in tears. “And then I had to go onstage and read a poem,” Lewis recalled. “And I was like, ‘Why do you want me here!?’”
Lewis had even bigger plans for her tenure that included poetry workshops in nontraditional spaces and in languages other than English. Perhaps too big considering the limited funding for arts in L.A. County’s budget.
“I had dreams, man, really, really beautiful dreams,” Lewis said. “I wanted to do a mapping project of all the amazing poets that lived in L.A., and in the houses that they lived in I wanted plaques!”
In 2020, as her laureateship was winding down, Lewis was looking forward to spending more time with her own works in progress, which include a book set in the Arctic about the Black explorer Matthew Henson — the first man to set foot on the North Pole — as well as a collection of poetic erasures.
But fate had other plans. First, her mother became gravely ill and then the pandemic hit. Lewis knew what she had to do. She moved home to Gardena.
“The place that you fled from is the place you most want to be in the end,” she said of the decision. “It’s the place that is of profound beauty and safety.”
After years of conducting research in art museums around the world, touring the country when her book took off and exploring Los Angeles as poet laureate, Lewis adjusted to staying in one place and being a caregiver for her mother.
“I feel like with every gift that people give, the giver actually gets the gift too. And so I feel like I’m being given a gift right now in giving my mother this time. I’m learning about what does it mean to stay no matter what. And I feel like I’m learning something that’s very beautiful.”
As Lewis’ book makes clear, beauty is not something light and airy but dark and heavy. “It has gravitas,” she explained. She has lost eight friends to COVID-19 and the virus has affected several members of her family, experiences she described as both “extraordinary and overwhelming.”
Lewis had settled into something like a routine, taking care of her mother and working in her vegetable garden, when the powder keg of racial injustice and police force killings exploded, ignited waves of protests across the country that continue to this day.
Though devastated by the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police, Lewis had seen this all before. “I grew up watching men being murdered all the time by the LAPD,” she said. “They would shoot at us from their cars.”
Systemic racism and police abuse, she said, are part of the Black experience, especially in cities like L.A. But cameras and digital technology have made such acts impossible for the rest of America to ignore.
“They chose not to see it,” Lewis said. “And now they’re making a different choice. They’re choosing to see it.”
This disparity between what the people can see with their own eyes and what the police say is happening has fueled what Lewis calls a “great Black reckoning.”
“I am full of hope and bravery and celebration about what the Black Lives Matter movement is doing right now,” she said. “It’s extraordinary. We’re never going back. Never. Not ever.”
Jim Ruland’s new book, “Do What You Want” with Bad Religion, was published in August by Hachette Books.
Book club: If you go
The Los Angeles Times Book Club presents Black Poets in a Time of Unrest, a virtual meet-up that includes National Book Award winner Robin Coste Lewis in conversation with Times reporter Makeda Easter.
Lewis joins a lineup of poet performers, among them Natalie J. Graham, Ashaki M. Jackson, Douglas Kearney, jayy dodd, Amaud Jamaul Johnson, Khadijah Queen and Kima Jones.
When: Sept. 24 at 7 p.m. PT
Where: Free book club event livestreaming on The Times’ Facebook page, YouTube or Twitter. Sign up for a reminder.
More info: latimes.com/bookclub
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