Posts Tagged ‘Robin Coste Lewis’

Language, memory, and the poems of Robin Coste Lewis

Friday, May 4th, 2018
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She came to the Sierra festival thanks to an unusual invitation. (Photo: Radu Sava)

At the Dodge Poetry Festival two years ago, Los Angeles poet laureate and National Book Award winner Robin Coste Lewis was one of the honored guests. She sat at a table to perform the inevitable ritual of signing books for her many fans.

But one of the people in the queue was much more than a fan: she was the mother of Jeanne-Marie Crowe, the midwife who had delivered Lewis’s son. “It felt like meeting the grandmother of an angel,” she said. A visitation, she said, because “doors opened in so many directions in my heart and mind.”

Judy Crowe was also a member of Nevada County Arts Council’s Literary Arts Committee, and so she invited Robin Coste Lewis to be the keynote speaker at this year’s Sierra Poetry Festival, which took place last weekend. “I’m southern,” said Lewis. “There’s nothing you can say to your midwife’s mother other than, ‘Yes ma’am.’”

Memory is “a tricky thing” for the African diaspora. (Photo: Radu Sava)

Lewis has a masters degree in Sanskrit and comparative religious literature from Harvard University’s divinity school, and PhD from the creative writing and literature program at the University of Southern California. She used to be ancient language professor. She now teaches at a low residency MFA program in Paris, which sounds like heaven to me. When she won the National Book Award for her 2015 collection, Voyage of the Sable Venus, however, her life changed.

“One of the things I’ve learned on tour for a year-and-a-half straight,” she said. “I became a public servant, using poetry to do that.”

She was welcomed by Shelly Covert, spokesperson for the Nisenan and Executive Director, California Heritage Indigenous Research Project, and also a singer, a songwriter, musician, and storyteller.  The Nisenan are part of the southern Maidu tribe that had been native to the Nevada County region.

The gesture was particularly moving for Lewis who, as poet laureate, has launched a truth and reconciliation effort for Los Angeles. “It occurred to me that I have been waiting for centuries for our country to have Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Native Americans,” she said. “I’m hoping to create model for other communities.”

She applauds the movement to “reclaim the language and culture that had been wiped away,” she said. “It’s a dream come true.”

She opened her reading with another “indigenous language” – an entrancing, babbling poem called “Dog Talk.” (You can read it here, if you scroll down a bit.)  “All the kids in the neighborhood spoke this language, to the chagrin of our parents. It’s a statement of gall and tenacity of children to live anyway – and retain cultural agency.”

“What we’re starting to learn is that children are the arbiters of cultures almost as much as adults” – as revealed in architecture, sculpture, and the games children carved into stone at foot of temple stairs.

She also read a “riddle poem” recalling her parents “reading the newspaper in bed when I was tiny,” while she was cuddled between them until she was sent to her own bed. She remembers her father’s riddles and jokes, and her poem, “Red All Over,” recalls his frequent repetition of the old saw, “What’s black and white and red all over?” The answer to the ancient joke is, of course, the newspaper…or is it?

This was the ’60s, and the deaths of black people was very much in the news. “What he was talking about was blood and segregation,” she later realized. “The laughter was more sinister.”  The poem is here.

But always her conversation returned to language and memory, the latter “a tricky thing” for the African diaspora, she said. But sometimes the two come together. She noted the vegetable okra, popular in the American south is called “gumba” in Senegal – almost identical to “gumbo,” the famous stew of the U.S. South in which okra is a crucial ingredient. “So some things remain.”

“Judy, are you happy?” she called out. I suspect that Judy was.

“I became a public servant, using poetry to do that.” (Photo: Radu Sava)

The second Sierra Poetry Festival this weekend – with Robin Coste Lewis, David Kipen, and me

Tuesday, April 24th, 2018
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Angeleno David Kipen will be in the Sierra foothills for an onstage convo this weekend.

Another gig this weekend. I’m heading to the hills to be (I’m told) a “celebrity presenter” at the 2018 Sierra Poetry Festival on Saturday, April 28, which will be held at Sierra College in Grass Valley. Ever so tiny a celebrity, I should think – a National Book Award winner Robin Coste Lewis, is the keynote speaker, after all. And as always, Executive Director of Nevada County Arts Council Eliza Tudor is the magnificent organizer and visionary behind the event. You can hear her discuss the event (with poet Marcelo Hernandez Castillo) over here.

I wrote about the Sierra festival in its inaugural year, 2017, when California poet laureate Dana Gioia was the keynote speaker. He gave a terrific talk – read about it here.

Last year’s poetry festival, with Dana Gioia and Moi (Photo: Mary Gioia)

Said Eliza of this year’s program: “We chose our theme, Ordinary Light, as a nod to our brand new United States Poet Laureate, Tracy K. Smith, for the title of her award-winning memoir.” We’ve written about the poet, a Stanford alum, here.

I spent about a dozen years in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, “Gold Country.” The twin cities – Grass Valley and Nevada City – are the best and largest souvenirs of the Gold Rush period in California history, and have a growing tourist industry. (Both cities are now under state designation with the California Cultural District program.)

That’s one enticement. Then there’s the company. Consider this an invitation to come and join me. It’s an all-day one-day event. I’ll be having an onstage conversation with David Kipen at 3:30 p.m.

David, born and raised in Los Angeles, is the former literature director of the National Endowment for the Arts, during the time it was under the chairmanship of a fellow Angeleno … Dana Gioia. Since then, David opened the Boyle Heights bookstore and lending library Libros Schmibros in 2010.

He is also the former book editor/critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, which is where I encountered him in the late 1990s. I was a critic at that time for the august San Francisco institution.

However, he was for the most part telecommuting from Los Angeles. So we only had one brief encounter, years later, at an event for the National Book Critics Circle we both attended. He moved through the room like the sun, and his conversation is engaging and lively.

The conversation will be moderated by author Kim Culbertson, who will try to rein in David and me. Our topic: “What does it mean to be a literary citizen?”

She’s back: U.K.’s Mel Pryor (Photo: Radu Sava)

I don’t think the type on the poster is quite readable when reduced to blog size (bel0w), but you can go and see the full line-up and more legibly here. You can also register for the event online here.

The highpoint: Keynote Speaker Los Angeles Poet Laureate Robin Coste Lewis will speak at 9:30 a.m.

From The Guardian:

At age six, Robin Coste Lewis told her aunt that she wanted to be a writer. This, she thought, meant being a novelist.

“I thought that if one wanted to be a writer, one had to write novels because I didn’t know that one could be a poet,” says Lewis, whose debut collection Voyage of the Sable Venus won this year’s National Book Award for poetry. She believed this in middle school, high school, college, graduate school, and afterward while teaching, and trying to write fiction. She believed it when she published She Has Eight Arms But Only Shows Me Two in the Massachusetts Review, a work that she thought was a short story, “even though all my poet friends at the time were like, ‘Girl, that’s a prose poem.’”

To the marrow … National Book Award winner Lewis

Things changed after she was in an accident that caused permanent brain damage and kept her in bed for two years.

The recovery was difficult. Lewis had to do speech-language therapy and stop reading and writing. “My neurologist told me, ‘You can only write one sentence and read one sentence a day,’” she says. “I decided, ‘OK, if it’s one line a day, it’s going to be a goddamned good line.’” …

“I am an artist through to my marrow,” she says, though adding, “which might be a curse and not necessarily a good thing.”

And poet Mel Pryor will be flying in from England – as she did last year – to attend. Closer to home is Nevada City poet Molly Fisk.  But read the schedule here, and the list of presenters here. Tickets are here.

See you there.