Archive for May 4th, 2018

Language, memory, and the poems of Robin Coste Lewis

Friday, May 4th, 2018

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)