Robin Coste Lewis won the National Book Award for poetry in 2015 for her first collection, “Voyage of the Sable Venus.” The Southern California native earned an MFA from New York University and a master’s from Harvard University’s Divinity School and a PhD in poetry and visual studies from the University of Southern California, where she is now a writer-in-residence.
BOOKS: What was your reading like as a child growing up in Compton?
LEWIS: I don’t know how they did it on the money they had, but my parents would let me order any books I wanted. I read one a day for years. It was the ’60s and ’70s, and there were all these things happening in publishing because of the civil rights movement. Suddenly there were the beginnings of children’s and young-adult books that were diverse. I remember reading Margaret Walker’s “For My People” and being astounded by this whole African-American literary tradition that I had known nothing about.
BOOKS: Do you remember the first African-American author you read?
LEWIS: Toni Morrison, “Tar Baby.” I read it under my bed with a flashlight nonstop until midnight. I think it’s one of her best, but it’s also where she really breaks out. The book is a real mediation of how far she can push the novel. I found out about the book because a friend told me she was coming to town. And I asked, “Who’s he?,” and I was in AP English.
BOOKS: When did you start reading poetry?
LEWIS: When I was a child my parents got me an anthology of great African-American poetry. I read them and thought I didn’t know you could do that with English, meaning I didn’t know you could adore blackness in English.
BOOKS: What are you reading now?
LEWIS: “So Much Synth” by the poet Brenda Shaughnessy. She’s good at taking banal situations and turning them up very high until you are aghast at how important every moment of your life can be. I’m also reading “Facing Unpleasant Facts,” George Orwell’s collection of essays. I’ve been reading Janet Vaillant’s “Black, French and African,” a biography of Léopold Senghor, the brilliant African nationalist, writer, and politician. I don’t think you can look at American history without looking at French history. So I read writing from places that were colonized by the French where black people live.
BOOKS: Do you have any rhyme or reason as to when you pick up which book?
LEWIS: Usually I do, but this summer I’m trying not to. I want to shake my head up completely and forget there is a right way to read. I want to be totally lost so I can regain that freshness of literature. It’s very easy for one’s eyes to go dull, and I’m trying to figure out ways to help my eyes be fresh.
BOOKS: As someone who has studied epics, what’s the one you recommend reading?
LEWIS: The “Mahabharata” is number one on my list. It’s the longest poem in the world. If you read it in Sanskrit, it would take a lifetime. It’s like 30 volumes. It’s no joke.
BOOKS: Did the brain damage you sustained from a bad fall through the floor of a restaurant change reading for you?
‘I read one a day for years.’
LEWIS: I have different kind of tools to make it possible for me to read longer. I have a piece of cardboard my occupational therapist has given me so I read only one line at a time. Otherwise, when I stare at a page it makes me dizzy.
BOOKS: What could you read at first after your accident?
LEWIS: I was reading Hannah Arendt’s letters to Mary McCarthy. The words would float over the page. So I started trying to read poetry. It was purely a neurological decision. I remember reading Kevin Young, but I don’t remember which book. I remember reading Elizabeth Alexander’s “American Sublime.” To be an intellectual and be told you’ll never be able to read and write again was devastating. Poetry was a window into the fact that I might be able to work again.
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