Robin Coste Lewis on Giving the Reader a Poetic Experience
The Poet on Her New Collection To the Perfect Realization of Helplessness
Lit Hub is excited to feature a new series from Poets.org: “enjambments,” a monthly interview series with new and established poets. This month, they spoke to Robin Coste Lewis, the author of To the Perfect Realization of Helplessness (Alfred A. Knopf, 2022) and Voyage of the Sable Venus (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), winner of the National Book Award in Poetry. The recipient of a 2019 Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowship and a 2019 Guggenheim Fellowship, she served as the 2019–2022 poet laureate of Los Angeles. Coste Lewis currently lives in New York City.
Poets.org: This multi-layered, archival project entwines ancestry and lineage, memory, mourning, migration, and public and personal history. The photographs play an integral role in the storytelling, designating readers witnesses, or outsiders, peering into a curtained home. How do the stories, stories silently passed on for generations within our bodies as both ancestral memory and trauma, change when shared publicly?
RCL: Well, my point of entry isn’t narrative at all. I actually think the emphasis we place on “narrative” is, at times, oppressive. I’m not interested in telling my reader “a story.” I’m interested in giving my reader an experience. That’s the distinction between poetry and prose. Poems can and do tell stories sometimes, I know. Thankfully. I, too, write poems like that sometimes. But I am much more interested in the ways in which a poem can be a two-word experience that disarms the reader, that takes the reader back toward a place they have forgotten, or plunges the reader forward into a wordless dream they never imagined possible.
So, if there is any “story” present in this new collection, it is that I am intentionally attempting to unravel the historical manufacturing of Time—not only colonial, but Judeo-Christian as well. Our calendar, the Gregorian calendar, was introduced in 1582, and by a pope at that. For example, in the Gregorian Calendar, it’s November 19 today, 2022. On the Julian Calendar, it’s October 28. On the Hebrew Calendar, today is the sixteenth of Heshvan, in the year 5783. We never even wonder what date it is on Black calendars—or Brown calendars. And ultimately, each and every calendar, regardless of its source, is fabricated. Someone made it up. Men, usually, imagining they know the Goddess’s thoughts.
In more ancient, Indigenous calendars, however, we’re fourteen thousand years through a twenty-eight thousand year cycle, which is itself, the last cycle, the very end, of a much older, much vaster calendar comprising ages upon ages, which went on for hundreds of thousands of years. Imagine. Just sit for a minute and imagine.
So instead of a “narrative” (which is sometimes a way of pretending that time can be domesticated or imprisoned), the poems or words I have chosen for each image never intentionally engage directly with any historical or private narrative of the person sitting for the photograph—because the writing itself rejects the ridiculous American idea that citizens of the Black diaspora have no significant historical existence beyond the past four centuries. The words I’ve placed with each image attempt to kill history as we know it, to say, until we understand that these bodies contain legacies that are tens of thousands of years old, we know nothing.
Poets.org: At what point in the process did you arrive at To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness as the title for this book?
RCL: The title is a direct quote from African American Arctic explorer, Matthew Henson. In his retelling of his final Arctic expedition, he constantly—by necessity—ponders his mortality because death occurred constantly all around him. Like so many of us, over these past few years, he lost many, many beloved friends. So, in this instance, Henson is speaking about a colleague on his final expedition. The colleague (who was also a friend) had just been struck dead in the center of his chest by a giant boulder during a storm. And these are just a few of the remarkable observations Henson uses to describe that experience.
Matthew Henson is a great muse for me. His biography and his writing inspire and ground me existentially. His expedition notes read allegorically like a diasporic hymn. Additionally, I very much appreciate any expression that reminds us that our time is limited. I like the fire that starts in our minds. Hannah Arendt says, about her own work, “This book has been written against a background of both reckless optimism and reckless despair. It holds that Progress and Doom are two sides of the same medal; that both are articles of superstition, not of faith.” I kept this quote on my desk over the last two years to remind me not to fall into any easy intellectual or aesthetic habits, in any direction. It’s too easy to say everything will be alright. It won’t be alright at all unless we contribute, each of us, with generosity, to our collective future.
The same is true on the other end: our world is not over; it is still very much alive, and it can heal and will, especially if we turn our efforts without distraction toward saving ourselves. It really is that simple. We must shed our defenses, the ways our confidence is really a mask for our insecurities. We must all admit together where we are in time. Which is to say, rather than finding the title to be grim, I actually think it’s an expression of profound tenderness, or vulnerability—a posture I believe we need to adopt constantly, if our species is to survive.It’s too easy to say everything will be alright. It won’t be alright at all unless we contribute, each of us, with generosity, to our collective future.
Were there moments when I doubted myself? Sure. Constantly. Do you know those moments, when you begin to try to be that good girl they told you you had to be. “Don’t make waves.” “Cross your legs.” “Never speak your mind.” But whenever that happens, I know my psyche is challenging me just to be honest. And honesty, for me, was not only admitting, but exalting the fact that our lives—Life!—is an infinite mystery. And as such, Black bodies should be afforded the same exalted mystery.
Poets.org: The interplay of words and photographs in To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness is almost like that of narration and documentary, echoing films such as Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983) in its playful, lyric exchange between language and image. What is the nature of the relationship between text and photography in the book, and how does poetry emerge from it?
RCL: Well, I’m deeply moved by this observation—and honored to be mentioned in the same sentence as Chris Marker, speaking of muses. I admire his work greatly. So, traditionally, whenever there is an image on a page, if text is included, it has often been used as a caption, which illustrates or explains the image. We’ve been so indoctrinated by this practice of cataloging, indexing, etc.—more sly colonialisms—that we rarely slow down enough to consider the work that either the text or the image is doing. Look, I am from the camp that doesn’t believe human beings are so easily known or understood. I revel in our mystery. I think it takes lifetimes to get to know a person.
And so, were I to have written, “In this photograph, my grandmother stands on the porch of her childhood home, where she was born in New Orleans in 1908,” viewers could have easily projected their own ideas onto the image and words about my grandmother, as if they could ever understand what those words mean historically—as if we could ever understand what it meant to walk in her shoes. People assume she spoke English, for example, because, of course that’s what being “African American” means now. But if any diaspora contains multitudes, it’s the African Diaspora. We assume so many ridiculous, boring, limited things about each other. It’s tragic.
Add to these ideas the fact that once you say “poet,” “poetry,” “grandmother” or “grandmother’s photographs,” the whole world lapses into sentimentalism and the domestic, assuming what follows is a biographical narrative about a little old lady and her needles. In other words, patriarchy. Women have to fight every hour to be taken seriously, rigorously. Whereas, I’d venture to say that to be a Black woman born in 1908 and to survive requires a kind of tenacity and ingenuity most human beings know nothing about.
I knew my grandmother well. I was loved deeply by her. Tremendously. But even I can’t begin to say what life felt like for her, a woman born under Jim Crow in one of the most terrorized states in the nation. So, I wanted the text to interrupt all the readers’ expectations that they would be told anything at all besides, “Look more closely. Look. Look more closely still. Isn’t life a mystery? Feel it. Feel this deeply. We don’t know. We can’t know. And that impossibility, too, of you and me sitting here together, writer and reader, is what is most lovely.”
My hope is that by withholding that biographical information, the reader would instead begin to experience the existential mystery of all our lives. Of course, by implication, the reader should also do the math and understand that if life is a mystery for them, it was certainly a mercurial, exalted mystery for the people in these photographs who, nevertheless, survived a reign of profound state of terror.
Poets.org: In the acknowledgements at the end of the book, you thank your siblings and cousins, noting, “for us, those two words are interchangeable.” That quote resonates with the sense, conveyed throughout the book, that relations and relationships are mutable: Strangers become lovers; even parents can become strangers. Home is left and found. What did you hope to communicate about how we as people relate to one another? What did you discover about relationships while writing this book?
RCL: I believe the greatest tragedies, the greatest triumphs, the greatest intimacies and violations of intimacy—the private ways we save and betray and save each other, again, are expressions of history. Patriarchy, xenophobia, racism, alterity—are we ever without them? I think these systems are insidious. [Frantz] Fanon spoke about this decades ago. Our minds are the territory war attempts to defeat first. So many of us, myself included, still suffer from the effects of what Fela Kuti and others called, “colonial mentality.” You don’t have to go looking very far for history. It’s lying in our bed; pressing its lips to our lips; or it’s in the kitchen making us tea. We hate women in this culture. We hate mothers. We hate strong women. Predictably, then, we hate tender men, too. We hate dark things. We hate dark people. We fear the night. We fear each other. It’s too easy to think it’s way over there, somewhere else, this horror. No. The horror is within each of us.
And so, for me, my cousins and siblings, my aunts and uncles, my parents and grandparents, all of them, taught me that love is not a plaything. Love is iron. Love is fire. Love is a constant battle, a battle at which we must be adept. We were an exceptionally close clan, my family. Growing up, we rarely socialized with anyone other than each other. It helped that we had a very large family, all of whom migrated from Louisiana to Los Angeles. Other people, if they loved us, knew that the only option was to join our clan, and not the other way around. Being loved so deeply and Blackly, taught me how to stand near and to remain standing for each other, forever. The older I become, the more I realize what an invaluable gift that is.
Poets.org: What are you currently reading?
RCL: I’m actually reading a lot of [Constantine] Cavafy’s poems right now because I’m working on a project with the brilliant composer Paola Prestini, cellist Jeff Zeigler, artist Julie Mehretu, and pianist Vijay Iyer for a Cavafy Festival, sponsored by the Onassis Foundation, and forthcoming in New York City next year. I’m also reading my usual geeky things: early human evolution, the history of the cell, philosophy, and theories regarding abstract art. And most immediately at my bedside right now is this book that integrates several of my obsessions at once: Climate Change and the Art of Devotion: Geoaesthetics in the Land of Krishna, 1550–1880, by Sugata Ray.
“enjambments”, a monthly interview series produced by the Academy of American Poets, will highlight an emerging or established poet who has recently published a poetry collection. Each interview, along with poems from the poet’s new book, and a reading by the poet, will be published on Poets.org and shared in the Academy’s weekly newsletter.