I am utterly delighted that Robin Coste Lewis is a guest on “The Skirball Tapes.”

            In 2015, in a bookstore, I picked up a book, began to leaf through it, and then said to myself, “I must buy this book now.  I must take it home.”  For I was in the magnetic presence of a voice who would deepen my ideas about what a poem could do and be.

            The book was Voyage of the Sable Venus.  The author was Robin Coste Lewis.  She had been born in Compton, California in 1964. From Louisiana, her family had been part of the westward African-American diaspora. She had striking academic credentials—in Sanskrit and religious literature, creative writing, literature and visual studies.  Her poems had structure, allusive depth, and shape.  Yet, they were wildly original, with an emotional range from sweetness to a searing sorrow.

            I talked about Voyage.  I gave it to people.  Yet I was still unprepared for Lewis’ next revelatory book, published in 2022, To The Realization of Perfect Helplessness.  Over twice as long, it had greater heft and magnitude than Voyage.  Most of its pages were a rich black color.  On the left, in white ink, was language, some shards, some stanzas, some paragraphs.  And, on the right, were family photographs that Lewis’ grandmother, Dorothy Mary (nee Coste Thomas) Brooks, a seamstress, had taken over her lifetime and left in a suitcase under a bed for her grand-daughter Robin to find as she was cleaning out and closing the house.  As that grand-daughter was to write,  Brooks had “created and preserved this invaluable archive of Black culture…she also picked up a camera, then framed the world.”

            Both books tell of immense, harrowing journies:  the emergence of human life itself from the stars and sea; the African Diaspora; the seven trips of Matthew Henson, the black explorer, to the Arctic; the poet’s own leaving of her Compton home.  These are historical.  The voyage of the Sable Venus is at once historical and mythic, a demanding research project and a triumphantly imaginative revision of Botticelli’s painting, “The Birth of Venus.”   The Sable Venus compels the poet to join her on a trip that will collect all the titles of the representations of black women from pre-history to today.  These lists, which together have their own poetry and meaning, often reflect viciousness, condescension, or that now familiar brew of misogyny and racial contempt. But  Darkness and Beauty can also be the “same agent.”

            We will have nowhere near the time we need to explore the achievements of this astonishing artist.  However, let her words call out to you.


Robin Coste Lewis is the author Voyage of the Sable Venus, winner of the National Book Award for Poetry and a finalist for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. The book was named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The New York Times, and a best book of the last twenty years by Literary Hub. Lewis is also the coauthor, with Kevin Young, of Robert Rauschenberg: Thirty-Four Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno. The former poet laureate of Los Angeles, she holds a PhD in Poetry and Visual Studies from the University of Southern California, an MFA in poetry from New York University, an MTS in Sanskrit and comparative religious literature from Harvard’s Divinity School, and a BA from Hampshire College. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Paris Review, Transition, and many other journals. Lewis, who has taught at Hampshire College, Hunter College, Wheaton College, and the NYU MFA in Paris, is writer-in-residence at the USC.

Catharine Stimpson is a University Professor at New York University and Dean Emeritus of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. She was the founding editor of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. Her many other publications include a novel, Class Notes; a reprinted selection of essays, Where the Meanings Are: Feminism and Cultural Spaces; and extensive work on Gertrude Stein. In addition, more than 150 of her monographs, essays, stories, and reviews have appeared in Transatlantic Review, The Nation, The New York Times Book Review, Critical Inquiry, boundary 2, and other publications. Her extensive public service includes serving as the Chair of the National Advisory Committee of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and past president of the Association of Graduate Schools. She is former chair of the New York State Humanities Council, the Ms. Magazine Board of Scholars, and the National Council for Research on Women, as well as past president of the Modern Language Association. She serves on the boards of other educational and cultural organizations, and is on the board of Scholars at Risk and New York Live Arts. She has been awarded both Fulbright and Rockefeller Humanities Fellowships, as well as grants from the Ford Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.


NYU Skirball’s presenting programs are made possible with support from the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature; and by Howard Gilman Foundation; FACE Contemporary Theater and FUSED (French U.S. Exchange in Dance), programs of FACE Foundation in partnership with Villa Albertine with support from the Florence Gould Foundation, The Ford Foundation, Institut français (Paris), the French Ministry of Culture, and private donors; General Delegation of the Government of Flanders to the USA; Collins Building Services; Marta Heflin Foundation; Mertz Gilmore Foundation; as well as our valued donors through memberships, commissioning, and Stage Pass Fund support.