by Mike Sonksen
Compton-born Dr. Robin Coste Lewis was just appointed the new Los Angeles Poet Laureate. Winner of the 2015 National Book Award and a Provost’s Fellow in Poetry and Visual Studies at USC, Lewis is an exceptional choice to follow the sterling benchmark set over the last two and half years by Luis Rodriguez. This essay will not only spotlight Lewis and how she is redefining Los Angeles poetry but also several other voices and their books that are working in the same spirit as Lewis to rewrite the narrative of Southern California poetry.
Lewis is a masterful poet and scholar having studied at Harvard, NYU and USC among other institutions. Her award-winning book from 2016, Voyage of the Sable Venus from Alfred A. Knopf publishing is a tour-de-force cataloging depictions of the black body in Western Art. Meditating especially on the depiction of the Black female figure throughout time, her lyric poems “consider the roles desire and race play in the construction of the self.” The title poem is almost 80 pages long and is comprised entirely of titles of artworks from ancient times to the present. Melding historiography, cultural criticism and art history within her poetics, the experimental narrative is groundbreaking and triumphant.
The Real Compton
In addition to the powerhouse title piece, the collection also includes a few autobiographical poems bookending the long poem and one reflects on her childhood in Compton. The poem, “Frame,” recalls the agrarian history of Compton, the former restrictive housing covenants of Southern California and her memories of the people who lived in the farms in the southern section of the city during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The piece begins poignantly: “There’d been a field, a farm, hobos asleep in a chicken coop,/ white people whose dogs chased us every day on our way to the pool.”
The piece also explicates the diversity of African-Americans in California and the close relations of her neighbors in Compton. Lewis writes: “Throughout the whole state, every third person/ was from Lousy Anna: New Orleans,/ Algiers, the West Bank, La Place, Plaquemines,/ Parish, Slidell, Baton/ Rouge. We took pies and cakes to anyone new, but never heard/ a sound from the farms. They never brought us nothing either.” Lewis captures both the hospitality and frigid social conditions that characterized the Compton of her youth. Her own family is from New Orleans and this poem also speaks to the huge Creole influence that still exists across Southern California, especially in Compton, Watts and Willowbrook.
As Lewis breaks down in her poem, the Compton of her childhood was a middleclass Black enclave where there were still a few poor whites living in the undeveloped southern side of the city. Lewis’s poem maps the intersecting lives, the small farms, the constant presence of the LAPD, the bakery from Hawaii, the landing field for the Goodyear blimp, the Victoria Park Golf Course and other landmarks of Compton, Carson and surrounding area she grew up in. This was the landscape before 1980s Gangsta Hip Hop put Compton on the international map with a warped and exaggerated perception of the city’s true spirit. There is still a small rural part of Compton where houses with large lots have horses near Greenleaf Boulevard in the Richland Farms district of the city. Lewis explains in her poem that, “You could live here for years and never/ understand: Were you rural, industrial, or suburban?/ We thought we were home.” As stated above, a few pockets like this still exist in not only Compton but in nearby Willowbrook and though a few people know this, Lewis is the first Los Angeles poet to document this forgotten local history.
Redefining Los Angeles Poetry
Last year Lewis was interviewed in the Los Angeles Review of Books and she spoke thoughtfully about how much she loved growing up in Compton and what it means to her to be a native of Southern California. In the piece titled, “A Door to Robin Coste Lewis’s Los Angeles,” she waxes poetically on her writing influences like Audre Lorde and Sharon Olds, postcolonial literature and her own writing process. Lewis also offers many thoughts on her early years in Compton and what it means to be a Los Angeles poet. She begins by stating what previous notions of a Los Angeles poet were and how she would like to see a more inclusive perspective. In one particularly poignant excerpt she says:
“I don’t know if I understand myself as an LA poet — to me that image has always been represented as white, Venice Beach, a little Beat, folks who came here and invested in the very manufactured stereotype of LA. Much of this work remains disinterested in LA’s history of jubilant and tense migrations from all over the world: so many Asian countries, South and Central America, the Gulf States, just to name a few. So few people who are engaged in the LA literary scene actually participate in the diverse communities who are here…”
“.. I’m interested in redefining what ‘LA poet’ means. And what that means has nothing to do with the representation of Los Angeles in the media. ‘LA Poet’ for me means people like Wanda Coleman, for example, or the Watts Writers Workshop, or Garret Hongo, Juan Felipe Herrera. It means Samoan poetry and Korean poetry, and the politics of la linea. Of course, almost primarily, it means Mexican and Chicano poetry, Salvadoran poetry, Filipino poetry. Do you know what I mean? LA is one of the — THE — most diverse cities in the world. It always has been. It’s a jubilant site of migration. I’m very, very grateful I was born here.”
The multicultural spirit of this sentiment Lewis expresses above is why literary Los Angeles is thrilled with her appointment. She knows that there are hundreds of diverse Angeleno poets telling the city’s story and they have been here and telling their stories for generations now. Lewis’s seminal work promises to continue to elevate not only women of color but the entire diverse milieu that comprises Los Angeles poetry. Mayor Garcetti and the Department of Cultural Affairs have made the perfect choice in Lewis. As her track record shows, she will certainly help further redefine Los Angeles poetry with her forward vision and prescient eye. Read Rest of Article Here