“Like a photograph, a poem or story erases what is outside of its frame—but here’s the curious part, also like a photograph, it captures the unintended, and sometimes that turns out to be the most engaging part of a text: its accidents.” — Robin Coste Lewis
On this episode of The Archive Project, poet, scholar, and National Book Award winner Robin Coste Lewis presents on “The Race Within Erasure.” She gives an overview of what an erasure is, how it is constructed, and some of its possible intents, sharing examples of famous erasures along the way. Lewis then delves specifically into the topic of race within the context of erasure.
Robin Coste Lewis was born in Compton, California. When she was six, she told her mother that she wanted to be a writer. At the time, she thought this could only mean being a novelist. In pursuit of that goal, she studied comparative literature as an undergraduate, attended NYU’s Creative Writing Program, and earned a master’s degree in Sanskrit and comparative religious literature.
Everything changed for Lewis after she had an accident that caused her permanent brain damage, keeping her bed-ridden for two years. As part of her long recovery, her neurologist limited Lewis to reading and writing one sentence a day. It was physically painful for Lewis to read and write, so she decided, “OK, if it’s one line a day, it’s going to be a goddamned good line.” It was at this time that she realized she was a poet.
Her debut collection, Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems, won the 2015 National Book Award for poetry. It was the first debut book to be awarded the prize since 1974. The book is a triptych: Lyric poems exploring desire and race bookend the title piece, which is made up of titles, catalog entries, and descriptions of art depicting the black female figure from 38,000 bce to the present day. The citation from the National Book Foundation praises Voyage by stating, “In poems that consider the boundaries of beauty and terror, Lewis intimately involves us with all that has formed her. The aesthetic and psychological complexity of this work is underscored by its clarity. This voice is essential to our present moment.”