Poet Robin Coste Lewis Explores What it Means to be a Black Woman in America

Poet explores what defines being a black woman in America


The Midwest Literary Walk featuring a handful of authors and poets is April 30th in Chelsea. One of the poets is Robin Coste Lewis.

Lewis’ poetry is at once a celebration and dissection of being a woman and being black in America. In the title section of her debut book of poetry — Voyage of the Sable Venus — Lewis describes her work as, “…a narrative poem comprised solely and entirely of the titles, catalog entries, or exhibit descriptions of Western art objects in which a black female figure is present, dating from 38,000 BC to the present.”

The result of Lewis’ work is a powerful, blooming display of black femininity that walks a line between the limitlessness of internal beauty and the limitations of external forces. Her book of poetry won a National Book Award.

Here is a sample from one of her poems, from a section titled “Catalog I: Ancient Greece & Ancient Rome”:

Bust of a Draped Female Facing Forward
One Breast Exposed          Black

Adolescent Female with Long Curls and Bare
Breasts Wearing a Voluminous Crown

Partially Broken young Black Girl
Presenting a Stemmed Bowl

by a Monkey

“It’s more about the rhetoric that the art institutions use to talk about the art,” says Lewis, who complied explanations of art depicting black women from museums both in person and online. 

She says she noticed the pieces of art are often titled “Untitled,” or by “Anonymous,” and that “the art-world titles could also be turned into a story.”

Lewis says she turned to writing poetry after suffering a serious brain injury that made reading and writing difficult. The brevity of poetry suited her medical status, but then piqued her interest in the ability of poetry to convey big things in small spaces.