In fall 2016, the Academy of American Poets teamed up with the Housing Works Bookstore Café in New York City to present a free conversation series exploring how different art forms engage with poetry. These conversations paired some of today’s most celebrated poets with accomplished artists from other disciplines. On September 23, 2016, the series featured National Book Award-winning poet Robin Coste Lewis and multimedia artist Sam Durant. Read Academy of American Poets Executive Director Jennifer Benka's introduction and listen to an audio recording of the event.

Introduction

The timely and provocative work of poet Robin Coste Lewis and multimedia artist Sam Durant weaves art, race, and history. With text, installations, visual art, and performance, Lewis and Durant document and display who we have been to one another—and as we know, in the United States, this has often been a story centered in violence, oppression, and brutality. Past is prologue. How do we come to and into terms with ourselves when the “We” in “We, the People” was not written inclusively. Can we correct our country?

In her National Book Award-winning and stunning debut collection of poems, Voyage of the Sable Venus, Lewis explores the depiction of the black female figure in art. The center of the collection is the seventy-nine page title poem, a narrative made up entirely of the “titles, catalog entries, or exhibit descriptions” of objects in Western art, going back to 38,000 B.C. that depict the black female form. These are poems that have been described as considering “the boundaries of beauty and terror,” “pleasure and horror.” Lewis raises the question: Does art depict or reinforce a set of conditions? To paraphrase the poet Muriel Rukeyser, does art make change or, rather, prepare us for change?

Lewis is a Provost’s Fellow in Poetry and Visual Studies at the University of Southern California. She is also a Cave Canem fellow and a fellow of the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities. She received her MFA in poetry from New York University and an MTS in Sanskrit and comparative religious literature from the Divinity School at Harvard University. She has taught at Wheaton College, Hunter College, Hampshire College, and the NYU Low-Residency MFA in Paris.

Sam Durant’s latest work is an installation at the Old Manse, a National Historic Landmark built in 1770 and former home and gathering place for politicians and Transcendentalist writers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Durant’s project is designed to inspire discussion and debate on topics, including the connection between our difficult past, slavery, and segregation, and the fact that, as Durant writes, “we are still today unable to create the just society that our revolution promised.” Over the course of the exhibition, a number of events will take place at the pavilion, including a poetry reading tomorrow afternoon featuring Kevin Young, Danielle Legros Georges, Tisa Bryant, and Robin Coste Lewis.

Durant’s work has been widely exhibited internationally and in the United States and has been included in the Panamá, Sydney, Venice, and Whitney Biennales. And he was a finalist for the 2008 Hugo Boss Prize and has received a United States Artists Broad Fellowship and a City of Los Angeles Individual Artist Grant. Durant shows with several galleries including the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York City. His recent curatorial credits include Black Panther: the Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas at The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the New Museum in New York. Durant teaches art at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California.

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