Editor’s note: The full conversation was edited for time to keep this podcast in the 30-minute range, and the transcript of this audio conversation was made available for accessibility purposes.
ROBIN COSTE LEWIS:
there is something
like Her, something
hovering above us,
in whose palm
are all the feelings
we refused to love
they have forgiven us
to address them
by their animal names
AMIE MONTEMURRO: That is Robin Coste Lewis, with “Glinda the Good” from her inaugural collection, Voyage of the Sable Venus. Before we dive into today’s episode, a bit more on why Robin wrote this piece, which is a tribute to Lena Horne and her role as Glinda in the 1978 film, The Wiz.
ROBIN COSTE LEWIS: I think it was the first time that I'd ever seen a Black feminine deity in my whole life, right? Just scan—for the listeners out there—scan your minds, think about it. You probably can't come up with more than one, which is really, really, really, really terribly tragic… In short, she was a deity for me.
AMIE MONTEMURRO: I am Amie Montemurro with Harvard Divinity School, and this is Divinity Dialogues—conversations on faith, purpose, and bearing witness. Today, we conclude our series of special edition interviews with this year’s Gomes Distinguished Alumni Honorees—recognized in memory of the great Reverend Peter J. Gomes.
From investigative journalism to intersectional poetry and Buddhist ministry to bioethics in medicine, this year’s honorees bring the Divinity School’s vision—working in service of a just world at peace across religious and cultural divides—to fruition.
While today is our last alumni honoree interview for the year, join us next week to learn more about our 2021 Gomes Distinguished Friend of the School—President Emerita, Drew Gilpin Faust. We will be airing excerpts from her poignant conversation with Dean Hempton from the award ceremony in May.
And now, more from Robin Coste Lewis, who earned her Master of Theological Studies degree in 1997. Born and raised in Compton, Robin is a Poet Laureate, a National Book Award winner, a Doctor of Creative Writing and Literature, LA’s Woman of the Year, and an avid Sanskrit scholar.
A production note: This interview took place in June 2021, in the midst of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Robin and I met over Zoom to avoid travel and practice good public health measures.
Before we had even officially kicked off the interview, Robin opened with her palpable appreciation for the Sanskrit language. We were discussing the power of words and her frustration with the English language’s limits with respect to form. Robin shared that while she was at the Divinity School, she wasn’t even thinking about poetry. In short, her book was not yet a twinkle in her eye.
ROBIN COSTE LEWIS: It was like the dark side of the moon of Venus… I can't even tell you how far away. Thinking of myself as a poet, I would never even have thought of it. It took years. If you want to talk about the seeds that were planted at the Div School for me, as a writer, Sanskrit really was a magical engagement for me. First and foremost, it deconstructed English literally. Like in my psyche, I could feel it.
I mean, all I did was translate Sanskrit for two to three years. It really took English down to its studs for me. And then I was free. I was really free. And I can't explain it to you because then I had to go into all this linguistic stuff. And nobody would understand, and nobody would really be interested.
But, you know, let me try just quickly: English follows the subject-verb-object formula, right? And a lot of writers play with that formula syntax to make their writing interesting. Sanskrit does not follow the subject-verb-object formula, like many ancient languages…not many but some. Sanskrit sentences aren't the same either. So, you could put your object on the first page and your verb 20 pages later.
You can just play with it. It just doesn't follow those same rules. And so, it felt like in English, I was on the Earth, and in Sanskrit, I was in several galaxies at once. And time, because it doesn't follow that subject-verb-object formula, time, then became more elastic, which is telling because Sanskrit is epic.
The whole notion of embodiment—transmigration—makes it so much more fun because bodies shift, right? Whereas in the Judeo-Christian background, there's only one life. And in the Hindu pantheon, there are millions. And so, it just exploded language for me. And I didn't know how much that would come into play as a writer because I wasn't a writer then. But years later, when I started writing “Voyage”—I mean, the first movements in the title poem, "Voyage" is an homage to my time at the Div School. It an homage to Sanskrit. It was a gift. It was a true gift.
AMIE MONTEMURRO: I don't know many people who could connect subject-verb agreement with the metaphysical. So, thank you for going there.
ROBIN COSTE LEWIS: Sure.
AMIE MONTEMURRO: That's amazing. Amazing.
ROBIN COSTE LEWIS: But it is connected because it's about duration. It's about time and chronology. I mean, that's why I think Sanskrit is able to be the remarkable experience that it is because it's also reflecting the notion of our related time—that time is elastic, not linear. And now all these scientists know this, right?
And Sanskrit says, this is just one little, teeny tiny, drooling, babbling toddler of a universe. And not only that, but there have been hundreds of thousands more.
So first of all, don't go around thinking of yourself so high and mighty because you're lint. You're not even lint. You're the lint on the lint on the lint. And second of all, don't buy this notion of history, not at all. Right? And third of all, your body is also one of those roiling universes. And you'll come back again and again and again.
In my new book, which I'm working on now, this is what the book is all about—the history of the universe and Black people. [LAUGHS] Repositioning Blackness within a more expansive timeline. I couldn't have got there without Sanskrit.
AMIE MONTEMURRO: Incredible. Thank you so much.
ROBIN COSTE LEWIS: Sure. My pleasure.
AMIE MONTEMURRO: And then just speaking of time and history—and you are welcome to take this in any dimension that you would like to. But we wanted to ask: Can you say a little bit more about your relationship with religion or spirituality and particularly the role it may have played before you joined the Divinity School?
ROBIN COSTE LEWIS: So now you're going to make me cry. It's a very tender question because I'm not the same person I used to be, and I very much miss that person. That's why I'm trying to figure out how to answer this well.
All my life, I wanted to be a monk… all my life. And I knew I didn't have the right tradition. So, I read. I think reading was a compensatory gesture towards an ascetic and an aesthetic life. Those two things together…
I was always devout but not to a particular deity or religion, just devout without the need of an object. And so, my parents who—my father was Catholic, and my mother's family used to be Catholic—the didn't go to church. And I used to beg them to take me to church. So, by the time I got around to apply to Divinity School, I had already gone a few times to live monastically in India. And that was exquisite.
I didn't want to come back. My teacher made me. She told me I had to finish college, and I was so appalled. I was so disgusted. Being a monk comes very easily to me. And I think that the problem was that she and my other teachers thought: “yes, but you can't do the world.” And they were absolutely right. I didn't know how to be in the world. So, when I came to the Divinity School, it was for numerous reasons. One is it was a way I got to keep being a monk in my mind… The Div School let me be as weird as I wanted to be.
But also, I had always been madly in love with literature. And I learned that Sanskrit was the mother of all Indo-European languages. We romanticize Greek and Latin, and that's fine… it's just not my thing.
But Sanskrit used to be taught in the classics department. And I really think it's fear of a brown planet that it got kicked out. [Sanskrit] is the second oldest language that we know how to teach each other—Zoroastrian being the first. So, I wanted to learn. That's the beautiful part: I wanted to see, to trace our history through language.
Or as I told my mother when I was a little girl: I want to learn every language on the planet. And she was like, “I don't know, baby.” So, Sanskrit was kind of like a shortcut. If I can't learn every language, I can learn the motherboard of every language…
It was a really profound moment that is still unfolding. And the more that I let myself become a poet… Sanskrit is all poetry! [LAUGHS] It's all poetry. Most of it. A great deal of it is written in verse.
AMIE MONTEMURRO: Thank you, Robin.
ROBIN COSTE LEWIS: Sure.
AMIE MONTEMURRO: So, I want to come back to what you said about, you could just be as weird as you want here at the Divinity School.
ROBIN COSTE LEWIS: It's true.
AMIE MONTEMURRO: People are often surprised to find out that there is some really radical stuff.
ROBIN COSTE LEWIS: Oh my God. Yeah.
AMIE MONTEMURRO: And this isn't even radical, but another surprising fact is we have over 30 different religious traditions, denominations, folks who are unaffiliated with a faith tradition here, represented at the Div School. So, if you can lean into this a bit more with us for a minute. What's something else that might be surprising about the School? Or what would you like the world to know about HDS?
ROBIN COSTE LEWIS: I'm so happy you're asking this question. Like every other student who comes to the Div School, it blew my mind the day I arrived in the first week of orientation because I felt like I had fallen into some tradition of radicalism. I thought I was going to be the oddball out.
First of all, my class was like, not 50% queer, but pretty much! I mean, there is a tradition of queer engagement in theology. It makes sense since we've been murdered and burned and pillaged for so long because of religion. It makes sense that so many different kinds of queer theologians would find themselves at the Div School—interrogating the history of queer persecution cross-culturally. But that blew my mind—the queer theology heaven of all traditions.
I also didn't realize I would be engaged with so many feminist men theologians… that blew my mind. I had so many men friends who were there to deconstruct their own tradition. Most of whom were there to get ordained around feminist theology. I also didn't know there was a feminist scholar community at HDS.
I just didn't realize how radical the Div School was, but also the tenderness. Everybody was—their seeking was so true. There were a couple careerists there. And literally I can name them on three fingers. But for the most part, every student, every classmate, everybody was sincere about their engagement. It’s a School filled with the most divine freaks imaginable. I mean just angels, like seraphim.
AMIE MONTEMURRO: As a poet laureate with a master's in theology, how do you foster respect for pluralism in your everyday life? We talk about pluralism a lot at the School, and I wanted to hear from you.
ROBIN COSTE LEWIS: The woman at the well, okay? There's a woman at the well and not just in Christianity but in lots of different traditions. I think it's a story that migrated through religions over time. In theological traditions, the stranger is also always some kind of masked Messiah. You never know who you're talking to…
That idea that the stranger is most probably a God is very much an idea of how I was raised diasporically. You don't know who you're talking to, and it's also true politically. Like in D.C., which used to be much more African American city, the guy on the bus stop in overalls was often a diplomat. You just never know who you're talking to.
And one would hope that you didn't need that kind of status to respect anyone, but the idea of a mask and a mask on top of a mask was really prevalent in my upbringing and in my studies at the Div School. Bodies were constantly shifting. Krishna is always playing jokes on everybody.
Everybody is being taken by Krishna, and other gods, because humankind is so arrogant and so stupid. So, they have to keep playing jokes on us. So, the notion of a stranger, for me—the way I was raised and the way that I studied—is that the stranger just might hold the key to your liberation.
And it's usually the stranger that you find the most repulsive… I learned that from my parents, of course, but also from studying at the Center for [the Study of] World Religion. I mean, there was so much pluralism. That doesn't do it justice—that word is too small. I don't know how to talk about it because I don't think the language has been invented yet. We're trying to get there, and we will. I have complete faith. But I think our bodies—in terms of the Center for the Study of World Religion and HDS in general—our bodies were far ahead of the times. We were. And I know that now.
And I'm not trying to pat myself on the back; I ended up there accidentally. Like I said, I would have preferred to have been in a monastery. So, I'm not trying to placate HDS because I tell you, by the time I graduated, I was so mad that I wasn't spinning in a Sufi circle in ecstasy as opposed to just talking about spinning in a Sufi circle of ecstasy.
But it's just a very special thing when the ethic is love. When the ethic is love, no matter what. And that does not mean that love isn't violent, love isn't all these other things. I'm not trying to say it was heaven. It wasn't. We argued a lot. I’ll just say one thing for the record, there was a time—what class was that?
Oh my God. Cornel West used to have the best titled classes... Evil and Suffering! After class, we would move to a restaurant whose name I can't remember in the Square.
We would close it down to 1 AM every week, once a week for the whole semester, talking about evil and suffering cross-culturally. Do you see what I mean? So, pluralism, sure. But I'm saying—it was like 25 students, and we would just sit there talking, talking, talking trying to figure it out. And now, some of those students are some of the most amazing philosophers and politicians around today. They're doing incredible work in the world.
So, pluralism might be not quite as complex a word for the depth of what was actually taking place when I was there. And I don't know what to tell you the word might be because I truly don't think we know yet.
AMIE MONTEMURRO: It's that expansive.
ROBIN COSTE LEWIS: Yeah…
I will say, though, I don't think it's a coincidence that all the people I just talked about were people of color or queers or feminists. Like everybody had some experience of suffering and not at their own hand. The suffering had an external source. And we were trying to figure it out.
AMIE MONTEMURRO: So, we also wanted to ask you, in addition to your award-winning writing career, you are also an educator and a Doctor of Creative Writing and Literature, and LA’s woman of the year. You truly contain in multitudes. And we wanted to ask, how does your degree from HDS come to light in this intellectual and creative constellation?
ROBIN COSTE LEWIS: In the question that I just answered, I think I spoke about it in some ways. The stranger is the greatest person you will ever encounter. And there was a time… My book tour wore me out; there were some moments I was in four cities in one week.
And that whole thing about waking up in a hotel and not knowing where you are, I thought that was a joke. It's not a joke. It's real, and it's scary. And so, I remember I had this one reading where I was so—I get evil when I'm exhausted, and it took me too many decades to realize that. I do, and I was evil. I was in a bad mood. And I didn't want to do it.
And then I remember going, “Robin, the stranger is the greatest gift.” And at that time, the book signing lines were like two-three hours long. So, I would read for an hour, then I would go to a reception, then I would sign books. So, it would be a five-hour night of just persona and trying not to be in a persona, which is exhausting.
Anyway, the book signing line. Long line at the door of the auditorium. And there's this great bhajan. [Speaking in Sanskrit] “I am wandering through the jungle...” [Speaking in Sanskrit] “And everything is the beloved, everything.” And so, every person that came up to me to have their book signed, I thought—there's a great line from one Indian mystic: “Oh, Shiva, look what you have become. Oh, god, look how you have manifested today.”
So, every person who came to get their book signed, I thought: “Oh, Shiva, look at you. Look at you in the form of the student with this backpack and pink hair and a water bottle crying because their parents don't understand them. Oh, Shiva, look at you.”
And in between students, I would sing this bhajan as people were coming up, and they were getting their pages ready. So, I was just sitting there rocking and singing. Every single person, I was like: “I'm going to make this a practice. I have to turn this around because I'm burning out.” And it was one of the best book signings I've ever had. I was so high by the end. I had so much energy.
And I think that's how I deal with my students in the classroom. I try to see them all as that stranger I was talking about. Stranger is the gift. Or if I go to a high school or junior high school or elementary school, do you know how great it is to think about these kids as being all little manifestations, singular manifestations of the divine who's watching me to see if I have learned anything at all? And will treat them with the respect that they deserve as the singular manifestation of the divine for me that day as opposed to me going: “Oh, look at these little kids… aren't they so cute?” It's like, no. They're actually the divine.
I think when I meet kids, when I meet older people, or when I'm representing the Mayor's office, or all of those things, I just really try to put into practice what I studied.
Things go swimmingly well, for the most part, if I stay in that awareness. And I think people feel it, you know? I think we all know when we’re being respected, and I think we really know when we’re being exalted. And I think it’s an ecstatic tradition to exalt all of creation.
It's a strange thing, though, to live that way… because there is a lot of heartbreak. Because
I think I'll bewilder all of my days...
AMIE MONTEMURRO: On that note, you have offered us a gift, and you've offered to share two poems from Voyage of the Sable Venus. And with that, I would love to turn it over to you, to hear your poems in your voice.
A pause here to note that when we opened today’s episode, Robin read “Glinda the Good” and that she’s about to close our show with “Summer,” two poems that live next to each other in her book.
ROBIN COSTE LEWIS: I think the only thing I'll say about these poems is that they are more obviously engaged in a spiritual or philosophical inquiry. And they are displays of devotion at two different ends of the whole. I think that’s also something I learned at the Div School. My sister and I have conversations about that; she's Christian and very devout, and I'm not.
But it's really, really a great thing to be mad at God. It's an act of devotion to be angry at God. And for her, she's—when she read this poem she thought: “You're going to burn in hell!” [LAUGHS] And I said: “Well, if God burns me in hell for writing this poem… God's not what I think God is.”
Last summer, two discrete young snakes left their skin
on my small porch, two mornings in a row. Being
postmodern now, I pretended as if I did not see
them, nor understand what I knew to be circling
inside me. Instead, every hour I told my son
to stop with his incessant back-chat. I peeled
a banana. And cursed God—His arrogance,
His gall—to still expect our devotion
after creating love. And mosquitoes. I showed
my son the papery dead skins so he could
know, too, what it feels like when something shows up
at your door—twice—telling you what you already know.
AMIE MONTEMURRO: Robin, thank you for all your insights, for all of your deep feelings and deep wisdom. We really can't thank you enough.
ROBIN COSTE LEWIS: I don't have deep wisdom. Thank you. But I don't have deep wisdom. I'm just mirroring what you guys are mirroring. And I don't believe in exceptionalism. I think everybody is exceptional. I just think that we've decided to close our eyes to our own beauty.
AMIE MONTEMURRO: Many thanks to Robin for her time, for her insight, and for wielding love as a force for truth.
And thanks to you for tuning in to this special episode of Divinity Dialogues. This podcast came together with the help of some remarkable colleagues, including Caroline Cataldo with her editing and producing expertise, Kristin Ponte with her exceptional work with the Gomes awards event, and folks across the Communications and Development teams at the School.
Tune in next week to hear the warm and wonderful conversation between Dean Hempton and President Emerita, Drew Gilpin Faust from this year’s Gomes Distinguished Friend of the School award ceremony.
As always, you can find us on the HDS SoundCloud channel or subscribe to Harvard Divinity School on your favorite podcast platform to make sure you never miss a new episode. You can also find us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube to learn more about HDS and our amazing community.
Until next time…