Friday, February 12, 2016



   Wanda Coleman was a poet of formidable and prodigious ability who grew up and lived in Los Angeles, California.  I think that she is not well known to people outside of Los Angeles but she should be.   I had the privilege of seeing her at a celebration of the Ashgrove (a magical music venue in Los Angeles that was attacked and burned down twice in the 70s but now is resurrected as a committee that puts on performances at the very place it ended -- The Improv on Melrose Avenue).
   Wanda Coleman was born in 1946 and died in 2013 -- much too short a life.  Here is the Poetry Foundation's assessment of her - "Poet and writer Wanda Coleman was a blatantly humanist artist who won much critical acclaim for her unusually prescient and often innovative work, but who struggled to make a living from her craft. In discussing “my life in poetry,” More magazine, April 2005, Camille Paglia said of Coleman: “She’s not as central as she should be. Her language jumps off the page.” With twelve books of collected writings published by the small Black Sparrow Press by 2001, as well as numerous other publications, she has created a body of work that is first of all focused on racism and that, secondly, ponders the "outcast" status of living below the poverty line in California, specifically her birthplace Los Angeles, and the southwestern United States. Anger, unhappiness, hate, and violence are often intrinsic to the themes of her stories and poems. Her subjects are often controversial and her tone unapologetic."
   What makes the best poetry, art, music sometimes are the experiences one has in struggle, in questioning the status quo, in fighting against injustices.  Wanda Coleman should have been the poet laureate of Los Angeles.  "In his 1999 assessment, Alistair Paterson, Editor of Poetry New Zealand declared: “Coleman’s poetry, politically aware, darkly humorous, sensual and iconoclastic, presents a remarkable talent developed throughout a difficult life. . . . It’s the kind of poetry other writers can use as a yardstick for measuring their work—it sets a standard and demonstrates what a beautiful, adaptable, usable language colloquial English is.”

   But here is the assessment that grabs the most at your heart and gut -- why Wanda Coleman was so different, so unique as a poet and writer - "Writing in Black American Literature Forum, Tony Magistrale summarized, "Coleman frequently writes to illuminate the lives of the underclass and the disenfranchised, the invisible men and women who populate America's downtown streets after dark, the asylums and waystations, the inner city hospitals and clinics. . . . Wanda Coleman, like Gwendolyn Brooks before her, has much to tell us about what it is like to be a poor black woman in America." Admittedly I am completely enamored of people who use their gifts to illuminate the lives of every day and downtrodden masses.  Wanda Coleman didn't suppress her anger at the realities of life in our south Los Angeles and perhaps that was one reason why she was not better known or celebrated. "The poet Juan Felipe Herrera called Coleman the “word-caster of live coals of Watts & LA.”
with Arthur Miller at National book awards

   Wanda Coleman was like many people I know who did not enjoy her experience in our public schools.  In many ways her experience was completely the reality of so many people in our society - one of struggling to make a life for herself and her two children, while at the same time experiencing moments of breakthrough and enlightenment. She did not finish college but she did teach at the college level.  Perhaps had she been more compromising and written more for commercial sources (such as Days of Our Lives for which she won an Emmy) she might have had an easier life.  But I think that's why I loved and gravitated to this amazing woman who didn't want to compromise.  She did fortunately earn national awards which gave her some time for writing - a National Endowment for the Arts Grant (1981-82) and a Guggenheim Fellowship for Poetry (1984).  Fortunately she won many awards and recognitions for her work which has been published over a 30 year period, both poetry and novels, essays and short stories.  She was also an amazing performer - and that was where I was privileged to experience her work.

   "I have gained a reputation, locally, as an electrifying performer/reader, and have appeared at local rock clubs, reading the same poetry that has taken me into classrooms and community centers for over five hundred public readings since 1973." Coleman added: "Words seem inadequate in expressing the anger and outrage I feel at the persistent racism that permeates every aspect of black American life. Since words are what I am best at, I concern myself with this as an urban actuality as best I can." After some forty years of writing Wanda Coleman remains devoted to the themes of racism and female experience and to Los Angeles. The city has been a vital part of her writings and an important outlet for her poetry readings, typically classified as “take-no-prisoners” performances (San Francisco Examiner, February 1986) that “bring you into her world” (LA Weekly, April 1984). Coleman has shared the stage with such legends as The Hollywood Ten, Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, Gary Snyder, and Alice Coltrane. In the 80s, L.A.’s music underground welcomed Coleman as she appeared with Henry Rollins, Lydia Lunch, and Exene Cervenka with whom she recorded Twin Sisters."

   "Coleman summarized her complex love-hate relationship with her birthplace by stating that when she visited other places, she 'finds Los Angeles has been there before I arrive'."  Her obituary in the Los Angeles Times (she died at only 67 years of age) states what I have always thought -"A native of Watts who long was regarded as L.A.'s unofficial poet laureate..."  She was a columnist for the L.A. Times and I remember treasuring her columns.  She was fiercely critical of Maya Angelou and this led to her ostracism in some circles.  From the obituary:
   "Many of her poems burned with remembered insults and injustices, as in "Chapter 2 of the Story" from"Bathwater Wine," which describes her experiences with a librarian whose bifocals "magnified the bigotry in her eyes."
her gray eyes policed me thru the stacks like Dobermans
she watched me come and go, take books and bring books
she monitored the titles and after a while decided
she'd misjudged her little colored girl
and for a time she tried to apologize in her way. to engage
in small talk. i never answered back. once, she set
special books aside to gain my trust respect smile
i left them untouched
hating her more for that."
   "In an essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books, she lamented seeing "Black Los Angeles ... smothered slowly under the kudzu of a persistent and prolific racism."    In “What Does A Black Poem Look Like?,” a blog post for the Poetry Foundation, Coleman wrote, “In Y3K, I hope that the readers of my poetry will look back and find it dreadfully passé and that the emotional, social and oft political issues I confront are things of the savage past…. To Hell and Damnation with timelessness. I want my poems to go out of date as fast as possible.”
With Austin Straus  Red Hen Press

[I could find surprisingly little information about Wanda Coleman - so included the brief Wikipedia entry. That is very sad. Someone should write a biography. I hope someone will.] includes an MP3 of her - 
Virtual Venice tribute - 
Ed Pearl tribute to -
Obituary in L.A. Times -
Biography of Wanda Coleman - 
Wikipedia -
The Academy of American Poets - 
Biography tribute -
NPR tribute - 

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