November 20, 2015
Los Angeles Public Library to dedicate a branch to poet Wanda Coleman
by Julia Fleischaker
The Ascot Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library will be dedicated to Wanda Coleman, the woman often referred to as the “unofficial poet laureate” of Los Angeles. According to Carolyn Kellogg at the Los Angeles Times, the dedication, set to occur on November 30, comes after requests from fans, friends, and family:
Coleman’s widower, Austin Straus, asked the Los Angeles Public Library to honor her memory at the Ascot branch, one of the branch libraries she visited as a child.
“Please consider my request,” Straus wrote, noting “many L.A. poets support this idea, will donate signed copies of their books, will help raise funds for the library, and will participate in annual, and perhaps more frequent, poetry readings at the library…. (I hope ultimately to give this library an excellent poetry section, probably the best one in town.)”
In Coleman’s obituary in the Los Angeles Times, Elaine Woo describes her childhood in Watts:
“The stultifying intellectual loneliness of my 1950s and ’60s upbringing was dictated by my looks,” she wrote years later. “Boys gawked at me, and girls tittered behind my back. Black teachers shook their heads in pity, and White teachers stared in amusement or in wonder.” Books became her precious refuge but were hard to come by because the libraries, she noted, “discouraged Negro readers.”
The Poetry Foundation calls Coleman “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.” She addressed issues and racism and poverty in her poetry, and as Kellogg notes, she wasn’t afraid to make waves.
Outspoken and opinionated, Coleman was not shy about taking on anointed figures. Her sarcastic coverage of an Angela Davis rally in the 1970s for the Los Angeles Free Press got her barred from its pages. Two decades later, her derisive review of Maya Angelou‘s “A Song Flung Up to Heaven” in the L.A. Times made waves locally and nationally.
The Poetry Foundation quotes an interview that Coleman gave to Contemporary Authors:
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.
The Ascot branch of the library is one that Coleman frequented as a child. The library will install a plaque in her honor.
Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.