November 26, 2013

On Wanda Coleman, unofficial poet laureate of LA


Wanda Coleman, Los Angeles’s unofficial poet laureate, died on November 22 after a long illness. She was sixty-seven.

“She wrote not just about the black experience in Los Angeles but the whole configuration of Los Angeles in terms of its politics, its social life,” said Richard Modiano, executive director of Beyond Baroque, in an interview with the LA Times. “I would call her a world-class poet. The range of her poetry and the voice she writes in is accessible to all sorts of people.”

She was the recipient of the 2012 recipient of the Shelley Memorial Award, the 1999 Lenore Marshall Prize (for Bathwater Wine), the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs’ first literary award in 2003-04, was nominated for California Poet Laureate in 2005, and even won an Emmy for her work on “Days of Our Lives.” When she was long-listed for the National Book Award in 2001 for Mercurochrome, and the judges said, “Coleman’s poetry stings, stains and ultimately helps heal wounds.”

She was the author of twenty-two books, beginning with a short story, “Watching the Sunset,” in 1970, and publishing her poetry collection Mad Dog Black Lady in 1979. She participated in the Watts Writers Workshop and Beyond Baroque in Venice. Most of her work was published by Black Sparrow Press (Charles Bukowski‘s publisher) as well as University of Pittsburgh Press.

She wrote for the Los Angeles Times, where she famously called Maya Angelou’s A Song Flung up to Heavena sloppily written fake.” The book review received a mountain of letters, and Coleman was banned from a reading at Eso Won Books. In a follow-up for The Nation, she defended her review:

Critically reviewing the creative efforts of present-day African-American writers, no matter their origin, is a minefield of a task complicated by the social residuals of slavery and the shifting currents in American publishing. Into this twenty-first century, African-Americans are still denied full and open participation in the larger culture absent the confusions and machinations of race. Thus, by nature and necessity, our fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry continue to be repositories for the complaints and resentments harbored against the nation we love, as well as paeans to the courage, fortitude and sacrifice of peers and forebears.

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.”

Tony Magistrale wrote in Black American Literature Forum,”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.”

In his piece for the LA Times, David L. Ulin says she was “confrontational” and “uncompromising,” as well “the keystone, the writer who shifted L.A. writing, irrevocably and to the benefit of all of us, from an outside to an inside game, a literature of place.”
If you’re not familiar with Coleman’s work, you could start with one of her essays from last year, “Ruminations on Riots,” or her poem “The Saturday Afternoon Blues.” Poet-performer Juan Felipe Herrera wrote a poem in tribute to her this week, too: “Los Angeles Barrio Sonnet For Wanda Coleman.”

Kirsten Reach is an editor at Melville House.