A report on “A Tribute to Wanda Coleman” (PART ONE)

DOWNTOWN TRIBUTE TO WANDA COLEMAN – Saturday, January 18

Linda and I headed out to the Los Angeles Central Public Library around 3:45 p.m. yesterday and took the 710 to the 5, a route that all too often slows to five mph at the transitional lane. Not yesterday, though: we had a smooth ride all the way to the library’s parking lot. I don’t recollect ever previously attending an event at the Mark Taper Auditorium at the Central Library, and it’s a pleasure to report that it’s an extraordinarily comfortable venue with just the right number of seats to impress an intimate significance upon any occasion held there. In particular, for such a modestly size venue, the curvature of the audience’s seats keeps its members aligned with the speakers on stage with a subtle bend in the focused trajectory of performance’s gift exchange.

The evening opened with a recording of Wanda Coleman’s reading of “L.A. Love Cry” which contains an exquisitely ironic benediction of the nine commandments of Los Angeles, the first of which is “Don’t grow old.” Since the average age of the audience was well over 40, we found ourselves laughing in acquiescent chagrin at our accelerating frailty. Louise Steinman then introduced Kate Gale, the highly esteemed editor of Red Hen Press, who recounted a story of her son’s experience of reading out loud some of Wanda Coleman’s work in radio and in front of a live audience. “It’s so much more difficult when there are people here,” her son said. It must be emphasized that all of the readers on Saturday made the difficult look easy throughout this tribute.

The rhythm of the presentations turned out to have a felicitous arrangement, though at first I feared that the evening might prove too long, in part because I was concerned that Douglas Kearney’s and Terrance Hayes’s fairly long presentations would prove to be the rule. I would estimate that Kearney, for instance, was on stage for about ten minutes, a good part of which was taken up by a poem entitled “Headnote,” which propelled itself along the anaphoric oscillations of “I am sorry for…” The piece ended with “Dear Austin…. Dear Austin… Dear Austin, I am sorry…” intoned in a manner that said the words were pebbles falling down an eternal cliff. Kearney earned his extended set on stage, but I did feel some initial trepidation that the evening’s passion would get diluted through a long program.

Having Terrance Hayes read next was a perfect choice. He enfolded all of us in an appreciation of Wanda Coleman’s versatility as a poet, while reminding us of the odds that she confronted in being accepted at the canonical banquet table by quoting from Bathwater Wine: “There is no degree for what is learned in the dark.” Hayes mentioned that he was the guest editor of an issue of Ploughshares; one of Wanda’s poems in that issue ended with the line: “like Jesus walking on water.” Terrance looked up, repeated the line, and let its manifold complexity linger for all of us to savor together. He concluded with a long, scathing poem called “Haunting the Confederacy,” which reminded us all too vividly of the racist fabrications that infect our national ideology.

The third poet to speak was the first one to publish a substantial review of Wanda Coleman’s first full-length book, Mad Dog Black Lady. Stephen Kessler spoke with quiet exactitude of his support of Wanda’s work and cited Bachy magazine as the “local” publication that enabled him to get the word out about this important new poet back in the late 1970s. I would add to Stephen’s comments that his work as an editor of the Alcatraz edition anthologies also was a crucial affirmation of Wanda’s poetry. I believe Stephen was the first editor to include Wanda Coleman in a significant anthology of poetry.

One of the highlights of the evening was Cecilia Woloch’s incandescent recitation of “Angel Baby Blues,” which she has included so often as part of her informal anthology of poems presented to students in classrooms that she was able to intone its many registers of grief and wonder with ebullient dexterity, despite feeling an almost overwhelming degree of poignant loss. Before she took on the daunting climb of “Angel Baby Blues,” however, Woloch read a message from Carol Muske-Dukes, a poet I’ve never thought of as being particularly supportive of Wanda Coleman’s writing, but whose words of appreciation were certainly worth putting on record. It’s always possible that Muske-Dukes spoke up for Coleman’s work at the kinds of grant-giving committees whose considerations are not part of the public record, and if so, her praise should be taken at face value.

(If you want to hear Wanda Coleman performing one of her classic pieces of writing, “Angel Baby Blues,” go to:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3C7U6prKQR0

Other poems by Wanda Coleman that were chosen to pay tribute to her were “In the Other Fantasy where We Live Forever” (Michael Datcher); “The Lady in the Red Veiled Hat” (Laurel Ann Bogen), “Pigging Out” (Charles Harper Webb); “Bedtime Story” (Ron Koertge); “I Live for My Car” (Suzanne Lummis); “20th Century Nod-Out” (Brendan Constantine); and “Dream Walk #7” (Robin Coste Lewis). Lewis’s quiet delivery proved to be one of the evening’s most poignant moments and I am eager to hear more work by her. My notes might wrong for Sesshu Foster’s choice, though his memory of being in upstate NY and wishing he could transport WC right there to help him out during his reading made it clear what a reassuring ally Wanda acted as in our own performances. Sesshu’s choice may have been “Q&A (for Gil Cuadros).

Of all the people who were missing from the list of presenters last night, the most disconcerting absence was Harvey Robert Kubernik. The question needs to be raised: was his name even mentioned once during the meetings that took place to organize this event. Harvey’s support of Wanda’s writing was as crucial to her maturation as an artist as John Martin’s in the decade between the mid-70s and the mid-80s, and that his name was not once mentioned from the stage tells me that many of the people who read this evening still have much to learn about the breadth of Wanda’s career and accomplishments, as well as those who collaborated with her as a cultural worker.

Finally, if the first commandment of Los Angeles is “Don’t grow old,” then I have certainly committed a mortal sin. The poets who spoke at this memorial frequently mentioned when they first met Wanda. “I first saw her read in 1978 or 1979,” Cecilia Woloch reported. “She was wearing thigh-high boots and a cape.” “I’m honored to say that I was a friend of Wanda’s for a long, long time,” Charles Webb said at the start of his comments. Webb arrived in Los Angeles in the late 1970s, by which point both Leland Hickman and I had repeatedly published Wanda Coleman’s poetry in our magazines (Bachy and Momentum, respectively). In the entire auditorium, I was the poet who had known and supported Wanda Coleman’s poetry the longest. I first published Wanda’s poetry in 1974 and she was one of the featured poets in Holdouts, which was published in 2011. That Red Hen Press and the Poetry Society of America deliberately chose to exclude me from this public homage to Wanda’s poetry left me with a renewed sense of my peculiar marginality in Los Angeles. It puzzles me why several of the current power brokers of poetry in this city do not deem me worthy of saying a few words of goodbye to a poet I believed in starting 40 years ago, long before many of the readers in last night’s program were even writing poetry. On Sunday, though, I got a chance to make my memories part of this weekend’s memorial. Stay tuned for Part Two.