A Report on A Tribute to Wanda Coleman (Part Two)

Report on A TRIBUTE TO WANDA COLEMAN (Part Two)

Monday, January 20, 2014

 

By the early 1970s, the Church in Ocean Park at 235 Hill Street in Santa Monica had been shuttered by its denominational diocese for lack of a congregation. Most likely, the midwestern Methodists who had founded and built it had moved to the San Fernando Valley or Orange County, leaving behind a neighborhood that was turning into a slightly less rambunctious northern outpost of Venice. My recollection is that the Church in Ocean Park was re-opened, in part, in order to find a pastoral assignment for a newly ordained minister, Jim Conn, who didn’t quite fit in with the old boys’ patriarchal theology. Over the years, I heard him comment at least once that some of the church elders were a touch reluctant to ordain him; I’ll leave a full account of that for Jim to write. All I know is that my childhood would have been a hell of a lot easier if I could have gone to a church he was in charge of. Whatever the reasons that stymied the renewal of the original congregation, they certainly left behind a facility with a serious piece of real estate to make use of; it was built at a time when a large parcel of land could be acquired without much strain: the church’s property includes enough space for a small parking lot, a child care center with a playground, and at least one additional house that is still in use as a community center.

 

In any case, if anyone ever talked about the church’s history or its contributions to the welfare of its local citizens in the years since its founding, I never heard of it during the 20 years I lived in Ocean Park. That might be because its coalescing congregation in the mid-1970s was more interested in making history than preserving the old order or memories thereof. As I noted in Holdouts, Jim Conn was in the forefront of making his congregation the initial moving force behind the push for rent control and other progressive issues in Santa Monica.

 

I got to know Jim and become a member of his church in the 1970s primarily because of proximity. After graduating from UCLA in 1970 and taking a trip abroad in the fall, I had moved to the neighborhood across the street from Santa Monica City College. In November, 1972, I met a young poet, Sandi Tanhauser, and a few months later she and her two children (Gary and Mina) and I moved into an apartment up the street from the church. One of the outcomes of taking numerous walks around my new neighborhood was that I quickly found myself visiting Jim in the upstairs loft office of the Church in Ocean Park from which he issued his monthly newsletters. I quickly began to regard these one-page messages as an essential part of the conversation about literature and society that I was trying to contribute to through a poetry magazine, Momentum, that I started to edit in 1974. You can find several examples of Jim Conn’s monthly mini-sermons in the final issue of Momentum magazine. Over the years, the Church in Ocean Park allied itself with other cultural forces and became an unofficial accomplice of Beyond Baroque’s projects and aspirations. It should be noted that a large number of poets have read there over the years, among them the late Francis Dean Smith, a poet who was the mother of Charles Bukowski’s daughter, Marina. Francis was a member of the church for many, many years and I remember not only being at services with her, but being the featured part of a Sunday service in the late 1980s, when Jim asked Francye and me to read our poems in place of his sermon.

 

One of the young poets I published in Momentum was Wanda Coleman, whose poem “Mad Dog, Black Lady, Frothing (Part I) and (Part II),” appeared in the second issue (Summer, 1974). She also appeared in issue number 4 and number 6. It should be noted that the poem in the second issue was not the title poem of her first book. Instead, she just used a shortened version of that poem’s title as the rubric for her first full-length collection, which had been preceded by a chapbook collection, “Art in the Court of the Blue Fag.”

 

Yesterday, between 100 and 150 people gathered at the Church to celebrate the life and poetry of Wanda Coleman. One of the big differences between Saturday evening’s event and Sunday afternoon’s was how many of Wanda’s family were present – and acknowledged – in the course of the many choruses of Wanda’s praise. Both a daughter and a son spoke at Sunday’s gathering, and several siblings and their families stood up and were warmly applauded as honored guests of the day’s assembly. When Linda and I arrived yesterday, Jim Conn was in the process of convening the event, and for a moment the church seemed vibrant with the same glow of potential utopia that it had simmered with 40 years ago. If much that we started out to accomplish back then has not come to fruition, nevertheless there has also been the triumph of renitent survival.

 

Austin Straus then led off the afternoon with a blend of the solemn and the comic, in a manner befitting Wanda’s own example, and he proceeded to introduce both family and friends who wanted to address Wanda’s passing. First, though, he introduced family members, including Wanda’s brothers George and Marvin. I believe that George’s wife, Monique, died very recently, too, so this gathering must have been very heavy (as we used to say in the 60s). I tried to keep a list of everyone who spoke, though no doubt I will miss a few names. Rod Bradley started out by showing 11 minutes of film and then reading a recent poem, “I like being large…,” based on a comment she made at a CSU Los Angeles reading (May 9, 2013). Rod’s poem refocused “large” so that it slid into “largesse,” as a prime characteristic of Wanda’s ability to embrace those marginalized by oppression and injustice. (“large in her acceptance of others’ pain as her own.”)

 

The first set of poets to follow Rod included Steve Goldman (who had attended high school with Austin and who culminated his comments with a short blues riff on his harmonica), Richard Modiano, Lynn Bronstein, and Al Young, who read a very moving poem entitled “The Deep West,” which he had composed specifically for Wanda. The first editor to publish Wanda’s poetry, Michael C. Ford, then read some of her wok followed by a short excerpt on his truncated horn of Dizzy Gillespie’s “I Waited for You.” Eric Priestley, as perhaps the poet in the room who had first met her, then spoken about that early encounter. He had been acting in a production of Jean Genet’s Les negres, directed by Jayne Cortez, when they first met, and you could tell by the timbre of Priestley’s voice that a half-century had not dimmed the recollection of their youthful fraternity. The sanctuary of the church sits on a north-south axis, and as the light through the tall stained-glass depictions of traditional Christian iconography (e.g., Christ in the Garden of Gethsemani) began to waver and dim, the poets continued to stand up and comfort themselves and all who were present in the affirmation of mourning. Lynn Manning reminded us of one of the best parts of the film that Rod had projected on the white curved wall at the end of the sanctuary. “I needed to hear that laughter again,” he said, and for an instant it echoes in our mind’s ear again. Manning had first sampled Wanda’s generosity in 1980 or 1981, shortly after he had been blinded and moved from visual art to writing. After a reading she gave which Lynn attended, she had accepted a portfolio of his poems and responded to them within two weeks, and Lynn emphasized it was that response that helped him move forward as a writer. (He is now the artistic director of the Watts Village Theater Company.) The afternoon glided on with the unexpected: a musical act (in the manner of Janet Klein) consisting of Sharon Evans (Wanda’s sister) and Rick Rogers got up and performed “Lazy Moon” and “Side by Side.” The history of the songs they shared with us made their performance all the more pertinent.

 

Harry Northup, who had known Wanda at least as long as I have, then read one of the best poems of the entire weekend, “In Memoriam.” Harry’s poem will be featured in tomorrow’s post. S.A. Griffin spoke on behalf of Pam Ward, who was not able to attend because she was nursing her ill husband, and read a poem that reiterated the street-level fortitude of the title of her Coleman’s first book. Doug Kearney then bounded onto the stage and reprised his poem from the evening before, “Headstone.” He seemed to have grounded himself even more fully in the poem since that first recitation and his layers of anaphoric rhythms consecrated the inner timpani behind the culminating address: “Dear Austin Dear Austin Dear Austin I am sorry…”

 

Perhaps the major surprise of the afternoon was the poetic resurrection of a figure I thought had vanished altogether, Michael Roth. Back in the mid-1980s, when Reagan was charming the pants off of the American middle-class, Michael Roth’s performance poetry stood out for its forthright critique, but little if any of it managed to get into print. In the past half-dozen years, I asked around about him, but nobody seemed to know what became of him. If only I had asked Austin and Austin! He stood up and spoke about that period in his life, though all too briefly and I hope he gets in touch with me since I would like to include his writing in a future project.

 

The final third of the afternoon included a poignant recollection by Yvonne de la Vega of Wanda’s intervention as a protector of youthful aspirations. Yvonne first met Wanda at Café Largo in 1989, and she remembered having given a reading after which an audience member said, “Oh, so you’re the flavor of the month.” Wanda overheard this comment and immediately encircled Yvonne with her arm and made it clear to that snide person that Yvonne was just at the beginning of giving us all a taste of her passionate poetry. Eve Brandstein performed Wanda Coleman’s poem, “My Thang” with such perfect timing that the entire audience was laughing at all the right spots. For a brief moment, our laughter and Wanda’s laughter seemed to be in a cosmic give and take. At some point in this mix, Alice Pero stepped to the stage and played a soothing piece of music by Debussy on her flute.

 

Coming down the home stretch, Austin called to the stage Bibbe Hansen, whose artist husband Sean Carrillo I got a chance to talk with afterwards. Bibbe spoke about the challenges of raising her three children in Los Angeles and how her son Beck found himself at the age of 15 in the mid-1980s in a classroom at Los Angeles City College with a poet named Austin Straus, who turned him on to the kind of poetry found in my anthology, Poetry Loves Poetry. Austin and Wanda befriended Bibbe and her family at a difficult time and Bibbe and her husband flew across country from NYC to participate in yesterday’s event as a way of acknowledging how important Wanda and Austin were to their family. Soon after Bibbe’s affectionate account of their friendship, the founder of Beyond Baroque took the stage to put everything into perspective: “Wanda was large, and anything she touched she made larger.” I must confess that my scribbled notes started to overlap at this point, and I’m not sure if it was George who spoke about an interview that Wanda did with Lee Hickman in which Wanda spoke of her poetic practice as “a higher form of politics.” It may have been Bruce Williams who spoke of this interview. In any case, it was good to hear Lee Hickman’s name mentioned at this gathering by someone other than myself. Both of us were the editors who most frequently published Wanda’s poetry in the mid-1970s. In a similar manner, it was also gratifying to hear, late in the afternoon, someone mention Harvey Robert Kubernik, without any prompting as to his important contribution to the maturation of Los Angeles-based poets.

 

The musical contributions were far from over. Earlier in the afternoon, Ruth Buell had sung for a while, and toward the end, Dennis Holt contributed a lovely rendition of a song based on a poem by Pablo Neruda. Austin said, “I could listen to that melody all afternoon.” By now, one could tell that it was dark outside. Austin called me to the stage and I spoke briefly about Momentum magazine and read a short excerpt from Holdouts, in which Wanda appears frequently enough that Austin joked in his introduction that the book should have been called, “Wanda Coleman and company.” Gloria Alvarez Edina, Luis Campos and Linda Albertano finished up the tributes. In particular, Linda Albertano was able to give a full-throated cry of exuberant wistfulness. She walked off the stage with tears being shed on behalf of all of us, and I am grateful – and will remain grateful – for her ability to absorb and release in tender sympathy our common burden of Wanda’s absence.

 

Some of the people who were there but who did not speak included Linda Fry, Susan Suntree (who sat next to Linda and me), Liz Gonzalez and her husband, Holly Prado, Phoebe MacAdams Ozuna, Jim Cushing and his companion (each of whom attended both Saturday and Sunday’s events), Roger Taus (whose son, Chris, was a student of mine at Phoenix High School), David James, Laurel Ann Bogen (who valiantly worked at the desk at the entrance during the entire event), Amelie Frank, Lynell George, Ellyn Maybe, Ellen (Reich), Brendan Constantine, the sculptor Sean Carrillo, Holaday Mason, Jim Natal, Fred Whitlock, Carlye Archibeque, Michel Bernstein, and Elizabeth Iannaci. Florence Weinberger was caught off-guard when she was asked to speak. “I thought I was just signing a guest list.” My guess is that David Ulin would have spoken, but he might have then felt that he had compromised his journalistic objectivity.You can find his astute and well-honed reflections on both gatherings at:

 

http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-et-jc-weekend-tributes-wanda-coleman-20140120,0,7511270.story#ixzz2r0py5N5D

 

Finally, there were many people there whose names I do not know, but some of whose faces I recognized, as well as many unintroduced strangers. For those whose names I do not know and whose faces I did not recollect as familiar, forgive me for not writing you into this account of a tiny portion of Wanda Coleman’s afterlife. As the occasion made us grateful for the life she devoted to our enlightenment; in equal measure, we were gratified to have all of you there.

 

As a footnote, I especially want to thank Amelie Frank, who gave me a copy of the recently published book of Austin and Wanda’s love poems just after I signed the guest register. “We’re almost out of copies,” she said and I felt very fortunate to be there at that precise moment.