Wanda Coleman (1946-2013)

November 23, 2013

I was driving to my sister-in-law’s home in Thousand Oaks this morning to celebrate my mother-in-law’s birthday when Linda’s cell phone rang. It was Laurel Ann Bogen and I could tell from the tone of Linda’s voice that Laurel was giving her very bad news. “I’ll tell Bill as soon as we get to my sister’s house,” Linda said, and I knew for certain that the news must involve one of my poet friends. By now, anyone who is reading this blog will probably know that Wanda Coleman died yesterday (Friday, November 22, 2013), at the age of 67. Within two hours of hearing the news from Laurel, who had received a call from Austin Straus earlier this morning, a short obituary was in the on-line edition of the Los Angeles Times; later that afternoon, I read a tribute to her by Michael Lally in his blog. I didn’t get home until after 7 p.m., so I am only now getting a chance to record some of my memories of Wanda, who was one of the first poets I was to publish on a regular basis back in my early days as an editor and publisher.

I don’t actually remember the first time I met her, but by the time I published her for the first time in Momentum magazine, she had also read in the reading series I was in charge of at the Century City Playhouse on Pico Boulevard. The first issue of my magazine, Momentum, had come out in the spring, 1974, and among the manuscripts to come in for consideration for the summer issue was a poem entitled “Mad Dog Black Lady, Frothing” by Wanda Coleman. I’m not certain if this was her first published poem. According to the Poetry Foundation’s website entry on her, she had had a short story published in 1970, but her contributor’s note to the second issue of Momentum mentioned nothing about previous publications. Two years later, the only magazines she listed for her credits were Bachy, Mt. Alverno Review, and issues two and four of Momentum. In other words, Lee Hickman, Michael C. Ford and I seem to have been the only editors in the United States willing to speak up for a thirty-year-old African-American poet in Los Angeles. Fortunately, our support proved enough to help convince John Martin, the publisher of Black Sparrow Press, to publish a chapbook of her poems in 1977. Two years later, Martin published a full-length collection, the title poem of which had first appeared in Momentum magazine in 1974, and she slowly began to attract an audience outside of Los Angeles.

Wanda went on to win several prizes and awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. She never got the critical acclaim she deserved, however. I once asked Aldon Nielsen why Wanda Coleman did not get more attention and he responded, “Wanda is a difficult case.” Our conversation was cut short by the need for each of us to get to the next panel, but I hope some day to have a chance to hear Aldon elaborate on that response. I suspect that some of the problem remains rooted in the complex tangle of race-sex-class-genre-regionality that I quoted Wanda as saying about her predicament as a writer in Holdouts:

My poverty level steadily climbs. I pay blood for everything. Open my pages and read my bleed: the essence of racism is survival; the primary mechanism, economics. The power to have is the power to do. I, black worker “womon” poet angelena, disadvantaged first by skin, second by class, third by sex, fourth by craft…., fifth by regionality.

(“Clocking Dollars,” African Sleeping Sickness, 1990. 218)

 

Any one of these disadvantages could well overwhelm a poet who had less determination than Wanda. If she found comrades in Los Angeles, it was in large part because determination was about all we had in our favor. She stood out, though, not only for her indefatigable commitment, but for her confidence that the scene she was part of was destined for eventual greatness.

“Up at Lee’s new apartment on Griffith, back in the early 80s, we watch the first documentary video tape of our maturing literary scene – another failed attempt to get any documentation on the new Southern California bards on Public Broadcasting. Before leaving I tell Lee that one day those video tapes, and the poets on them, will be very important. That we’re the generation. Like Hemingway and Gertrude, like Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury, like Henry (Miller) and Anais (Nin), Kerouac and Ginsberg. We’re a group a movement a happening. I’m not bragging, I’m describing what I believe, the place where I’ve invested my future. Lee buries his hands deep in his pockets and goes into thoughtful silence as he walks me to my car. The night is clear, the stars twinkle, I can see the observatory from where we stand.

“I’ve never thought of us quite that way, Wanda.”

I’m surprised and not sure I believe him. I’d always assumed Lee had more ego. My laughter fills the street. “Thank about it Lee,

we’re literary L.A., baby.”

(Native in a Strange Land, 1996, 114)

If “literary L.A.” began to attract the attention of critics such as Julian Murphet, it was largely because Wanda Coleman’s writing was never less than utterly honest and candid. At the same time, her bluntness did not mute the underlying lyricism of her vision. I never tired of hearing Wanda read her poems. Did I say “read”? Her words lifted off the page with a splendid, passionate intonation that no one else I’ve ever heard can possibly match. Like all the great musicians, nothing undulates quite like the “live” performance. I am so fortunate, Wanda, that I got to hear you read so many times. How is it that I think you hear me write those words? I’ll type them out again: I am so fortunate, Wanda, that I got to hear you read so many times. In suddenly realizing I’m on the verge of needing the requital of a third line, I wonder if perhaps this is what is meant by American blues.