“Wicked Enchantment”: Wanda Coleman’s Selected Poems

WICKED ENCHANTMENT: selected poems, by Wanda Coleman; edited by Terrance Hayes.
(Black Sparrow: Godine; 2020)

Wanda Coleman’s first posthumous volume of “selected poems” has just been published under the imprint with which she associated for most of her life: Black Sparrow. Now operated by Godine, on the East Coast, this collection reflects the difference in editorial poetics between John Martin, the founding publisher of Black Sparrow, and the sensibility that marks East Coast canonical preferences. For those who know and admire Coleman’s poetry, the obvious thought experiment is to imagine this book as having been edited by John Martin, and then to set that volume side by side with this one. What makes Coleman a poet worth re-reading is, of course, the extreme likelihood that neither of those volumes would be the one assembled by any of Coleman’s most insouciant admirers. Martin, Hayes, and myself, for example, all agree that Coleman is an exceptionally impressive poet; our disagreement, ironically, is precisely why she merits her a secure spot in the American canon. Temporary occupants of the canon tend to be poets on whom the critics can easily agree about a set of core poems. It’s the quirky, unpredictable poets — the ones who give the canon makers fits because of their contumacious non-alignment with any one school — that end up being the long distance runners in canon formation. The divergence in choices, therefore, of work that deserves to be considered most representative is precisely the aspect that distinguishes Coleman’s poetry. To continue the thought experiment, for a brief moment, consider how this volume might have turned out if Quincey Troupe had been chosen to edit it.

In pondering all these possibilities, I would like to start by citing Darnton’s “communications circuit” and noticing how the publisher is given a coeval position in the book’s coming-into-existence, its displacement from the private to the public. The erasure of publication history in almost all literary commentary is standard procedure, and this approach undermines any comprehensive understanding of the social meaning of a literary life. The erasure of Martin, for instance, as Coleman’s most important editorial mentor is a typical example of the casual way this aporia is generated. If the standard page at the beginning of a “new and selected” collection of poems provides an overview of other publications (“Also by….”), one notes that the publisher is not listed next to each of Coleman’s 17 titles. The majority of Coleman’s titles would be from Black Sparrow, and imagine how the repetition of that name down the column of titles would point to the value of a reliable ally in a life of a writer who looked social disorder right in the eye, and was more than occasionally forced to blink in disbelief at the racist obstreperousness she confronted.

In point of fact, there should be other titles listed in Coleman’s literary chronology. Her first collection from Black Sparrow, Art in the Court of the Blue Fag, is inexplicably not listed; however, Wicked Enchantment is not meant to be a scholarly edition, but rather a “take” on her work by one of the most important poets working in the United States today. His passion for Coleman’s work was quite evident at the time of her death; he made a trip to Los Angeles to pay tribute to her at a memorial service at the Los Angeles Public Library. I remember his moments on the stage as among the most effusively haunting of that occasion.

In expressing my hope that this book finds its way into hundreds of libraries, however, I need to pause for full disclosure, for I am hardly an impartial observer. I was the first editor in this country to publish Wanda Coleman’s poetry in three different issues of a literary magazine; I was also the first editor to include her poetry in a significant anthology. My poet-friend Lee Hickman was also one of the first to publish Wanda in more than one issue of a magazine. Coleman had the support of her fellow Los Angeles poets, but the city as one of her prime subjects is hardly visible in this collection. Is it possible to understand the urgency with which Coleman speaks in “American Sonnet 16” unless one has also read “Los Angeles Death-Trip”?

I have a couple of problems with the book, the first of which is the staging of the poems. While the table of contents does break up the list of poems with a bold header that foregrounds the title of the book in which the poem first appeared, the poems run consecutively in the book without any break for book divisions. My guess is that Godine wanted to save money on the printing and make every page pay its freight. The problem is that this arrangement ends up diminishing the presence of one of her best known poems, “I Live for My Car.” It’s not that I don’t appreciate the challenge of running an independent publisher, but would it really have been prohibitive to have the arrangement of the poems be:
Page 29 — “Beaches: Why I Don’t Care for Them”
Page 30 — Blank
Page 31 — IMAGOES
Page 32 — Blank
Page 33 — “I Live for My Car”

Quite frankly, this is the kind of design arrangement that is provided for any “selected poems” by a significant writer when one wants to make a case for their accomplishments. Such a design accentuates the accomplishment of having many volumes of poetry published in the course of a career and delineates the maturation of the writer. It’s a form of literary cartography. If Wanda were alive, I don’t think she would not notice this unnecessary compression, and since she isn’t here, I’m speaking up for her. This truncation verges on being disrespectful. If you can’t afford to do a first-class edition of poems, then start a GoFundMe campaign and raise the extra money you need to give these poem the formal presentation that they deserve.

Quite frankly, this is the kind of design arrangement that is provided for any “selected poems” by any significant writer. If Wanda were alive, I don’t think she would not notice this unnecessary compression in Godine’s edition, and since she isn’t here, I’m speaking up for her. This truncation is disrespectful. If you can’t afford to do the book with class, then start a GoFundMe campaign and raise the extra money you need to give these poem the formal presentation that they deserve.

The second problem concerns the emphasis on the “painterly” side of Wanda Coleman’s work. She published over 1000 poems, and some of the best known are meant to be provocative. There will be readers of this volume for whom this selection is their first encounter with her writing, and it will come as a shock to them some day, when her “Collected Poems” is published, to discover poems such as “Where I Live” were left out of the “Selected Poems.” The absence of the sequence of poems entitled “Art in the Court of the Blue Fag” and “South Central Death Trip” will additionally leave that future reader even more confounded about their initial exposure to Coleman’s work. Am I saying that Hayes has “cleaned up” Coleman for an academic audition? If we are to speculate about what the mid-21st century canon of American poetry might look like, it would be naive to think that formal considerations will not come into play. The inclusion of so many “American Sonnets” might well prove to be a smart move by Hayes in his advocacy of Coleman’s canonical standing. In fact, it might well assist the “sooner rather than later” appearance of a “Collected Poems.” On the other hand, Coleman was in the vanguard of “Black Lives Matter” when the leaders of hat movement was still in grade school. That aspect of her work deserves inclusion.

The final problem I have with Wicked Enchantment is the erasure of Wanda’s poet-husband, Austin Straus, from any mention in the book. If Austin were still alive, I wonder if this collection would appear without mentioning him. To the best of my knowledge, he would have been in charge of Wanda’s literary estate, and I have a hard time believing that he would have given permission to end the book short of including a citation of The Love Project: A Marriage Made in Poetry (Red Hen Press, 2014). Wicked Enchantment includes poems dedicated to Eloise Klein Healy, Yusef Komunyakaa, Anna Halpern, Tim & Kathy Joyce, Robert Mezey, Dennis Brutus, Tessa Christensen, and Gloria Macklin. Where, therefore, is Wanda Coleman’s “Sonnet to Austin”? Or why wasn’t one of her early classic “Stand Up” poems, “Pigging Out,” which is dedicated to Austin, included? For that matter, why isn’t Wanda’s membership as an OSU (original Stand Up) poet cited in the introduction? “Chair Affair,” for example, is obviously a card-carrying member of the Stand Up poetry movement, which had its origins in the city Wanda Coleman was born and raised in, and which she fused into a home base of a trope. As a major figure in the Stand Up movement, therefore, when someone undertakes to write the introduction to her “Collected Poems,” I hope that that contextual aspect of her work’s reception by her fellow Los Angeles poets will be noted, along with her contributions to spoken word projects produced by the legendary master-of-ceremonies/producer Harvey Robert Kubernik? The recent release of a new album by X, with lyrics largely written by Exene Cervenka, should serve as a reminder — with this book’s appearance at almost the same time — that Exene and Wanda shared a full-length vinyl album, Twin Sisters.

With these reservations in mind, Wicked Enchantment is still an absolutely necessary part of any library’s selection of contemporary poetry. If some of my favorite poems by Wanda Coleman are missing from this volume, I must also say that several poems chosen by Hayes, which I had neglected in the past to categorize as being among her best, prove what a discerning touch Terrance Hayes has brought to this project; and I back his decision to follow Coleman’s lead in the way she distributed the sequences of her poems among larger groupings. In most editions of a selected poems, a three-poem such as Coleman’s “Earthmother” would no doubt be printed consecutively. Instead, Hayes keeps the stutter-step distribution of the poem intact: Part 1 appears on page 178; Part 2 on page 182, and part 3 on page 209. This undulation of emergence and submerging of a sequence of poems allows the reader to absorb the layering effect that Coleman’s poems as a body of work fuse with a critique that never relents. Resistance is palimpsestual, and Coleman calls on us to look closely at the writing underneath the shrieks of protest.

Another outstanding poem chosen by Hayes which I did not fully appreciate before reading it in “Wicked Enchantment” is “Things No One Knows.” It has a Villonesque last-will-and-testament feel to it that makes me wish we had easy access to a recording of Wanda reading the poem. One of the things that Terrance Hayes does not emphasize enough was the extraordinary charisma that Wanda’s voice brought to each of her words. Here is the final stanza of “Things No One Knows”:

I am trapped in the hold of my greedy grief
and expect to keep circling. I expect my son to escape
and my husband to die during exquisite crisis. the federal
bureau of pajamas is after my hot cross buns. I expect to
awaken from sleep soon. I expect my banana nut bread to
go stale and uneaten I expect to die poem less and to be
cremated in state ovens. I expect my ashes
to be scattered like pollen, to take wing on the wind

like buddhaflies.

“Rhythm is the total sound of a line’s movement,” Karl Shapiro emphasized. The dominant anapestic movement in the stanza enfolds the images into an aching threnody, but the total sound of these words would be amplified to maximum subtlety in the “ear of the mind” of most readers if they could first hear Wanda Coleman reading the poem out loud.

So what are some of the aspects of the poems by Coleman which Hayes has selected that I would like other critics to be alert to? I would urge others to pay attention to the way her poems are in dialogue with other projects that might not readily come to mind. For example, Anna Deveare Smith’s TWILIGHT has a monologue by Elaine Brown in which her main point is that growing old as a revolutionary is perhaps the most revolutionary act of all. This point is part of the impetus behind Coleman’s “American Sonnet 16,” which is on page 116.

Above all, I would like to see critics take on the challenge of a close reading of “Salvation Wax,” a poem that is over 20 pages long, but almost gets lost within the vast number of “American Sonnets” that are featured in the book. Long poems such as “Salvation Wax” were one of key features of Los Angeles-based poetry in the 1970s and 1980s, and a poem on the scale of “Salvation Wax” reflects the influence of poets such as Lee Hickman, Kate Braverman, Harry Northup, Paul Vangelisti, and Dennis Phillips.

Hayes is at his best in selecting the poems in Imagoes. Heavy Daughter Blues, and African Sleeping Sickness. How rare it is to have almost 50 straight pages of rambunctious audacity refusing to let up! Among the poems that caught me off-guard was “Nosomania,” which somehow I didn’t remember reading before, but which is now one of my favorite poems of Coleman, on an equal backbeat footing with “I Love the Dark,” “Nocturne,” and “How does it hurt?” As strong as the editing is in this portion of Wicked Enchantment, I wish the book had added another 25 to 30 pages of work from her writing in the 1970s. There are 88 poems in Wanda Coleman’s first book, Mad Dog Black Lady, the title phrase of which was first published in my magazine, Momentum. Hayes chooses only eight of those 88 poems as being worthy of appearing in Wicked Enchantment. In addition to “Where I Live,” which is given a close reading by Laurence Goldstein in Poetry Los Angeles (University of Michigan Press), other poems that should have been selected from MDBL include “Son of a,” “Luz,” “Beyond Sisters,” “His Old Flame, Lady Venice,” “”The Emotional Con Meets a Virginal Ideal,” “Sweet Mama Wanda Tells Fortunes for a Price,” “Drone,” “Poet Surgery,” “Word Game,” “Dear Little Boy,” and “Coffee.” If all dozen of these poems were included, one would have a better understanding of Coleman’s debut as a poet.

Another critic who appreciates Coleman’s early work is David James. In “Poetry/Punk/Production: Some Postmodern Writing in L.A.” David James argues that Charles Bukowski, “more than any other single writer, made a place for Los Angeles on the map of contemporary poetry. In being L.A.’s “exemplary (poetic) practitioner,” Bukowski put his stamp on the city’s poetic vernacular as “decisively working-class. …. Though the notion of a school overseas the commonality of those poets who wrote in Bukowski’s tow, as well as contradicting his axiomatic social isolation, still his mode can be found everywhere. Wanda Coleman’s change of key,…. easily segues from the white working-class male to the black working-class female experience. Poems like “Where I live” feature the same working-class streets and businesses, the same casual violence and sexuality, the same problems with landlords and police, an dthe sideswiping of the same cars that comprised Bukowski’s world and, apart from the changes in ethnicity and gender, celebrated them with the same wry machismo.

the county is her pimp and she can turn a trick
swifter than any bitch ever graced this earth
she’s the baddest piece of ass on the west coast
named black Los Angeles
(from POWER MISSES: Essays Across (Un)popular Culture (London: Verso, 1996); 192-193)

In his introduction, Terrance Hayes claims that “There is no poet, black or otherwise, writing with as much wicked candor and passion.” I only wish that that candor had been given a chance to run at top speed in this volume. There is an abundance of candor and passion awaiting readers in Wicked Enchantment, but this volume is only a down payment on the unflinching vision that will be revealed in Coleman’s yet-to-be-collected poems.

*. *. *. *. *. *. *]

SOME ANTHOLOGIES IN WHICH WANDA COLEMAN’S POETRY APPEARED

“POETRY LOVES POETRY (Momentum Press, 1985), edited by Bill Mohr
“Eyes Bleed Pictures: Tales of a Black Adventurer”
“San Diego”
“Clown Show”
“6AM & Dicksboro”

THE MAVERICK POETS, edited by Steve Kowit
“Somewhere”
“luz”
“untitled” (“she was the perfect woman….”)

STAND UP POETRY (first edition, 1992) — Charles Harper Webb
“I Live for My Car”
“Pigging Out” — for Austin

INVOCATION L.A.: Urban Multicultural Poetry, edited by Michelle T. Clinton, Sesshu Foster, and Naomi Quinonez.
“Dream 28”
“Where I Live”

THE OUTLAW BIBLE OF AMERICAN POETRY, 1999), edited by Alan Kaufman
“South Central Death Trip, 1982” parts one through nine, pages 160=164.
NOTE: The omission of this poem from WICKED ENCHANTMENT is particularly striking, given that it did appear in this significant anthology of “underground” poetry.

WIDE AWAKE: The Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond, edited by Suzanne Lummis
“I Live for My Car”
“Wanda Why Aren’t You Dead?”
“Sonnet for Austin”
“Neruda”

“ACADEMIC” TEACHING ANTHOLOGIES

NORTON ANTHOLOGY OF POSTMODERN POETRY, edited by Paul Hoover
“Brute Strength”
“Essay On Language”
“African Sleeping Sickness”

NEW ANTHOLOGY OF AMERICAN POETS: Postmodernists (1950-present), edited by Steven Axelrod, Camille Roman, and Thomas Travisano.
“Dear Mama (4)
African Sleeping Sickness
African Sleeping Sickness (3) (after Theodore Roethke)
“Disconnections
“Supermarket Suite”

POST-SCRIPT
Wanda Coleman’s poetry does not appear in Andrei Codrescu’s Up Late nor Rita Dove’s The Penguin Anthology of 20th century American Poetry. But then again, neither does Bukowski appear in Dove’s anthology. The absence of Coleman’s poems from Dove’s anthology is particularly troubling, in that it makes me wonder if there is still afoot a desire to ostracize her for her honest review of a volume of poems by Maya Angelou. According to Hayes, Wanda had a reputation in some circles (who do not have the courage to speak for attribution) for being “mean,” but it was more the case in the years after that review that people who should have championed Coleman’s work were mean to her. And they know who they are.

P.P.S. The May 18th issue of the New Yorker magazine has an article entitled “The Fearless Invention of One of L.A. Greatest Poets,” in which Dan Chiasson states that Wanda Coleman is “one of the greatest poets ever to come out of L.A.,” and “that she shaped the city’s literary scene like few before her.” Unfortunately, the article provides no details that would illuminate readers about how she specifically “shaped” L.A.’s communities of poets. Quite frankly, I did not get a sense from the article that Mr. Chiasson was truly familiar with her work before he decided to write this article. I am pleased, of course, that Wanda Coleman is having her poetry receive a lengthy review in the New Yorker. If I could go back a half-century and show Wanda and John Martin a copy of this magazine side-by-side with a print-out of my blog article on her book, I know which one would have meant the most to her.

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/05/18/the-fearless-invention-of-one-of-las-greatest-poets