Tag Archives: Laurel Ann Bogen

Books Performance Poetry

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.

Performance Poetry Theater

Two Theater Companies in Los Angeles

September 22, 2013

TWO THEATER COMPANIES IN LOS ANGELES

When I moved to Los Angeles, I was more interested in theater than poetry. The most important theater company in the city back then was the Company Theater, located on Robertson Boulevard south of Olympic Boulevard. This troupe of actors and actresses understood better than anyone else in Los Angeles how to empower the “empty space” that Peter Brooks had proposed as the only sine qua non for theater. They also fit the prevalent pattern of being the senior segment of young people who were revising cultural expectations for avant-garde activity. Although the category of “baby boomers” gets more frequently cited in this period, the cultural reality of the 1960s and the first year or two of the 1970s was that young people born between 1940 and 1945 were the primary instigators of alternative artistic communities. One of leading actors in the Company Theater, for instance, was Gar Campbell, who was born in 1943 (11/9/43), just a few days after Sam Shepard (11/5/43).

It’s my understanding that Campbell went to the University of Southern California, where he met most of the people with whom he would go on to create the Company Theater, after which he founded and directed plays at the Pacific Resident Theater. The USC connection with the Company Theater goes past the undergraduate terms of its founding members. Laurel Ann Bogen may have been the first poet in Los Angeles to have seen the troupe, since she says they returned to campus to take part in an orientation week presentation in the fall of 1967. USC wanted to showcase the up-and-coming troupe as an example of the intrepidity of their recent graduates and Bogen’s life-long foray in poetry’s underground probably was kindled by the celebratory energy of Company Theater; Bogen herself became involved with the group in the second half of the 1970s, founding the Los Angeles Poets’ Theater at their venue as a way of trying to revive their depleted circumstances.

Although I attended and enjoyed the undulant sensuality of their early signature rite of passage, “The James Joyce Liquid Memorial Theater,” the play that hurled an image into my permanent definition of theater was “The Emergence.” Several characters who seemed to be jovial versions of the knight in Bergman’s “Seventh Seal” were off on a quest: suddenly the theater went dark. When the lights came up, we in the audience could barely see the actors stretched out on their backs on the floor of the stage, the backlit tips of their boots protruding past a long, slightly curved board that was as far downstage as possible. The heads of each character were tilted up off the stage floor; each character peered “down” at us, each of whom in the small theater (which perhaps held 90 people) had a profound sense that suddenly we were at the bottom of a deep well, and that what the actors were seeing were these odd characters peering back at them with awkward expectation of being recognized as exactly what we were: illuminated, puzzled beings, tussled into their story. Never before, and never quite to that extent since, have I felt as if the audience was so profoundly integrated into the mise-en-scene.

The Company Theater went on to produce a considerable number of plays, especially by Michael McClure, with whom later I would have the privilege of studying at Padua Hills. One of the twenty most startling performances I have ever seen in any theater was by Gar Campbell, whose enactment of the mania of “Spider Rabbit” at the Company Theater on Robertson Blvd. still reverberates in my mind. One of the other plays the Company staged at their original digs was Lance Larsen’s “The Hashish Club,” which was derived from Theophile Gautier’s “Le Club des Hachichins” (1846). I saw the play before it moved to New York and had a very brief run at the Bijoux Theater in January, 1975. Gar Campbell, Lance Larsen, Dennis Redfield, Jack Rowe and Michael Stefani comprised the cast. The one-sheet program for the production in Los Angeles prominently acknowledges Trish Soodik as the person whose idea of an adaptation was the original impetus. Soodik was a very fine and courageous actress who was brilliant in a production of McClure’s The Grabbing of the Fairy. Soodik died a couple years ago and you can still read the blog of her final months. Her first husband, novelist and scriptwriter Henry Bromell, also recently died. In addition to acting, Soodik was herself a playwright. I regret not having a chance to see her play, “The 60s,” at the Pacific Resident Theater on Venice Boulevard.

I can’t recall the specific reasons that the Company Theater found itself with an open enough schedule to sublet its venue, but a theater troupe that had started in Hermosa Beach in the late 1960s found refuge on Robertson Boulevard in the early seventies. The Burbage Theater Company, headed up by Sal Romeo, had run into conflicts with the local police in Hermosa Beach and given up its venue rather than endure harassment for putting on plays such as Rochelle Owens’s Futz. Finding another theater to work in was less than easy, and so it eventually borrowed the Company Theater’s space for a production of Paul Foster’s Tom Paine. The Burbage also staged Ionesco’s Exit the King for a brief run at the Company Theater. Theater company rarely thrive as houseguests, however, and fortunately the Century City Playhouse on Pico Boulevard became available for a lease. At that point I joined the Burbage as it slowly pulled together its first production in Rancho Park, The Devils.