Los Angeles poet Wanda Coleman, born in 1946, died at Cedar-Sinai Medical Center on November 22, 2013.
The day after my marriage to Howard, November 23, 2013, I read in the Los Angeles Times of the sad news of the death, at age 67, of poet Wanda Coleman. Her husband, Austin Straus, vaguely told the media that her death came after a long illness, which I presume was cancer. Most of us, apparently, knew nothing about her sickness. Friend and poet Rae Armantrout noted on Facebook that she had just recently had lunch with Wanda, who appeared to be just fine. So it came something of a shock to us all, particularly given Wanda’s young age.
Any time such a death happens, one calls up memories of that person from the past, and my relationship with Wanda went far back, to the first days after I’d moved to California in the 1990s, when I served with her on a California Arts Council panel in Sacramento.
The panelists, Michael Palmer, Dennis Phillips, Michael Davidson, Wanda, me, and, one or two other whose faces I can no longer conjure up, shared a great rapport that year. As often happens at such events, we joined one another at dinner, and, by meal’s end, begin sharing stories—these coincidentally centering on our encounters with a fellow California poet and teacher. Each of us told our tales, resulting in much laughter, before Wanda, who had remained somewhat quiet previously, finally spoke up: “Very early on in my writing career I decided to take a poetry-writing course. As a young, poor Black woman, I was trying to hold down two jobs, across town, racing down the freeways, and at night taking this course in poetry. I had so little time that I had to stop along the highway just to write and then race, again across town, in order to get to class. Then this turkey, when he finally read my poems, had the nerve to say that I wouldn’t ever be a good poet since I did not get down to the essence of life!” This is only an approximation of her comments; in reality, her observations were much more hilarious, and I recall we all laughed heartily in response to her tale.
Somehow in those few days I grew somewhat close to Wanda, and during breaks we often chatted. At the time I was a young, brash, somewhat insensitive spokesman for innovative poetry. Evidently, I had already read some of Wanda’s writing, because I had the nerve to ask her right out why did she employ such normative language in her work. Wanda looked at me for a second in what one might describe as her slightly outraged, evaluating stare, before answering: “Listen, you fool, I already speak another language, being a Black woman. When I write poetry, I want to communicate and not be misunderstood.”
“Maybe,” I answered. “But there’s always the danger in using the language of the white academy that your words will get even more misunderstood because that language is used so manipulatively by media, politics, sciences and even well-meaning but thoughtless writers. In my own writing I try to express myself in a language that can’t be so easily transformed into something else. The reader has to work through my more privatized syntax to comprehend what I’m saying, to work just enough that he or she might discover a deeper reality. And, of course, by writing that way, I too uncover what I feel are deeper complexes of significance.”
Wanda eyed at me as if she were considering whether I too might be what she would describe as a “turkey,” but said nothing. I even think that she appreciated, just a little, the honesty, while ignoring the audaciousness of my statements. In any event, we became friends, later serving on other panels on both the state and local levels.
Once, based evidently on a misunderstanding, Wanda wrote me one of her “sassy” letters, informing me that “she came tall” and would not permit anyone like me to say something contrary. But since, as I explained to her in a written response, I had never said anything to anyone against her, I simply didn’t know what she talking about. To this day, I still have no clue what brought on her reaction. But my letter apparently ended any hostility. The next time I saw Wanda, we greeted one another with open arms.
I did once satirize one of her poems, a work about “coffee,” which she read at a slightly absurd event to which poets had been invited to read on Oscar night. For that affair I had been “hired,” with a free ticket, to attend pseudonymously as a German poet suddenly encountering the American poetic scene—I had originally imagined it as part of a long book in which I might explore American poetry through the eyes of an intelligent but unknowing foreigner. Wanda and Austin seemed pleased to see me (as Douglas) there; and I was sorry later to have mocked her poem, through my persona of Gottlieb Kasper, in the pages of Paul Vangelisti’s magazine Ribot (for a complete description of this event, see My Year 2006). If Wanda had ever seen through my persona, she never mentioned it to me. Besides, I had made no evaluation of the poem, but simply presented it in the context of a rather comical event.
Over the years, moreover, I had begun to regularly read Wanda’s books, and although her volumes often contained what I might describe as normative, narrative-based poems, I found many other poems with which I was impressed. Indeed, Wanda, throughout her career, carefully and sometimes colorfully hollowed out her own poetic territory, which was not an easy fit with either the dominant Black aesthetic or the white academic ones. Despite her stated desire to straightforwardly communicate with others, she was creating a body of work far more dense and convoluted than perhaps even she imagined.
One could almost perceive her various “Essays on Language” from her remarkable book Mecurochrome of 2001, as being linguistic explorations akin to the works of some “Language” poets:
a warped sense of communication
impairs the business of conventional narrative
like feeling robbed, the rules of orgasm no mystery
given a voice, one must struggle with one’s own
social type-casting on the edge of ambiguity
it’s exclusively inconclusive
I am compelled to protest
the demise of the deliciously clandestine.
Certainly in this work’s advocacy of inconclusiveness and the clandestine, it is a long ways from wanting to straight-forwardly communicate.
Her rebellion against “social type-casting” also suggests a quite radical shift from a poem such as “Coffee,” with its litany of the delights which “make you black” and her earlier more race-based poems in Mad Dog Black Lady and Heavy Daughter Blues. Embracing figures such as Robert Duncan and other experimental modernists, Coleman was also exploring traditional forms such as the sonnet. And as her poetry expanded so too did her sense of “outsiderness.” Like Los Angeles poet Will Alexander, also born and raised in South Central Los Angeles, Wanda—despite her status as Los Angeles’ unofficial poet laureate—began to feel as if she were being pulled away from her own roots. Having grown up in Watts, she had become a kind of poet-celebrity (having even won an Emmy for her writing on the day-time soap opera, One Day at a Time) who now looked outward to include influences as various as Shelley, Whitman, Dickinson, Melville, and Poe—as well as major Beat and Black figures. It was this remarkable embracement of the whole of poetry and her continual search for new poetic expression that made Wanda such an appealing figure to me. But the very fact that she dared speak out against what she felt of an inauthentic writing, even within the Black community, led her perhaps, in the end, to feel a kind of true isolation. Certainly she felt some bitterness, as expressed recently in an as-yet unpublished conversation with Paul Vangelisti.
If I live long enough, I’ll put the gory details in a memoir. Now that books are going the way of dinosaurs, it appears one will no longer be able to publish, therefore will one perish? Will someone create an electronic book that one can autograph? Or has that been done already? Will the opportunity to be discovered posthumously become a thing of the past, ruling out “better late than never?” Will the literary world become as pornographic as the music business? A world in which—with few exceptions—only the beautiful and attractive mediocrities succeed while true singers are doomed to the background?
Throughout that interview Coleman admits to what she now perceives as a kind of outlandish naiveté about the entire poetry world within which she began writing.
In her 2002 review in the Los Angeles Times of the beloved poet Maya Angelou, Coleman finally lashed out at what she now saw as mere fakery in that poets’ A Song Flung Up to Heaven:
“Song” is a sloppily written fake, bloated to 214 pages by large type and widely spaced chapter headings, more than half its 33 chapters averaging two to four pages. Powers exhibited in “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” have deserted her in “Song.” Her titillating confessions and coquettish allusions come off as redundant and hollow old tricks. She not only engages in her usual name-dropping but shockingly makes that the book’s content. Shamelessly, she cannibalizes the reputations of three major black figures: Malcolm X (Al-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz), James Baldwin and King Jr., using them as linchpins on which to promote her specious pose as an activist.
For Wanda, finally, Angelou had abandoned writing serious poetry in an attempt, as she described it “to play the race card,” “like the muse Euterpe or Sister Flue, coochie-cooing admirers out of shirts and socks, transforming bigots into simpering ninnies and academic cowardice into five figure honorariums.”
No matter how one might admire Angelou as a writer, one has to admit that such a brutally honest evaluation of a fellow Black poet might, perhaps should have resulted in cheers. How much easier for her had Wanda simply mirrored the pious appreciations of the media who just today celebrated the empty and worn images of Angelou’s poetic appreciation for Nelson Mandela:
No sun outlasts its sunset, but will rise again and bring the dawn.
along with her insipid comments: “He was the David of our society.”
Coleman was banned from the African-American bookstore Esowan, and ostracized by many members of the Black community throughout the country. It pained her so deeply that even four years later, in 2005, when we celebrated my Southern California anthology of “Innovative Poetry”—in which I included Coleman—she was still speaking of it, lamenting her increasing sense of isolation.
A year after her “scandalous” Angelou review, Wanda wrote “Broken Rhythms, which” represents to me a world vastly different one from the one she was imagining in the 1990s, when I first met her. Her life now was now filled with terrible demons, as the poet shed “all the conceits.”:
like spellstuff all conceits I have shed
collect on sun-slashed soil where a
three-headed woman gathers them to make
her hoodoo a powder in fire to summon a spirit
a finely ground pinch of alcohol to cure
a cough, or in a salve to beautify aging skin
make your wish for love for hate
and burn the fragrant wax with a hint of dust
chant toward the sky watch. the children gather
watch the children dance watching the children’s eyes
watch. the children with tongues like wolves.
If nothing else in this bleak, magical poem, Coleman has certainly gotten down to the essence of life, a survival that, to her way of thinking, requires a magical potion in order to protect herself from the even the tongues of children, ready to devour their own kind.
And already as early as her selection from American Sonnets (1994), some reprinted in the Sun & Moon book, Place as Purpose: Poetry from the Western States of 2002, Coleman had expressed an anguish that proposed death as a solution:
i am seized with the desire to end
my breath in short spurts, shoulder pain
the world lengthens then contracts
(in deep water—my sudden swimming, the surface
breaks, thoughts leap, the Buick bends
a corner, an arc of light briefly sweeps the dark walls)
everywhere there are temples of stone
and strange chantings—ashes angels and dolls
i forget my lover. i want a stranger—
to shiver at the unfamiliar touch of the one
who has not yet touched me
a furred spider to entrap my hungers
in his silk, with virulent toxin
to numb my throat
A few years after our 2005 celebration of my Southern California anthology, Wanda sent me, for publication, a new manuscript, including several of her newer American Sonnets, works of startling beauty and clarity (an earlier sonnet “after Robert Duncan” ends with the bleak cry: “a memory. I sweat the eternal weight of graves.”).
I suffered over my financial inability to publish this work immediately, but felt that it would be wrong to hold onto such a powerful manuscript until I might be able to produce it. I wrote her a pained letter explaining that if I undertook the work, the delay would not result in the amicable relationship we now had. Wanda answered: “Yes, I feared that, and I am so glad that we two can remain such good friends.” I never heard from her again. But her poetry continues to reverberate. In the end, she communicated at a far deeper level than most of her contemporaries, and, despite her fears of not being posthumously discovered, had been deeply admired and loved by many of us during her life.
Los Angeles, December 7, 2013