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Coleman, Wanda

COLEMAN, Wanda


Nationality: American. Born: Los Angeles, 13 November 1946. Education: Attended Valley Junior College, Van Nuys, California, and California State University, Los Angeles. Family: Married Austin Straus in 1981. Career: Writing team member, Days of Our Lives daytime drama series, Los Angeles, 1975–76; instructor, fiction writing workshop, UCLA Extension Program, Los Angeles, fall 1989; instructor, Otis-Parsons, Los Angeles, winter 1991; Fletcher Jones Endowed Chair in Literature & Writing, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, 1994–96; lecturer, department of black studies, California State University, Long Beach, spring 1997. Editorial coordinator, Studio Watts Arts Newsletter, 1968–70; poetry editorial consultant, Black Issues Magazine, New York/Washington, D.C., 1998–99. Editorial advisory board member, African American Review, Indiana, 1995—. Awards: Studio Watts grant, 1968–69; Emmy award for best writing in daytime drama, Days of Our Lives, 1976; National Endowment for the Arts fellow, 1981–82; Guggenheim fellow, poetry, 1984; Vesta award in writing, 1988; Poet of the Year, Pasadena City College, 1989; California Arts Council fellowship grant, 1989; Harriette Simpson Arnow prize, American Voice, 1990; Writer's Residency, Djerassi Foundation, 1990–91; Founders Literary Achievement award, International Black Writers & Artists, 1994; Lenore Marshall National Poetry prize, 1999, for Bathwater Wine.Address: P.O. Box 11223, Marina del Rey, California 90295–7223, U.S.A.

Publications

Poetry

Art in the Court of the Blue Fag. Santa Rosa, California, Black Sparrow Press, 1977.

Mad Dog Black Lady. Santa Rosa, California, Black Sparrow Press, 1979.

Imagoes. Santa Rosa, California, Black Sparrow Press, 1983.

24 Hours in the Life of Los Angeles, with Jeff Spurrier. New York, Alfred Van Der Marck Editions, 1984.

Heavy Daughter Blues: Poems & Stories, 1968–86. Santa Rosa, California, Black Sparrow Press, 1987.

The Dicksboro Hotel & Other Travels: Poems. Tarzana, California, Ambrosia Press, 1989.

African Sleeping Sickness: Stories & Poems. Santa Rosa, California, Black Sparrow Press, 1990.

Hand Dance. Santa Rosa, California, Black Sparrow Press, 1993.

American Sonnets. Kenosha, Wisconsin, Woodland Pattern/Light and Dust Press, 1994.

Bathwater Wine. Santa Rosa, California, Black Sparrow Press, 1998.

Recordings: Voices of the Angels, Freeway Records, 1981; English as/a Second Language, Freeway/Enigma, 1982; Neighborhood Rhythms, Freeway/Rhino Records, 1984; Twin Sisters, Freeway/Rhino Records, 1985; Black Angeles, New Alliance, 1988; High Priestess of Word, BarKubCo/New Alliance, 1989; Hollyword, BarKubCo/Rhino Records, 1990; Black & Blue News, BarKubCo/Idiot Savant/Widowspeak Records, 1991; Black & Tan, BarKubCo/New Alliance, 1991; Jazzspeak, BarKubCo/New Alliance, 1991; Berserk on Hollywood Boulevard, New Alliance/BarKubCo/Idiot Savant Records, 1991; Our Souls Have Grown Deep Like the Rivers: Black Poets Read Their Work, Rino World Beat/Rhino Records, 2000.

Novel

Mambo Hips & Make Believe. Santa Rosa, California, Black Sparrow Press, 1999.

Short Stories

A War of Eyes & Other Stories. Santa Rosa, California, Black Sparrow Press, 1988.

Other

Native in a Strange Land: Trials & Tremors. Santa Rosa, California, Black Sparrow Press, 1996.

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Critical Studies: "Doing Battle with the Wolf: A Critical Introduction to Wanda Coleman's Poetry" by Tony Magistrale, in Black American Literature Forum, 23(3), fall 1989; "The Anger of an Artist without Sanction: Wanda Coleman" by Kirk Silsbee, in L.A. Style (Los Angeles), March 1991; "So They Can See Me: Talking to Wanda Coleman" by Hillary Fielding, in Poetry Flash (Berkeley, California), January-February 1994; "Wanda Coleman: Featured Poet" by Rebecca Bush, in Slack (Boulder, Colorado), 1994; "Wanda Coleman: Native in a Strange Land" by Carol Schwalberg, in Poets & Writers, 26(5), September/October 1998; "Trash, Art, and Performance Poetry: Wanda Coleman" by Eric Murphy Selinger, in Parnassus (New York), 1998; "Revisit Western Criticism through Wanda Coleman" by Krista Comer, in Western American Literature (Logan, Utah), 33(4), winter 1999; interview with Rachel Levine, in ACM/Another Chicago Magazine (Chicago), 35, 1999; by S.K. Stanley, in African American Review, 33(2), 1999.

Wanda Coleman comments:

My influences are many and varied, and I use them depending on my intent at the moment of writing. My primary influences are those of writers encountered during my school years and those I discovered on my own as I matured. These writers cross the literary spectrum from Shakespeare to Camus, from Sartre to Melville. The French existentialists have probably had the greatest impact on me overall. Too, since I am black and multiply gifted, there are other influences equally powerful: those of music, dance, and visual art, particularly graphic design.

Although my parents were working-class poor, they struggled to provide me and my siblings with a culturally rich environment and succeeded. I use some of my musical training in performance, not to mention years spent in speech and debate. My musical training was classical, voice and the violin and piano (some dabbling on the cello, viola, and guitar). My dance background includes ballet and experimental dance theater (Beck and Molina, Anna Halprin). My father taught me his skills as a graphic artist, advertising man, and painter. As the writing has become dominant in my life, I have learned to channel all of my other loves into it in a jazzlike style. I like to think of myself as a fusionist in a broader usage of the term. My mother was a singer and played the piano, so she gave me my earliest piano lessons. I was an avid reader and was encouraged to read by both parents and was taken to concert halls, museums, and galleries all through my childhood. Coming of age in Los Angeles has been very difficult, and life as a poet here has proved more a trial than a pleasure. Yet I have survived to become the most prolific African-American poet in the history of Western verse.

Unlike the introvert who is my true nature, my poetry is urban and concerned with the material world as I rage against it and through it. Often my poems are also the stories of those I encounter along the way. Often my poems address those aspects of black consciousness still largely ignored, even by my African-American peers, that is, those of slave origin. I have lived long enough to become an influence myself and have inspired younger voices in this region. Others often use the word "uncompromising" to describe my work. I find that quite pleasing. Oh, while my musical bent was classical and gospel, I love modern jazz, rock and roll, folk music of the southern U.S., fado, and virtually anything else of quality. I have been a primary participant in the Los Angeles poetry renaissance that has largely gone undocumented for thirty years. This happenstance infuriates me, and that anger, among others, has gone into my work, not as therapy but as transformation into art.

*  *  *

Wanda Coleman's published works, including her collections of poetry, represent a quarter of a century of writing in Los Angeles. On the West Coast she is known as a "powerhouse poet," acclaimed more for the strident voice of her spoken word performances than for her published works, and she has made a number of recordings. In her poetry, as well as in her short stories and essays, Coleman persistently creates a desolate landscape of a torn humanity ravaged by racial injustice, economic oppression, failed relationships, and physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. There is no prospect of repair, healing, or reconciliation. Although she is most often cited for the anger and rage in her poetry, her canon reveals her to be a regional poet sensitive to the racial inequalities and economic disparities of black Americans. Her writings convey her keen ear for the urban vernacular and show her penchant for a clear, direct, and raw poetic style, yet her work has received little critical attention.

Coleman has said that Imagoes, published in 1983, "was my watershed book in which I acknowledged my full womanhood and attempted to place childhood in perspective." In the work she assumes an autobiographical stance that details her growth from girlhood to womanhood as she witnesses the disrespect accorded black men in America. In "Daddyboy" a father halts his children's use of their childhood term of endearment for him, snapping, "don't call me that no more!" In an attempt to explain the racial encoding behind the term, the mother states, "your father's black. white people disrespect black men by calling them boy/call him anything but."

As she reports on America's excluded underclass of the black urban poor, Coleman's poetic voice becomes editorial and repetitious in content, language, and structure. She avoids much of the compression common to poetry and opts for a prosaic rather than a lyrical form. Coleman's speakers, with whom she readily identifies, emit raw, blunt, streetwise, matter-of-fact details of the grim and painful episodes in the perilous subsistence of the black residents of Los Angeles. In "Under Arrest" a policeman itches to shoot a woman he has stopped: "freeze. freeze! that's right! freeze before I take/your head off. freeze! come on and raise. raise those/arms. get 'em up. let me see you raise those arms. high/or I'll take your head off. higher. higher! or/I'll spill your blood all over the sidewalk." Imagoes is stark in its statements on the dismal frustrations and the futility of black life in America, and Coleman's flat linguistic thrust depicts a world of infinite anguish. "The Big Empty—for Kalin" ends with "tear me from this cross/end my pain/wash it away in blood/take this towel/my life/throw it in."

Heavy Daughter Blues: Poems & Stories, 1968–1986 (1987) counters the theme in Imagoes of giving up with an air of stoicism, evident, for example, in the opening poem, "Some Rock Lady." Here the woman takes "stone injections" to steel herself "against the world" and emerges "solid as gibraltar." In "El Hajj Malik ElShabazz," a poetic tribute to Malcolm X, strength and artistic responsibility are apparent. The speaker asserts that Malcolm X lives on despite his assassination: "blood spilled out of you that day/blood running out and spilling/into us/where you live/where the black phoenix rises in our hearts/forever."

Heavy Daughter Blues is also ripe with the subject of betrayal in relationships, as well as women's overt sexuality, something that flavors much of Coleman's work. In "The Gossip" the speaker eagerly reveals the progress of a woman's ex in his new relationship: "she calls me up and tells me/she saw him just the day before and asks/how things are between us/all giggles &/she left her message/clawed into my heart with that long lush crimson/tongue of hers/which is why I never call back/she gets off in my ear." And in "Death 211" a woman who sees her lover with another woman longs to kill him: "I am still seeing them together/am blinded by her thighs across his/and the desire to kill." There is gender reversal in "Jerry 1969," in which a woman bids goodbye to her lover, pledging her love and promising to join him soon. But upon his departure the woman acts out her betrayal, stating, "and I was relieved that my act was over and made/my way to the nearest pawn shop/to hock my flawed solitaire." "Barry's Goodbye" is one of many Coleman poems that gives explicit testimony to women's sexuality, and in this respect it is similar to earlier poems like "Mama's Man" and "Kate."

Beginning in 1989 and continuing into the 1990s Coleman published a number of collections, including The Dicksboro Hotel & Other Travels: Poems (1989), African Sleeping Sickness: Stories & Poems (1990), Hand Dance (1993), and American Sonnets, a chapbook of 24 poems (1994). These volumes feature often anthologized poems like "Emmett Till" (1990), "American Sonnet 10" (1993), and "Today I Am a Homicide in the North of the City" (1990). Yet it was not until Coleman published Bathwater Wine in 1998 that she won national acclaim for her work. This volume earned Coleman the 1999 Lenore Marshall National Poetry prize from the Academy of American Poets.

A five-part bildungsroman, Bathwater Wine features a young black girl's uneasy transition to womanhood amid urban strife and luckless relationships. The first and second parts, "Dreamwalk" and "Disclosures," define the growing pains of a young girl's elementary and junior high school years, profile her father's futile struggles to halt the grinding poverty of their lives, and document her introduction to racial prejudice. In "Chapter 2 of the Story" a ten-year-old black girl is plagued by a white librarian whose "gray eyes policed me thru the stacks like dobermans" until the librarian finally "decided/she'd misjudged her little colored girl." The third section is titled "More American Sonnets (26–86)," and the fourth part "God Bless the Fire." In the fifth section, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Bluesbird," the girl responds to the riveting blues of adulthood. The poems in this section reflect the irony, anger, and outrage that epitomize Coleman's poetry. The opening poem, "Late Broadcast News," features the lines "six black men were killed and more than a hundred blacks were arrested when rioting started following the death of a 16-year-old mentally retarded black detainee in the country prison & the dead were all shot in the back."

In Bathwater Wine, as in many Coleman volumes, much of the urban action is centered in and around cars, the single visible possession of the economically deprived characters. In poems like "I Remember Romance in the Chevy Graveyard" a teenage girl recalls how "the spurs on his black leather boots jangled as/one scratched the door handle and the other/kept hitting the brake pedal." In "The Broken Car Window" a young couple tries to recapture teenage romance at a drive-in movie, and in "Closing Time" a work-weary waitress locking up the restaurant mulls, "at Trinity & Santa Barbara/the last clunker on the black top is mine." These poems recall earlier Coleman poems with cars as riveting images, as, for example, when the speaker in "I Live for My Car" states, "can't let go of it. to live is to drive." The poem "Parked" opens, "loud. Funk blast thru walls/I feel it clear across the street/in the car."

Coleman has not received the critical attention that is essential for a full explication of her work, perhaps because she crafts her poetry as recordings and photographs of America's voiceless and invisible impoverished underclass of blacks, the poor, women, and children. Coleman's stance is tough, but her work reflects a poet committed to honing a craft that gives voice and visibility to a little known community of Americans.

—B.J. Bolden

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