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Coleman, Wanda

Wanda Coleman

1946

Poet, critic

"Others often use the word 'uncompromising' to describe my work," poet Wanda Coleman told Contemporary Poets. "I find that quite pleasing." Coleman, who has claimed to be the most prolific African-American poet of all time, has written thousands of poems and has read her poetry in public more than 500 times. The thread that ties all her work together is a refusal to accept racism in America; she writes about the shattered landscapes of African-American life that racism has left in its wake. Coleman's long career has illustrated the difficulties African-American writers face in making an independent living, but she has left several strong impressions on the literary map, and she is no stranger to controversy.

A native of Los Angeles who has never left Southern California for long, Wanda Coleman was born Wanda Evans on November 13, 1946. The family was poor. Her father was an ex-boxer whose career had ended with injuries; he later worked for an advertising agency. Her mother was a seamstress and housecleaner who sometimes found work in the homes of Hollywood film stars. Coleman found no enjoyment in school, but she was fascinated by books and writing from the time she was a young girl. She had some poems published in a local newspaper when she was 13.

Held a Wide Variety of Jobs

Coleman attended Valley Junior College in Van Nuys, California, and California State University at Los Angeles, but did not finish degree programs at these schools. She married young and had two children by the time she was 20. Struggling to support her children after divorcing her first husband in 1969, Coleman worked in an amazing variety of jobs from the late 1960s through the early 1980s, working all the while toward the goal of becoming a professional writer. She was, at various times, the editorial coordinator of an arts newsletter (for the Studio Watts organization), a medical secretary, a journalist, a proofreader, a waitress, and a Peace Corps/Vista recruiter.

Working in various creative media during this period, Coleman experimented with fiction, screenwriting, and even dance. Her first short story, "Watching the Sunset," appeared in Negro Digest in 1970, and an early hint of her major talent came when she won an Emmy award for her work as a staff writer on the NBC television soap opera Days of Our Lives for the 1975-76 season. A pamphlet-like chapbook of Coleman's poems was issued by Black Sparrow Press in 1977.

That publishing house, which also issued the works of the unconventional white writer Charles Bukowski (whose works influenced Coleman's own, as did Walt Whitman's poetry), was a good fit for Coleman's energetic, ambitious, sprawling poetry. Black Sparrow continued to issue Coleman's poetry in publications such as Mad Dog Black Lady (1979) and Imagoes (1983). Those works brought Coleman national attention, and she benefited from a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1981 and a Guggenheim Fellowship for Poetry in 1984. Imagoes was a very personal work that Coleman regarded as a watershed in her career. Coleman had married and divorced a second time before marrying her third husband, the poet Austin Straus, in 1981.

Collaborated with Musicians

Coleman's street reputation was strengthened during the 1980s. She was a tireless reader of her own poetry at public events, and she made a series of recordings for the Freeway and BarKubCo labels that saw her collaborating with progressive musicians such as Exene Cervenka, former lead vocalist of the punk rock band X. Although the term hadn't yet been coined during the rise of Coleman's career, she was a definite forerunner to the "poetry slam" movement that invigorated African-American literary communities with live poetry contests in the 1990s and 2000s. Heavy Daughter Blues, a collection of Coleman's writings from the late 1960s through the mid-1980s, was published by Black Sparrow in 1987.

That book gave many readers a good sampling of Coleman's poetry, which won widespread praise from reviewers for its unquenchable imagination but was sometimes deemed hard to swallow for its grim portrayals of the down-on-their-luck characters who populate Los Angeles's streets. Coleman's poems about love seethed with sexual and violent themes. She continued to produce new work at an astonishing ratein addition to her many published works she accumulated a collection of over 4,500 rejection slipsand in 1990 the strongly autobiographical African Sleeping Sickness was published; it included short stories and prose poems. One story from that volume, "Where the Sun Don't Shine," won the 1990 Harriette Simpson Arrow Prize for fiction; another, "Today I Am a Homicide in the North of the City," was often reprinted and gave an example of the poet's drawn-from-the-streets subject matter.

At a Glance

Born Wanda Evans on November 13, 1946, in Los Angeles, CA; daughter of George and Lewana Evans; married and divorced twice before marrying Austin Straus, a poet; children: Anthony, Tunisia, Ian Wayne Grant. Education: Attended Valley Junior College, Van Nuys, CA; California State University at Los Angeles.

Career: Peace Corps/Vista, production editor, proofreader, magazine editor, waitress, and assistant recruiter, 1968-75; Days of Our Lives, NBC television, staff writer, 1975-76; medical transcriber and billing clerk, 1979-84; Pacifica Radio network, co-host of poetry program, 1981-1990s; UCLA extension program, fiction instructor, 1989; Los Angeles Times Magazine, columnist, 1992-95; Loyola Marymount University, Fletcher Jones endowed chair in literature and writing, 1994-97; California State University at Long Beach, lecturer in black studies, 1997; Los Angeles Times, contributor, 1990s; City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, fellow, 2003-04.

Memberships: PEN international writers' organization.

Selected awards: Emmy, best writing in daytime drama, Days of Our Lives, 1976; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1981-82; Guggenheim fellowship, 1984; California Arts Council fellowship, 1989; Harriette Simpson Arrow prize, 1990; Djerassi Foundation, writer's residence, 1990-91; Lenore Marshall National Poetry Prize, for Bathwater Wine, 1999.

Addresses: Home Marina Del Rey, CA.

Hand Dance (1993) was Coleman's seventh thick book of poetry in 14 years. In addition to this prodigious output of poems, Coleman was also active as a critic and essayist. Native in a Strange Land: Trials and Tremors (1996) collected many of her prose writings. Publishers Weekly noted Coleman's "Swiftian" sense of humor as Coleman asked, "How about a school that teaches the well-heeled the ins and outs of hard-core urban warfare?" Coleman taught writing at a variety of Los Angeles institutions in the 1990s. She also worked as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times Magazine from 1992 to 1995 and occasionally wrote book reviews for the Los Angeles Times, and her reviews were as uncompromising as her poetry.

Stirred Controversy with Angelou Review

A mixed review Coleman wrote in 1997 of Audre Lord's collected works raised some eyebrows, but it was an acid Coleman review of iconic black poet Maya Angelou's A Song Flung Up to Heaven in 2002 that generated a firestorm of controversy. Coleman was banned from a bookstore that had scheduled a reading of poetry from an anthology to which she had contributed, and the Times was flooded with letters. The uproar had the effect of introducing Coleman's name to many readers who hadn't encountered her before, for she had always worked along the fringes of the literary mainstream. "Anyone whose assumes that I derive any satisfaction from [that new attention], other than that of a job well done professionally," Coleman wrote in the on-line magazine Konch, "is grossly mistaken."

None of this slowed Coleman down in the least. Her vast 1998 poetry volume Bathwater Wine, which loosely chronicled the growth of a young black woman to adulthood against a backdrop of poverty and urban violence, won the important Lenore Marshall National Poetry Prize in 1999, and Coleman returned with two more books, Mercurochrome: New Poems (2001) and Ostinato Vamps (2003), the latter published by the University of Pittsburgh Press after the demise of Black Sparrow. She is also the author of a novel, Mambo Hips & Make Believe.

In 2003 and 2004, Coleman became the first literary fellow of the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. Asked at about that time by the Poetry Society of America whether gender, sexual preference, or ethnicity figured more prominently than being an American in her self-identity as a poet, Coleman responded this way: "As a Usually Het Interracially Married Los Angeles-based African American Womonist Matrilinear Working Class Poor Pink/White Collar College Drop-out Baby Boomer Earth Mother and Closet Smoker Unmolested-by-her-father, I am unable to separate these and, as time progresses, resent having to fit into every niggling PC pigeon hole some retard trendoid academic with a grant or hidden agenda barfs up." Readers looked forward to many more years of words laid on the line by Wanda Coleman.

Selected works

Poetry

Art in the Court of the Blue Fag, Black Sparrow, 1977.

Mad Dog Black Lady, Black Sparrow, 1979.

Imagoes, Black Sparrow, 1983.

Heavy Daughter Blues: Poems & Stories, Black Sparrow, 1987.

The Dicksboro Hotel & Other Travels, Ambrosia, 1989.

African Sleeping Sickness: Stories & Poems, Black Sparrow, 1990.

Hand Dance, Black Sparrow, 1993.

American Sonnets, Woodland Pattern/Light and Dark Press, 1994.

Native in a Strange Land: Trials and Tremors, Black Sparrow, 1996.

Bathwater Wine, Black Sparrow, 1998.

Mercurochrome: New Poems, Black Sparrow, 2001.

Ostinato Vamps, University of Pittsburgh, 2003.

Other

(with Jeff Spurrier) 24 Hours in the Life of Los Angeles (photo essay), Alfred Van Der Marck Editions, 1984.

A War of Eyes & Other Stories (short stories), Black Sparrow, 1988.

Mambo Hips & Make Believe (novel), 1999.

Also made 11 recordings for the Freeway, New Alliance, and BarKubCo labels, reissued by Rhino label.

Sources

Books

Contemporary Poets, 7th ed., St. James Press, 2001.

Periodicals

African American Review, Fall 2000, p. 554; Winter 2002, p. 695.

Library Journal, November 15, 2003, p. 70.

Publishers Weekly, March 29, 1993, p. 46; October 28, 1996, p. 73; June 29, 1998, p. 54.

Village Voice, September 4, 2002.

On-line

"Black on Black: Fear & Reviewing in Los Angeles," Ishmael Reed's KONCH Magazine, www.ishmaelreedpub.com/ (September 22, 2004).

"Wanda Coleman," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (September 22, 2004).

"Wanda Coleman," Mi Poesias, www.mipoesias.com/April2004/coleman.htm (September 22, 2004).

"What Is American about American Poetry?" Poetry Society of America, www.poetrysociety.org/coleman.html (September 22, 2004).

James M. Manheim

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