Wanda Coleman: LA Poet, Writer, Ray of Sunshine

INSIDE INGLEWOOD-"Line breaks and stanza breaks are important to me, therefore, I am putting hard copies in the regular mail tomorrow (with SASE) so you can double check line breaks. You can return anything you do not accept. I expect y'all will write an introduction, calling me as you see me, but I've enclosed a brief so-called official bio as well. Hope all is going great guns with you, Dear One.” (Excerpt from a correspondence between Wanda Coleman and Teka-Lark Fleming regarding Fleming's publishing of six new Coleman poems in 2006. Of the works, five were later published in "The World Falls Away" via University of Pittsburgh Press in 2011; the sixth remains the exclusive domain of Fleming.)

 

According to an early Saturday morning message from LA poet S.A. Griffin, Wanda Coleman passed away from a brain aneurysm Friday night, November 22 at Cedars-Sinai. She was 67 years old.

People often talk about Wanda Coleman’s performances. Yes, she did a great job reading her poetry. In a town like LA—where everyone wants to be a movie star and it seems as if no one knows how to read—this is important.

Coleman, however, was a Poet. Coleman was a writer. Coleman wasn’t a poet-[slash]-when something better comes along. In Los Angeles, there are a lot of "poets" waiting for the next acting gig.

I was introduced to Coleman via her album "High Priestess of Word" which was released in 1994 on New Alliance Records, a label owned by Black Flag guitarist Gregg Ginn. Her verbal exhumation of the mutilated corpse of Emmett Till resonates with a frightening immediacy that long preceded any real discussion of the core of the problem: "Cuz she was a white woman-virtue/And he be a black boy-lust." These two lines practically define the academic heart of books like the recently released "Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation" (by Estelle B. Freedman, Harvard, Fall 2013) that is just now on the shelves. Such ideas were expounded by Coleman 20 years earlier when she wrote the poem from which those two lines came, "Emmett Till." (To hear her read "Emmett Till," visit this YouTube video link.)

In the poetry world there is a hierarchy and there are rules. One of the first rules is that women writers are to be well-behaved; rule number two is nearly always that black women writers are supposed to be very well-behaved.

Coleman broke both rules in most every single stroke—and her writing was good and it was strong and it was purple. Her writing embraced the side of LA that was in the shadow of the palm trees, between the window cracks on an RTD 51 bus and on the air of a broken swing in a playground in the projects. Her writing embraced all that and much more with a technical precision and painful finesse. Even if she hadn’t been writing about real issues in black LA, her writing would have worked. But for her to be writing about being black and a woman in L.A. in a way that held up a middle finger and did not ask for pity was something that neither the black nor white L.A. literary scenes could take.

So what to do? What to do with this woman who does not fit in the box of a writer? She’s not a white man, she possesses no formal education and she’s a bit too unrestrained. We can’t let her JUST be a poet; we have got to find a way to usurp the power of her poetry without looking like we’re doing so. Ah, yes—she’s a "performance poet," she’s a "spoken word artist!" and a plethora of other “pretty for a black girl” kind of "poetic" compliments.

With the label of “spoken word,” Coleman could then be "kind of" included in the world of poetry because spoken word is not really poetry.

There may well be no one alive today doing what Coleman did. Most spoken word artists are actors, and hers was no act. She didn't do poetry-slam-for-cash prizes nights, she didn't finally get that pie-in-the-sky book that helped maintain the image of the gentle black female sage, and she certainly did not get the recognition in life that a whole lot of folks will pour out posthumously.

Wanda Coleman was a poet, a writer and a ray of sunlight on the hypocrisy of Los Angeles. Despite her upbringing she re-directed her resources into prose and poetry that exposed the answer of "what is Los Angeles?" and yet she was never consumed by the ferocity of her words that for most anyone else would have become unadulterated, violent hate.

She will be missed.

(Randall Fleming is a veteran journalist and magazine publisher. He has worked at and for the New York Post, the Brooklyn Spectator and the Los Feliz Ledger. He is currently editor-in-chief at the Morningside Park Chronicle, a monthly newspaper based in Inglewood, CA and on-line at www.MorningsideParkChronicle.com. Views expressed and/or conclusions reached by Mr. Fleming are his and do not necessarily reflect those of CityWatch.) Graphic credit: LA Curbed.

-cw

 

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 11 Issue 95

Pub: Nov 26, 2013