Follow Harriet on Twitter
Remembering Wanda Coleman
There are only two poets who have shaped me profoundly as a poet. One of them is former San Francisco Poet Laureate Jack Hirschman, who is turning 80 years old next week whose birthday event I’ll be attending at City Lights in San Francisco. I cherish Jack like a father, like someone who will one day be gone and I won’t have said everything to him that I could have. Because at his age, who knows? I treat every chance to spend time with him with this thought in place—that this person who raised me in many respects could be gone at any moment. But this is not about Jack Hirschman. This is about the second poet, the one I thought would be around forever, thumping dummies with her thunderous voice and teaching me the true definition of a muse: Wanda Coleman.
Wanda was not just a Los Angeles treasure, she was a trove of it. She was the original performance poet, someone who could blow the hair off of any audience’s scalp, who read complex poems of race, suffering, sexual desire, music and love with the same power with which she wrote them. She was the person I refereed to when some shithead from New York wanted to tell me that no one cool or kind or genuine ever came out of Los Angeles. “Maybe you should stop trying to meet your wife at the Chateau, then, and go see Wanda Coleman read instead.” Wanda was endemically Angelino, from being born and raised in the tough neighborhood of Watts, to writing for soap operas before she became a poet. She was the last author to put out a book on Black Sparrow Press under Charles Bukowski and John Martin’s watch.
When I was a young teen, I would read at poetry shows with Wanda around local Los Angeles spots—Beyond Baroque, Green, Da Poetry Lounge, friend’s fire pits, in my mother’s living room. Once I was old enough to drive, I started making trips to her house in Marvista near LAX Airport where we would sit in her living room and read to each other, gossip, and play records. Wanda particularly loved a line I had written in my first book, Free Stallion: “Crack the nut in you, Amber/ Crack her hard.” And I had discovered her poem “Moon Cherries,” a poem I can damn near recite by heart now:
…You know it’s your fault you
kept doing it when you should have stopped.
You squandered irretrievable
bliss. you. The reason of you the
mirror says you, the highball glass contains
you, your face floats up from the ash and
smoke at the end of this cigarette.
the clock spun backwards around you.
from behind the closed door out you stepped. you.
under the merciless light you were revealed
these are the dark currents in which
you do the butterfly stroke upstream. you. so
rude and tender and strong. you are a guardian,
no a watcher, no, a warden. you are what was
so dearly paid for. you are the gas pedal
to the floor. your beauty is a maker of
myths. on your tongue piss turns to milk
you devastate me…
Wanda taught me how to dig for the dirt, to get on the page and stink up the place. She taught me not to be afraid of my anger—to use it. I remember distinctly a conversation once about writer’s block. “That’s just the muse sleeping,” Wanda said over tea one afternoon. I remember this conversation so vividly and it often pops up in strange places in my dreams. Wanda was sitting on a brown wood chair in a dark room wearing a green silk shirt with two pencils sticking out of her dreds—a signature look for anyone who knew her, including the silk. The light was coming in the window behind her through open shades. I was sitting on the floor at her feet, covered in leaves of poem sheets. “You’ve got to let her sleep,” she said of my muse. “You have to be patient with her. She can’t give you the good stuff all the time. She needs to rest as much as you do.” To this day I believe this is true and it’s how I treat my process as a writer. I have poet friends who must—MUST—write everyday. And I always thought maybe there was something wrong with me because I didn’t. Wanda gave me insight and in a way, permission, to go about my own creative process without guilt or comparison. For me, there is no such thing as writer’s block. The right side of your brain is just getting her beauty sleep. Let those synapses get some shut eye. No one forgets how to write a poem—but you can certainly scare the poem away.
Wanda was right about a lot of things like this. When I was fresh out of high school, I had a boyfriend who I had been with for a long time who was mentally ill and often abusive because of this. One time he went through my journals when I wasn’t home and wrote in the margins next to my words: “Fake,” “you try to hard,” “lame” to name a few insults. Wanda was the only person I ever showed this journal to. There was already so much fear and shame from my privileged life growing up as an actress on television that I was sure he was probably right. I did try too hard. Who was I trying to be? A poet? Is that what I though I was? Is that what I thought I deserved to be? Wanda took the journal and read through it. I can’t tell you what that moment felt like to watch her scroll through the pages… “You know what we’re going to do here?” she said to me with a big toothy grin and deep voice. “We’re going to go through here and write comments on every one of his comments. Then you’re going to write him a letter in this same journal and release him from it. He’s stuck in here, I can see. Let’s release him.” To this day, I still have that poetry journal—covered in the cruel words of a sick ex, and doubled over by the thick-sharpied healing of Wanda’s hand writing.
Here’s the part where I have to take a break from writing this piece about Wanda, because my hands are trembling and I can’t stop crying.
When I heard Wanda had passed away at the age of 67 last week, I couldn’t believe it. I wouldn’t. I frantically wrote posts on Facebook asking people to verify. They did. I had just landed in New York and frantically called her long time love, Austin Strauss. A cold knife slid through my heart when the answering machine picked up and her voice was still on it. Her voice. That voice. I sobbed into the empty machine and asked Austin to call me back, that my phone’s battery was going to die soon. As soon as I got in my front door, I started drinking. I couldn’t stop crying. How could I have not paid attention all this time? I had heard she was sick—why didn’t I reach out? What was I thinking? I texted some poet friends who responded with concern for my emotional state. Suddenly the phone rang. The name read “Wanda Coleman.” I stared at the ghostly named for a moment, drunk and filled with regretful poison, then my phone died. I will never forget that moment. Never in my life. The meaning. The metaphor.
What I want to write now in ending this personal reflection on Wanda Coleman is something about her legacy. Is something about how under appreciated she was, by me and by everyone. Is something on the patronizing tone of the title, “unofficial Poet Laureate of Los Angeles.” Is something about how just last month I was walking by a café in Venice Beach and saw a young black girl reading Wanda’s “Merchurochrome” in the window seat. Something about everything she left behind—her archives, Austin, her sister and family. Something about memorials, grants, awards and honors in her name. What lives after death—what survives the greatest regrets and must be made of the most shattered of broken hearts.
But for now, there is only silence. I’m letting the muse grieve.
More Open Door Profiles: Naked ‘Lunch’: Behind the Scenes of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems | A Walk Across the Brooklyn Bridge with Poets House
(If you would like to pitch an idea for “Open Door,” please contact us)