We People Who Live Out Loud
I remember spotting and then studying them surreptitiously as a child. They had what one aunt called je ne sais quoi—an indefinable quality. Men in cravats, tams and clunky jewelry stood out in the 1950s, in leather jackets or colored shirts that visibly set them apart. The women were quieter in some ways, but a slit skirt, open-toed shoes and daring hair styles were apt clues. When an adult asked what they did or who they were, the answer always fell at the extraordinary end of the gainful spectrum. They were writers, artists, musicians and the like. These were the adventurers, lusty and robust individuals, the performers! They radiated their creativity with a brilliance I admired. Shy and withdrawn, I yearned to leave my bookish world and sail among them.
In time, and over the decades, I would, to some satisfaction, achieve my youthful goal. What Hollywood would not grant me, poetry gave in generous amounts. I would become a key player in reviving the spoken word scene that languished after the Beat era, as Venice West faded into history. Among the word warriors, no doubt, I always enjoyed an audience no matter how small, but the functional extrovert—as I called myself—remained tied to the book-loving introvert, that quiet, introspective being who craved sitting unnoticed in public places, jotting notes for poems or reading during a meal, or browsing for hours through a bookstore or gallery. Seldom did these two aspects of myself collide.
One morning, six years ago, while my beloved slept late, I sat alone in a beachside restaurant, noodling in a notebook as I waited for my favorite breakfast, sipping an oversized latte. Suddenly, she swept grandly through the double glass doors. My equal in height and weight, and my age, her sun-bleached locks leapt and curled from under a wide-brimmed straw hat. Her skin was tanned and leathery. She had ocean-blue eyes. She was dressed Maui-style in a revealing halter and wrap-around skirt, and seemed to rattle in places where there were no pukka-shell bracelets. The entire room stopped and watched a moment, many smirking as if to say, “Oh, here she comes again!” I shrank inside myself trying not to stare, forced my eyes back to my notes. But in seconds those leathery tan feet were at my table commanding my attention. I looked up and was greeted by enthusiastic eyes and a wide smile. She complimented my dreadlocks. I said thank you politely, working hard to give off vibes that said “I want to be alone.” My pen twittled. She looked, saw that I had been writing and sighed.
“Quite all right.”
She accepted my bid for solitude, found a nearby table and a stag gentleman who didn’t mind her glibness.
What was it about me that attracted her? My thoughts raged. That other self, the outspoken wordsmith who lives out loud?
Instantly, the waitress appeared and set a giant plate before me. The eggs were perfectly set. The corned beef hash was crispy on the edges and browned on top. Delicious. I studied the plate. Suddenly, I heaved into my latte, groaning as my head reeled. The people at adjoining tables were startled and concerned. Someone summoned the manager. She asked if there was something wrong with the food. I explained that it was excellent and perfectly prepared, but that I was inexplicably ill—probably a virus or cold coming on. I offered to pay for my uneaten breakfast, but she refused to take my money. I thanked her, shoved my notebook and pen into my purse, listed outside to inquiring stares and made my way back to our hotel room. Oddly, I haven’t been able to eat eggs for breakfast since.
Poet and writer Wanda Coleman was a blatantly humanist artist who won much critical acclaim for her unusually prescient and often innovative work, but who struggled to make a living from her craft. In discussing “my life in poetry,” More magazine, April 2005, Camille Paglia said of Coleman: “She’s not...