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A Los Angeles Star: Wanda Coleman Has Died

By Harriet Staff


Awful, sad news.

The Los Angeles Times is abuzz with remembrances and stories about Wanda Coleman, “L.A.’s Unofficial Poet Laureate,” who died too young– at the age of 67.

From Carolyn Kellogg, of Jacket Copy:

Poet Wanda Coleman died Friday after a long illness, her husband said. She was 67.

Coleman was a key figure in the literary life of Los Angeles. She, as our book critic David Ulin recently wrote, “helped transform the city’s literature.” She was a finalist for the National Book Award for her poetry collection “Mercurochrome” in 2001.

Born and raised in Watts, Coleman often wrote of issues of race, class, poverty and disenfranchisement. “Words seem inadequate in expressing the anger and outrage I feel at the persistent racism that permeates every aspect of black American life,” she once said. “Since words are what I am best at, I concern myself with this as an urban actuality as best I can.”

Despite the driving theme of anger in her work, Coleman was a delightful presence: sharp, funny and powerfully charismatic.

She began writing as a young woman and was part of the Watts Writers Workshop that began after the 1965 riots. She was also involved with Beyond Baroque in Venice.

She published her first poetry collection, “Mad Dog Black Lady,” in 1979. Her poetry was primarily published by Black Sparrow Press, home of Charles Bukowski.

From Los Angeles Times Book Critic, David L. Ulin:

Coleman was the conscience of the L.A. literary scene — a poet, essayist and fiction writer who helped transform the city’s literature when she emerged in the early 1970s. Born and raised in Watts, she began to write as a young girl, and even then she did not back away from what she felt. “I have a journal that goes back to when I was 11,” she told me in a 1997 interview, “and from the beginning, the pages are virulent with hate.”

That hate had its roots in discrimination, which she experienced on a number of levels at once. “I knew,” she remembered in her astonishing essay “The Riot Inside Me,” “that the second I entered the classroom, I would face the ongoing ridicule garnered by my kinky grade of hair, bright eyes, toothy smile, and dark skin — not from the White students, the few Mexican, Asian American, and Filipino students, or the teacher, but from my Black classmates.”

For Coleman, this led to a vivid bifurcation: She was an outsider who became a force for community. The former helped define her voice, her sensibility, while the latter gave it context, in the process transforming the way Los Angeles wrote (and read) about itself.

When she began to write, as a member of the Watts Writers Workshop that sprang up after the 1965 riots, L.A. literature was largely a literature of exile, produced primarily by those from elsewhere, who lingered briefly along the city’s glittering surfaces and did not invest the place with any depth. Working in the tradition of John Fante, Chester Himes and Charles Bukowski, Coleman invented a new way of thinking about the city: street-level, gritty, engaged with it not as a mythic landscape, but in the most fundamental sense as home.

Home, of course, is a complex concept, and even as she embraced Los Angeles, Coleman fought back against it also, outraged by its inequities, its failed promises, its social and racial hierarchies.

Read more at Jacket Copy and Los Angeles Times, respectively.

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Posted in Poetry News on Monday, November 25th, 2013 by Harriet Staff.