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 as central as she should be. Her language jumps off the page.” With twelve books of collected writings published by the small Black Sparrow Press by 2001, as well as numerous other publications, she has created a body of work that is first of all focused on racism and that, secondly, ponders the "outcast" status of living below the poverty line in California, specifically her birthplace Los Angeles, and the southwestern United States. Anger, unhappiness, hate, and violence are often intrinsic to the themes of her stories and poems. Her subjects are often controversial and her tone unapologetic. In his 1999 assessment, Alistair Paterson, Editor of Poetry New Zealand declared: “Coleman’s poetry, politically aware, darkly humorous, sensual and iconoclastic, presents a remarkable talent developed throughout a difficult life. . . . It’s the kind of poetry other writers can use as a yardstick for measuring their work—it sets a standard and demonstrates what a beautiful, adaptable, usable language colloquial English is.”
Writing in Black American Literature Forum, Tony Magistrale summarized, "Coleman frequently writes to illuminate the lives of the underclass and the disenfranchised, the invisible men and women who populate America's downtown streets after dark, the asylums and waystations, the inner city hospitals and clinics. . . . Wanda Coleman, like Gwendolyn Brooks before her, has much to tell us about what it is like to be a poor black woman in America." Praise has also come from reviewers in a number of prominent magazines. Stephen Kessler wrote in Bachy that Coleman "shows us scary and exciting realms of ourselves," and Holly Prado noted in the Los Angeles Times that Coleman's "heated and economical language and head-on sensibility take her work beyond brutality to fierce dignity." Tamar Lehrich wrote in the Nation: "Wanda Coleman consistently confronts her readers with images, ideas and language that threaten to offend or at least to excite." Lehrich concluded that "Wanda Coleman's poetry and prose have been inspired by her frustration and anger at her position as a black woman and by her desire to translate those feelings into action."
Encouraged to read by her parents, Coleman loved books, began writing poetry as a child of 5, and published her first poems in a local newspaper at age 13. However, she never enjoyed the public schools she attended in the 1950s and 1960s, and considered them "dehumanizing," according to Kathleen K. O'Mara in American Short-Story Writers Since World War II. Coleman attended several colleges, has never earned a degree, but often conducted workshops and teaches at university level. Married and the mother of two children by age 20, she worked many different kinds of jobs during the 1970s and 1980s. While working days, at night and on weekends she developed her craft by attending various writing workshops in and around Los Angeles, some springing up in the aftermath of the Watts Riots (August 1965) and encouraging what has become known as “at risk youth”; they included playwright Frank Greenwood’s Saturday workshop, novelist Budd Schulberg’s Watts Writers Workshop, Studio Watts, and Beyond Baroque. By 1969 she had divorced her first husband and planned to become a professional writer, but was forced to turn her energies to more pragmatic concerns. She supported her family by waiting tables and typing, among other jobs. In part, the difficulty of finding time to write while working led Coleman to concentrate on writing poems. Many of her poems have been translated into Spanish, French, German and Hungarian. A German translation of her short stories was published in 1991.
The writer published her first short story "Watching the Sunset" in Negro Digest/Black World in 1970. During the 1970s Coleman experimented in theater, dance, television, and journalism. She won an Emmy for her work as a writer for the television soap opera Days of Our Lives during 1975-76, but Coleman's passion for non-commercial writing was undiminished. Her interest in poetry was deepened by the opportunity to make dramatic public performances. As she participated in the Los Angeles poetry scene, Coleman was influenced by poets Henri Coulette, Diane Wakoski, John Thomas, Clayton Eshleman, and Charles Bukowski, and mentored by Black Sparrow Press publisher "Papa" John Martin. Her first poetry manuscript was published as the chapbook Art in the Court of the Blue Fag in 1977.
Within a few years, Coleman's work gained her attention from outside of the local literary circle. Mad Dog Black Lady (1979) and Imagoes (1983) earned her a National Endowment for the Arts grant (1981-82) and a Guggenheim Fellowship for Poetry (1984). In 1987 the author published her first collection to include short stories as well as poetry, Heavy Daughter Blues. An all-fiction volume published the next year, A War of Eyes and Other Stories (1988), strengthened a surge of critical attention and praise focused on Coleman during the 1980s. Her first novel, Mambo Hips and Make Believe, described as “ambitious,” appeared in 1999. Jazz and Twelve O’Clock Tales, a second volume of Coleman’s short stories, was published in 2008 by Black Sparrow Books, the new imprint of David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc. following the retirement of Martin’s Black Sparrow Press in 2002. University of Pittsburgh Press continues to publish her poetry, and a new volume, Ostinato Vamps, appeared in 2003.
The collection of autobiographical stories and prose poems titled African Sleeping Sickness came out in 1990, including "Where the Sun Don't Shine" which won the 1990 Harriette Simpson Arnow Prize for fiction. Following this publication, O'Mara summarized, "What little negative criticism she has drawn has focused on her fragmentary vignettes as sketches that leave the reader wanting more, or her violence-laden plots as sometimes too predictable. Her finest skill is making human pain poetically concrete and devising dialogue that allows the reader under the skin of 'the other.'"
Native in a Strange Land, a 1996 book of essays and articles offered readers a selection of non-fiction by Coleman including a 70s interview of reggae giant Bob Marley; her writings first published over a thirty-year span were modified for republication. Like Coleman's fiction, they were mostly based on her observations and personal experiences. Publishers Weekly explained "She gives us L.A. as a microcosm of what America is today and where it is heading. The picture is not always hopeful." The review also noted the author's "wry sense of humor" and called some of her ideas "Swiftian" for their gruesomely humorous bent. The book was described by Janice E. Braun in Library Journal as a "nonlinear memoir"; Braun concluded "Whether one identifies with Coleman or objects to her views, the writing is positively outstanding." The 1998 poetry collection Bathwater Wine, which received the 1999 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, returned Coleman's readers to a more familiar form. It was described by Publishers Weekly as "an encyclopedic, moment-by-moment accounting of left coast rage, witness and transcendence. . . ." Her collection Mercurochrome was a bronze-medal finalist in poetry for the 2001 National Book Awards. She has also received awards from the California Arts Council (fiction, 1982; poetry, 2002), a proclamation from the city of Los Angeles, and received its first literary award from the Department of Cultural Affairs (C.O.L.A.), 2003-2004. She was a nominee for California state poet laureate, and was considered the unofficial poet laureate of L.A.
"As a poet," she once told Contemporary Authors, "I have gained a reputation, locally, as an electrifying performer/reader, and have appeared at local rock clubs, reading the same poetry that has taken me into classrooms and community centers for over five hundred public readings since 1973." Coleman added: "Words seem inadequate in expressing the anger and outrage I feel at the persistent racism that permeates every aspect of black American life. Since words are what I am best at, I concern myself with this as an urban actuality as best I can." After some forty years of writing Wanda Coleman remains devoted to the themes of racism and female experience and to Los Angeles. The city has been a vital part of her writings and an important outlet for her poetry readings, typically classified as “take-no-prisoners” performances (San Francisco Examiner, February 1986) that “bring you into her world” (LA Weekly, April 1984). Coleman has shared the stage with such legends as The Hollywood Ten, Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, Gary Snyder, and Alice Coltrane. In the 80s, L.A.’s music underground welcomed Coleman as she appeared with Henry Rollins, Lydia Lunch, and Exene Cervenka with whom she recorded Twin Sisters.
Her other creative interests not only included music, but the visual arts and a passion for theatre and public speaking. Coleman has acknowledged these diverse influences on her presentation style, including dancer-mentor Anna Halprin (Ceremony of Us), Julian Beck and Judith Malina (The Living Theatre), Antonin Artaud (The Theatre and Its Double), and Jerzy Grotowski (Towards a Theatre of the Poor). Frequently invited to perform in prisons (San Quentin, Berlin’s Moabit Detention Centre, Albion), as well as on campuses (Columbia, Duke, Spellman, Oberlin), in rock clubs (Detroit’s Metro, The Nuyorican Café, Wolfgang’s, The Whiskey), and at institutions across the United States (Folger Shakespeare Library, Manhattan Theatre Club, the Smithsonian) and overseas (Amsterdam, Paris, Stockhölm, Sydney), Coleman summarized her complex love-hate relationship with her birthplace by stating that when she visited other places, she “finds Los Angeles has been there before I arrive.”