Wanda Coleman is loved and hated for her brutal honesty. She wouldn’t have it any other way. She is an African-American woman that has persevered in the face of racism and 4,500 rejection slips. In a city of fantasy where many writers sugarcoat reality, she is one of the most important voices to emerge in 20th century Los Angeles. Since 1965, she has published 15 books of poetry and fiction while sharing the stage with Amiri Baraka, Ray Bradbury, Charles Bukowski, the Watts Prophets, Rollins, Allen Ginsberg, Exene Cervenka, Beck, Quincy Troupe and more. Her latest book of poetry, “Ostinato Vamps,” came out in October and, this fall, Coleman starts her term as the City of Los Angeles’ Cultural Affairs Department’s first Literary Artist for Fiction.
In poetry and prose, Wanda hurls her words with pinpoint accuracy. She zeros in on a topic until every element has been illuminated. Luis Rodriguez, author of “Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.,” says, “Wanda Coleman is the scream we need to hear — she’s the ghetto song of the scraped knees, torn curtains, bullets flying, leaded peeling paint, and broken glass world that many people can turn away from, can deny, can have the luxury to ignore. For most of us there is no such option. Wanda is one of this country’s most important and vital poets. She makes words slap us around, but also, tenderly, stroke us back to life.”
Her poems, articles, short stories and works of creative nonfiction provide an outlet for her highly personal views of the 1950s, the Vietnam era, Hollywood and the movie industry, the age of Reagan, and the second Los Angeles Riots. Coleman credits her writerly fighting spirit to the trials and tribulations of her childhood. “L.A. was extremely racist when I was a kid,” she says. “There were constant rumors about deaths and disappearances. Adults whispered about those and other occurrences trying to keep the children from hearing it. It was a white world, largely, with blacks on the periphery. Housing was restricted, there were neighborhoods where we could not be caught after sundown.”
As a child, she recalls, she read like a maniac. She finished the King James Bible and all of Shakespeare by the age of 10. “I tried escaping from the world [that] I hated into books,” she says. In 1965 the Watts Riots tore Los Angeles apart. The restrictive housing covenants that prevented Blacks from living in certain areas had then only recently been outlawed. This was the polarized climate in which Coleman began her career. Not only was she African American, but she was a young woman. Even so, when discussing race relations and sexism then, she said the things that many were still afraid to hear.
She describes the response she sometimes received in public: “I was pulled off stages and had microphones cut off on me. People walked out. When I declared that there was a war going on in the culture, and that even when I sneezed it was political, metaphorical cameras stopped rolling. When I showed up on campuses, the people who invited me got in trouble or were fired. My work was constantly rejected for publication.”
She was ahead of her time. Yet, she knew her work was important. For two decades, she worked odd jobs through a divorce and single parenthood, while writing incendiary freelance articles and performing her poetry. The struggles of her daily life were grist for her mill.
As Laurence Goldstein wrote of Coleman in the book, “The Misread City,” “Hollywood and Watts become the nearly allegorical poles of her experience, and ‘Hollywood’ is less a geographical district than a state of being that includes the academy, the elite literary world, the spots of privilege and power in which her presence is suspect. Drug-running and prostitution are the metaphors for mobility between the realms of Watts and Hollywood, and she is never certain when her warm reception in the tonier parts of the city is just the ‘Niggah-of-the-Minute syndrome,’ and when she has been welcomed for her authentic achievement. So, as a renegade writer and citizen she wanders the city writing the chronicles of her dailiness.”
Wanda appears briefly in the Charles Bukowski novel “Hollywood” as a black poet whose earrings fly off during a reading. (This actually happened at an ’80s reading at the Woman’s Building.) During the ’70s, it sometimes seemed that everybody was living in the shadow of Bukowski. Coleman says she met him in 1969, “in the days when Bukowski parties were the happenin’ thang. He was living in some little court over on Delongpre in Hollywood.” But Coleman wasn’t a passive participant in that ’70s scene. She broke new ground as a writer and poet. According to Reggae archivist, Roger Steffens, Coleman was the only African American journalist to ever interview Bob Marley. She met Marley on a freelance assignment for Art Kunkin’s old weekly Free Press. “[Bob Marley’s album] “Catch-A-Fire” had just been released,” she says. “I was scrambling around working 158 hours a week, editing the black men’s magazine Players, while still believing I was gonna really make it as a writer in this town.” She says she interviewed him two more times before the reggae legend died.
Coleman’s path also crossed with the Watts Prophets. Their 1969 LP, “Poetry: The Black Voices: On The Streets in Watts,” was a groundbreaking album in both its social commentary and its innovative sound. As precursors to hip-hop, the Prophets were among an elite group of trailblazers like Amiri Baraka, Gil-Scott Heron & the Last Poets who were putting poetry to music. In 1971, they produced an LP called “Rappin’ Black in a White World.”
In 1981 Wanda recorded her own spoken word LP, “Voices of The Angels.” Since then she has done 10 more recordings of her poetry. In 1985 she collaborated with the lead singer of seminal band X, Exene Cervenka, on a spoken-word project with Rhino Records titled “Twin Sisters.” Around the same period, she had her first book on Black Sparrow Press, “Mad Dog Black Lady.” She went on to put out nine more books of poetry, fiction and short stories with Black Sparrow Press before the independent publisher closed down.
She also hosted a much-acclaimed poetry radio show on KPFK from 1981 to 1996 with her husband, poet and visual artist, Austin Straus. Along the way she has also written cultural commentary for the Los Angeles Times. Beyond her literary accomplishments, Coleman’s passionate performances of her poetry are part of her lasting legacy. When she takes the stage, she commands attention. Such appearances have helped make her a local living legend.
As activist and poet Lewis MacAdams says, “Wanda is L.A.’s most popular poet, and Charles Bukowski’s true successor. No one could deny that.” A Village Voice article last summer inaccurately called Coleman a “queen of the Poetry Slam circuit.” This is rewriting history. She has participated in a few slams, but what’s true is that her performance style has been co-opted by many slam poets half her age. She’s twice the age of most Slam poets and has been around a lot longer than the 17-year-old Poetry Slam has. Local writer D. Light says many young poets are by now “imitating someone who was imitating someone who was imitating someone who was imitating Wanda Coleman.”
Many of these youngsters possibly don’t even know who Wanda Coleman is. Along with the Beat Poets, the Watts Prophets, Gil Scott Heron and other powerful performance poets, Coleman pioneered a style of performing poetry that set the benchmark. But she never set out to set the standard — just like guitarist Jimi Hendrix, who never thought too much about how influential his music would become simply because he was too busy playing it. The dynamics of Coleman’s performance similarly grew from her urgency and conviction.
Now, thanks to HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, the Saul Williams film “Slam” and the national pervasiveness of hip-hop culture, poetry has entered the cultural mainstream. Venues like Da’ Poetry Lounge on Melrose routinely draw 300 folks every week to hear open-mike poetry. It’s a broad-based aesthetic revolution, and Wanda Coleman’s lifetime of work helped pave the way.
When asked about the hordes of young poets who have copped her style, she says, “Although it did throw me the first time I was invited to a podium and met two young poets doing what approximates my style — one a young black woman out of Texas, and the other a young Filipino lad out of Detroit — the beauty of putting something strong on the culture is that it takes on a life of its own.”
After so many years of hard work with minimal recognition, Coleman is finally receiving some long-deserved accolades. “Ironically, some consider me part of the establishment, she says. “I guess that’s my reward for having toughed it out on this turf.”