Back in 1983, the iconic local poet Wanda Coleman anticipated her own death, which she envisioned as “a door thru which i escape/another world.” Far from being in fear of this inevitability, the Watts native and lifelong Angeleno embraced it. “When my time comes/i will speak to the night,” she declared. And, like her throngs of ardent fans and poetic peers, you had to presume even the night would stop to pay attention, reveling in her every word and late-night confession: “My skin peels off, beneath it soft moist black earth.”
Coleman passed away at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center after a lengthy illness on Friday, November 22, at the age of 67, leaving behind her longtime husband and fellow poet, Austin Straus, two children, three grandchildren, and a body of work that richly and palpably grappled with the contradictions of life in this city. When the former Wanda Evans emerged as a startlingly frank and fearlessly confrontational poet in the late 1970s, the East Coast literary establishment had little use for most serious L.A. writers, much less a struggling African-American single mother, and yet Coleman was published from the very beginning by Black Sparrow Press, the imprint that famously championed the works of Charles Bukowski, John Fante and D.H. Lawrence.
Even among those stellar figures, Wanda Coleman stood out. She inevitably commanded attention wherever she performed, filling the room not only with her larger-than-life personality and grand, melodious voice but with a flurry of words and punchy phrases that took on such heavy subjects as rape, poverty and racism (“Sears Life”) while also maintaining a merrily light touch when she infectiously evoked the sheer joys of eating (“Pigging Out”), listening to music (“Hello Laura Nyro”) and driving on Southland freeways (“On Speed”). She was no archetypal shrinking-violet poet onstage, instead declaiming her poems and short stories in a voice that was clear and strong and often fiery. Her poetic homages to jazz and blues musicians transcended mere writing and, with their sharply observed details and swinging pacing, were a form of music itself. It was no surprise, then, that Coleman occasionally collaborated with such musicians as the jazz bassist John B. Williams and even punk priestess Exene Cervenka, with whom she released an intriguing 1985 spoken-word album, Twin Sisters.
Her father was a boxer, and her mother was a housekeeper, and Coleman worked a variety of menial jobs before getting a gig in 1975 writing scripts for Days of Our Lives and winning an Emmy. She's most often associated with her popular poetry collections, especially 1998's Bathwater Wine, but Coleman was also an excellent prose stylist, as revealed in the incisive essays of The Riot Inside Me: More Trials & Tremors (2005) and the evocative short stories in Jazz and Twelve O'Clock Tales (2008).
Beyond everything else, Coleman was a searing chronicler of the less-glamorous sides of Los Angeles, whether she was riding on the bus and staring out the window at the “endless grey curbs of home” or seeing herself as a “queen of zeon crowned in helicopter searchlight.” The poet employed “ideas as contraband” and was unafraid of causing a controversy, such as the fuss she raised when she sternly criticized Maya Angelou's A Song Flung Up to Heaven in an infamous L.A. Times book review in 2002. It's difficult to imagine such a lively writer being taken away by something as mundane as death, a paradox that Coleman raised in an early autobiographical aside: “What happened to the brown-eyed me, a mini-skirted wound weeping soft red candlelight?”