Hahaha: Wanda Coleman’s Last Laugh
by Stephen Kessler
WANDA COLEMAN was a big woman. Physically, for sure—she was built like a linebacker, and she liked to fight. But far larger than her imposing physical presence was her prodigious accomplishment as a poet and performer. Wanda, a good friend of mine for thirty-five years who died last November 22 after a series of serious health problems, was for my money one of the major voices, in any language, of our generation. A frequently featured guest at international poetry festivals, winner of various prestigious national awards, prolific author of verse and prose who traveled widely for readings, she was first of all a Los Angeles writer who reigned as Queen of Poets in that city, a Watts-born native who stuck around to claim her turf as a vast resource for imaginative transformation. Her writing was both intensely personal and explicitly political, and LA was her ruthless yet generous muse.
At a packed memorial reading in January at the downtown branch of the LA Public Library, a diverse assortment of poets, most of them residents of Southern California, praised and thanked Wanda for inspiring them and for demonstrating by example that even such a seemingly antipoetic environment can offer great riches of resonant material to a writer with the presence of mind and the stamina to pay sustained attention. In this she had much in common with Charles Bukowski, the other, older, LA monster poet with whom she hated to be compared. But both were published by John Martin’s pioneering independent Black Sparrow Press, in beautiful editions designed by Barbara Martin, and each unleashed a different kind of LA-inflected American vernacular that took the Walt Whitman-William Carlos Williams-Frank O’Hara legacy of common, conversational yet lyrical speech in liberating new directions.
Wanda was of course both black and female, as well as much angrier than Bukowski. At her best she synthesized the most diverse traditions, from the ancient Greeks and Shakespeare to the funky earthiness of the blues and the snappy hooks of pop music, with the rhythms of freeway traffic, colloquial black English, an advanced modernist poetics and a highly sophisticated personal prosody that made optimum use of space on the page as a musical score for her carefully wrought “free” verse. Her formal control is extraordinary in the way she is able to combine what sounds like natural speech with extremely subtle poetic technique to deliver her scorching torch songs and hair-curling narratives of life and death in a very tough cityscape of racial and class conflict, sexual clashes, economic struggle and automotive aggravation, all in an atmosphere of sweet-smelling semitropical menace laced with intoxicating traces of noxious smog.
I’ve lost a lot of writer friends in recent years, but none has left as large a gap in my personal universe as Wanda Coleman. Her nonexistence seems impossible. It wasn’t just her physical size and the scale of her personality but the magnitude of her genius and her furious determination to make her mark with maximum ambition that set her apart from most of her contemporaries. Wanda’s enormous energy and talent were deployed not only (as with so many writers) in the service of her own ego—though that, too—but as a defiant refusal to be defeated by circumstance and as a model of creative resistance. Even in the most intimate expressions of personal experience she felt herself representative of an oppressed minority determined to overcome its disadvantages. While the hardness of her life surely contributed to the health crises that finally felled her, her work is a powerfully impressive record of artistic victory and spiritual transcendence.
That’s why so many other writers, in LA and beyond, regarded her with such admiration and found her to be such an encouraging, if sometimes intimidating, figure. Her live performances were incomparable (“electrifying” was the adjective most often used to describe them) in the way she dramatized her poems with virtuoso operatic passion. Her alternately and sometimes simultaneously ferocious and tender, enraged and erotic, frightening and funny readings made a huge impression on anyone who witnessed them. She overshadowed practically anyone else on any stage where she appeared, not because she was a scenery-chewer but because the natural force of her personality and the authenticity of her art just blew them out of the picture.
Because of her constant struggles to survive and to raise three kids mostly as a single mom in her twenties and thirties (before she met her third husband, the artist and poet Austin Straus, to whom she was married for more than thirty years), the fact of her tremendous literary production was even more remarkable. Working various jobs—as a men’s magazine editor, a soap opera writer (she won an Emmy for Days of Our Lives), a medical secretary, a journalist, a university professor (a job she was doomed to lose because she was fearlessly herself in all she did and took no shit from anyone, whether student, faculty or administrator)—she somehow found the time and strength to take care of her kids, read tons of books, listen to a vast range of music, watch countless movies and remember them, stay conversant with old and new art, maintain a voluminous correspondence, and still write more and better poems than pretty much anyone else I know.
With her huge dangling earrings, her fingers decked out in big rings, her colorful wardrobe inspired by and often composed of African fabrics, her big natural ’do or cornrows or dreadlocks meticulously groomed, her enthusiastic enjoyment of every sensory pleasure from food and sex (it’s in her writing) to watching tennis on television or sharing a joint with a friend, she relished life’s fleeting delights like someone who knew her days were numbered. She had a swagger and a chip on her shoulder—a persona as the baddest bitch in the hood, someone not to be messed with—yet also an enormous warmth.
Wanda’s mother had worked as a housekeeper on the Westside (Ronald Reagan was one of her employers, she told me; he loved Lewana’s macaroni and cheese), and I had been raised by such women from South LA who worked for my family in the 1950s while my folks were out building their business, and these polar opposite upbringings on different sides of town created a curious bond between us, as we were also almost exactly the same age (she was two months older). Although we were born in different hospitals, she died at Cedars Sinai, like my dad, in her case of a pulmonary embolism after a series of ailments exacerbated by years of economic insecurity, anxiety and stress. Somehow despite our radically different backgrounds we had an effortless connection, perhaps in part because we both so valued honesty in personal relations. She wasn’t afraid to tell you anything if that’s what she really thought, and this is such an unusual (and dangerous) attribute that I was refreshed (if sometimes exasperated) by her candor. She was hypersensitive and easily provoked, but you always knew where you stood.
Wanda often confided in and consulted with me about her problems—domestic, professional, economic, medical, automotive—in long letters or phone calls punctuated by black humor and parenthetical laughter at her own expense. That unforgettable laugh—a high cackle, a crazed wail, a wild howl just this side of sobs—was, I’m certain, one of the things that kept her alive for sixty-seven years despite the hardships perpetually besetting her. She had a strong sense of the pathos and absurdity of her situation combined with pride that nothing could stop her, and the tension between those attitudes seemed to trigger a wickedly ironic wit. A glance at her sweeping signature at the end of a letter revealed a forceful, confident personality; the big W in the shape of an inverted heart was a graphic representation of her bravura.
Three years ago she wrote to me, in the middle of a litany of her latest troubles, “I’m counting on you to write my obituary (hahaha).” That wasn’t necessary, as it turned out, because the Los Angeles Times, on the front page of its Sunday paper of November 24, 2013, published a long obit celebrating her as one of that city’s premier writers, its “unofficial poet laureate,” a fallen hero of local culture, an artistic warrior and a star whose light still shines. And as if to confirm her own certainty that the triple-whammy of being black, female and from LA had relegated her to the margins of mainstream literary respectability, The New York Times, which routinely publishes an obit for the most obscure TV actor, completely blacked out, so to speak, any news of her death. It was the kind of insult-by-omission she would have understood, and perhaps predicted (a scathing review she wrote of Maya Angelou some years ago had even gotten her blackballed by much of the African-American literary establishment), but it still astonishes me that the most literate newspaper in the country could be so myopic as to ignore such an important writer.
I am confident that in the years ahead, as her absence is felt in the cultural landscape and her books take their place in the historical record as the huge contributions they are to the literature of our time (the African-American Review, a journal published by Johns Hopkins University, dedicated its recent issue to “the memory of Wanda Coleman and Nelson Mandela,” in that order, which gives some idea of her stature), Wanda will be remembered with awe and gratitude for generations to come. Even now, on YouTube, you can see evidence of her enduring afterlife, and her works in print will surely outlast those of most other contemporaries. Like Mandela, Wanda Coleman is one for the ages, and she will have the last laugh.
Stephen Kessler’s most recent books are Scratch Pegasus (poems, Swan Scythe Press) and Poems of Consummation by Vicente Aleixandre (translation, Black Widow Press). He is editor of The Redwood Coast Review and a contributing editor to Poetry Flash.
Photo by Christopher Felver.
Some Books by Wanda Coleman
Mad Dog Black Lady (1979)
Heavy Daughter Blues: Poems & Stories 1968-1986 (1987)
A War of Eyes and Other Stories (1988)
African Sleeping Sickness: Stories & Poems (1990)
Hand Dance (1993)
Native in a Strange Land: Trials & Tremors (1996)
Bathwater Wine (1998)
Ostinato Vamps (2003)
The Riot Inside Me: More Trials & Tremors (2005)
Jazz and Twelve O’Clock Tales (2008)
The World Falls Away (2011)
— posted February 2014