BooksWeekend

Wanda Coleman, the Great Poet of Los Angeles

Coleman not only embraces her multitudes, but changes effortlessly from one persona and voice to another — things she needed to do in order to survive as a single Black mother raising two children in Los Angeles.

Wanda Coleman, Wicked Enchantment: Selected Poems (Black Sparrow Press, 2020)

Sassy, funny, and wickedly sharp — Wanda Coleman wrote the best poems about cars and their centrality to life in Los Angeles, California. She is an essential guide to the LA car experience, just as Frank O’Hara is to walking in midtown Manhattan, David Schubert and Paul Blackburn to riding a New York subway, and Ron Silliman to taking the BART between Oakland, San Francisco, and Berkeley.

When you live in LA, a car is a prerequisite, a status symbol, and a daily requirement, as the reader learns in the first stanza of Coleman’s poem “I Live for My Car”:

can’t let go of it. to live is to drive. to have it function

smooth, flawless. to rise with the morning and have it start

i pray to the mechanic for heat again and air conditioning

when I meet people i used to know i’m glad to see them until

i remember I’m driving and am afraid they’ll go outside and

see me climb into that struggle buggy and laugh deep long loud

For Coleman, the car is a necessity on other levels as well: “i have frequent fantasies of running over people i don’t like/with my car […]”

Coleman’s uncapitalized, sparsely punctuated poems move swiftly and fluently between fast-speaking cadences and sonic solos, between supplely rhythmic vocal choreographies, staccato jabs, and rapid flurries of pent-up feeling.

In the poem “Wanda Why Aren’t You Dead,” the poet channels the language that’s been directed against her and spits it back ever so smartly:

wanda when are you gonna wear your hair down

wanda. that’s a whore’s name

wanda why ain’t you rich

wanda you know no man in his right mind want a ready-made family

why don’t you lose weight

wanda why are you so angry

how come your feet are so goddamn big

She not only embraces her multitudes, but changes effortlessly from one persona and voice to another — things she needed to do in order to survive as a single Black mother raising two children in Los Angeles.

In the playfully (yet painfully) titled “Male Order Catalog,” she links mail order clothes (“polished cotton Hawaiian green and purple-brown print, scoop-necked muumuu, size 20 on sale”) with memories of lovers and their particular dietary cravings (Jerry. southern fried chicken/Necco wafers. RC cola & bubble gum), and mixes them with self-portraiture and erotic memories (“gave my pregnant-for-the-first-time belly room”).

These and other poems can be found in Wanda Coleman’s ample new collection, Wicked Enchantment: Selected Poems (Black Sparrow Press, 2020), edited and with an introduction by Terrance Hayes. It is hard to believe — though, at the same time, all too familiar — that this is the poet’s first publication since her death in 2013, shortly after she turned 67. During her lifetime, Coleman had been the first African American woman to receive the prestigious Lenore Marshall Award (1999) and was a finalist for the 2001 National Book Awards. She was still underground, but she was hardly invisible, which, in some sense, she became after her death, until the release of this new collection.

Between that moment and this, Coleman’s work seems to have fallen out of favor with the literary establishment. In the years she was publishing (which started in her mid-30s, with 1979’s Mad Dog Black Lady), she was able to get a toehold in the American poetry world. Then, as both the white academic and the white avant-garde institutions would have it, she vanished. By my reckoning, there are more than a dozen poems in Hayes’s astute gathering that should be widely anthologized, certainly as much as any poem by Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, or O’ Hara. The fact that they aren’t speaks to the continuing rifts in America’s segregated cultural history. Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka have passed muster, but Coleman hasn’t.

Wicked Enchantment should help set the record straight: Coleman is a great American poet whose best work serves as an instruction manual on inventiveness and originality after the authorities announced the death of the author and the rise of post-identity writing.

Wanda Coleman in Los Angeles (photo by Rod Bradley)

Through the poems that Hayes has selected, the reader learns that Coleman was a Black single mother who raised her two children and worked while living on the edge of poverty for many years. In a 2013 interview for the series “Poetry.LA,” Coleman recalls writing every day for a soap opera (one of her many jobs) for which she won a Daytime Drama  Emmy. Soon after being fired she realized the daily practice of writing had prepared her for being a poet, someone who writes every day. Coleman had a close-up view of the city’s cultural, socioeconomic, and racial collisions. She traversed LA and its many neighborhoods, from Watts and East Hollywood to Hollywood’s writing studios for daytime soaps. She had an intimate view of racial animosity, hatred, misunderstanding, envy, misinformation, and more.

And yet, for all the personal details, the poems feel neither sociological nor, as critics have written of the work of Lowell and Plath’s heirs, confessional. Appropriating things she heard throughout her life, Coleman’s documentary poems share something with Charles Reznikoff’s use of the testimonies of witnesses, victims, and criminals that he had extracted from 19th- and 20th-century New York court transcripts.

Coleman’s transparency is different than what we might think of when reading Lowell or Sharon Olds, others working in the territory of the “I experienced this, which caused me to feel that” school of American postwar poetry. Rather than succumbing to the pain and crying out “Daddy,” or resorting to what has become familiar poetic hyperbole (for instance, “my heart is heavy”), Coleman is bitingly sarcastic, sharply satirical, and raging with anger, all while imbuing her chaotic feelings with a coolly dispassionate sense of objectivity:

what does one do when the future wears pink mules

A Hawaiian print muumuu, cheesy blonde synthetic

hair wig, has long given up shaving off the chin hair of

sociopolit imbalance and tipples the gin

Coleman pulls the reader in with long, sinuous lines that keep driving forward, pulling you along. What further distinguishes her poetry, and installs it in its own domain, is her extravagant language — one detail is never enough; five are never too many. She treads that tightrope and rarely loses her balance. Aware of the many different ways language is presented and framed, from meetings with a psychiatrist to mail order catalogs to questionnaires and medical reports, Coleman turns these forms into poems, another method of exchange, always with an eye on how the form can be used to help reflect upon the information it contains. Her ability to repurpose forms such as a want ad shares something with her contemporary Paul Violi (1944–2011), another undervalued poet who was a great scavenger of forms found in everyday life.

Coleman is playful in her language. She is always aware of her geographic location in LA, and she fills her poems with details. In “Scratch Me,” she writes under the section titled “summer”:

beached again. i hate being beached. the affirmation of my

poverty, stranded on an inner city cement dune as white as

the center of the sun, cold as iceberg.

Hayes showcases Coleman’s many innovative uses of familiar formats, as well as a scattering of blues-like poems that someone ought to set to music, prose poems, bittersweet rants, a recounting of when she met Bob Kaufman, and a personal history about her father leaving Little Rock and her mother working “for the movie star/Ronald Reagan and his wife Jane […].” He also includes a large selection of her American Sonnets, many of which are “after” other poets and figures, including Robert Duncan, June Jordan, and the political activist and co-founder of the Black Panther Party Huey P. Newton. From John Coltrane to Pablo Neruda, Elizabeth Bishop, Tom Clark, and John Berryman, Coleman soaked up many possibilities from the world she inhabited as well as created. When it came to her poems, what she put down was unmistakably her own.

Wicked Enchantment: Selected Poems by Wanda Coleman (2020), edited and with an introduction by Terrance Hayes, is published by Black Sparrow Press and is available online and in bookstores.

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