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Wanda Coleman dies at 67; L.A.'s unofficial poet laureate

Wanda Coleman, a native of Watts, wrote lyrically and often angrily about the trials of life in Los Angeles. She produced novels, short stories and essays, but was most eloquent in poems.

November 23, 2013|By Elaine Woo
  • Wanda Coleman in 1999.
Wanda Coleman in 1999. (Los Angeles Times )

Wanda Coleman, a provocative Los Angeles poet who wrote lyrically and often angrily about the trials of life in her native metropolis, commenting on poverty, sexuality, racial politics, crime and other urban tensions, died Friday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center after a long illness. She was 67.

Her death was confirmed by her husband, poet Austin Straus.

A native of Watts, Coleman was long regarded as the city's unofficial poet laureate, who during a four-decade career wrote 22 books, including novels and collections of short stories and essays.

She was most eloquent in poems, illuminating the ironies and despair in a poor black woman's daily struggle for dignity but also writing tenderly and with humor about identity, tangled love, California winters and her working-class parents.

"She wrote not just about the black experience in Los Angeles but the whole configuration of Los Angeles in terms of its politics, its social life," said Richard Modiano, executive director of Beyond Baroque, the Venice literary center where Coleman gave powerful readings. "I would call her a world-class poet. The range of her poetry and the voice she writes in is accessible to all sorts of people."

Among Coleman's best known works was "Bathwater Wine" (1998), which brought her the Lenore Marshall National Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets in 1999. Her next volume, "Mercurochrome" (2001), was a finalist for the National Book Award, whose judges said "Coleman's poetry stings, stains, and ultimately helps heal wounds" of racial injustice and gender inequality.

Opinionated and fiercely individualistic, Coleman was also a critic and former columnist for the Los Angeles Times, whose scornful 2002 review of celebrated author Maya Angelou's "A Song Flung Up to Heaven" — one in a series of follow-ups to "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" — caused a tempest in the world of letters.

Coleman panned the memoir as "a sloppily written fake" conceived to satisfy commercial rather than aesthetic tastes. Her harsh attack on the iconic black writer drew national media coverage and led the African American owner of the specialty bookshop Esowon to ban Coleman from his store, but she remained unbowed.

"Others often use the word 'uncompromising' to describe my work," she told Contemporary Poets in 2001. "I find that quite pleasing."

Born in Los Angeles on Nov. 13, 1946, Coleman was the daughter of George and Lewana Evans. Her father was an ex-boxer who ran a Central Avenue sign shop by day and mopped floors as a janitor by night. Her mother was a seamstress and housekeeper who sometimes worked for Hollywood stars like Ronald Reagan. Both parents nurtured a love for books and music, which provided young Wanda with a refuge from prejudice, uncaring teachers and the cruelties of peers.

"The stultifying intellectual loneliness of my 1950s and '60s upbringing was dictated by my looks — dark skin and unconkable kinky hair," she wrote in her nonfiction collection "The Riot Inside Me" (2005). "Boys gawked at me, and girls tittered behind my back. Black teachers shook their heads in pity, and White teachers stared in amusement or in wonder. I found this rejection unbearable and … sought an escape in books, which were usually hard to come by. There were no colored-owned bookstores in our neighborhood. The libraries discouraged Negro readers."

Many of her poems burned with remembered insults and injustices, as in "Chapter 2 of the Story" from "Bathwater Wine," which describes her experiences with a librarian whose bifocals "magnified the bigotry in her eyes."

her gray eyes policed me thru the stacks like Dobermans
she watched me come and go, take books and bring books
she monitored the titles and after a while decided
she'd misjudged her little colored girl
and for a time she tried to apologize in her way. to engage
in small talk. i never answered back. once, she set
special books aside to gain my trust respect smile
i left them untouched
hating her more for that

Coleman attended Valley College and Cal State Los Angeles though she did not earn a degree. By 20 she was married and the mother of two children, whom she supported after divorcing her first husband in 1969.

To get by, she held a series of low-paying jobs, including typist, waitress and Peace Corps recruiter. In the early 1970s she embarked on a journalism career with an assignment from the Los Angeles Free Press to write about a fundraiser for Black Panther supporter Angela Davis. But her sarcastic coverage caused consternation in the Davis camp and she was blackballed by the underground paper for a decade.

In 1975 she landed a job writing for the NBC soap opera "Days of Our Lives" and the next year won a daytime Emmy for her work.

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