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

During four decades as a force on the L.A. poetry scene, Coleman produced works that compelled attention to racism and hatred.

November 23, 2013|By Elaine Woo

The strains of working and raising a family left her little time for other writing, which led her to focus on poetry. She took writing workshops around Los Angeles, including novelist Budd Schulberg's Watts Writers Workshop, Studio Watts and the program at Beyond Baroque. Her evolution as a writer was painful. "After peaking at 3,000 rejection slips by 1969," she wrote in "The Riot Inside Me: More Trials & Tremors," a 2005 collection of poetry and prose, "I had concluded that I was doing something very wrong no matter how closely I followed Writer's Digest."

Things began to go right after she connected with the prestigious Black Sparrow Press, which in 1977 published her first book of poetry, "Art in the Court of the Blue Fag." Later collections include "Mad Dog, Black Lady" (1979) and "Imagoes" (1983), which won Coleman a National Endowment for the Arts grant and a Guggenheim Fellowship for Poetry; "Heavy Daughter Blues" (1987), which included fiction; "American Sonnets" (1994); and "Ostinato Vamps" (2005).

"Bathwater Wine," the volume that brought Coleman national recognition, was highly autobiographical, with raw, eloquent paeans to her hardworking parents and a sister who died in infancy as well as wry commentaries on social phenomena like white flight. The poems are set in an urban landscape often recognizable as Los Angeles, as in "Closing Time," about a bone-tired waitress heading for her car "at Trinity & Santa Barbara/the last clunker on the black top is mine," and in "Toti's Bowl," a nostalgic tour of past and present haunts, including MacArthur Park, a Szechuan restaurant called Fu Ling's and Harold & Belle's on Jefferson Boulevard "for some bread pudding with whiskey sauce/and a patch of peach cobbler."

Other poems are steeped in her personal struggles for survival, as in "Gone Exits" from "Ostinato Vamps," in which she spoke of "living on nothing but tea leaves and jeremiads/an unsteady diet for the inky mind."

Her struggle for recognition may have fueled the jeremiad on the commercially successful Angelou, whose work Coleman slammed in the 2002 review as "one more traipse to the trough." Coleman described herself in "The Riot Inside Me" as "just one more poet and writer struggling on the cultural margins of The West."

Los Angeles poet-actor Harry Northup, who knew Coleman since the late 1960s, recalled that she once said at a reading she "had three strikes against her: She was a woman, black and from L.A. She mined that outlook a lot, but the truth is that she has done extremely well."

She gave electrifying readings, sharing the stage over the years with luminaries such as Alice Coltrane, Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, Los Lobos and Bonnie Raitt. "Her poems had a hot, jazzy, quality — and she delivered them like improvisational riffs," poet and teacher Suzanne Lummis said Saturday. "There was no one quite like her, and no one can replace her."

In 2012 Coleman received the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, which called her "one of the major writers of her generation."

Married for more than 30 years to Straus, with whom she wrote a book of love poems coming out next year, she also is survived by two children, Tunisia Ordoñez and Ian Grant; brothers George Evans and Marvin Evans; sister Sharon Evans; and three grandchildren.

Northup said age and accolades made Coleman "more serene and kind," a mind-set reflected in a later poem, "Southerly Equinox."

who am i? what am i? are no longer important questions.

knowing that i am is finally enough

like discovering dessert is delicious following a disastrous

meal, a sweetness that reawakens

the palate, or finding that one's chalice is unexpectedly

filled with elixir of euphoria

and i stumble happily into the cornucopia, arms

outstretched, upturned, drunk

my heart athrum, bones full samba. the night

blesses me with his constellations

baptizes me with his deathless autumnal chill

and i invade the moody indigo

full-throated and singing

elaine.woo@latimes.com

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