The Los Angeles poet Wanda Coleman died Friday after a long illness. She was 67. The LA Times' Carolyn Kellogg writes that Coleman "was a key figure in the literary life of Los Angeles....[and] helped transform the city's literature." Coleman, born in Watts, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2001 for her poetry collection "Mercurochrome." From the LAT:
Born and raised in Watts, Coleman often wrote of issues of race, class, poverty and disenfranchisement. "Words seem inadequate in expressing the anger and outrage I feel at the persistent racism that permeates every aspect of black American life," she once said.
"Since words are what I am best at, I concern myself with this as an urban actuality as best I can."
Despite the driving theme of anger in her work, Coleman was a delightful presence: sharp, funny and powerfully charismatic.
She began writing as a young woman and was part of the Watts Writers Workshop that began after the 1965 riots. She was also involved with Beyond Baroque in Venice.
She published her first poetry collection, "Mad Dog Black Lady," in 1979. Her poetry was primarily published by Black Sparrow Press, home of Charles Bukowski.
On Coleman's Facebook, poet Brendan Constantine posted:
Dear Poets, we are poor today. Poorer by ten million libraries, by constellations of light, we have lost more than we had to lose. Wanda Coleman has stepped away from the mic. Say her name. It's already too quiet. Keep saying it.
Saturday afternoon update: David Ulin adds a personal appreciation on the Times website. Sample:
Wanda Coleman was a force of nature. The last time I saw her, in early 2012, she took over a panel we were on at 826LA. The subject was Los Angeles literature — something Coleman, who died Friday at the age of 67 after a long illness, embodied at the very center of her being — and all of us, her fellow panelists, were more than happy to sit back and listen to her talk. There was that magnificent voice, for one thing: resonant, oratorical, deep with experience. And then, of course, there was everything she had to say.
Coleman was the conscience of the L.A. literary scene — a poet, essayist and fiction writer who helped transform the city’s literature when she emerged in the early 1970s. Born and raised in Watts, she began to write as a young girl, and even then she did not back away from what she felt. “I have a journal that goes back to when I was 11,” she told me in a 1997 interview, “and from the beginning, the pages are virulent with hate.”
That hate had its roots in discrimination, which she experienced on a number of levels at once. “I knew,” she remembered in her astonishing essay “The Riot Inside Me,” “that the second I entered the classroom, I would face the ongoing ridicule garnered by my kinky grade of hair, bright eyes, toothy smile, and dark skin — not from the White students, the few Mexican, Asian American, and Filipino students, or the teacher, but from my Black classmates.”
Photo of Wanda Coleman at Poetry Festival Santa Cruz in 2012 by Ella Seneres/Facebook