Wanda Coleman’s poetry was all music. All street. All wild. She was one of the most authentic people I have ever met. She was entirely herself and if you didn’t like her, that was your problem. She did not kowtow; she did not pretend to be anything that she was not. I remember her leaning into me across the table when I asked her what she thought of so and so. “That trifling yellow bitch!” she’d say, followed by that huge laugh and I’d be left wondering, “Is she serious?” There are poets who write privileged academic poetry, poetry that you need degrees to understand. And there was Wanda, playing the drum for the language of life, of poverty, of racism, of the soul of Los Angeles.
To hear Wanda read poetry was like being at the circus and watching all the animals come into the Big Top at once. There was an energy and rush and movement to her performance. Wanda brought the audience in with her hair, her laughter, but underneath was a deep sadness. Los Angeles, her deepest love never gave as much to Wanda as Wanda gave to the city. The Los Angeles of Wanda Coleman was a wandering mess of dangerous streets and unpaid bills. Wanda Coleman’s performances of these poems ringed with sadness were electrifying. She was our city’s poetry rock star; an uninhibited rush of raw emotion and longing.
Listening to Wanda Coleman’s work was listening to the dark story told in such a rage of lyric intensity and jaw dropping music that you felt you were inside love, inside the blues, inside the best kind of blues/jazz club listening to the city sing to you, never to sleep, always to wake, always to wake into another dark story with a dark woman dancing toward you, dancing and singing the Los Angeles blues. Her poetry was laced with rage, with political overtones, with the song of the oppressed, the outcast, the alone, the underpaid, the ones to whom life is always teaching the same lesson: We do not want you. The ones who always sing back the same song: But we will make music in this outcast place.
For all of us who write poetry in Los Angeles, Wanda Coleman will always be the voice singing in our dreams, threading through our poems, asking us to write truth and to write that truth in music.
By Kate Gale, managing editor of Red Hen Press
Come pay tribute to Wanda Coleman on January 18th at ALOUD.
Photo: Wanda Coleman at ALOUD, Los Angeles Public Library, 2013.
Credit: Gary Leonard