UCLA Acquires Works of LA’s “Unofficial Poet Laureate”

In Archive by Chrisauna Chery

Photo via poets.org

Recently, UCLA’s library archive celebrated the organizational efforts and arrival of works by Afrikan American writer Wanda Coleman, including her poetry and TV/Film screenplays. The campaign to bring Coleman’s work to UCLA was spearheaded by English PhD candidate Kim Calder. The intimate celebration featured anecdotes and readings of selected pieces by many of the event’s attendees. Guests included Tisa Bryant, Sesshu Foster, Harryette Mullen,  Douglas Kearney and Coleman’s husband Austin Strauss. Tisa Bryant described Coleman as a woman of “candor” who didn’t shy away from the brashness of truth in depicting the grit of life in Los Angeles or, the Deep West, as she called it.  Bryant added that this honesty “iced her dreams” towards LA’s glossy appearance of glamour coming to age.

Wanda Coleman grew up in Watts with a love for the written word and was considered Los Angeles’s unofficial poet laureate until her death in 2013. Her works won her many accolades including a National Book Award finalist and an Emmy. As a community activist, one of her commitments was to work with and instill in younger poets a departure from the shackling concept of political correctedness. This demonstrates Coleman’s heart in seeking the freedom of others, achieved beyond binaries that don’t sit well with their truest selves. Of those that she influenced is Annakai Geshlider, a fourth year world arts and culture major, who attended and comments, “I was excited by how she identified as a performance artist and a performance poet…and how it was inspiring for my own writing”.

Giving her words a life of their own, Coleman successfully wielded the power behind her rhetoric. Known for never whispering, she embodied the urgency of her words needing to be heard.

Imagine her shouting this excerpt from her poem Busted on My Watch, and what emotions it could evoke if its author performed the agony and innocence and helplessness within the poem.

trapped in the prison of recriminations

sputtering to the broke syntax of imaginary crime

you will rat yourself out daily

to those invisible keepers who declared you

incorrigible at your moment of conception

yes. i did it. i was black. and thus-and so…

Coleman’s work explored themes of racism,  eroticism, womanhood,and poverty, something she was very familiar with as indicated by the multiple jobs she took on to support her family.

When asked why Coleman did not receive as much acclaim as her counterparts i.e. Maya Angelou, Calder reasons that the existence of inequality afforded by certain combinations of race, class, and gender, along with her more radical approach, placed her among the predominately white punk scene and fashioned her genreless. This lack of definitiveness presented a challenge to Calder in organizing Coleman’s papers. Why is there such a need for art to be categorized when the expression of form relies heavily on creativity and one’s ability to craft something that has not been done before? It advances the false perception of the idea of diversity. Coleman’s pursuit of her own agenda allows her works to be relevant beyond the timeframe in which she wrote, because of her way of tapping into the human condition that renders itself universal. The following poem reflects a 1982/2016 experience of racial discrimination.

Part 1 of South Central Los Angeles Deathtrip 1982

jes another X marking it

dangling gold chains & pinky rings

nineteen. done in black leather & defiance

teeth white as halogen lamps, skin dark as a threat

they spotted him taking in the night

made for the roust

arrested him of “suspicion of”

they say he became violent

they say he became combative in the rear seat of

that sleek zebra maria. they say

it took a chokehold to restrain him

and then they say he died of asphyxiation

on the spot

summarized in the coroner’s report

as the demise of one

more nondescript dustbunny

ripped on phencyclidine

(which justified their need to

leave his hands cuffed behind his back

long after rigor mortis set in)