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)