You once heard The Black Rimbaud –while stoned out of his gourd—ask a 1981 Santa Cruz gathering “Who is Bob Kaufman?” How would you answer “Who is Wanda Coleman?”
I like to think of myself as “the L.A. Blueswoman,” a title conferred upon me years ago by Irish-American poet Tim Joyce. While I love and respect the blues as a musical and literary form, I’m more accurately a jazz fusionist.
What writers have you learned most from?
Hmm—I’m a mishmash of influences, and turn to any given one whenever I feel lost. In my post-war, baby-boom American youth: Arthur Machen, Poe, Lewis Carroll, Robert Louis Stevenson, Guy de Maupassant, Melville, Shakespeare. On my parents’ tiny bookshelf, I found a tome titled Great Ghost Stories of the World. I loved the book and read it repeatedly, squeezing the meaning out of every word, the art out of every story. Though not highly educated, my parents were readers. Through them I knew Arthur Miller (hidden in a bedroom drawer under the Reader’s Digests and Watchtowers) and many of the African-American writers of the day—Hughes, Dunbar, Richard Wright and James Baldwin (who appeared on 50s TV). On my own I savored Ann Petry, Albert Camus, Anton Chekhov, and Eugene O’Neill. In my teen years through young adulthood—often guided by mentors—I’d say Joan Didion, LeRoi Jones, Franz Kafka, Nathanael West, Nikolai Gogol, The Spaniards (Borges, Lorca, Neruda, Vallejo), Harold Pinter and Edward Albee. I was an avid reader. Books were not simply an escape for me—they were friends. Too—the craft of fine books and daring paperbacks gave me a high that’s difficult to describe. My contemplative thrills included browsing through the stacks in libraries and bookstores. My greatest childhood pleasure was curling up in bed on rainy Saturday mornings with a mug of hot chocolate and stacks of books.
Who do (or did) you most admire who isn’t or wasn’t a poet or writer?
Singers and musicians, largely. I started out as a singer-musician. I had piano and violin lessons into my teens and wanted to also play the cello. I admired Pablo Casals and got to meet him on a school fieldtrip when he came to Southern California on tour. When I was given voice lessons, I aspired to be a contralto like Marian Anderson. As a youngster, I admired Etta James for all the flak she took for her rockin’ vocal style, and, as an adult, finally got to see her in concert twice. Later on, feeling that her singing style was more akin to what I did on the page, the adult Wanda would get a chance to meet Betty Carter while in Manhattan. I admired Ornette Coleman (whom I chanced to meet at an empty Ford-Hanson Theatre, when he was in town negotiating a concert performance) and Sun Ra, and was fortunate enough to see them live in small venues. I was a huge Phil Ochs fan and used to talk with him when he set up his table at McArthur Park love-ins in the 60s. I loved the incredible voice of Kitty White (Elvis’s voice coach), and couldn’t wait to hear the theme song of Riders to the Stars (1954) whenever it came on the Saturday TV flicks. I met her daughter Bonnie by chance, we developed a friendship, and I was finally able to tell Kitty how much I admired her gift and regretted that she never received the fame she deserved, in my estimate.
If you hadn’t become a writer, what would you have enjoyed doing or becoming passionate about?
I had a culturally rich upbringing, which gave me several options; however, my love of science and imaginative fiction led me to reading lay science books. I began high school as a science-math major. Racism was a terribly strong factor in the Los Angeles school system of the day, and as soon as my class enrolled, Latin, French, Calculus and other important subjects were eliminated from the curriculum. This kind of dumbing down took place in tandem with “White flight,” White students and teachers fleeing the South Central L.A. into which Blacks were moving as the Civil Rights Movement progressed elsewhere in the nation (remember, it never came west—if a few of its leaders tiptoed in and out of town). I begged my mother to have me transferred to another school. She refused; she had to have me close at hand, as her helpmate. This was killing on my spirit. Nevertheless, I took chemistry, physics and geometry—knew all the constellations, and fancied myself pursuing astronomy or astrophysics. Hahaha. It didn’t take a slide rule to figure out that that was never going to happen. It took about two terms at Fremont High. Under the emotional stresses of “being failed” before I had even begun to emerge, I became extremely depressed and nearly dropped out. To save myself, I turned to the arts—drawing, music, writing, and public speaking (forensics). Despite mediocre grades and my fear and hatred of taking tests, I managed to earn the highest score in the entire school on a national student exam my senior year. My peers and teachers were shocked out of their socks—me too.
You mentioned science fiction. Which writers did you like best?
A.B. Dick, Arthur C. Knight, and my favorite read was A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller. I also liked Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon and Chip Delaney—three writers I would chance to meet as an adult, although I was only able to personally express my appreciation to Bradbury and Delaney.
Tell us about Charles Bukowski and Black Sparrow Press.
I’ve said lots (enough) about that elsewhere. Everything was strictly literary business and platonic. I’ve said lots in classrooms and have fueled the local underground rumor mills plenty. If and when I can clear away more urgent writing business, I may someday return to the subject.
What is your pet literary peeve?
Intellectual theft. When I “borrow” from other writers, I always give them credit. However, several of my literary fellows have lifted my titles (Imagoes, American Sonnets, Red Noir) and content—stealing lines (“shoot muthafucka or quit wasting my time”) and whole concepts (having to buy time to stay alive)—without giving me so much as a “dog kiss my foot.” I sincerely believe there’s such a thing as “simultaneity of thought,” and that in a world where we’re constantly bombarded by electronic media, it’s often impossible to be 100% original; that said: Writing is an unregulated craft and there’s no copyright on titles; however, it’s a safe bet that if some poet went around saying he or she had written “The Cantos” or “Paradise Lost” the literary world would be up in arms. Whoever has presumably said or written something first, or had an original thought, has always been important in western culture. I wonder how long that notion is going to last?
Do you feel that readers in other countries understand your work given that the meaning of it often depends largely on the context of the Black urban experience in the Western United States?
My concern is that my fellow Americans understand it, thinking outside California and the Southwest. Those literati I’ve encountered when touring overseas seem to appreciate my work better than my compatriots. Few know that I’ve had ten stories translated into German in a 1991 collection titled Blues and that several of my poems have not only been translated into German, but French, Spanish and Hungarian. Hmm—on second thought— perhaps I’m being unfair to my compatriots. Maria Mazzioti Gillan, Sandra Cisneros, Luis Rodriguez, Adrienne Rich and John Ashbury are among many who’ve shown sincere appreciation for my work. Marilyn Hacker was more than generous in her Nation article, when I won the 1999 Lenore Marshall Prize. Camille Paglia was also kind enough to include me in her Break, Blow, Burn anthology. Too—many of my Black Sparrow Press siblings have acknowledged me over the years, including Lucia Berlin who I met while traveling a few years before she died. Also, the younger African-American writers, emerging since the1980s, seem to appreciate me profoundly once they discover that I exist. Now that I think of it, a list would be substantial.
Your poems have often been criticized as being too political or dismissed as protest literature. Your 1993 collection Hand Dance was not as well-received as some of your earlier or prize-winning later work.
To use a phrase I made up, when I sneeze it’s political. The nature of my existence as an African-American (and all African-American authors, no matter what they write) is directly tied to the social-economic roots and growth of this nation. There’s nothing I can do to change the excrement fast enough to suit me, so I’ve opted to make fertilizer—to transform it into poetry and stories that represent my weltanschauung. If you only read two of my books—Hand Dance (“we need to talk money. to understand the current currency of our time” ) and Ostinato Vamps, you’ll find I’ve anticipated the Occupy America Movement (“let the brave find their fists”) and have articulated many of its complaints for nearly two decades, if from my ethno-specific point-of-view. As a fledgling writer, in my twenties, I had the wonderful experience of meeting and sharing the podium with the surviving nine members of The Hollywood Ten on several occasions. I knew who they were and what they had done, but was most familiar with the works of B. Dalton Trumbo and the films of Edward Dmytryk. In my book, their undeniable experiences defined the political nature of writing and the arts in America. I like to think of myself as writing in their tradition.
Are you obsessive about “race matters”?
My obsessions are about my writing life. While race is certainly a factor, as I’m always willing to discuss, it’s not the only one.
Name some of your African-American influences.
Alain Leroy Locke, John Henrik Clarke, Joyce Ladner, W.E.B. DuBois, and Franz Fanon, off the top.
You also write fiction and nonfiction. You’ve received largely favorable reviews—when you get them—and a few raves. It’s said that your prose is as powerful as your poetry. What evidence do you have of that?
I’ve published two collections of miscellaneous writings and essays, a novel, two collections of fiction, two double genre books (Heavy Daughter Blues and African Sleeping Sickness) and over a hundred short stories in nearly as many literary magazines and anthologies. My feeling is that I’ve not written often enough or deeply enough. I’m a writer who works in many forms—including poetry. I’ve also written scripts and plays. Most poets don’t write fiction. Poetry can be difficult to master, and, once mastered, may completely absorb one’s creative energy. Because securing adequate writing time has always been a serious issue for me, and it was vital to me that I write—anything, but write—poetry evolved as my mainstay. (My lack of sufficient time—as a working mother supporting a family— has sometime caused me to adopt a rhetorical tone that might have softened under other circumstances.)
How many poems have you published?
Last count—over eleven hundred. I don’t have time to keep track of this kind of stat anymore. My bibliography is nearly 200 pages—in 10-point font.
Hasn’t anyone made a film about you?
In the mid-80s Jeff Land (a descendant of Edwin Land who invented the polaroid film process), then a student at LACC, made Mad Dog Black Lady: A Film About Los Angeles Poet Wanda Coleman. It screened at the Director’s Guild and received a rave review in The Los Angeles Times. But as fate and tough luck would have it, PBS refused to air it because—irony of ironies—there weren’t enough Blacks in it. Others have attempted similar projects featuring me, but budgetary problems aborted them. Oh—along with Lee Hickman, I’m one of ten poets featured in an early 90s film by Sophie Rachmuhl, who returned to France to complete her education and raise a family. She’s recently back in touch with Paul Vangelisti (I believe) over at Otis.
Students and academics are starting to write about you. Priscilla Ann Brown’s Ph.D. thesis on your work has been published by Proquest and can be found online. Can you recommend any texts that would be important in discussing your work, other than searching the internet?
They can start with Tony Magistrale. He was the first academic—also a prize-winning poet—to give my work serious consideration. He now chairs the English Department at the University of Vermont and is an expert on Stephen King and Edgar Allan Poe. He’s a terrific guy. He included “Rape”, one of my most toxic poems, in his contribution to Angels of Vision: Reading, Writing, and the Study of Literature, a 1992 anthology (Biddle & Fulwiler, McGraw-Hill). My poem got it banned in the entire state of Texas—which is why you never heard of it. I’m sure it was ignored elsewhere (another form of censorship). Poet and critic Bill Mohr has just published Hold Outs: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance, 1948-1992 (University of Iowa Press, 2011). My contribution is mentioned in it. Students should check out an article on me by Dr. Jennifer D. Ryan in her Post-Jazz Poetics: A Social History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). And a very different kind of interview of me by Malin Pereira in her book Into a Light Both Brilliant and Unseen: Conversations with Contemporary Black Poets (University of Georgia Press, 2010). They should also check me out in recent issues of The Los Angeles Review, Burnside Review, and The Superstition Review.
When you look back over your life, what risk or risks do you regret having taken?
I was cavalier about taking risks and had no regrets before the death of my oldest son, Anthony (Tony) Jerome Coleman. He died of AIDS/HIV in January, 1997. After his death I began to have a very enormous regret. Roughly 20 years earlier, I was blessed with the opportunity of a lifetime—the kind fledgling writers dream about. I had received two contracts for my poetry in the same week! One was from publisher John Martin at Black Sparrow Press for my first book—a tiny little chapbook that would pay out pennies, with the promise that I’d soon have a full book. The other was from a major record company offering me $5 million dollars for everything that I wrote. Legally, I couldn’t sign both. My then-husband (Steven Grant) got down on his knees and begged me to take the $5 million. He didn’t understand how committed I was to writing, and that (ironically) the freedom to write and see my work produced or published was—to me—the ultimate freedom. After a heady period of consideration, I returned the contract to the record company scouts unsigned. Not long after Tony died, my grief quietly consumed me, along with a profound rage bordering on the irrational. If, I told myself, I had taken the $5 million, I would have had the funds needed to complete my college education and would have been able to better provide for my children. I could have given them the things they needed and wanted. Perhaps I could have saved Tony’s life by offering him an alternative lifestyle—one that such money notoriously buys. Perhaps…perhaps….
Apart from your many publications and awards, what are you most proud of having achieved?
I’m proud of having inspired others—across the demographics—to follow their writing dreams. I’m proud of having freed younger voices from self-censorship so that they are not afraid to “tell it like it is.” I’ve had a few look me up over the years and thank me. I call them “my babies.” And it doesn’t matter what color they are or which country they’re from. Too, I’m most proud of having saved a life or two along the way. One such life was that of a second cousin. She had attempted suicide as a young mother. The family was in hysterics at the time. I wrote a poem dedicated to her. It was taken to her hospital bedside. She promised her mother (and mine) that she’d never try to take her life again. She went on to live and love her grandchildren before losing her life to cancer 25 years later.
As you become older is it becoming harder to be creative? Do the ideas still keep coming?
Actually, the great thing about being a writer is that one usually gets better with age and one’s talent or gift is likely to deepen. Luckily, this is the case with me. The ideas won’t stop coming—I have many unfinished works: plays, novels, articles and short stories galore, as well as notes on a memoir. Zyzzva has just accepted one of my latest stories for their spring 2012 issue, and Poetry Lore has the first in my a new series of poems (“Night Coffee”) in their latest issue. My problem hasn’t been ideas or projects—I have no shortage of them. My problem has always been, and still remains, getting enough of the quality time I need to bleed them out of my head or heart and onto the page.
What’s ahead for Wanda Coleman?
Several readings, including the Out Loud series downtown. I’ve been nominated for Beyond Baroque’s 2012 George Drury Smith Award which will be presented in July. David St. John was the first to receive it. I’ve accepted the nomination.
Thank you for your candor. Is there anything else you’d like to say?
I’d like to thank my friends and supporters, old and new. There are too many to name. They know who they are. And thanks to The Nervous Breakdown for giving me yet another opportunity to vent.