With her dark skin and “unconkable kinky hair,” Wanda Coleman found growing up in Los Angeles in the 1950s often felt like torture.
“The stultifying intellectual loneliness of my 1950s and ’60s upbringing was dictated by my looks,” she wrote years later. “Boys gawked at me, and girls tittered behind my back. Black teachers shook their heads in pity, and White teachers stared in amusement or in wonder.” Books became her precious refuge but were hard to come by because the libraries, she noted, “discouraged Negro readers.”
Such trials could grind any person down, but for Coleman they became a vital source for poetry that compelled attention to racism and hatred — the themes that most drove her to transcend the barriers of her birth and take her place as one of the city’s most perceptive writers.
A native of Watts who long was regarded as L.A.’s unofficial poet laureate, Coleman died Friday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles after a long illness, said her husband, poet Austin Straus. She was 67.
During four decades as a force on the Los Angeles poetry scene, Coleman wrote more than 20 books, including novels and collections of short stories and essays.
She was most eloquent in poems, illuminating the ironies and despair in a poor black woman’s daily struggle for dignity but also writing tenderly and with humor about identity, tangled love, California winters and her working-class parents.
“She wrote not just about the black experience in Los Angeles but the whole configuration of Los Angeles in terms of its politics, its social life,” said Richard Modiano, executive director of Beyond Baroque, the Venice literary center where Coleman gave powerful readings. “I would call her a world-class poet. The range of her poetry and the voice she writes in is accessible to all sorts of people.”
Among Coleman’s best-known works was “Bathwater Wine” (1998), which brought her the Lenore Marshall National Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets in 1999. Her next volume, “Mercurochrome” (2001), was a finalist for the National Book Award, whose judges said, “Coleman’s poetry stings, stains and ultimately helps heal wounds” of racial injustice and gender inequality.
Opinionated and fiercely individualistic, Coleman was also a critic and former columnist for the Los Angeles Times, whose scornful 2002 review of celebrated author Maya Angelou’s “A Song Flung Up to Heaven” — one in a series of follow-ups to “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” — caused a tempest in the world of letters.
Coleman panned the memoir as “a sloppily written fake” conceived to satisfy commercial rather than aesthetic tastes. Her harsh attack on the iconic black writer drew national media coverage and led the black American owner of the specialty bookshop Esowon to ban Coleman from his store. But she remained unbowed.
“Others often use the word ‘uncompromising’ to describe my work,” she told Contemporary Poets in 2001. “I find that quite pleasing.”
Born in Los Angeles on Nov. 13, 1946, Coleman was the daughter of George and Lewana Evans. Her father was an ex-boxer who ran a Central Avenue sign shop by day and mopped floors as a janitor by night. Her mother was a seamstress and housekeeper who sometimes worked for Hollywood stars such as Ronald Reagan. Both parents nurtured a love for books and music, which helped soothe the pain of prejudice, uncaring teachers and the cruelties of peers.
Many of her poems burned with remembered insults and injustices, as in “Chapter 2 of the Story” from “Bathwater Wine,” which describes her experiences with a librarian whose bifocals “magnified the bigotry in her eyes.”
“her gray eyes policed me thru the stacks like Dobermans
she watched me come and go, take books and bring books
she monitored the titles and after a while decided
she’d misjudged her little colored girl
and for a time she tried to apologize in her way. to engage
in small talk. i never answered back. once, she set
special books aside to gain my trust respect smile
i left them untouched
hating her more for that.”
Coleman attended Los Angeles Valley College and California State, Los Angeles but did not earn a degree. By 20 she was married and the mother of two children, whom she supported after divorcing her first husband in 1969.
To get by, she held a series of low-paying jobs, including typist, waitress and Peace Corps recruiter. In the early 1970s she embarked on a journalism career with an assignment from the Los Angeles Free Press to write about a fundraiser for Black Panther supporter Angela Davis. But her sarcastic coverage caused consternation in the Davis camp, and she was blackballed by the underground paper for a decade.
In 1975 she landed a job writing for the NBC soap opera “Days of Our Lives” and the next year won a daytime Emmy for her work.
The strains of working and raising a family left her little time for other writing, which led her to focus on poetry. She took writing workshops around Los Angeles, including novelist Budd Schulberg’s Watts Writers Workshop, Studio Watts and the program at Beyond Baroque. Her evolution as a writer was painful. “After peaking at 3,000 rejection slips by 1969,” she wrote in “The Riot Inside Me: More Trials & Tremors,” a 2005 collection of poetry and prose, “I had concluded that I was doing something very wrong no matter how closely I followed Writer’s Digest.”
Things began to go right after she connected with the prestigious Black Sparrow Press, which in 1977 published her first book of poetry, “Art in the Court of the Blue Fag.” Later collections include “Mad Dog, Black Lady” (1979) and “Imagoes” (1983), which won Coleman a National Endowment for the Arts grant and a Guggenheim Fellowship for Poetry; “Heavy Daughter Blues” (1987), which included fiction; “American Sonnets” (1994); and “Ostinato Vamps” (2005).
“Bathwater Wine,” the volume that brought Coleman national recognition, was highly autobiographical, with raw, eloquent paeans to her hardworking parents and a sister who died in infancy as well as wry commentaries on social phenomena like white flight. The poems are set in an urban landscape often recognizable as Los Angeles, as in “Closing Time,” about a bone-tired waitress heading for her car “at Trinity & Santa Barbara/the last clunker on the black top is mine,” and in “Toti’s Bowl,” a nostalgic tour of past and present haunts, including MacArthur Park, a Szechuan restaurant called Fu Ling’s and Harold & Belle’s on Jefferson Boulevard “for some bread pudding with whiskey sauce/and a patch of peach cobbler.”
Other poems are steeped in her personal struggles for survival, as in “Gone Exits” from “Ostinato Vamps,” in which she spoke of “living on nothing but tea leaves and jeremiads/an unsteady diet for the inky mind.”
Her struggle for recognition may have fueled the jeremiad on the commercially successful Angelou, whose work Coleman slammed in the 2002 review as “one more traipse to the trough.” Coleman described herself in “The Riot Inside Me” as “just one more poet and writer struggling on the cultural margins of The West.”
Los Angeles poet-actor Harry Northup, who knew Coleman since the late 1960s, recalled that she once said at a reading she “had three strikes against her: She was a woman, black and from L.A. She mined that outlook a lot, but the truth is that she has done extremely well.”
She gave electrifying readings, sharing the stage over the years with luminaries such as Alice Coltrane, Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, Los Lobos and Bonnie Raitt. “Her poems had a hot, jazzy, quality — and she delivered them like improvisational riffs,” poet and teacher Suzanne Lummis said Saturday. “There was no one quite like her, and no one can replace her.”
In 2012 Coleman received the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, which called her “one of the major writers of her generation.”
Married for more than 30 years to Straus, with whom she wrote a book of love poems coming out next year, she also is survived by two children, Tunisia Ordonez and Ian Grant; brothers George Evans and Marvin Evans; sister Sharon Evans; and three grandchildren.
Northup said age and accolades made Coleman “more serene and kind,” a mind-set reflected in a later poem, “Southerly Equinox.”
“who am i? what am i? are no longer important questions.
knowing that i am is finally enough
like discovering dessert is delicious following a disastrous
meal, a sweetness that reawakens
the palate, or finding that one’s chalice is unexpectedly
filled with elixir of euphoria
and i stumble happily into the cornucopia, arms
outstretched, upturned, drunk
my heart athrum, bones full samba. the night
blesses me with his constellations
baptizes me with his deathless autumnal chill
and i invade the moody indigo
full-throated and singing”