Last reviewed: June 2018
American poet and short-story writer
November 13, 1946
Los Angeles, California
November 22, 2013
Wanda Coleman was an African American writer who wrote about the oppression of black people, the persecution of women, and the inequitable class structure of the United States. Primarily known as a poet, she also published short and long prose, and her nonfiction articles appeared regularly in the Los Angeles Times Magazine.
Coleman was raised in Watts, a section of Los Angeles widely known for the riots that took place there in 1965. An introverted and bookish child, Coleman was encouraged to write by her parents, and by the time she was fifteen she had published several poems. She briefly attended California State University at Los Angeles in 1964 and Los Angeles City College in 1967. Later, she attended Stanford University for a time. By the time she was twenty, she was a political activist, wife, and mother of two children.
Coleman was divorced by 1964, and she decided to pursue a career as a professional writer. While she struggled at writing, she supported her family as a waitress, bartender, dancer, typist, and medical clerk-transcriber. Her first published short story, “Watching the Sunset,” appeared in Negro Digest in 1970; it portrays a lonely middle-aged teacher regretting a life that passed too quickly. The story deals with the realities of racism and with African Americans’ concern with skin color, themes that are developed in her later work.
During the 1970s, Coleman experimented in various media, including theater, dance, and journalism. She also wrote television scripts for the daytime drama Days of Our Lives in 1975-1976, becoming the first African American to win an Emmy Award for writing for a drama series. She was also the first woman editor of an African American men’s magazine, Players. The constrictions of commercial writing and the pressures of child rearing, however, led Coleman to poetry, a short form that provides almost unlimited creative freedom. During this period, she married briefly and bore a third child.
Under the influence of Charles Bukowski, a Los Angeles poet whom she admired, Coleman sent her first poetry manuscript to Black Sparrow Press, whose publisher, John Martin, became an important mentor. He published her chapbook Art in the Court of the Blue Fag, followed by Mad Dog Black Lady and Imagoes. Using authentic black English and internal rhyme, her poems depict homeless people, drug addicts, welfare mothers, and disillusioned dreamers. Coleman’s poetic style captures the distinctive sounds and rhythms of black music, especially jazz and the blues. The poems are full of specific references to black musicians, and the titles often suggest the relationship between music and language, such as “The Saturday Afternoon Blues” and “Blues for a Man on Sax.” These collections earned professional recognition: a National Endowment for the Arts grant (1980-1981) and a Guggenheim Fellowship for poetry in 1984. In the early 1980’s, she cohosted a radio show, “The Poetry Connection,” with poet Austin Straus, who became her third husband.
Heavy Daughter Blues, a collection of poems and short stories, was published in 1987. The stories, centered on working-class people who are threatened or in crisis, are as taut as her poems. Coleman’s dramatic situations and use of urban slang create a powerful vision of the brutalizing effects of racism. A person’s struggle to survive on terms created by others is a major theme that connects the poems and short stories. “Lady of the Cans,” one of the most powerful of these stories, is about a woman who collects returnable cans to be able to feed her children. Coleman’s own frustration and anger at her situation as an African American woman surface frequently in her writing. She established a solid base in Los Angeles, where her dramatic poetry readings became popular events in the 1980’s. The publication of A War of Eyes, and Other Stories attracted wider critical attention than had her previous books. Although the collection teems with military metaphors and images of war, the primary theme is the way individuals are defined and dehumanized in the eyes of others. Everyday life is depicted as a combat zone where one fights for self-definition as well as for survival. The title story is an extended metaphor of race, class, and gender conflict set within a racially mixed experimental dance group. During an exercise—a “war of eyes” in which no one may speak or touch—a scene of homicidal tension between a black dancer and the leader’s white daughter develops, forcing the other class members to intercede.
African Sleeping Sickness, a collection of autobiographical stories and prose poems, offers a detailed depiction of Los Angeles as a city of African American displacement. One of the stories, “Where the Sun Don’t Shine,” won the Harriette Simpson Arnow Prize for fiction in 1990. The story is narrated in the first person by a woman who has managed to leave her black ghetto neighborhood, but remains friends with an older woman who is trapped there. Told largely in colloquial black English, the story portrays the comforts of friendship; a shared vision of life gives the women the strength to survive the misery that surrounds them.
In 1996, Native in a Strange Land collected thirty years of essays and articles that largely reflected Coleman’s life in Los Angeles. The 1998 poetry collection Bathwater Wine was well received and earned for Coleman the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets. In 1999, she produced a novel, Mambo Hips and Make Believe. In 2001, Coleman gained broader recognition with the publication of the collection Mercurochrome: New Poems. In a section of this volume called “Retro Rogue Anthology,” she writes poems inspired by and in reaction to pieces by other famous poets, such as A. R. Ammons, John Berryman, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Sandra Cisneros, Anne Sexton, Louis Zukovsky, Jorge Luis Borges, Lewis Carroll, and Donald Hall. For example, Coleman’s poem “Supermarket Surfer” is based on Ginsberg’s 1956 piece “A Supermarket in California.” Mercurochrome was named a finalist for the National Book Award. Coleman was a finalist for California poet laureate in 2005.
Coleman went on to publish a second essay collection, The Riot Inside Me: More Trials & Tremors (2005); a second collection of short stories, Jazz and Twelve O'Clock Tales (2008); and a final poetry collection, The World Falls Away (2011). She died on November 22, 2013.