Wanda Coleman dies at 67; L.A.'s unofficial poet laureate

Wanda Coleman, a provocative Los Angeles poet who wrote lyrically and often angrily about the trials of life in her native metropolis, commenting on poverty, sexuality, racial politics, crime and other urban tensions, died Friday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center after a long illness. She was 67.

Her death was confirmed by her husband, poet Austin Straus.

A native of Watts, Coleman was long regarded as the city's unofficial poet laureate, who during a four-decade career wrote 22 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 African 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 like Ronald Reagan. Both parents nurtured a love for books and music, which provided young Wanda with a refuge from prejudice, uncaring teachers and the cruelties of peers.

"The stultifying intellectual loneliness of my 1950s and '60s upbringing was dictated by my looks — dark skin and unconkable kinky hair," she wrote in her nonfiction collection "The Riot Inside Me" (2005). "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. I found this rejection unbearable and … sought an escape in books, which were usually hard to come by. There were no colored-owned bookstores in our neighborhood. The libraries discouraged Negro readers."

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 Valley College and Cal State Los Angeles though she 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 Writers' 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 actions occur 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 a 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 like Alice Coltrane, Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, Los Lobos and Bonnie Raitt. Her work appears in anthologies such as "Best American Poetry" (1988 and 1996) and Camille Paglia's "Break, Blow, Burn" (2005).

In 2012 she received the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, which called her "one of the major writers of her generation."

Married to Straus for more than 30 years, she is also survived by two children, Tunisia Ordoñez 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

elaine.woo@latimes.com

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