Lynne Bronstein's Venice Poems
Poems and Prose by Philomene and John
Last Days of John Thomas
The Beats: An Existential Comedy
Eavesdropping on the Boardwalk
Gas House beat HQ
Okay, so I don't know if Wanda Coleman is a Venice poet in the sense of having actually lived there, which is a mere technicality. She has certainly performed there enough, and that one poem about a man who can't resist the fascinating and dangerous lure of the oceanside enclave, "His Old Flame, Lady Venice," is in itself enough to qualify her as a Venice poet. And she calls Gas House regular John Thomas "my first real teacher."
The work of Wanda Coleman describes a world of drive-by shootings and homes where shelves are lined with newspaper. Her poems are about working in dives where the other waitresses put out, and how it feels to be called a dyke because you're not a ho. And if you do want to peddle your ass, how to achieve success in the field. Coleman's characters are the shopping bag lady and the rape victim, the prison inmate and man who would commit suicide if only he didn't love beer so much.
She writes about being in bad trouble and when you call for help the phone eats your last dime. About opening the door at 7 a.m. to the police and showing them "alias #3." About why she loves sidewalks and hates beaches.
Coleman writes about sex - I am hungry - feeding time at the vagina
- and pregnancy, every miserable minute of it. She is brilliant on female-male relationships: how it feels to love a man who is devastated by the sudden and unexplained departure of his wife, and what it's like to be part of a racially-mixed couple. She writes about wondering where your man is when he's supposed to be here, and the realization that when all's said and done, the women in my life cut deeper than the men.
But you don't have to be female or black or even poor to tune in to the Coleman wavelength. She writes about lost friendship, and office jobs so deadening that they make the taco house where you almost get shot look good by comparison. About office politics as an analogy for universal politics; about being sent to therapy when all you really need is a decent job.
Coleman writes about various flowers she has known, including those she treated violently. Violence is a recurring reality, and she admits she has gone after people with guns, rocks, fists and poems. She told one interviewer, I don't carry a weapon unless I'm going to use it.
On another occasion she said, I have to fight physically. I get a real thrill out of that. A real exhilaration. At one time I thought I could be a lady boxer......
Wanda Coleman was born in Watts and brought up in what she describes as a black Ozzie and Harriet family. Her mother worked for Ronald Reagan, and as a seamstress, and her father was an small business entrepreneur.
Coleman's first husband was a troubleshooter for SNCC. She herself went from the NAACP's Youth Council to paramilitary group which shall remain nameless.
Most of Coleman's work experience has been freelance writing of one kind or another, though like many others of the same calling, she has also survived a disheartening series of shit jobs.
Assistant recruiter for the Peace Corps and Vista, editor-in-chief of Players magazine, actor, and contributor to the LA Times Sunday Magazine are some of the other things she has been. She has done many celebrity interviews - not a favored assignment in her view. I was the Sidney Poitier of the LA literary scene for years, is a typical comment on this career stage.
In the Seventies, she won an Emmy award as a staff writer for Days of Our Lives. This led to being interviewed by the writers of the movie Soapdish, and one of its characters is based on Coleman. Documentary films have been made about her in the real-life role of poet.
Her poetry has been translated and published in Europe, and in 1986 she toured Australia. She's in an anthology called Angry Women along with Karen Finley, Annie Sprinkles, etc. Her plays have been staged at USC, the Pasadena Museum of Art, UCLA and Stanford. She has recorded three CDs of poetry and fiction, and been co-host of "The Poetry Connexion" on KPFK for ten years, and been featured in a Rolling Stone article on four "rock poets."
My favorite piece of Coleman prose is a memorial tribute she wrote for the LA Weekly about a poet/welfare activist named Susannah, an integral part of the Sixties scene, who drank drugged and neglected herself to death like so many of her peers.
Early in 1994 the Berkeley magazine Poetry Flash carried an enormous long interview in which Coleman seems to be just on the verge of realizing that her own adamantine personality may stand in her way as much as being black, female, and categorized as a West Coast writer. Coleman still seems to have quite a chip on her shoulder, which is hard to understand coming from a woman whose career and reputation are so solid that many struggling poets must envy her. Coleman has been the recipient of an NEA grant, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a fellowship in fiction from the California Arts Council. At the time of the Poetry Flash interview, she was working on a libretto commissioned by the Houston Opera, with music composed by Tod Machover, head of the Media Lab at MIT.
Coleman explains how her various audiences connect. People from other ethnic groups read her work first, then come to performances out of curiosity about how it sounds aloud. Black people hear her work first, then get the books to see how it looks on the page.
Wanda Coleman has given over 500 major readings in America and Australia, and no doubt plenty of minor ones. When I lived in LA I went to two or three. She wears large earrings which seem to be a trademark, and often a hat, and the reading is sometimes accompanied by a conga or keyboard player.
My notes from a Wanda Coleman appearance at Colorado State University in 1992
I predicted that the first thing she'd mention would be the Rodney King trial, and it is.
Wild woman, spellbinding as a down-home preacher, hasn't mellowed. Says she has tried doing two sets a night at a rock club, and found it took too much out of her. Not therapeutic or cathartic, just draining. Confides to audience that she's trying to score a big hit as a screenwriter to buy some serious writing time and not have to chase grants. Society should support the humanities - more so than rock stars and athletes.
This started me thinking. As an artist, naturally one wants more resources diverted to the arts - if one believes in government subsidies at all, that is. But I wonder if Coleman feels a conflict there, since music and sports are the two main fields where a black person has half a chance of becoming a multi-millionaire.
Coleman has recorded a spoken word performance with Exene Cervenka on an LP called Twin Sisters. They performed together to a sellout crowd at Wolfgang's in San Francisco. Another spoken word recording is Black/Angeles with Michelle T. Clinton.
© 2004 - 2012 Pat Hartman