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Wanda Coleman Biography - Held a Wide Variety of Jobs, Collaborated with Musicians, Stirred Controversy with Angelou Review, Selected works

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Poet, critic

Coleman, Wanda, photograph. © Christopher Felver/Corbis.

"Others often use the word 'uncompromising' to describe my work," poet Wanda Coleman told Contemporary Poets. "I find that quite pleasing." Coleman, who has claimed to be the most prolific African-American poet of all time, has written thousands of poems and has read her poetry in public more than 500 times. The thread that ties all her work together is a refusal to accept racism in America; she writes about the shattered landscapes of African-American life that racism has left in its wake. Coleman's long career has illustrated the difficulties African-American writers face in making an independent living, but she has left several strong impressions on the literary map, and she is no stranger to controversy.

A native of Los Angeles who has never left Southern California for long, Wanda Coleman was born Wanda Evans on November 13, 1946. The family was poor. Her father was an ex-boxer whose career had ended with injuries; he later worked for an advertising agency. Her mother was a seamstress and housecleaner who sometimes found work in the homes of Hollywood film stars. Coleman found no enjoyment in school, but she was fascinated by books and writing from the time she was a young girl. She had some poems published in a local newspaper when she was 13.

Held a Wide Variety of Jobs

Coleman attended Valley Junior College in Van Nuys, California, and California State University at Los Angeles, but did not finish degree programs at these schools. She married young and had two children by the time she was 20. Struggling to support her children after divorcing her first husband in 1969, Coleman worked in an amazing variety of jobs from the late 1960s through the early 1980s, working all the while toward the goal of becoming a professional writer. She was, at various times, the editorial coordinator of an arts newsletter (for the Studio Watts organization), a medical secretary, a journalist, a proofreader, a waitress, and a Peace Corps/Vista recruiter.

Working in various creative media during this period, Coleman experimented with fiction, screenwriting, and even dance. Her first short story, "Watching the Sunset," appeared in Negro Digest in 1970, and an early hint of her major talent came when she won an Emmy award for her work as a staff writer on the NBC television soap opera Days of Our Lives for the 1975-76 season. A pamphlet-like chapbook of Coleman's poems was issued by Black Sparrow Press in 1977.

That publishing house, which also issued the works of the unconventional white writer Charles Bukowski (whose works influenced Coleman's own, as did Walt Whitman's poetry), was a good fit for Coleman's energetic, ambitious, sprawling poetry. Black Sparrow continued to issue Coleman's poetry in publications such as Mad Dog Black Lady (1979) and Imagoes (1983). Those works brought Coleman national attention, and she benefited from a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1981 and a Guggenheim Fellowship for Poetry in 1984. Imagoes was a very personal work that Coleman regarded as a watershed in her career. Coleman had married and divorced a second time before marrying her third husband, the poet Austin Straus, in 1981.

Collaborated with Musicians

Coleman's street reputation was strengthened during the 1980s. She was a tireless reader of her own poetry at public events, and she made a series of recordings for the Freeway and BarKubCo labels that saw her collaborating with progressive musicians such as Exene Cervenka, former lead vocalist of the punk rock band X. Although the term hadn't yet been coined during the rise of Coleman's career, she was a definite forerunner to the "poetry slam" movement that invigorated African-American literary communities with live poetry contests in the 1990s and 2000s. Heavy Daughter Blues, a collection of Coleman's writings from the late 1960s through the mid-1980s, was published by Black Sparrow in 1987.

That book gave many readers a good sampling of Coleman's poetry, which won widespread praise from reviewers for its unquenchable imagination but was sometimes deemed hard to swallow for its grim portrayals of the down-on-their-luck characters who populate Los Angeles's streets. Coleman's poems about love seethed with sexual and violent themes. She continued to produce new work at an astonishing rate—in addition to her many published works she accumulated a collection of over 4,500 rejection slips—and in 1990 the strongly autobiographical African Sleeping Sickness was published; it included short stories and prose poems. One story from that volume, "Where the Sun Don't Shine," won the 1990 Harriette Simpson Arrow Prize for fiction; another, "Today I Am a Homicide in the North of the City," was often reprinted and gave an example of the poet's drawn-from-the-streets subject matter.

At a Glance …

Born Wanda Evans on November 13, 1946, in Los Angeles, CA; daughter of George and Lewana Evans; married and divorced twice before marrying Austin Straus, a poet; children: Anthony, Tunisia, Ian Wayne Grant. Education: Attended Valley Junior College, Van Nuys, CA; California State University at Los Angeles.

Career: Peace Corps/Vista, production editor, proofreader, magazine editor, waitress, and assistant recruiter, 1968-75; Days of Our Lives, NBC television, staff writer, 1975-76; medical transcriber and billing clerk, 1979-84; Pacifica Radio network, co-host of poetry program, 1981-1990s; UCLA extension program, fiction instructor, 1989; Los Angeles Times Magazine, columnist, 1992-95; Loyola Marymount University, Fletcher Jones endowed chair in literature and writing, 1994-97; California State University at Long Beach, lecturer in black studies, 1997; Los Angeles Times, contributor, 1990s; City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, fellow, 2003-04.

Memberships: PEN international writers' organization.

Selected awards: Emmy, best writing in daytime drama, Days of Our Lives, 1976; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1981-82; Guggenheim fellowship, 1984; California Arts Council fellowship, 1989; Harriette Simpson Arrow prize, 1990; Djerassi Foundation, writer's residence, 1990-91; Lenore Marshall National Poetry Prize, for Bathwater Wine, 1999.

Addresses: Home—Marina Del Rey, CA.

Hand Dance (1993) was Coleman's seventh thick book of poetry in 14 years. In addition to this prodigious output of poems, Coleman was also active as a critic and essayist. Native in a Strange Land: Trials and Tremors (1996) collected many of her prose writings. Publishers Weekly noted Coleman's "Swiftian" sense of humor as Coleman asked, "How about a school that teaches the well-heeled the ins and outs of hard-core urban warfare?" Coleman taught writing at a variety of Los Angeles institutions in the 1990s. She also worked as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times Magazine from 1992 to 1995 and occasionally wrote book reviews for the Los Angeles Times, and her reviews were as uncompromising as her poetry.

Stirred Controversy with Angelou Review

A mixed review Coleman wrote in 1997 of Audre Lord's collected works raised some eyebrows, but it was an acid Coleman review of iconic black poet Maya Angelou's A Song Flung Up to Heaven in 2002 that generated a firestorm of controversy. Coleman was banned from a bookstore that had scheduled a reading of poetry from an anthology to which she had contributed, and the Times was flooded with letters. The uproar had the effect of introducing Coleman's name to many readers who hadn't encountered her before, for she had always worked along the fringes of the literary mainstream. "Anyone whose assumes that I derive any satisfaction from [that new attention], other than that of a job well done professionally," Coleman wrote in the on-line magazine Konch, "is grossly mistaken."

None of this slowed Coleman down in the least. Her vast 1998 poetry volume Bathwater Wine, which loosely chronicled the growth of a young black woman to adulthood against a backdrop of poverty and urban violence, won the important Lenore Marshall National Poetry Prize in 1999, and Coleman returned with two more books, Mercurochrome: New Poems (2001) and Ostinato Vamps (2003), the latter published by the University of Pittsburgh Press after the demise of Black Sparrow. She is also the author of a novel, Mambo Hips & Make Believe.

In 2003 and 2004, Coleman became the first literary fellow of the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. Asked at about that time by the Poetry Society of America whether gender, sexual preference, or ethnicity figured more prominently than being an American in her self-identity as a poet, Coleman responded this way: "As a Usually Het Interracially Married Los Angeles-based African American Womonist Matrilinear Working Class Poor Pink/White Collar College Drop-out Baby Boomer Earth Mother and Closet Smoker Unmolested-by-her-father, I am unable to separate these and, as time progresses, resent having to fit into every niggling PC pigeon hole some retard trendoid academic with a grant or hidden agenda barfs up." Readers looked forward to many more years of words laid on the line by Wanda Coleman.

Selected works


Art in the Court of the Blue Fag, Black Sparrow, 1977.

Mad Dog Black Lady, Black Sparrow, 1979.

Imagoes, Black Sparrow, 1983.

Heavy Daughter Blues: Poems & Stories, Black Sparrow, 1987.

The Dicksboro Hotel & Other Travels, Ambrosia, 1989.

African Sleeping Sickness: Stories & Poems, Black Sparrow, 1990.

Hand Dance, Black Sparrow, 1993.

American Sonnets, Woodland Pattern/Light and Dark Press, 1994.

Native in a Strange Land: Trials and Tremors, Black Sparrow, 1996.

Bathwater Wine, Black Sparrow, 1998.

Mercurochrome: New Poems, Black Sparrow, 2001.

Ostinato Vamps, University of Pittsburgh, 2003.


(with Jeff Spurrier) 24 Hours in the Life of Los Angeles (photo essay), Alfred Van Der Marck Editions, 1984.

A War of Eyes & Other Stories (short stories), Black Sparrow, 1988.

Mambo Hips & Make Believe (novel), 1999.

Also made 11 recordings for the Freeway, New Alliance, and BarKubCo labels, reissued by Rhino label.



Contemporary Poets, 7th ed., St. James Press, 2001.


African American Review, Fall 2000, p. 554; Winter 2002, p. 695.

Library Journal, November 15, 2003, p. 70.

Publishers Weekly, March 29, 1993, p. 46; October 28, 1996, p. 73; June 29, 1998, p. 54.

Village Voice, September 4, 2002.


"Black on Black: Fear & Reviewing in Los Angeles," Ishmael Reed's KONCH Magazine, www.ishmaelreedpub.com/ (September 22, 2004).

"Wanda Coleman," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (September 22, 2004).

"Wanda Coleman," Mi Poesias, www.mipoesias.com/April2004/coleman.htm (September 22, 2004).

"What Is American about American Poetry?" Poetry Society of America, www.poetrysociety.org/coleman.html (September 22, 2004).

—James M. Manheim

[back] Loren Coleman (1947-) Biography - Personal, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights

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about 5 years ago


This is a personal invitation for you to screen online my new documentary GV21 THE WANDA COLEMAN PROJECT: Genius. (period)

Here is the location:
Location: https://vimeo.com/85043436

Who is Wanda Coleman?
Remembering Wanda Coleman
November 23, 2013|By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic

Total Running Time: 87 Minutes


Here are two reviews and commentary from Wanda Coleman herself.

Commentary by Wanda Coleman, Poet, Writer & Journalist

Given that I am from the African-American subculture where questions are used to intimidate, oppress and confuse, it is rare that I enjoy either conducting interviews, or being the subject of them.

However, independent and direct in his manner, and radiating empathy (without being precious or solicitous), Bob Bryan interviews his subjects in an unforgettable manner.

Cool yet excited, all in the same moment, he is asks frank, inoffensive questions of genuine interest. At times his questions are startling, because they force the interviewee to assess and summarize quickly, leaving very little opportunity for B.S.

He does not arouse suspicion, and does not give off the impression that he has some hidden agenda other than the subject at hand. Because of his careful research, he asks questions that have not been asked 100 times before. (In my case, he asked about how I think! This seldom happens.)

This does not mean that a Bob Bryan interview is easy. It is not, because, in my case, it demanded that I do some sharp and quick thinking on timeworn-and-worry swollen feet.

Bob Bryan may not know it, but he asks consummate clean questions, questions that are free of the sociological garbage of assumption, implication and innuendo - questions that told me, in my case, that he was open to what I had to say, and that if he had any preconceptions, he was keeping them to himself. The Bob Bryan experience is lean, comfortable and professional, and one of the best I've ever had.
---Wanda Coleman, Poet, Writer & Journalist


Thoughts & Reflections by Poet Austin Straus, Wanda Coleman's Husband

Bob Bryan's interview with Wanda Coleman is a classic example of a sensitive, intelligent, and superbly prepared Documentarian eliciting brilliant responses from a genius poet/writer/journalist who is forced by smart questions to think deeply, eloquently and movingly.

Many moments in this film made me laugh or cry or just sit there in wonder at the depth and breadth of this woman's mind. And I was her mate for nearly 33 years!

This film is far and away the best of all the dozens of interviews Wanda ever did and I am profoundly greatful to Bob Bryan for giving me this treasure I can turn to whenever I feel like being reminded of my beloved's fantastic mind.

Bob, you have created a work of art, a masterpiece of the documentary interview.

Thank you from my heart, Austin Straus=


Review of GV21 THE WANDA COLEMAN PROJECT: Genius. (period)
by Michelle "Chelle" Angelini

Normally, I am not one to watch or listen to interviews, but GV21 The Wanda Coleman Project: Genius. had me riveted to my seat
in front of my computer.

I could not tear myself away from Bob Bryan's unique questions or Wanda Coleman's inspiring answers.

I was so drawn in by her wonderful infectious laughter, her philosophy of life, her poetry, and Wanda herself. In the process,
I learned new words and ideas to inspire me as a writer.

To describe Wanda Coleman - she was vivacious, beautiful, self-assured - without being vain, and a champion to people who needed one.
And not just black women, but to people of all races and both genders. I learned from her and learned about myself through her.

Her poetry drew laughter and tears from me. I learned many facts to apply to myself and to my writing.

Most of what I learned is her enthusiasm for the craft of writing.
Her poem "Mastectomy" (from her book Mercurochrome) helped me to understand more about the physical and emotional nature
of the removal of women's breasts and I was in tears by the end of her reading.

What drew me to listen with different ears when she read her poems was the emotion she poured into it.
She didn't just read it; she didn't perform it - she was the poem come alive.

I would love to watch this interview again to pick up anything I missed, since it was filled with so much amazing information.

GV21 is not just an interview - it is a lesson in life, love, the craft of writing, and one writer's way of surviving and overcoming what life handed her.
This documentary should be required viewing in every creative writing classroom for young and emerging poets who think they want to write poetry
or anything else.

GV21 THE WANDA COLEMAN PROJECT will help them understand that the craft of writing is not just taking a pen to paper and splashing words onto it,
but pouring everything - physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual - into the words and ideas that make it onto the page.

Because of Bob Bryan's excellent interview with a poet who will be missed intensely, I have a new-found appreciation for the craft with which
I have been blessed and skilled to have as a talent.

Thank you Bob, straight from my heart.

~Michelle~ Chelle Angelini .