Wanda Coleman

(b. 1946)

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(b. 1946), poet, short fiction writer, and performer.

Identifying herself as an “L. A. poet,” Wanda Coleman not only grew up in Los Angeles, California, but also uses that city as her primary urban setting for the raw, imagistically graphic, and politically charged poetry and short stories that she writes. Desiring to “rehumanize the dehumanized,” Coleman focuses upon the lives of the “down and out”; thus she populates her texts with working-class individuals struggling against daily indignities and social outcasts struggling simply to survive. The primary voice represented in her poems is that of the African American woman whose head is bloodied but unbowed, who is just as tough as the harsh city in which she lives.

Born Wanda Evans in Watts to George and Lewana Evans, Coleman found herself drawn to poetry as a young child, and, encouraged by her parents to write, she published several poems by the time she was fifteen. During the 1960s, she became a political activist and, influenced by Ron Karenga's Afrocentric “US” movement, wrote, as she put it, “for the cause.” Later, resisting the rhetoric of political movements, Coleman conceived of her cultural role as that of the artist, not of the political activist or social scientist who felt compelled to be “Wanda the Explainer.” Nevertheless, significantly shaped by the civil rights movement, she continued to write of the disenfranchised and dispossessed, and the themes of racism, sexism, poverty, and marginalization would continue to permeate her work.

Although she resists being defined by any one tradition, Coleman acknowledges that her writing has been influenced by the blues tradition and the music of the African American church as well as the prosody of such poets as Ezra Pound, Edgar Allan Poe, and Charles Olson. Moreover, attesting to the hybrid influences of a multicultural Los Angeles, Coleman's work has also been affected by a wide range of cultural images and sounds—from the visceral works of Los Angeles poets such as Charles Bukowski, to the Latino/a influence of the Southwest, to the rhythmic sounds of Black English vernacular. Despite the demands of her life—raising three children, often juggling more than one job—Coleman has found the time to write and perform her works. Since the late 1970s, Coleman has had eight books published: Art in the Court of the Blue Fag (1977), Mad Dog Black Lady (1979), Images (1983), A War of Eyes and Other Stories (1988), Dicks-boro Hotel and Other Travels (1989), African Sleeping Sickness: Stories and Poems (1990), Heavy Daughter Blues: Poems and Stories (1991), and Hand Dance (1993).

Coleman has received recognition for her work: an Emmy for her writing (1976), a National Endowment for the Arts grant (1981–1982), and a Guggenheim Fellowship for poetry (1984). Coleman won the 1999 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets for Bathwater Wine (1998). In 1999, she published her first novel, Mambo Hips and Make Believe. Distinguishing herself from other African American writers from the South and the East, Coleman sees herself as a distinctly West Coast writer Despite her ambivalent relationship with Los Angeles, she remains dedicated to depicting the varied lives in the city, giving voice to the dispossessed, making visible the invisible, putting a human face onto anonymous statistics.


Subjects: Literature.

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