In Honor of Wanda Coleman

By now most Angeleno lovers of literature know that the celebrated poet and essayist Wanda Coleman passed last week. Long hailed as "L.A.'s Unofficial Poet Laureate," Coleman is famous for both her prolific writing and signature recitation style. I have written about her many times in this column over the last two years. For a more chronological account of her career, see this link.

Retired Pasadena City College Professor, and well respected poet, Ron Koertge tweeted shortly after Coleman passed: "I'm not the only poet now recommending re-reading Wanda Coleman, who died recently. She was a ball-breaker who didn't suffer fools." Koertge is correct. This week's L.A. Letters is in honor of Wanda Coleman. The footage above was filmed of Coleman at Cal State LA just over six months ago.

Over the course of Coleman's career she has published primarily with two presses: Black Sparrow, for the first 20 plus years, and the University of Pittsburgh Press, which published her last few books. She mentioned last year that a volume of collected poems of hers was in the works.

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Coleman's 1996 book "Native In A Strange Land" is a prose collection of her freelance journalism. Re-reading her essays I was struck by the amount of insight and wisdom embedded in each piece. Whether it's her interviews with Bob Marley and Nikki Giovanni, or creative nonfiction pieces like her tribute to the bougainvillea, Coleman has been there and done that as a writer and L.A. native. She dispenses wisdom in nearly every sentence: "Los Angeles demands ongoing renewal, mobility and flexibility -- demanding the stressful dance we do to stay with it."

Coleman's influence is huge, and she was undoubtedly, as Lewis MacAdams told me years ago, the successor to Charles Bukowski as L.A.'s most popular poet. Coleman's legacy not only includes over a dozen books, she recorded ten albums of her poetry, appeared in a number of documentaries, and had a radio show with her husband Austin Strauss on KPFK for 15 years. Many young poets remember her for kindness and different opportunities she provided. Veteran L.A. poet A.K. Toney remembers the influence Coleman had on young poets like himself:

Wanda Coleman became my first real experience in the poetry scene. This was via an introduction by Michael Datcher. I can remember being a guest at her radio show on KPFK. It was the first time ever reading one of my poems on the air. I read "In The Twilight." Wanda Coleman has opened doors for poets abroad. She has done wonders for me with that one interaction. I will greatly miss her and will always remember to be ever so grateful. Thank you Wanda!

Just over six months back, on May 9, 2013, Coleman presented an extended set of her poetry for the annual Jean Burden Poetry Reading at Cal State L.A. Sponsored by the College of Arts and Letters, English Department, and the Center for Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, the annual reading is a high profile event that has featured luminaries like Andrew Motion, the former U.K. poet laureate, Rita Dove, former U.S. poet laureate, Adrienne Rich, Harryette Mullen, Galway Kinnell, and Linton Kwesi Johnson among many other greats, since the series began in 1986. Coleman was selected by English Professor Lauri Ramey as the 2013 choice. The event was extra special for Coleman because she briefly attended Cal State L.A. in 1965, and had studied with the great poet and professor Henri Coulette.

Coleman performed for close to an hour, accompanied by pianist David Crittendon and saxophonist Tracy Wannomae. Earlier in the afternoon, a few hours before her reading, we spoke for almost an hour about Los Angeles, poetry, and anything else she wanted to mention.

The clip above was shot and cut by Lucas Benitez, a third year Television, Film, and Media Studies Major from Cal State L.A. The video includes a few quick highlights from the interview, as well as a few minutes of her reading that evening.

Salute to Wanda Coleman for a lifetime of literary achievement, she's the undisputed queen of L.A. Letters.

Wanda Coleman at Cal State L.A., May 2013

About the Author

Third-generation Angeleno Mike "The Poet" Sonksen is a poet, journalist, historian, tour guide, and teacher.
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