A Word of Thanks to Poet Wanda Coleman


Wanda Coleman reads "Drums Inside Your Chest" in 2010. | Video: Stephen Latty/YouTube

A poem tribute to Los Angeles poet Wanda Coleman, who passed away last month. Mike Sonksen also wrote a story in her honor at KCET Departures.

On the day before Thanksgiving, national day of grateful
On a day of California seventy-five degrees and possibility of higher, of better
On a common but incomparable day I was going to write me a poem about the first woman of poems, Wanda Coleman
A bard of Los Angeles born and raised in Watts, L.A.'s rarely visited part, a bard who sang the possibility and sour notes together
Entirely, deliberately, in the clear, rough voice of the rarely visited. She made no bones. I was going to pay proper respects in words just before Thanksgiving
But then I couldn't get home, at first. South along Crenshaw I ran into blockades of cop cars at strategic corners of my neighborhood, Inglewood
Near 108th Street & my street. I was used to cops & other emergencies, flashing lights
That generally were passing through: not today
Today they all stayed, made a perimeter camp of cars and vans and helicopters hovering for a better look
At the too many law enforcement outfits to count. I u-turned and squeezed home the back way near Imperial
Then found out on TV there was a gunman with hostages over on 5th Avenue. What? Just two blocks from my door
An irate man bunkered in the house was threatening to hurt women he knew. He had shot at the cops who had come to his door, inquiring
They shot back and and then it was on. You know the rest. As I watched the live feed I felt relief
That on TV news Inglewood looked pretty good, so bright and possible in the 75 degrees
The houses on gently sloping hills all divvied up with nice roofs that were faces turned to the sun,
The picture did me proud. I was sorry for the chaos but glad this wasn't about gangs or drive-by
I was glad nobody was dead
I noticed nobody on TV said, "Neighbors are saying it couldn't happen here," with that solemn face reserved for Sherman Oaks or Silver Lake
But the houses are Valley-like here, built the same year
In the same sun and vale of dreams
The good things is that it all made me think of Wanda and her poems
How she claimed L.A. with no hesitation or qualification, how she presumed things were crazy underneath the promise
Because she'd lived that. So many of us did. The barricaded man would not have surprised her, or the media that wasn't quite sure if this hilly part of Inglewood was a hood like Watts, and vice versa,
Wanda would not have been surprised at the proximity of this man's violent resentment to Thanksgiving No, Wanda would have written a poem
About barricades and blockades and the quality of desperation
I hope she still does somehow.

About the Author

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in L.A., with an eye toward the city's African American community, appear weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.
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