A recent contributor to HARRIET, Wanda Coleman occasionally contributes to drgodine.blogspot.com, and is featured in Writing Los Angeles (Library of America, 2002), in Poet's Market (2003), and Quercus Review VI (2006). She has been an Emmy-winning scriptwriter, and a former columnist for Los Angeles Times magazine; a nominee for poet laureate, California 2005 and for the USA artists fellowship 2007. Coleman's works from Black Sparrow include the novel Mambo Hips and Make Believe, Bathwater Wine, winner of the 1999 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prizethe first African- American woman to receive the award.
Poetry Editor Amber Mosure interviewed Wanda Coleman.
Superstition Review: I read that your father was an ex-boxer turned advertising agent and your mother cleaned houses and worked as a seamstress. Did your parents approve or disapprove of you writing poetry? How did they encourage your talent?
Wanda Coleman: In the late 40s-early 50s, my father was a sparring partner for Archie Moore, light heavyweight champion 1952-1959. He had a few bouts of his own, but basically his career in the ring was over by 1953 and, between selling insurance policies for Golden State (the only Black-owned insurance company in Los Angeles), and working nights for RCA as a janitor, he opened up a series of print shops then sign shops in South Central. They sustained him until he retired in the mid-80s. He met my mother through an aunt, who did the laundry for wealthy white families in Hollywood and Beverly Hills. At that time (1940-43) my mother was a cook and maid for actors Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman. My parents had mixed feelings about my writing. They were proud that I was intelligent enough to be a writer, but my content (and my moodiness) gave them conniptions. (Before she died two years ago, my mother would finally remind me how much my strong language had once upset her, but that when compared to today's hiphop and its rappers my work seemed tame.) My parents had always encouraged me to read, as a child, but had fits when I got in trouble at school for the kinds of material I was reading: Henry Miller, Jim Thompson, Sartre, Malraux, stuff like dat.
SR: You married young and had children. How has this experience shaped your writing and your poetic themes?
WC: I married right out of high school at 18 in 1964 and was a single mom on my own by the age of 22-in and out of college and writing workshops. The experience forced me into a working-class poverty I've never recovered from, which has ironically provided me with endless material for poems and stories. But I was never able to complete my formal education, to my everlasting regret. I wouldn't advise any young woman to follow that path.
SR: You've held down a number of different jobs over the years: medical secretary, waitress, magazine editor, and journalist just to name a few. How have these various jobs influenced the way you write?
WC: I was also an endowed chair—once. Jobs in “the real world” caused me to devise methods of writing well under pressure—which is good discipline when one has to write against a deadline. I've also learned to make the most of the time I have for vacations, coffee breaks, and lunch. For years, I rose at 4 a.m. in order to get an hour of writing in before getting the kids off to school or a babysitter's and going to work. On most jobs I was able to trade weekdays off in exchange for vacation time. That allowed me to travel whenever I was invited to share my poems or stories overseas or across the country. These jobs were also rich sources of writing material.
SR: What authors and what books have influenced your poetry? Who were the authors that compelled you to keep writing, and what about their work inspired you?
WC: I have tried listing these in the past, but it sounds outrageous. So I'll name the biggies: Ann Petry (I completely identified with the circumstances and world view presented in her book The Street), Richard Wright (his The Man Who Lived Underground is simply the finest piece of prose ever written by an African American), Poe (the poems and the short stories), Guy De Maupassant (I read his complete works), Melville (Moby Dick at 14 was a terrific read), Nathanael West (his novels blew me away), Jeffers (a landsman), Charles Olson and E.E. Cummings (both stylistically), and Charles Bukowski (by chance, he was someone living I actually had the opportunity to observe-and the content of his work gave me the nerve to approach Black Sparrow Press with my first manuscript, which was rejected).
SR: I read that you got a lot of backlash for writing a bad review of Maya Angelou's book, A Song Flung Up to Heaven, why do you think that happened?
WC: Well, actually, I wrote a great and accurate rip of Maya Angelou's fake book. The editorial staff of the Los Angeles Times did not support me after giving me the assignment. I was told by an assistant editor that they received hundreds of letters and subscription cancellations. They did not allow the unexpected controversy to “blow off” by publishing some of those letters, pro and con, thereby engaging in a discussion as they had done with other writers. They made me an exception. By not allowing readers to voice their responses, or allow a dialogue to take place, they set me up as a target. I was left to sink or swim on my own. I got busy and wrote 3-4 essays in response. Ishmael Reed's online magazine Konch, L.A. Weekly, The Nation, and The Sentinel were the only publications approaching “mainstream” in which I was allowed to respond to the backlash.
My rip of Song seems to have since liberated literary critics worldwide. I've never seen so many sacred cows given the ax. However, the controversy over my review was water off Angelou's back. She has a “magic mack”—she is a charming, well-spoken one-book author who was able to parlay her success with I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and a brief friendship with James Baldwin into a monster literary career. She has had the blessings of such notables as Oprah Winfrey (who shed tears on the air, she was so moved by Maya's pap) and President Clinton (who added to her celebrity by anointing her Poet Laureate of the nation). Even President and First Lady Obama have dropped her name. Thus, Maya is imbued with heavy-duty literary influence-much akin to the holy powers of the Pope—which usually inspires fear among academics and tends to mute criticism from all quarters.
My original review plus all the essays I wrote on the controversy appear in "The Maya Situation" section of The Riot Inside Me. I also preface and end the section by telling the reader what kinds of reactions I received personally, along with some anecdotes summarizing the fallout.
SR: You started out as a poet. How easy or hard was it to make the transition to fiction writer?
WC: I did not start out as a poet. I started out as a musician, discussed in part in one of the essays in The Riot Inside Me: Trials and Tremors (Black Sparrow Books). I wanted to be a concert violinist, played the piano, tried the cello and viola. I represented my elementary school at one of Leonard Bernstein's Youth Concerts (1958), and once had the pleasure of meeting Pablo Casals (at a music festival). I spent many afternoons and a few "field trip" evenings at the Philharmonic Auditorium. I studied violin privately with a noted virtuoso who had immigrated to the U.S. from Italy. But in "the ghetto," the price of my love for classical music was ego-blistering. I was ostracized by my "colored" peers and called such names as bulldagger, freak and sissy—which, in those days, were not as hurtful as being called black and I was called that as well.
My pursuit was ended by a debilitating bout of encephalitis that eventually weakened my fingering (I still can't finger pop on my left hand). I also had voice training and thought I might become a singer. But after I heard Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, and Kitty White, I decided that originality was important to me. By their standards, I could only be mediocre as a singer. However, I was so well-read that I knew the world as I was witnessing it did not exist in Western Literature. By putting that world into writing, I knew I could be an original; therefore, I decided that writing was the best place for my creative expressions.
As a fledgling writer I went from poetry to fiction and back with relative ease. It was the lack of sufficient writing/contemplative time that brought my poetic aspect to the fore (I often worked 2-3 jobs at a time). Once I had my artistic breakthrough (1976), I was able to write five or six poems in an hour and still meet my aesthetic criteria. I've had over 1100 poems published. Fiction, as I wanted to write it, demanded more time and greater focus, therefore my production (100 short stories and 2 novels, one unpublished) has been small relative to fiction writers in general.
SR: A lot of writers start out with one goal in mind and throughout their career that idea changes. How have your writerly goals changed over the years?
WC: My original goal was to be one of the world's great writers. That has not changed. I am still reaching for it. My more mundane goals, largely focused around getting published, have changed only to the extent that the publishing business has changed and is still going through post-internet and computer-era throes, not to mention the ramifications of the current economic crash. Funny, the phrase “paperless world” really rankles. If anything, the digital world demands “more paper faster.” There was a paperless world before the Egyptians invented papyrus, and books were the purview of the social elites of priests and rulers until Gutenberg. Otherwise, I wish I had more quality writing time, were less of a dreamer by nature and more pragmatic. I often get that “born too late/born too soon” feeling, when reconsidering writers from the past, then encountering new writers. Recently, when invited to France, my young host asked me who, among France's famous writers would I like to meet? It was quite a strange shock to me when he pointed out that everyone I named was deceased.
SR: I've read that you are the “L.A. Blues Woman.” How did that name come about?
WC: Irish-American poet Tim Joyce gave me that moniker back in the early 80s. I've tried to honor it. I had written a few blues poems, and have written more since ("Morning Widow Blues," "Blues Off Key", etc.) Three years ago I was invited to the annual blues festival in Oxford, Mississippi where I had a great time performing in that genre and visiting Faulkner's home.
SR: What advice would you give to emerging poets and writers about how to go about getting their work published?
WC: The little or small press magazines that exploded into existence after Ed Sanders birthed Fuck You magazine in 1962, seem to have largely vanished or gone online. Those in which I flexed my writing muscles fifteen years later included Ab Intra, Bachy, First World, Art Kunkin's Free Press, and Momentum. These kinds of publications keep the literary ego encouraged, are good places to grow, test one's skills, and sometimes make one's reputation. I always advise my students to not fear rejection, to submit their work to the magazines they admire, and to compete for the prizes they covet.
SR: Another woman who tends to attract attention and has a reputation as confrontational and outspoken is Exene Cervenka. In 1985, you and Exene Cervenka collaborated on a spoken word LP entitled, “Twin Sisters.” What was that experience like?
WC: No one's ever asked me about that! In 1981, an ambitious fellow named Harvey Kubernik (who once recorded Charles Bukowski) was traversing our sub-Hollywood scenes, tapping poets, rock musicians and performance artists for a number of spoken word compilations (Voices of the Angels, Neighborhood Rhythms, English as a Second Language). His tastes were eclectic and nondiscriminatory. He reached for anyone he thought excellent, and who represented a neglected aspect of life in Southern California. He put together shows as well, working with the likes of Linda Albertano (ex-backup singer for Alice Cooper), Ray Manzarek and John Densmore (surviving members of The Doors), singer-songwriter Jack Nitzsche, and counterculture icon Timothy Leary, booking us at local venues and poetry festivals.
This man worked like the Devil to revive and promote the post—Beat west coast spoken word phenomenon only to be overshadowed when the slams broke in New York and Chicago, and with the emergence of the Nuyorican Cafe. Harvey was the first, but the media virtually shunned him; nevertheless, he toughed it out. Not only did he put me on stage with X personnel, including Dave Alvin, but teamed me with performance vamp Lydia Lunch (Vortex, 1983), Henry Rollins (Black Flag), and Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedys). In 1985 he paired me with Exene for Twin Sisters (re-released in 1991). We were not strangers. I first met John Doe and Exene in their early days before they formed their rock band X, while they were aspiring young poets hanging out at Beyond Baroque Literary Center in Venice Beach, so we were already on friendly terms if not friends. We had a great time putting the album together, and every reading we did was hothothot and packed to the rafters.
Los Angeles artist George Evans (currently exhibiting his work with William “Bill” Pajaud—one of my father's former protégés at Golden State) did the cover art and design. But we could not get Twin Sisters taken seriously or reviewed anywhere of value…and our exciting project fizzled despite our hard work. I thought it failed because of the obvious racial statement inherent in what we were doing. Harvey maintained that my fans didn't like Exene and that Exene's fans didn't like me, regardless of color. They didn't see the fun or the irony in what we were doing as L.A. women, each important, in her own way, to the cultural life and mystique of the city! In that respect we were identical, if different in every other way. This seemingly unlikely experience with the New Wave/punk rock scenes was good for me in that it broadened my audience in some unexpected ways. I genuinely liked X and still treasure my LPs. They're right in there with the Bobby Blue Bland, John Coltrane and Franz Liszt. It was bad for me in that it alienated some of those who took me seriously as a literary figure. By the time we all called it quits, I had recorded with Berkeley poet Michelle Clinton (Black Angeles) and had three solo albums: High Priestess of Word, Berserk on Hollywood Boulevard and Black and Blue News (short stories).
The last time Exene and I were on stage together was at a memorial service for Allen Ginsberg in 1997.
SR: To me it seems that women writers and artists have come a long way in the last 30 years of establishing a platform with which to voice their pain, their experiences, and their power. This has happened especially because of women like you, Lydia Lunch, Diamanda Galas, Exene Cervenka, and Karen Finley. In what ways do women still have to prove themselves, and in what ways do they have more freedom?
WC: There are more women doctors! In AIDS-ridden and cancer-prolific America, women have more freedom when it comes to medical care and disease prevention, if there remains vast room for improvement. Healthcare professionals have undergone serious consciousness raising and are more sensitive to the needs of women and their physiological differences from men.
Women have greater roles in nearly every aspect of American life except the entertainment industry! Show business has become a bit more liberal when it comes to women over 25, but not by much. I am sick of movies where all the men, from 10 to 100 are in love with the same woman who's barely voting age. Women as sex objects, and exploited as such, has infested everything; too many women's roles border on soft or hard core pornography; even female newscasters are pressured to dress in a tits-and-ass manner, depending on the demographics.
When shopping for clothes, I've noticed that styles that were once considered the domain of prostitution have become everyday wear. At the same time, female body-types that don't conform to Playboy magazine standards largely remain censored unless they are comediennes and therefore fodder for laughs and pimp-simple satire-emphasis on sistuhs. That's about to change, I hope, with the much-anticipated release of a film based on the novel Push by Sapphire.
At the same time, more actresses have become godzillionaires, there are more women behind the cameras, more women free to assume positions of power outside the traditional arenas, and within their communities. Too-American women are freer to become athletes. When I played basketball there were no opportunities for me to even think about turning professional, or to pursue a sports scholarship.
On the negative side: 1) White women comprise the largest number of homeless females in our country. 2) Women-especially poor Blacks and Latinas-are being criminalized and imprisoned in rapidly increasing numbers. 3) Taboos against women being angry, even when justified, and against expressions of non-exploitive eroticism from women are still at work in our society.
However, the most horrific aspect of being a woman is if one grows old and has limited resources. Aging in America and what it does to its largely female geriatric population is a travesty. There is nothing worse than the assisted living/post-operative/nursing home systems of this nation. They not only exploit helpless and ailing senior citizens, largely women, they endanger and rob them if their families do not protect their valuables or keep track of their finances! This is also true of home-care situations, if to a lesser extent. Women who are suffering from the effects of aging are often forced into close quarters with the maladjusted or the criminally insane. These institutions and their employees are largely unmonitored, and, when regulated, insufficiently regulated. The elderly and the ill—male and female alike—are literal prey for these organizations when they become substandard.
SR: Tell us about any projects you're working on at the moment.
WC: Before starting to make my reputation as a poet, I engaged in playwriting. One of my first plays, The Product was produced at a late 60s arts space called Studio Watts (poet-actor Jayne Cortez was one of the founders). I'm “studying” to go back to that.
Among my favorite plays/small films are the dramatization of Carson McCullers'novel Member of the Wedding and LeRoi Jones' stunning Dutchman. Among the playwrights I admired as a teenager were Eugene O'Neill, Luigi Pirandello, Harold Pinter (especially his surreal Birthday Party), and Arthur Miller (who I finally met at the 2001 National Book Awards tete-a-tete, yikes!). Oddly enough, Miller was very unassuming (the opposite of most people who have his kind of reputation). His life as a young playwright had been very difficult, he said. He implied that playwrights were lesser than poets and novelists. I gushed at him that Death of a Salesman, was “absolutely a work of art-a masterpiece” as was The Crucible. He blushed then got a faraway look in his eyes.
Other than that, I continue on as usual, writing poems and stories. I hope to publish that second novel and a third collection of short stories. I'm also contemplating “selecteds” of my work, poetry and fiction. Nowadays, I get up at 5:30 in the mornings, freshen up, get a cup of coffee, cocoa or tea, and then attack the stack of unwritten work, unread books and journals begging my attention. My husband, Austin Straus, is a former English professor, a painter and a poet (Drunk with Light, Red Hen Press). When I have a good couple of days of writing, I will usually have something for him to read by lunchtime on the third day. He'll take a look, give valuable feedback, and help me edit my first draft. I do the same for him.