Wanda Coleman: 1946-2013

By Richard Modiano

Wanda Coleman was born and raised in Watts and was a lifelong Angeleno. Encouraged by her parents, Coleman began to write poetry when she was only five years old. She was published for the first time in a local newspaper when she was 13, but she made her writing bones in Venice. She was a denizen of Beyond Baroque’s Wednesday Night Poetry Workshop from its beginnings in 1969, when the center was located on West Washington Blvd. (now known as Abbott Kinney Blvd.)  Later, she gave readings at all of Beyond Baroque’s venues with her last being held in October 2012. In July of that year, Coleman was the recipient of the Beyond Baroque George Drury Smith Award. The award is named after the founder of Beyond Baroque.

Wanda’s poetry is characterized by its use of demotic speech and often drawn from her personal experiences. She wrote not just about the black experience in Los Angeles, but the whole configuration of Los Angeles, in terms of its politics and its social life. Wanda was a world-class poet. The range of her poetry and the voice she writes in is accessible to all sorts of people. Her work is both exuberantly performative and carefully crafted. Wanda also draws on the Blues and her work is marked by allusions to jazz and the lingo used by jazz performers re-imagined to highlight daily life. In fact, Wanda released a blues album, with both spoken word and music in 1990. She amassed an impressive collection of work over the course of her career, and she was nominated for the National Book Award in 2001 for Mercurochrome and was finalist for Poet Laureate of California for two years in 2005 and 2012, though she never won. Wanda was a writer for Days of Our Lives in the 1970s, and was the first African American to win an Emmy for writing in 1976. She was also a rigorous and adroit critic, writing a controversial review of Maya Angelou’s A Song Flung Up to Heaven. This resulted in losing work, and some censoring, an experience she wrote about in The Nation in 2001.

Wanda fell ill in August 2012, shortly after she was honored with Amelie Frank at Beyond Baroque’s awards dinner the previous July. She was suffering from a respiratory ailment that became progressively worse, causing her to cancel several readings. But she rallied for a previously scheduled reading in October 2012. This was her last reading at Beyond Baroque and her last visit to Venice. That same month in 2011, she chose Beyond Baroque for the launch of her collection The World Falls Away and was joined by her husband, poet Austin Straus, and old friends Bill Mohr, Cecelia Wooloch, Pam Ward, and David Zasloff.

By spring of this year, Wanda seemed on the road to recovery. I had the honor of being on a panel with her, Bill Mohr and Julia Stein at UCLA during National Poetry Month. She lost weight but was in good spirits. During my last face to face conversation with her she held both my hands as we talked about a Wanda Coleman Day at Beyond Baroque for National Poetry Month 2014, in what we thought would be a complete recovery and return to the reading circuit. But by summer of this year, she was ill again. The week before she died, her husband told me that Wanda was to be hospitalized for surgery to remove a blood clot, but she died before the surgery took place. My final memory of Wanda is of looking into her luminous eyes and holding her hands in the Young Research Library. I felt her strength, her passion and her generosity.

A memorial will be held for Wanda at the Church in Ocean Park on Sunday, January 19, 2014 at 2:00 PM.


About God & Things

By Wanda Coleman


i want to have your child

cuz upon losing you

i’ll have more than memory

more than ache

more than greatness

i’ll have laughter

i do not mean to be fatalistic

know the limits put on you black man

me, black woman

when you are killed or imprisoned

desert or separate from me

i’ll continue

fill the void of your absence with

love between me and ours



you love me

in your eyes. don’t say it loud


america will never let you


you’re home. it’s a surprise

you’ve made it thru another day

one more night in your arms

to fuck

merge our bodies merge



congress cannot legislate away


eyes wide as suns inquire

where’s daddy?

he’s gone away

i love my daddy

i smile

he’s a good man

eyes wide as suns

burn my hand with a kiss

go outside to play in the streets


what god is about


Bedtime Story

By Wanda Coleman

bed calls. i sit in the dark in the living room
trying to ignore them

in the morning, especially Sunday mornings
it will not let me up. you must sleep
longer, it says

facing south
the bed makes me lay heavenward on my back
while i prefer a westerly fetal position
facing the wall

the bed sucks me sideways into it when i
sit down on it to put on my shoes. this
persistence on its part forces me to dress in
the bathroom where things are less subversive

the bed lumps up in anger springs popping out to
scratch my dusky thighs

my little office sits in the alcove adjacent to
the bed. it makes strange little sighs
which distract me from my work
sadistically i pull back the covers
put my typewriter on the sheet and turn it on

the bed complains that i’m difficult duty
its slats are collapsing. it bitches when i
blanket it with books and papers. it tells me
it’s made for blood and bone

lately spiders ants and roaches
have invaded it searching for food




(Griffith’s Observatory July, 1994)

For Wanda Coleman

By Philomene Long

In the shining

Black wound

Of night


Scarred wind

Blind red eye

And the comet

Flower of what

Broken sun?

Its long-drawn trail

Of frozen petals

Across the

Blazing black

This intimacy

Seed of ice

Spinning womb

Of winds

What immense Black Lover?

Wanda Coleman at Beyond Baroque 2011 book release party

Categories: Obituary, Poetry

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