“Line breaks and stanza breaks are important to me, therefore, I am putting hard copies in the regular mail tomorrow (with SASE) so you can double-check line breaks. You can return anything you do not accept. I expect y’all will write an introduction, calling me as you see me, but I’ve enclosed a brief so-called official bio as well. Hope all is going great guns with you, Dear One. Be in touch, Wanda.”
( excerpt correspondence between Teka Lark and Wanda Coleman.)
People often talk about Wanda Coleman’s performances. Yes, she did a great job reading her poetry. In a town like L.A.—where everyone wants to be a movie star, and it seems as if no one knows how to read—this is important.
Wanda was a poet. She was a writer. Wanda wasn’t a poet slash when something better comes along. In Los Angeles, there are a lot of those.
I was introduced to Wanda by my never published writer homemaker typing revolutionary mother. The first book of poetry I was conscious of was “Mad Dog, Black Lady” by Wanda Coleman. That to me, was what poetry was. That was in 1986. I was nine.
In the poetry world, there is a hierarchy, and there are rules. One of the first rules is that women writers are to be well-behaved; rule number two is nearly always that Black women writers are supposed to be very well-behaved.
Wanda broke rules one and two, but her writing was good. It was strong. It was lavender. Wanda’s writing embraced L.A.’s side that was in the shadow of the palm trees, between the window cracks on an RTD 51 bus and the air of a broken swing in a playground in the projects. Her writing embraced this with technical precision and a painful finesse. Even if she hadn’t been writing about real issues in Black L.A., her writing would have worked. But for her to be writing about being Black and a woman in L.A. in a way that held up a middle finger and did not ask for pity was something that neither the Black nor white L.A. literary scene could take.
So what to do?
What to do with this woman who does not fit in the box of a “Black” writer? She’s not a white man, she possesses no formal education, and she’s a bit too unrestrained. We can’t let her JUST be a poet; we have to find a way to usurp the power of her poetry without looking like we’re doing so.
Ah, yes—she’s a “performance poet,” she’s a “spoken word artist!” She is those things and a plethora of other “pretty for a Black girl” kind of “poetic” compliments.
With the label of “spoken word” Wanda could then be “kind of” included in the world of poetry, because that’s not really poetry.
There is no one alive today doing what Wanda did. Not one person is coming close. Most spoken word artists are actors. That was not Wanda.
I don’t want anyone ever to think that Wanda was what you see at a poetry slam for cash prizes night, because she was not.
Wanda Coleman was a poet. She was a writer—a symbol of the hypocrisy of Los Angeles. Wanda was the perfect answer to what is L.A.
L.A. is a lie.
L.A. is racist.
L.A. is sexist.
L.A. is beautiful.
L.A. is literary.
L.A. is what happens when the projector turns off, and the hardcover book opens.