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May 15, 2000 The Morgan Library From the Academy Audio Archive

About this poet

Born on November 13, 1946, Wanda Coleman grew up in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. Her poetry collection Bathwater Wine (Black Sparrow Press, 1998), received the 1999 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize.

A former medical secretary, magazine editor, journalist, and Emmy-winning scriptwriter, Coleman received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. Her books of poetry include Mercurochrome: New Poems (2001), which was a finalist for the National Book Award in poetry; Native in a Strange Land: Trials & Tremors (1996); Hand Dance (1993); African Sleeping Sickness (1990); A War of Eyes & Other Stories (1988); Heavy Daughter Blues: Poems & Stories 1968-1986 (1988); and Imagoes (1983). She also wrote Mambo Hips & Make Believe: A Novel (Black Sparrow Press, 1999) and Jazz and Twelve O'Clock Tales: New Stories (2008).

In an essay about Coleman's Marshall-winning Bathwater Wine, the poet Marilyn Hacker wrote that Coleman's poems display, “a verbal virtuosity and stylistic range that explodes/expands the merely linear, the simply narrative, the straightforwardly lyric, into a verbal mandala whose colors and textures spin off the page. Coleman is a poet who excels in public presentations, one whose work moves freely between the academy and the popular renaissance of poetry-as-performance in bars and coffeehouses—but her poems do not require an audible voice or physical presence: They perform themselves.”

The poet Juan Felipe Herrera called Coleman the “word-caster of live coals of Watts & LA.” She was regarded as a central figure in Los Angeles literary life. The Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin noted that Coleman, "helped transform the city's literature."

Coleman lived in Los Angeles until her death on November 22, 2013.

American Sonnet (35)

Wanda Coleman, 1946 - 2013
boooooooo. spooky ripplings of icy waves. this 
umpteenth time she returns--this invisible woman 
long on haunting short on ectoplasm

"you're a good man, sistuh," a lover sighed solongago. 
"keep your oil slick and your motor running."

wretched stained mirrors within mirrors of 
fractured webbings like nests of manic spiders 
reflect her ruined mien (rue wiggles remorse 
squiggles woe jiggles bestride her). oozy Manes spill 
out yonder spooling in night's lofty hour exudes
her gloom and spew in rankling odor of heady dour

as she strives to retrieve flesh to cloak her bones 
again to thrive to keep her poisoned id alive

usta be young usta be gifted--still black

Copyright © 1998 by Wanda Coleman. Reprinted from Bathwater Wine with permission of Black Sparrow Press.

Copyright © 1998 by Wanda Coleman. Reprinted from Bathwater Wine with permission of Black Sparrow Press.

Wanda Coleman

Wanda Coleman

Born in 1946, Wanda Coleman grew up in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles

by this poet

poem
we were never caught

we partied the southwest, smoked it from L.A. to El Dorado 
worked odd jobs between delusions of escape
drunk on the admonitions of parents, parsons & professors 
driving faster than the road or law allowed. 
our high-pitched laughter was young, heartless & disrespected 
authority.
poem
               after Lowell


our mothers wrung hell and hardtack from row
      and boll. fenced others'
gardens with bones of lovers. embarking 
      from Africa in chains
reluctant pilgrims stolen by Jehovah's light 
      planted here the bitter
seed of blight and here eternal torches mark
poem
the fall of
velvet plum points and umber aureolae

remember living

forget cool evening air kisses the rush of 
liberation freed from the brassiere

forget the cupping of his hands the pleasure 
his eyes looking down/anticipating

forget his mouth. his tongue at the nipples 
his intense hungry nursing

forget