Wanda Coleman died yesterday at 67. She was the SPLAB Visiting Poet in February 2002 and I don’t think I ever met a poet with a spirit as ferocious as hers. My dear friend Ethelbert Miller wrote a wonderful eulogy today and I am sharing it here because I just can’t find my way through the grief to write something right now. The L.A. Times obit is here: http://www.latimes.com/obituaries/la-me-wanda-coleman-20131124-1,0,3349194.story#axzz2lWwhDMMf Clips from a 2000 interview are here: http://paulenelson.com/2013/11/23/wanda-coleman-dead-at-67/
Saturday, November 23, 2013
I spend the afternoon raking leaves. Tired I take a break – go indoors for some water. I check emails only to discover Wanda Coleman has died. I look out at my yard and watch the wind blowing – too many leaves keep falling. It’s the same with tears. Wasn’t the sun just out and laughing with Jayne Cortez? I remember corresponding with Wanda -learning of her illness. A few of us tried to raise money for her. Paul Nelson in Seattle. How long ago was that? It’s just the end of the year.
I just pulled Wanda’s books from a bookshelf. It was Ahmos Zu-Bolton who first told me about her. I think she was his favorite poet. I met Wanda for the first time in 1984. September 25th,National Airport, United Flight 802. 10:22 am was her arrival time. I had invited Wanda to Howard. About 4 people came to the reading I coordinated for her. Two were white students from the University of Maryland. They came to see Wanda the way people first heard of Jimi Hendrix. Wanda read on September 26th and Cyn Zarco read on the 27th. I called the programs “Two Women/Two Cultures/Two Nights of Poetry.”
Listening to Wanda read changed my understanding of black poetry. Her voice was like music too new for my ears. But we hit it off and our friendship made the Mississippi River seem like a small fence between us. Wanda didn’t live in Los Angeles – she was L.A. While some writers are associated with a creative writing program, or a style – Wanda needed a city – a place to define her. A place she defined.
She was outspoken the way someone might describe a great saxophone player’s horn. Her words like notes striking the first fool who didn’t know how to hum. Wanda deserved respect and she felt she didn’t get it. If you want to know why this lady sang the tough/sassy blues – read her work. Begin with Mad Dog Black Lady. Next count all the Black Sparrow Press books as many as Hitchcock’s birds.
Wanda Colemen was a letter writer. She wrote long letters that scholars and historians will need to read. I published several of them in Callaloo magazine.
For some reason I think her poem “El Hajj Malik El Shabazz” could be about not the black leader but this woman poet I now miss:
yes. they have taken your tongue
still you speak
yes. you dared and were damned
by your own skin
black hands took you but have not
Wanda Coleman blessed me with her friendship. It was something I cherished. It made me feel I wasn’t a fool. Wanda didn’t tolerate fools. She dedicated a poem to me that was published inBath Water Wine.
Tonight as I write this, I stop and pull several letters she wrote that I placed in her books.
I open one now and discover a poem she wrote on December 15, 2010 – “On Cleaning Up All These Ashes In the Sand (for Ian Wayne after E.E. Miller).
In another book, another letter – this one dated January 31, 2010, in which she thanked me for nominating her for a Gaea residency in Provincetown. This letter is one of the true happy notes I ever received from her. It was a reminder of how too often great writers struggle to make a living, to write and to love. If in small ways we help one another the world upholds its beauty.
Tomorrow I will finish the work in the yard. The leaves will look at me with overnight sadness.
I will rake them for the memories of spring and summer…
I will listen for Wanda’s voice in the wind – a sound as different as every new day.