Documentarian Bob Bryan screens his cinematic snapshot of Wanda Coleman at the Venice literary haven she cherished
By Michael Aushenker
When documentary filmmaker Bob Bryan heard of poet Wanda Coleman’s passing on Nov. 22, all his plans came to a screeching halt.
“There was no Thanksgiving. There was no Christmas. There was no sleep,” Bryan said. “There was no nothing. I was obsessed with Wanda Coleman. I was possessed.”
Before Coleman died, Bryan had been knee-deep in another project, but he immediately switched his focus to a long-gestating idea: “The Wanda Coleman Project: Genius,” based on a filmed 2006 interview.
Bryan screens and discusses his completed film on Sunday at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center in Venice, a longtime creative outlet and community for Coleman until her death at 67.
“Wanda, she stood out always every time she read,” poet Exene Cervenka, also of the band X, previously told The Argonaut about Coleman’s participation in the literary scene at Beyond Baroque. “She was often imitated. Her cadence became the way everybody tried to read.”
Coleman’s first poetry collection was published in 1977. Over the next 39 years, she published more than 20 books of poetry, fiction and essays. Her 1998 poetry collection “Bathwater Wine” won the Lenore Marshall National Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets and catapulted her to national attention.
“Wanda was close to all of our hearts,” Sherman Pearl, vice president of Beyond Baroque, said after her death. “She had the most articulate voice of Los Angeles that I know of. [In 2012] she was given our annual award for achievement in poetry.”
Bryan had harbored the idea of doing a film about Coleman since finishing his documentary “The Odyssey,” in which “she was obviously one of the flavors of the Los Angeles poetry scene.” Cast alongside 30 other poets in that film, Coleman received about seven minutes of screen time. But he could not forget his conversation with Coleman for that project. She stood out.
What Bryan found most mesmerizing about Coleman was her uncanny chameleonic powers.
“She would put on the skin of other people and write about that point of view,” he said.
One poem she wrote in the voice of a woman who had undergone a mastectomy felt so authentic that people consoled her after a reading. Except that Coleman had never experienced it firsthand.
“She stopped denying and let people assume things and went with it,” Bryan said.
During their conversation on film, Coleman “was in top form,” he said. “Physically and mentally, she was at the top of her game. She was successful but still very hungry.”
Bryan is now back to finishing up his earlier project, a film called “Myth, Magic and Miracles,” for release later this year. But in a way, Bryan had found the myth, magic and miracle he had been looking for in that 2006 footage he had shot of Coleman at her brother George Evans’ home.
“It’s the most holistic interview that you’ll ever hear in your life,” Bryan recalled. “We laughed, we cried. If you want to know who she really is, there it is.”
Bryan’s documentary is not concerned with retracing well-traveled territory of Coleman’s biographical history.
“This is more about the motivations, the ideas, the methodology [of Coleman],” he said. “Who you are is more engaging than the bloody details. It’s a snapshot in time.”
“The Wanda Coleman Project: Genius” screens at 4:30 p.m. Sunday at Beyond Baroque, 681 Venice Blvd., Venice. Free, but donations welcome. Call (310) 822-3006 or visit beyondbaroque.org. For information about other screenings, visit graffitiverite.com.