By Michael Aushenker
Wanda Coleman, who turned her experiences of racial prejudice into defiant, fierce and personal poetry that gained her widespread recognition as one of Los Angeles’ strongest literary voices, died Friday after battling a long illness. She was 67.
In her work, Coleman drew from all facets of the human experience — love, heartbreak, salvation — but found her sharpest voice in pushing back against social barriers and limitations due to race and gender discrimination.
Across four decades she authored 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.
Friends remember Coleman, a frequent participant in the Venice arts scene, as uncompromising, unflinching in the face of conflict and fiercely loyal, while at the same time having a soft spot for other artists.
“Wanda was always very generous and very supportive,” said Suzanne Thompson, a co-founder of the Venice Arts Council.
Thompson first met Coleman in the early 1990s at Robert Frost Auditorium in Culver City, where the two were involved in a fundraiser for El Rescate, a nonprofit that provides legal and social services for Central American refugees. She recalled Coleman’s reading that day as a transformative experience.
Coleman “was very quiet and contemplative, but when she got on stage she had the most powerful performance I’ve ever experienced in my life. Her words became alive. You were so there with her,” said Thompson. “I fell in love with poetry after that. She got me hooked on readings and poetry.”
Thompson also worked with Coleman on a restoration of Ocean Front Walk that featured a series of public art components. Since renamed the Venice Beach Poets Monument, it includes public displays of poetry. A passage by Coleman remains on the side of the Brooks Avenue public restroom on Venice Beach.
Coleman also maintained a decades-long association with Venice-based Beyond Baroque, where she frequently read her work, lectured and taught.
When Coleman was onstage, “People paid attention to what she had to say,” said close friend and fellow poet Laurel Ann Bogen, who is planning a memorial for January. “If you ever saw her read, you never forgot it.”
“Wanda was close to all of our hearts,” said Sherman Pearl, vice president of Beyond Baroque. “She had the most articulate voice of Los Angeles that I know of. Last year, she was given our annual award for achievement in poetry.”
Born in Watts and married with children by age 20, Coleman attended classes at Los Angeles Valley College and Cal State Los Angeles but eventually dropped out of school. She divorced in 1969 — later marrying poet Austin Straus — and worked odd jobs before landing a fleeting gig writing for NBC’s “Days of Our Lives.” Her work on the soap opera won her a Daytime Emmy in 1976.
Eschewing TV scripts to focus on family, Coleman eventually came to the more intimate medium of poetry and attended the Watts Writers Workshop, led by “What Makes Sammy Run?” novelist and “On The Waterfront” screenwriter Budd Schulberg, as well as work-shopping verse at Studio Watts and, later, Beyond Baroque.
Coleman’s first poetry collection was published in 1977 by Black Sparrow Press, which also released books by Charles Bukowski and Los Angeles literature godfather John Fante.
As a journalist, Coleman stoked controversy. She clashed with Angela Davis while covering a Black Panther fundraiser in the 1970s and in 2002 penned a scathing review of Maya Angelou’s memoir “A Song Flung Up to Heaven.”
In 1985, Coleman and Exene Cervenka of the seminal L.A. punk group X collaborated on a spoken word album, “Twin Sisters,” that was recorded at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica.
Cervenka said she had met Coleman at “a very golden time” for Beyond Baroque (from the mid-1970s to early ‘80s) and rattled off a lengthy roster of peers emerging from this “post-beatnik and post-hippie” scene.
But it was Coleman who made the greatest impression on Cervenka, she said.
“Wanda she stood out always every time she read. She was often imitated. Her cadence became the way everybody tried to read,” Cervenka said. “We just liked each other. We started doing readings together.”
Coleman had a no-nonsense approach to life that Cervenka recalled coming out during a plane trip to Amsterdam, where the two were headed to perform in a poetry festival.
While boarding the plane, “as I was sitting down, we saw a man bending over [dealing with his luggage],” Cervenka said. “I heard a voice go, ‘Get your fat white ass out of my face!’ It was Wanda.”
“Wanda was close to all of our hearts,” said Pearl, vice president of Beyond Baroque. “She had the most articulate voice of Los Angeles that I know of. Last year, she was given our annual award for achievement in poetry.”
Bogen, who is currently in the early stages of planning a Jan. 19 memorial for her close friend, had met Coleman in the most in auspicious way back in 1979.
“She and her husband got together because of me. When Austin Straus came from New York, he and I used to go out together,” Bogen recalled. Straus, freshly arrived from the East Coast, was in Los Angeles to start a West Coast branch of Amnesty International. Straus, who did not yet have a car, had scheduled to be ready for Bogen, who was going to drive them to a Long Beach book store reception for poets who had contributed to the anthology “Amorotica.” Blissfully unaware of the time needed to traverse the city in traffic that, Bogen said, was horrific even in the late 1970s, Straus appeared a half hour late.“I had a bad habit of being early, so when I went to pick him up and he wasn’t there, I waited and I waited and I waited,” she recalled. “By the time he showed up, steam was coming out of my ears.”
They were running late, but “when we got there, he saw Wanda.That was it.”
By reception’s end, Straus told Bogen that, although he had come with her, he was leaving with Coleman.
“It was palpable,” Bogen recalled of their chemistry. “They were both very passionate human beings who believed in justice for everybody and weren’t afraid of speaking their minds.
As Bogen and Straus had been dating casually, there were no hard feelings. Bogen remained friends with the couple ever since.
“When they got together, I realized they were soul mates and it made me very happy that I got them together,” said Bogen, who likened Straus and Coleman’s union as akin to Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” – intense.
“They had that kind of passionate relationship,” she said. “They fought, they got together. They would bounce off each other. But you never doubted that they loved each other.”
Coleman wrote a poem about Bogen in “The Lady in the Red Veiled Hat,” published in her 1999 collection “Mercurochrome,” which she placed as a National Book Award finalist.
“When she was your friend, that was it,” Bogen said.
Recently, Bogen could tell Coleman was sick, as she did not speak much, saving her voice only for her readings. That said, “I never expected to her to die. I will miss my friend.”
The last time Cervenka and Thompson saw Coleman was in May 2012 at the now-defunct 585Boardriders sports shop, where activists were organizing to remove graffiti from the Venice Beach Poets Monument project.
Thompson, a Beyond Baroque board member, intends to continue that mission in Coleman’s memory.
Poet Suzanne Lummis, who met Coleman in the 1980s, said there was much more to Coleman than the rage in her poetry that others have relied on to define her.
“One memory keeps returning to me, and it’s not about her electrifying performances on the stage, or her great, joyous, rocking laughter that swelled the walls when she was in the audience,” said Lummis.
“Both of us had regularly attended a literary salon at the little house of the beloved elder poet of the Los Angeles literary world, William Pillin, a refugee whose family had fled the Russian pogroms,” Lummis said. “The news of his death grieved me deeply, but when I called Wanda, I could not have anticipated her response: She exploded into tears, naked wails of sorrow, open-hearted sobbing. To this day, I stand in awe of that emotion, and the depth of her attachment to a frail old Polish Jew and fellow poet. And that, I’d like people to know, is the flip side of Wanda’s rage that we hear so much about: love.”
Coleman is survived by Strauss, children Tunisia Ordoñez and Ian Grant, brothers George Evans and Marvin Evans, sister Sharon Evans and three grandchildren.