Wanda Coleman @ Mills College’s Contemporary Writers Series

Wanda Coleman
Originally uploaded by geminipoet

A few months back I got to hear Wanda Coleman do an impromptu guest feature at Muddy Waters in the Mission. She only read three poems but in those three poems she embodied something that many poetry students in the audience were seeking- the Voice.

Normally when I mention a poet’s Voice I go by my own personal definition of “If I cover the byline to this poem, I would still know who wrote it.” Voice speaks to tempo and rhythms, points of origin and departure, and common themes. I can think of a lot of master and emerging poets who fit well into this category. They write into a personal form that never becomes a bland or sterile form(ula) and from this they develop their own Style which becomes the Voice when the body takes that written word and channels it out into the world.

Coleman decided to start the reading at her origin point in writing- the Watts Riot of ’65. She tells the audience that sometime after the Riots, she decided to take a writing class with Budd Schulberg at 103rd Street but instead of taking the class she makes a turn somewhere along the path and that this then leads to that. What exactly “this” and “that” are is left unclear as Coleman goes into her first poem “Letter to My Older Sister.”

With lines like “I give her my name,” “have I lived you well,” and “you had mom’s hair/I have Dad’s hair;” I wonder who is this older sister? Is she missing, did she pass early, is she a metaphor for Coleman’s non-writer self? The poet herself can not even finish the letter as she is “demanded elsewhere.”

That elsewhere brings us to first love (Outside My Sphere), fast love (I Remember Romance), and poetic crush love (Neruda, A Few Quiet Hours). Forgive me if the titles are a bit off, Coleman is so ON when it comes to her poetry reading that you never really know when the poem begins and end. Halfway through the first poem, Coleman delivers an aside that comments directly on the poem but the voice never loses its rhythm or punch.

This unwavering voice comes at us full blast in a short but direct poem that not only personifies various negative emotions (pain, fear, etc.) but gives them jazz instruments and puts them to play their tunes. “What to do?/Whatever’s cool.” Even if that cool leads us right into human tragedy.

The meeting of voice and tragedy occurs again in “Boy Wounded One Sunday Morning” where Coleman’s speaker is so distraught over the senselessness of a random drive-by’s 10 year-old victim, a child who is not her child, but the speaker shares such grief she actually becomes the victim’s mother both as the speaker and in her reading of the work. With poems and performances like this I always wonder if the poet is going just a little too far. Is this direct performance with extra lilt that isn’t indicated on the page too much? Should a writer be faulted for having a big voice that can carry a proper note? I wonder all these things and then see Coleman, at one point in her reading, turning her body slightly away from the crowd and showing us a glimpse of the text she is reading. I see a writer showing us that the word is there, she has put it down, how it’s read is a personal choice and this writer has decided to read it with every tool she has at her disposal.

Coleman passes on some of her experiences as a writer through the work itself, offering opinions on common themes (“as for tropejacking, don’t’ be a victim”), writing oneself out of circumstance (“so by sending these letters, I escape”), and the fantastic (“the squirrels have eaten the plumber”).

Coleman closes with two new poems (New Sh*t!) one in the musical voice of “Coltrane” where Coleman seeks to evoke the fabled composer not just in text and meter but in actual spirit as well. “A good jazz poem resurrects,” says Coleman.

The last poem is a love poem paying tribute to poetry impresario Bob Holman and acclaimed painter Elizabeth Murray. Murray recently passed away adding a bittersweet aura to this poem that still comes at us all “blood and reason” mixed with “rude kisses” celebrating the “lavish with the ravish.”

Coleman was gracious and open in the post reading Q&A, speaking in detail about her upbringing, ethnic past, dealings with LA police, how Larry Hagman messed up her play for the sake of his own career, revision and the fugue. For me, I was very interested in how she challenges her students to take a single subject and write it into poetry, fiction, essay and play form at the same time. I also got to ask her about the “Retro Rogue Anthology” section in her book Mecurochrome. This one section is 58 poems written after 50 or so poets. Some of it is homage, some of it is was to do better than the original, is how I remember her response. Coleman comments that some poets don’t have a “lock” on their language and that she can come into those openings and “cop their licks” to take over the language. Coleman did say that the only poet she couldn’t cover was Sylvia Plath. She had a Plath cover all done and ready but went and deleted it at the end.

This all goes and debunks the idea of voice I started this reading review with, as Coleman says she doesn’t rely on any singular voice or form but instead is a “Style of Styles.”

More Wanda Coleman:
Bio and Poem on Poets.org
Books by Wanda Coleman
Wanda Coleman reads live on Salon.com

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  1. Good post, and awesome reading that was. Re: the 11 year old boy poem, I was asking myself the same thing, how much was “too much” emoting and performance, and whether those things were also apparent on the page. I am thinking of the recent shooting of the Oakland boy taking his piano lesson, and whether all the news reporting could convey that heightened unbarred emotional response. Maybe that’s Ms. Coleman’s point, that we are so removed from these tragedies happening in our own cities and neighborhoods.

  2. So I have to tell you my Wanda story. Years and years ago, during a cross-country road trip, I stopped at Naropa just to–well, stop the hell at Naropa. My first discovery was how starkly white Boulder, Colorado was. My second discovery was that I’d arrived just in time for a reading by Wanda Coleman.

    There were roughly 8 million white folks, and me, and Wanda. She read her poem (can’t find the copy right now, because I’m tired and have been smoking cigars) about all the horrible things whites will do to you if you give them half a chance. She drawled, hissed, growled, sang and testified. At the end of that poem (and I knew it was the end, but I’d read it), there was not a single sound. No one applauded, no one dared move, but every single eye was on Wanda. She stood for a full minute in that silence, moving her head back and forth, scanning the room, vaguely snarling.

    I remember wondering then what it must be like to wield that kind of power, to hold the entire heart of an audience in your hand while deciding whether to caress or crush it.

    As far as I was concerned, that set the stand for a poetry performance–I’ve never forgotten it. And to this day, no one has lived up to it.

  3. I like what Coleman said about voice(s). I think as writers we reach different plateaus and sometimes are unaware when we’ve had a breakthrough, but the breakthroughs come when we least expect them to and the plateaus offer nice views from various planes. I think this is part of what poetry is, from the gut, and although that’s not a real popular stance these days, I think I’ll go with it. A mind without heart isn’t a voice to me. This is another nice poem about an intersting reading. I like that she only read 3 poems very much! hahaha This makes my night.

  4. Thanks for the comments, poetas.

    This reading and your comments have me questioning the need for intellectual distance during a poetry reading. All my favorite writers have been able to bring an emotional layer to their live readings that makes me appreciate the text that much more. In fact, I would say an impassioned reader makes me want to revisit the original text.

    Take care.

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