Ha! My wife arrived late as always, so sat in the foyer listening to the audio piped out with Gloria Alvarez, Jose Lozano and Laura Longoria, as well as others who joined us later at Pete’s on Main Street for wine and overpriced fare. I had put her name and Tisa’s on the guest list (the Poetry Society of America and Red Hen Press organizers ‘allowed’ 2 guests) but you had to arrive a half hour early before they gave your ticket away.
Kate Gale of Red Hen and Louise Steinman of the library greeted those who arrived early, per instructions, for the soundcheck. Red Hen authors reading Wanda’s work this evening included Wanda’s husband Austin Straus, who along with Wanda had interviewed me on their KPFK 90.7 Pacifica biweekly Poetry Connexion in the mid-1980s. Other Red Hen authors who read were Charles Webb, Ron Koertge, and Douglas Kearney. Longtime stalwarts of L.A. poetry (and Red Hen authors) Deena Metzger and Eloise Klein Healy, current—and first—Poet Laureate of L.A. were in the house—as well as a whole range of poets, as well as members of Wanda’s family (the Evans). The event kicked off with a recording of Wanda reading a poem dedicated to Los Angeles; SRO, maybe 245 people—some of those folks we used to see around town making the scene are older now, gray, hunched with age. I know a bunch of them, like me, live in a Los Angeles partly underwater, with memory fishes swimming through Gorky’s, Al’s Bar (Cecilia Woloch wiped away tears when she was at the the mike, she mentioned reading at Al’s Bar with Wanda and punk bands, in the 80s), the Atomic Cafe, the Troy Cafe, Beyond Baroque and Phillipe’s (still standing), Midnight Special and Dutton’s Bookstores, Rhino Records, Freeway Records, the Women’s Building (I remarked on to Terry Wolverton afterward, she’s Red Hen author of a text on feminist poetics and author of Insurgent Muse: Life and Art at the Women’s Building). Kate Gale and Louise Steinman welcomed everyone with introductory remarks.
Suzanne Lummis sent out a tremendous reading of Wanda’s archetypal ode to L.A., “I Live for My Car.” [Here’s Wanda reading “I Live for My Car” etc.: http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Coleman-Wanda.php%5D A striking black and white photo of Wanda graced center stage throughout. Michael Datcher or someone asked Austin who took the photo, but Austin couldn’t remember. By chance, perhaps, Austin was using a small black and white taken of Wanda when young as a book mark among the materials he was going to be reading from, and before he went on stage, it slipped from the pages of the book in hand and he turned and gave it to me for a second, saying, “Wasn’t she beautiful?”
Douglas Kearney and Terrance Hayes read first, Douglas slamming performance hard out of the gate—just as he does with typography and the visual element in his print versions. They spoke of their debt to Wanda as pioneer poet, her national bravery “speaking truth to power.” Stephen Kessler, down from Santa Cruz, and Charles Webb told tales from the old days; Webb mentioned riding in a car with Austin before Austin had met Wanda, and Austin was already in love with Wanda’s poetry (“Isn’t Wanda Coleman great?”). David Cherry, Don Cherry’s son, gave us all music on keyboard and kora or ngoni or some Malian stringed instrument, interludes, interspersed, beautiful. At the end of Brendan Constantine’s reading of Wanda’s cinemagraphic poem noir, David Cherry emitted reggae dub sample and phased it out.
I was trying to think of something to say, words to place at the base of the pyramid of Night. Words to lean like flowers on one wall of Death. Someone, Laurel Ann Bogen or Cecilia Woloch? read “Angel Baby Blues”—
Adelle and Jack Foley, from the Bay Area, reminisced recording Wanda for their KPFK program decades ago; they read a syncopated mix of two Wanda pieces, alternating. Laurel Ann Bogen said she met Wanda in 1976 and Robin Coste Lewis made moving mention that when coming up Wanda Coleman was the only black writer she’d ever heard of to come out of her neighborhood, and gave a wonderful reading of a poem by Wanda exemplifying her actual “quiet poetics” counterposed to the tags and labels (of ‘angry black woman’). I went in with “Q & A for Gil Cuadros,” saying Wanda’s passing meant we live on in Less Angeles, more Monrovia, more Culver City, Less Los Angeless, more Lynnwood and City of Vernon, more Petaluma and less L.A., more HP and more Bushwick and Fort Greene than L.A.—we have to pick up our game. Austin closed out the evening with both personal and moving tributes, his latest book love poems written with Wanda. Austin gave away his Wanda cartoons, cartoons he’d drawn about Wanda that he said she liked, but I forgot to get any.
I went out, said hellos, met the wife and spoke with some, we walked down 5th to Main, and I had overpriced burger at Pete’s with nice garlicky fries, and a nice kid, grad of Columbia MFA, who was talking to USC Phd grad student publisher of her forthcoming chapbook, had a bit of wine and when I asked her about living in NYC versus living in L.A., she said, “I used to think place was important, but now I think it’s bullshit. I think you just have to have your own aura, wherever you go.”
And I was thinking, “Good luck, kid.”
A weekend of tributes to Wanda Coleman
By David L. Ulin Los Angeles Times Book Critic
January 20, 2014, 11:02 a.m.
If you want to know how much Wanda Coleman meant to the poetry community of Los Angeles, consider this: Her memorial service Sunday (called “the world’s first improvisational memorial” by her husband, Austin Straus) lasted four hours.
At times, it felt like everyone who had gathered at Santa Monica’s Church in Ocean Park would get up to speak, to read a poem, to sing a song, to honor the life of a writer, who as poet and critic Bill Mohr recalled, “always took the singular to the plural: We are literary L.A.” Even Coleman herself made an appearance, in the form of a couple of riveting video pieces; “I’m talking to me, the me that exists in my imagination,” she declared, when asked for whom she wrote.
The Sunday memorial was the second Coleman tribute of the weekend; on Saturday afternoon, in association with Red Hen Press and the Poetry Society of America, the Central Library’s ALOUD series hosted a celebration of her work.
National and local poets, including Terrance Hayes, Douglas Kearney, Suzanne Lummis and Laurel Ann Bogen, read favorite Coleman pieces: “In That Other Fantasy Where We Live Forever,” “Angel Baby Blues.”
“She did not traffic in phony uplift,” observed Stephen Kessler, and yet, this only made her, as both poet and personality, resonate all the more. “I just want to say,” Lummis noted, after reading the poem “I Live for My Car,” “people talk about Wanda’s rage, but there was a lot of love in that woman. The proof is right here in this room.”
Lummis is right: Coleman was complicated, forceful, but in every way that matters, she was motivated by love. That love could be fierce — Hayes recalled her telling him off onstage — but at heart it was idealistic, driven by a vision of the way things could be. “Wanda went ahead of all of us,” remembered Sesshu Foster, “and she explained a major portion of what this city is about.” Without her, he continued, “we’ll just have to pick up our game.”
This sense, that she was the trailblazer, that without her we are fundamentally diminished, resonated through both of the weekend’s memorial events, albeit in different ways. Perhaps it’s easiest to break it down by saying that one focused on her professional life and the other on her personal life — and yet, what they really have to tell us is that there was no division between the two.
Rather, Coleman, lived it as she wrote it: sensitive, righteous, full of generosity and spirit, dedicated to building and sustaining a Los Angeles poetry community. “Remembering her makes me proud to call myself an L.A. poet,” said Cecilia Woloch at the library, a sentiment echoed so often that it became a kind of refrain.
Whether in her work or the work she admired — participants on Sunday included a flutist who played a favorite piece by Debussy, the vaudeville act of Sharon Evans and Rick Rogers (Coleman’s sister and brother-in-law) and poet and performer Eric Priestley, who described meeting her during a 1960s production of Jean Genet’s play “The Blacks” — what emerged was her engagement, her sense of humor, her sense of justice, the full scope of her influence.
I lost track of the poets who reflected on how Coleman had helped them, whether in terms of publications or readings, or in having them as guests on “The Poetry Connexion,” the KPFK radio show she co-hosted for many years with Straus.
It all ties into her belief in writing as the “highest form of politics,” a forum in which we reveal the truest essence of ourselves. Coleman was always about that, about unveiling herself, her city, her circumstance, about saying what no one else was willing, or able, to say.
“I expect my ashes to be scattered like pollen,” she once wrote, and over the weekend, downtown and in Santa Monica, one could see the outcome: a writing community in which, thanks to Coleman, a thousand flowers bloom.