The selected poems of Wanda Coleman, edited by the American poet Terrance Hayes, and published in the UK under the title Wicked Enchantment, has brought her back into the spotlight. Considered to be the unofficial poet laureate of Los Angeles, she died in 2013 age sixty-seven.
“Wanda Coleman, like Gwendolyn Brooks before her, has much to tell us about what it is like to be a poor black woman in America,” Tony Magistrale, Black American Literature Forum
Coleman’s powerful, poetic outrage giving a voice to the impoverished and dispossessed of the inner city makes her a standard-bearer for equality. Her lyricism and imagery cast a singular spell. Wicked Enchantment is crucial reading for understanding the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
“I’m a candidate for the coroner, a lyric for a song” (page 33)
The edgy integrity of her words convey fundamental truths, considering what George Orwell wrote in the essay Politics and the English Language: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
Born in Watts in 1946, Wanda Coleman lived in and around Los Angeles for much of her life. Her mother worked as a housekeeper while her boxer-father was a sparring partner for the light-heavyweight champion Archie Moore.
Apart from her numerous collections of poetry, mostly published by Black Sparrow Press, she also wrote short stories, novels, nonfiction, plays and scripts for film and T.V., and was awarded an Emmy in 1976. Her working day (she wrote at night) took in employment as a Peace Corps recruiter, a waitress, an editor of a soft-core porn mag, a medical secretary, a radio host, a journalist (later blacklisted), an editor of an arts newsletter, a proof reader, a screenwriter and a university lecturer, often doing multiple jobs at a time.
“The wolf will come for me sooner or later
i know this
the wolf makes no sexual distinctions
i am the right color
he has a fetish for black meat and
frequently hunts with his mate alongside him” (page 5)
Themes and passions are repeated in the American Sonnets and Dream Song series, as well as in the series Notes of a Cultural Terrorist, Letter to My Older Sister, Essay on Language and Life as a Cartoon. The poem Aptitude Test is wickedly funny and subversive.
Men and money come and go. She brings up her two children as a single mother. She craves attention and compassion. She magnificently decries the complexities of poverty, violence, rioting, lynching, racism, sex, pills and bottles, and smoking up the American Dream.
“The blow to his head cracks his skull
he bleeds eighth notes & treble clefs” (page 69)
She is most derisive and tongue-in-cheek about herself:
“wanda when are you gonna wear your hair down
wanda. that’s a whore’s name
wanda why ain’t you rich
wanda you know no man in his right mind want a ready-made family
why don’t you lose weight
wanda why are you so angry
how come your feet are so goddamn big
can’t you afford to move out of this hell hole
if i were you were you were you
wanda what is it like being black
i hear you don’t like black men
tell me you’re ac/dc. tell me you’re a nympho. tell me you’re into chains
wanda i don’t think you really mean that
you’re joking. girl, you crazy
wanda what makes you so angry
wanda i think you need this
wanda you have no humor in you you too serious
wanda i didn’t know i was hurting you
that was an accident
wanda i know what you’re thinking
wanda i don’t think they’ll take that off of you
wanda why are you so angry” (page 48)
The shape and rhythm and colour of her words are dynamic expressions of her inner and outer worlds, which she metabolises and reforms to create jazz fusion and funk on the page. She pays artful and provocative homage to Langston Hughes, Lewis Carroll, Allen Ginsberg, James Wright and Anne Sexton among others.
Wicked Enchantment is a singular, subversive collection by a singular, subversive poet that will continue to fascinate, illuminate and resonate, especially given the current political climate. Its timely publication will hopefully alert a new generation to an undervalued and underappreciated radical mistress of the written and spoken word.
The UCLA Library Special Collections holds the Wanda Coleman Papers. Support the fight against inequality: take action, buy the book, read it to, and with, friends and family!
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