A Mad Dog Poet

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Born and reared in the slums of Los Angeles, Wanda Coleman writes passionately about her life as a member of the dispossessed and downtrodden in that city, re-creating its outrageous banalities, mundane sufferings, and quotidian tragedies not only as an eyewitness but also as a player in the drama. She is best known for the anger in her poetry, which she has sometimes read to audiences dramatically by getting on all fours and barking like a mad dog. Largely neglected by literary circles and academia beyond the Pacific coast, Coleman, who knows firsthand what it means to be a welfare mother, a typist, a waitress, an editor for a soft-core pornographic magazine, and a medical clerk, is a grassroots poet whose outcry comes straight from the hearts of a largely silent majority of marginalized “minorities.”

Coleman’s anger is inseparable from her day-to-day experience of poverty, racism, and sexism, but concomitant with the anger is her love for the community that has defined her life. As Coleman reveals in an interview, “I have one desire—to write. And, through writing, control, destroy, and create social institutions. I want to wield the power that belongs to the pen.” The racial riot in Watts in 1965 led Coleman to participate in community service for young African Americans, thus preparing her for a writing career. Fighting against tremendous odds, she ventured into experimental theater and dance and then took up scriptwriting. Although she later went on to win an Emmy Award for an episode of the soap opera Days of Our Lives in 1976, she was disillusioned by Hollywood and began to concentrate on writing poetry and short fiction.

Coleman’s poetry is informed by African American speech and the blues tradition; her background in drama and scriptwriting also has an impact on her poetry. What sets her apart, however, are her writing habits, which are closely tied to the chores and burdens of her quotidian life. Speaking to her interviewers, Coleman describes herself as a “catch-as-catch-can” writer:I write poems while I’m standing in line at the supermarket, while the car is getting fixed. When you are poor, you spend a lot of time waiting. I never wanted to waste that time, so I always had a book or notebook handy, something I could work on.

She turns her notes into poems, and if she is not initially satisfied with the result, she will keep them for future use. Because of these habits, she has developed what may be described as an “accumulative notebook style.” A Coleman poem often comes into being when enough notes on a certain topic are gathered, and now and then a new poem will emerge under a previously used title when additional notes are collected.


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The Quest for Spiritual and Sexual Maturity

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Imagoes (1983) continues the major tendencies of Mad Dog Black Lady, but a new trend also begins to emerge in this collection. As Coleman has explained to interviewers, the book’s title refers not only to the “sexually mature state of insect larvae” (of butterflies and moths) but also to the “idealized state of self” and “images.” “Imagoes” as a term hence signals the evolution of Coleman’s self-identity as a developing artist. In the title poem, the poet transposes her meditation on imagoes to a mediation of self (“white birds do not eat them/ they taste bitter”) and confronts her phobia of moths and butterflies until, through a semiconscious state induced by the sexual ecstasy of the present and the dreamlike memory of her ancestry, she is transformed in such a way that “in my soul winged beings flutter. ” The poem can be regarded as emblematic of Coleman’s self-fashioning maneuvers in the book, the main concern of which is her quest, through the perfection of expressive language, for a sexually and spiritually mature (or idealized) self.

Coleman’s quest is evident from the first two poems in Imagoes. “In Search of the Mythology of Do Wah Wah” rewrites Greco-Roman civilization in terms of the melodrama of racist America: “oedipus, spawned on the breeding plantations of civil war america/ slays his white father and covets his black mother.” “Daddyboy,” a sketch of her father’s life, is the poet’s poignant recognition of her own identity through her father’s; when the family’s children address their father as “daddyboy,” an affectionate nickname, he reacts angrily, and the family’s mother must explain that “your father’s black. white people/ disrespect black men by calling them boy/ call him anything but.” Having thus established the Africanness of her being, Coleman moves on to a series of three poems about a...

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Blues Poetry

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Heavy Daughter Blues: Poems and Stories, 1968-1986 (1987) is a showcase of Coleman’s literary art in the lyric, dramatic, and narrative modes. Here, although the poet is covering familiar ground, the storytelling impulse is stronger, and third-person perspectives begin to dominate. Frequently, the poetic self seems to disappear from the text, particularly in character studies (“Mother Taylor” and “Mister Clark”) and blues poems (“Trouble on My Doorsteps Blues” and “Bottom Out Blues”). An important hint about the character of this volume can be found in “Walking Paper Blues,” in which the figure of the “mad dog” for which Coleman is known is used in the context of the blues:

if’n yo don’t fire me sooni’m leavin’ he-ah today[. . .]mah soul nevah been he-ahmah heart been gone fo daysgot me a fifth o mad dogto celebrate this day.

Here, the emphasis has shifted from anger and helplessness to celebratory defiance, thus signaling the self-sufficiency characteristic of the mature self. Because the poetic self is quietly in control rather than submerged, the volume demonstrates Coleman’s success in achieving the maturity that she sought earlier in Imagoes.

In African Sleeping Sickness: Stories and Poems (1990), Coleman continues to excel in her regular repertoire (“Notes of a Cultural Terrorist,” “Starved for Affection Blues,” “In the Kitchen My Potatoes Are Polemical,” “Self-Immolation,” and others), but has expanded it to include a discourse on acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), in “Current Events,” “The Educational Lab Counselor,” “A Late 80’s Party,” “Obituaries,” “A Civilized Plague,” “The Article in the Newspaper,” and “Nesomania (2).” Also apparent are Coleman’s attempts to enhance her expressiveness by experimenting with form (“American Sonnet” and “Koan”) and with language in order to address the issues of the American Dream more effectively. The two title poems, which are rather obscure, employ medical metaphors to illustrate a black woman’s experience of feelings of inauthenticity, disintegration, and loss of self—a complex syndrome that, in turn, signifies the dysfunctionality of...

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Hand Dance as an Aesthetic Manifesto

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

When Hand Dance was published in 1993, Coleman received little if any notice from reviewers, but this volume deserves attention for its range and depth. At first glance, Hand Dance covers familiar ground in terms of subject matter and poetic style; there are poems inspired by the blues (“Lovin’ Breakfast Blues” and “Moanin’ Groanin’ Blues”) and by the urban landscape of Southern California (“UCLA Graffiti Bio Med Library”), as well as poems addressing issues of work (“Sh*t Worker in General” and “The Tao of Unemployment”), race (“Aptitude Test” and “All Maps Tell Lies”), gender (“His Comments After Her Hanging” and “Want Ads”), health and sexuality (“Mastectomy”), and crime (“David Polion” and “Current Events”). Coleman’s “American Sonnets” also begin to make a more prominent appearance in Hand Dance, in which sonnets 3 to 11 appear. In 1994, a limited edition collection titled American Sonnets was published. The titular sequence continued to grow after its publication in include more than one hundred poems.

On closer examination, it can be observed that Coleman is attempting to organize her entire poetic output in terms of the hand dance. While paying tribute, symbolically, to this African American art form that can be traced back to the Harlem Renaissance, Coleman appears to be developing a particular aesthetic that embodies, specifically, the kind of poetry she has been producing. In the eponymic poem dating to 1983 and serving as the epigraph that opens the book, the poet’s career is characterized as a hand dance:

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Coleman, Wanda. “Clocking Dollars.” In African Sleeping Sickness: Stories and Poems. Santa Rosa, Calif.: Black Sparrow Press, 1990. An important position statement by the poet about the impact of poverty on her writing; also shows how Coleman, as a marginalized author, differs from other black writers sanctioned by the establishment.

Coleman, Wanda. “Sweet Mama Wanda Tells Fortunes: An Interview with Wanda Coleman.” Interview by Tony Magistrale and Patricia Ferreira. Black American Literature Forum 24, no. 3 (Fall, 1990): 491-507. A lengthy, comprehensive interview. Essential reading for Coleman scholars.

Goldstein, Laurence. “Looking for Authenticity in Los Angeles.” Michigan Quarterly Review 30, no. 4 (Fall, 1991): 717-731. Contains a review of African Sleeping Sickness and discusses Coleman’s work in the ethnic and cultural context of Los Angeles.

Magistrale, Tony. “Doing Battle with the Wolf: A Critical Introduction to Wanda Coleman’s Poetry.” Black American Literature Forum 23, no. 3 (Fall, 1989): 539-554. An indispensable in-depth study of Coleman’s poetry.

Williams, Sherley Anne. “The Blues Roots of Contemporary Afro-American Poetry.” In Afro-American Literature: The Reconstruction of Instruction, edited by Dexter Fisher and Robert B. Stepto. New York: Modern Language Association, 1979. Shows how African American women poets are inspired by the blues tradition.