The Poetry of Coleman A Mad Dog Poet

Wanda Coleman

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 entire section is 1117 words.)