Wanda Coleman is an African American writer who writes about the oppression of blacks, the persecution of females, and the inequitable class structure of the contemporary United States. Primarily known as a poet, she has also published short and long prose, and her nonfiction articles appear regularly in the Los Angeles Times Magazine.
Coleman was raised in Watts, a section of Los Angeles widely known for the riots that took place there in 1965. An introverted and bookish child, Coleman was encouraged to write by her parents, and by the time she was fifteen she had published several poems. She briefly attended California State University at Los Angeles in 1964 and Los Angeles City College in 1967. Later, she attended Stanford University for a time. By the time she was twenty, she was a political activist, wife, and mother of two children.
Coleman was divorced by 1964, and she decided to pursue a career as a professional writer. While she struggled at writing, she supported her family as a waitress, bartender, dancer, typist, and medical clerk-transcriber. Her first published short story, “Watching the Sunset,” appeared in Negro Digest in 1970; it portrays a lonely middle-aged teacher regretting a life that passed too quickly. The story deals with the realities of racism and with African Americans’ concern with skin color, themes that are developed in her later work.
During the 1970’s, Coleman experimented in various media, including theater, dance, and journalism. She also wrote television scripts for the daytime drama Days of Our Lives in 1975-1976, becoming the first African American to win an Emmy Award for writing for a drama series. She was also the first woman editor of an African American men’s magazine, Players. The constrictions of commercial writing and the pressures of child rearing, however, led Coleman to poetry, a short form that provides almost unlimited creative freedom. During this period, she married briefly and bore a third child.
Under the influence of Charles Bukowski, a Los Angeles poet whom she admired, Coleman sent her first poetry manuscript to Black Sparrow Press, whose publisher, John Martin, became an important mentor. He published her chapbook Art in the Court of the Blue Fag, followed by Mad Dog Black Lady and Imagoes. Using authentic black English and internal rhyme, her poems depict homeless people, drug addicts, welfare mothers, and disillusioned dreamers. Coleman’s poetic style captures the distinctive sounds and rhythms of black music, especially jazz and the blues. The poems are full of specific references to black musicians, and the titles often suggest the relationship between music and language, such as “The Saturday Afternoon Blues” and “Blues for a Man on Sax.” These collections earned professional recognition: a National Endowment for the Arts grant (1980-1981) and a Guggenheim Fellowship for poetry in 1984. In the early 1980’s, she cohosted a radio show, “The Poetry Connection,” with poet Austin Straus, who became her third husband.
Heavy Daughter Blues, a collection of poems and short stories, was published in 1987. The stories, centered on working-class people who are threatened or in crisis, are as taut as her poems. Coleman’s dramatic situations and use of urban slang create a powerful vision of the brutalizing effects of racism. A person’s struggle to survive on terms created by others is a major theme that connects the poems and short stories. “Lady of the Cans,” one of the most powerful of these stories, is about a woman who collects returnable cans to be able to feed her children. Coleman’s own frustration and anger at her situation as an African American woman surface frequently in her writing. She established a solid base in Los Angeles, where her dramatic poetry readings became popular events in the 1980’s. The publication of A War of Eyes, and Other Stories attracted wider critical attention than had her previous books. Although the collection teems...
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