- “Come. Glory in My Wonder’s Will”:An Interview with Wanda Coleman
LA poet and critic Wanda Coleman develops characters in her essays, fiction, and poetry whose lives illuminate the pervasive social inequalities of late capitalist society. Her concern with such issues stems from her experiences growing up and later working in the Watts neighborhood of southern LA. She raised her three children and held several low-paying jobs within Watts’s rapidly shifting demographic. She witnessed increasing levels of gang-related violence, culminating in the 1992 riots, and a steady influx of multicultural, working-class families who gradually displaced the once predominantly African American population. In fact, large numbers of blacks left as part of a migration to the suburbs and urban centers in the South (“Watts”), and Coleman’s poetry investigates the ways in which the city’s inhabitants register these shifts. Drawing on her triply marginalized status as a black single mother, she creates poetic situations in which speakers struggle to find babysitters for their children, work multiple jobs at once, wrestle with often neglectful partners for attention and compassion, and decry the country’s familiar inattention to basic civil rights.
Coleman’s residence in Watts testifies more generally to her commitment to exploring the particular geographies and ideologies that shape its terrain. In partial response to her work and that of other LA writers, Watts has experienced an upswing in the arts in recent years. Several museums, art galleries, and theater companies provide regular programming, particularly in the area surrounding the seventeen-piece Simon Rodia sculpture known as the Watts Towers. Coleman’s work has helped to establish LA as a newly prominent locus in which writers explore both experimental poetics and American regional identities in literature. Her poetry positions LA inhabitants’ experiences against the backdrop of specific urban landscapes that challenge the more traditional representations of Western literary geographies via vast desert landscapes. As a result, the city’s streets acquire a new literary significance. Her characters regularly experience abuse and deprivation, and they bear daily witness to the effects of violent crime and poverty littering their landscapes. Although fellow LA writer Charles Bukowski represented a strong influence in her earlier work, her fascination with the ugly beauty of the inner city originates in the same sources of inspiration that [End Page 195] his work does. She has repeatedly cited Bukowski’s work alongside that of Philomene Long, Michelle T. Clinton, and Sesshu Foster as substantial influences on her poetry’s regional aesthetic.
In concert with her work’s political commitments, Coleman explores the creative possibilities of formal experimentation and offers revisions to established literary traditions. This attention to craft, critique, and narrative distinguishes her among her peers as a writer whose work emerges from the intersections of politics and poetics. Never afraid of controversy, she gained notoriety and acclaim for daring to criticize such exemplars of American letters as Audre Lorde and Maya Angelou; she has also spoken out in several interviews about the entrenched disparities existing between those lucky enough to win support for their writing within academia and those who support themselves. Since Black Sparrow Press released her first chapbook, Art in the Court of the Blue Fag (1977), Coleman has published thirteen books of poetry, two collections of short stories, two collections of essays, a novel, a memoir, and many uncollected pieces. She has won several awards for her work, including a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant (1981), a Guggenheim Fellowship for poetry (1984), the Harriette Simpson Arnow Prize for fiction (1990), and the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets (1999). Her ninth book of poetry, Mercurochrome, was a finalist for the National Book Award for poetry in 2001. However, the scope and quality of her poetry and criticism go beyond these accolades. Her subjects contest familiar definitions of American identity, experience, and literary style, but she remains an innovator whom audiences recognize less readily than many other regional writers.
I conducted this interview with Wanda Coleman via email between 16 October 2012 and 9 May 2013. I first came to know her when she gave a reading at SUNY Buffalo State...