- Letters to E. Ethelbert Miller
It was Ahmos Zu-Bolton who introduced me to the work of Wanda Coleman. This was back in the early 1970s, when Ahmos and I were running “poetry” back and forth across the District lines. Ahmos had come to Washington from a number of places, many as small as DeRidder, Louisiana. He was editing a publication called HooDoo and wearing the same coveralls one would associate with a farmer or maybe a member of SNCC. What I immediately liked about Ahmos was his love for poetry. From his tongue, he dropped names I never heard of; he could have been talking about catfish or trees growing along the Mississippi for all I knew.
When Ahmos mentioned the name of Wanda Coleman, he would get the kind of look in his eyes that wives saw when their husbands came home late on Saturday nights. It was obvious that Zu-Bolton thought this woman was special. But how special? What kind of work was she writing? I respected Ahmos’ taste in words because he had first opened that bottle from which I sipped the work of Lorenzo Thomas and Yusef Komunyakaa.
Unfortunately, I would have to wait almost ten years before I could actually meet Wanda Coleman. Our letters and correspondence began in 1984. I invited her to read on my Ascension Series. I held the program on the campus of Howard, hoping to attract students to this West Coast woman. That’s how I think of Wanda. She is a writer who can claim her space the way SunRa saw himself connected to planets such as Jupiter and Saturn. I sometimes think of Wanda claiming all of Los Angeles and moving outwards to seize the imagination of what is left of the rest of America.
It’s difficult to define who Wanda Coleman is. I think her letters reveal her genius, anger, humor, hurt, pain, ego, and blackness. I think it would be incorrect to refer to her as a writer who has been overlooked. She has produced too many books for our eyes. Her letters offer insight into how she sees the world.
Literary letters are footprints. They leave an impression, a path down a road where one can sit under a tree, waiting for a person’s return. I think of Wanda Coleman “returning” each time I read these letters. I see her sitting in my house eating a good meal prepared by my wife. It is evening and our laughter sits at the table, holding her head high. “Girl . . . you know you can’t say that. What will people think?” Wanda has that look which reminds me that Ahmos was “crazy” not to warn me. “HooDoo, Baby.” “HooDoo.”
E. Ethelbert Miller
January 4, 1998
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July 28, 1984
When I wrote you earlier about my visit to the East Coast, I had no idea fate was about to TKO me and 86 my aces. It is painful but necessary to cop to a sob story. There is the sudden horrible reality of terminal illness in my immediate family circle. I will spare you the gory d . . . just to say I am still numb somewhere inside and have not allowed my emotions to get loose at my mind, yet. (Tearing up a very anguished missive I’d written to you earlier while in the initial shock.)
I cannot tell you how strange a state of mind I’m in. As you will be reading in the papers this AM, a man went berserk in the affluent west L.A. college town of Westwood, near UCLA, killed (at this point) one person and damaged many others, 40-to-60, by driving his car down the sidewalk in the late evening heat. I might have been among the victims, as would my lover, my daughter and my son had not my daughter been so slow to dress last night. We went out to obtain the last available copy of a book of poetry by an acquaintance. The bookstore was just across the street from where the mayhem took place. This in the wake of the San Jose Shakey...