22. ilb 07. - 17.09.2022

Wanda Coleman

Portrait Wanda Coleman
© Hartwig Klappert

Wanda Coleman was born in Watts in 1946. This Southern Californian community became known in 1965 for a six-day riot, triggered by an assault by white policemen on Marcus Frye, a black man. The »Watts Riots« prompted Coleman to turn to writing as her preferred means of artistic expression, and it politicised her. She joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Youth Council and temporarily became a member of a paramilitary troupe. As a single mother she made a living with help from welfare and a string of occasional jobs, among them as medical secretary, actress, and screenplay writer. In 1976 she was the first Afro-American to receive an Emmy for a script for daytime television. Coleman worked as a columnist for the »Los Angeles Times« and wrote for »LA Weekly«, »The Washington Post« and »The Nation«. Her short stories appeared in various publications, among them »American Voice«, »Callaloo« and »Fiction International«. Coleman is known above all for her authentic, passionate poetry, which is often accompanied by music at her influential readings and performances. In doing so she gives a voice to those human beings whose lives expose the American dream of the land of infinite possibilities as a lie. Her first collection of poems, »Mad Dog, Black Lady«, appeared in 1979, followed by the well-known volume of poetry: »Imagoes« (1981). Coleman herself describes her language as »composed of styles, sometimes waxing traditional, harking to the neoformalists; but most of my poems are written in a sometimes frenetic, sometimes lyrical free verse, dotted with literary, musical and cinematic allusions, accented with mutterings of German, Latin, Spanish, and Yiddish, and neologisms, and rife with various cants and jargons«. Following the death of her son she struck an elegiac and sardonic note in »Bathwater Wine« (1998). This poetry collection was awarded the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, while her next book, »Merchurochrome« (2001), was nominated for the National Book Award. Aspects of life and survival, violence, job search, contempt and assimilation also surface as themes in her essays, which can be as politically impetuous as sensitive, such as when she depicts more personal spheres. Her most recent published work is »The Riot Inside Me« (2005), which combines interviews, essays, critiques and memoirs.

Coleman’s performances are available as CDs and videos. Her work has been included in several anthologies, among them »Best American Poetry« (1988, 1996) and »The Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry«. She has received grants from the California Arts Council, the John P. Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Coleman is a member of various American writers’ associations such as the Academy of American Poets. Until her death on 22th November 2013 the author lived with her husband, the artist Austin Straus, in Los Angeles.

© international literature festival berlin