On Saturday (and Sunday too, actually), the Los Angeles Poetry community celebrated the life and work of Wanda Coleman--a poet large of life, of craft (eclectic, authentic, bold), of hair, of head (she was among our most brilliant cultural thinkers), and of heart. And the event felt large--ample and sprawling, generous and sunny, gorgeous, glamorous and gritty as Wanda's words, her friendship---the best our Los Angeles poetry community has to offer.
Co-sponsored by the Poetry Society of America and Red Hen Press, the Saturday event launched a weekend of remembrance. First, we sighed and were sliced through by the reading and then original poem of Douglas Kearney, whose tour-de-force "answer" to a letter of Wanda's tapped into her spirit, then turned West in the final few stanzas, on the hinge of a palm tree trying unsuccessfully to hold without arms, and landing on the lady herself, so ours, so gone, and unholdable. Then we shivered along with Terrence Hayes, an acolyte and Coleman fan, his story about meeting Wanda. We rode along the spine of Wanda's "I Live for my Car," one of the world's best car poems through a delicious reading by our own Suzanne Lummis. Jack and Adelle Foley gave a beautiful two-voice tribute that clearly had years of friendship behind it. Laurel Ann Bogan rocked a poem about a woman in a red hat, while wearing quite glamorously...a red hat. Ron Koertge made me smile and never want to get out of bed. Brendan Constantine lent voice and mystery to an LA Noir poem of Wanda's--funny and dark. Stephen Kessler spoke as only a thinker, editor, writing friend can..about her laser-sharp mind, her canny, committed friendship. Michael Datcher, Sesshu Foster, Charles Harper Webb.... Louise Steinman. Musical accompaniment by David Ornette Cherry. Wanda Coleman's collaborator and life-co-conspirator, Austin Strauss gave us a broadside sketch of the many Wanda's, is own, and in love and fire, brought the event home. And Kate Gale (who opened the event). What can I say about Kate Gale?
Watched the transcendent Cecilia Woloch do what she always does--show up with that authenticity and soul--and I remembered a long ago dinner--just after Wanda had published Bathwater Wine, her Lenore Marshall winning book--when she and Marilyn Hacker had read sonnets and other poems in the wonderful black-box reading venue at Beyond Baroque, and after, we'd all piled into two or three cars, and headed out for plantains and to talk science fiction, poetry, poverty, gaming, and life with Cecilia and Marilyn and Wanda and Fred Dewey, and Wanda's husband, Austin Strauss and her son, Ian and his partner, a woman whose name I'm sorry I don't remember. We laughed a lot. The evening was high in spirits and warm, so warm. And I could see why David Ulin would later call Wanda "the conscience of the LA literary scene." And I was new to Los Angeles then. And I thought, if this is my world, my new old world, I'm happy to be in it.
Billl Mohr, another LA treasure, is writing about Wanda in this blog. And here's a description of Sunday's four-hour memorial which rose to the rafters with poetry.
There's more--much more--to read about Wanda. But I want to leave you with two or three notes. First, there were several tears this weekend, but among the strongest for me, Robin Coste Lewis spoke with composure and passion about what it meant to know while she was a poet, growing up in Compton, this other woman poet--the only other one to this day--raised so near to where she was coming up. She brought us all this reminder about the hush-quiet also in Wanda's work. Oh, hurry. I needed this poem. And here it is:
from Wanda Coleman's "Dreamwalk"
fear drives you to tears and out of the
house during arguments with Mama for long walks
on sweltering summer eves. the moths
come, collect on grainy stucco porches, are
hosed away at sunrise. you stare at
shaded windows, struggle to decipher the lives inside.
who are they? do they you see you out here watching?
won't some sympathetic someone invite you in
for tea? cars are being washed and turtle-waxed by
loving hands, preteeners play dodgeball on
vacant lots. the librarian admonishes you for staying
so late and not having brought your card. palms nod
against the neon rainbow sky. the moths come. and
the starlings, and the dragonflies. you know
something important is going to happen. to you.
hurry, you whisper. please hurry
In a few days, LA ALOUD at the downtown Central Los Angeles Public Library will be posting a video of Saturday's cross-national event. So well choreagraphed. So personal. A tight 90 minutes of yaw and yes. Please watch! It was a beautiful ache.
Poets: thank you those who came to Los Angeles for this weekend, reminding us of the reach of Wanda's impact, and everyone else, these incredible Angelenos, thank you for being Los Angeles with me.