Wanda Coleman, R.I.P.

A mentor, teacher, friend, fellow poet and revolutionary, Wanda Coleman, left us this past Friday. Known as the unofficial poet laureate of the city, she had more than twenty poetry collections and fiction works, mostly from Black Sparrow Books, including one nominated for a National Book Award. She was 67. I’ve known Wanda since the late 1970s when I began hanging around the Los Angeles poetry scene that included Beyond Baroque, but also the bars and clubs of downtown L.A. and places like Self Help Graphics in East Los Angeles. I was part of the Los Angeles Latino Writers Association, working with poets, writers and artists such as Manazar Gamboa, Barbara Carrasco, Robert Rodriguez, Helena Viramontes, Victor Valle, Guillermo Bejarano, Mary Helen Ponce, and others. In 1982, I became LALWA’s director and editor of its literary & art magazine, ChismeArte (Gossip Art) for about a year, forced to leave this position when the funding ran out. But that experience—and meeting people like Wanda Coleman—never left me. Ideas, images, vignettes, and thoughts I had written since a troubled teenager were now becoming poems, stories, memory pieces. When I first heard Wanda read, she woke up and helped heightened that small voice I had at the time. Her voice was strong, angry, clever, image-laden, deep. A Watts woman like I was a Watts man (my first homes in L.A. were in the Watts area when my family moved there from Mexico when I was two years old). I left L.A. for Chicago in 1985 and in a few years got enmeshed in the thriving poetry scene of the Windy City, which included the birth of Poetry Slams. Wanda’s voice stayed with me. I wanted to embody that source of pain, betrayal, and abandonment that Wanda turned into powerful verses, songs, poems beyond borders. I helped create the renowned literary arts center, the Guild Complex, lead by friend and fellow poet Michael Warr. I also started Tia Chucha Press in Chicago twenty-five years ago, a press that continues to publish quality cross-cultural poetry collections. And Wanda’s influence, stance and bravery marked my every turn. When I returned to Los Angeles in 2000, and soon after helped create Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore in the San Fernando Valley, Wanda was an early supporter. She read at our stage and later she was part of our Ford Amphitheater “Celebrating Community” extravaganzas. When Wanda read that time, she had her brother Marvin playing piano—and people were riveted to the words, the music, that voice. I will miss her dearly. Wanda kept the fires burning. She was real before anyone talked about being real. Rest in peace, my sister. c/s

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