Wanda Coleman’s productivity rivals that of Yusef Komunyakaa, with fifteen books published to date. Her career is singular among the poets of this generation in that she has accomplished it without a college education and despite innumerable financial and personal hardships. Coleman’s body of work from 1977 to today tells the tale of a black woman becoming an accomplished poet without appreciable societal, institutional, or peer support. Coleman’s forthright, sometimes abrasive personality has cost her, as reactions to her highly negative review of Maya Angelou’s A Song Flung Up to Heaven for the Los Angeles Times Book Review in 2002 (on April 14) attest. Yet her work since the 1990s has demonstrated a mastery and sophistication that demands our attention and respect: Mercurochrome, the bronze medal finalist for the 2001 National Book Award, shows the poet she has made herself become.
Coleman was born in 1946 in the Watts community of Los Angeles. Her childhood was intellectually rich in the literature and ideas of the Western tradition as it was known in the 1950s, but her parents struggled financially and experienced many racist incidents. Due to her upbringing, Coleman feels very connected to Los Angeles, and today she is sometimes called Los Angeles’s poet laureate. A precocious reader, she began writing during her teenage years growing up in South Central, but was unable to pursue a college education. She knew she would be a writer and took a few college courses. She joined white American deep image poet Diane Wakoski’s poetry workshop in 1971. An early marriage to civil rights worker Charlie Jerome Coleman in 1964, when she was eighteen, produced two children: Anthony, in 1965, who died of complications of HIV in 1997, and Luanda, in 1967. The couple lived hand to mouth, scraping by with intermittent jobs and welfare, and struggling for survival. They divorced in 1971. Coleman married her second husband, Stephen Grant, in 1976. Her marriage with Grant ended in 1980, after the birth of her third child, Ian, in 1979. She married her third husband, poet-artist Austin Straus, in