Language Is Fluid

"You have to remember I'm in the South," says poet Wanda Coleman, "Southern California. And basically, things here are segregated, okay? I mean we all pretend that it isn't, but basically it is...You can count the blacks who participate actively in the Los Angeles literary scene on two hands and maybe a coupla toes."

Rooted in the "Black Angeles" of Watts and South Central, Coleman has been a regular at local scrawl haunts for years, describing herself as "the Sidney Poitier of the L.A. poetry scene." The bicoastal resurgence of spoken-word poetry has been a boon for the writer-performer, whose honey-vinegar voice and incisive verse is enjoying a hard-won artistic cache with a new audience.

But Coleman scoffs at the bandwagoning of Rolling Stone, which recently labeled her a "rock poet." She recalls that in 1985 she and Exene Cervenka (of punk band X fame) gave a five-hour interview to the Stone after releasing their spoken-word recording Twin Sisters. When the article appeared, neither Coleman nor the recording got a mention. Coleman compares it to what she sees as a current political attempt to silence non-white voices. "At the root," she says, "it's racism... Proposition 187, 'English Only,' it's all part of the larger movement against the humanities, to keep people in the dark."

Though the academic arena remains a bastion of multiculturalism, Coleman has never been its darling. Having once she has attributed her marginalization to the rawness of her work, she now suggests that "being in the West is being on the margins, not being able to hobnob with the East Coast establishment, you know, unless I had a lot of money, and I ain't got no money." And when asked to comment on pop academician bell hooks's treatment of white co-optation of black culture, Coleman breaks in, "bell hooks and I don't get along, okay? I think she's a phony bitch who hasn't got an original thought in her head. I hate, loathe, and detest her." Whew.

So one might be surprised to learn that Coleman is an academic herself these days, in her second year as the Loyola Marymount University Fletcher Jones Endowed Chair of Literature and Writing. This, too, was a long time coming. After publishing her first poems in 1972, Coleman endured numerous rejections by Black Sparrow Press editor John Martin, who saw talent but not finished product in her submissions. During what she calls the "unkind" years between Nixon and Bush, "vitamin M" was an elusive pill, and she was barely supporting herself and her three children on scant secretarial wages, picking up writing gigs where she could (including one for Days of Our Lives, which netted her an Emmy). As she looks back, seven books, an NEA grant, and a Guggenheim Fellowship later, Coleman boasts inclusion in Best American Poetry 1988, the Norton Anthology of Experimental Poetry, Live at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, as well as regularly published essays.

But of all her skills, her live readings inspire the most superlatives. On Harvey Kupernick's compilation of women's spoken-word performances, DisClosure, Coleman announces the poem "Rape" with grinding rust in her tone, allows an edgy silence, then begins seven minutes of conjuring the terror of a woman's violation at the hands of two men. In one incantatory section, the woman's voice answers the probes of a hissing doctor, recounting for him exactly how the men had sex with her, "gently," while she gratified their requests for verbal tendresse, silently fearing they would eventually kill her. The poem's vantage shifts to nearly immediate post-rape dialogue between the woman and her lover, who reacts to her ordeal with rage ("why did you not die fighting?") and who finally also forces himself on her, "saddle hard and coming torrents" in a vicious gesture of reclaiming.

Coleman's voice soothes, lilts and seethes from line to line, juicing the controversial most out of the erotic passages. As with the prostitutes and bruised, broken bodies who populate much of her poetic space, the rape victim is metaphorically the collective "black woman," still enduring the residuals of slavery, a being whom society can only view in sexual terms--strong pussy that feeds on exploitation. When the poem's rapists leave their victim, they kiss her goodbye, assuming she's enjoyed their double fuck.

Though she often explores the complex tensions between black men and black women, Coleman extols the realpolitik of the Million Man March: "In the history of the world, when you conquer a people, the first thing you do is you go on and kill all the men, or you neutralize all the men or you spay all the men or you dehumanize all the men--and then, women and children are child's play--and I'm sorry, but the feminist movement hasn't changed that actuality.... If you don't have a strong army of men, you are defeated, so, as far as I'm concerned, the only army that we've got in this country is the Fruit of Islam, and that's the cold reality."

Coleman is weary of the assumption that race and class are separate issues. She describes her own upbringing as "aspiring to middle class" (both her father and mother nursed literary dreams while working as, respectively, a small-time entrepreneur and a Hollywood domestic), and is straight-up about the hardcore economics of art. Not many artists speak on their day jobs as literally as Coleman, who bares the details of subsistence labor in poems like "Drone": "i am a clerk/i am a medical billing clerk/ i sit here and type/ the same type of things all day long." The frustrated poet views (and is unavoidably complicit in) the processing of "black, latin and poor" patients, who come into the clinic to "quietly expire." "i come in here each morning/and bill the government for the people by the people..."

Coleman's real-life experience contributes to her refreshingly blunt pedagogy. Responding to the conservative idea of "cultural literacy," Coleman observes, "language is fluid, and it's going to do what it wants to do anyway. So it virtually doesn't matter what people say. What the pop culture does to the language is out of control, and anybody who thinks they can control the ebb and flow of language is an idiot." And as far as who gets to be called a "poet," Coleman says, "the more the merrier." She elaborates, "Poetry feeds things inside of people, and some people need to be uplifted, and some people go to poetry to be reaffirmed, so as far as that's concerned, there can be as many different kinds of poetry as there are needs to be filled." CP

Wanda Coleman reads as part of the Loft's Mentors Series at Hamline University's Sundin Hall on Friday at 8 p.m. She will give a talk titled "Cultural Activism and the Writer" at U of M's Coffman Memorial Union Saturday at 11 a.m. Call 379-8999 for more information.

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