Editor’s note: Wanda Coleman is one of the most admired poets in modern Los Angeles history. Mike Sonksen interviewed Coleman twice before her death in 2013, and read work alongside her multiple times. “She was real cool with me when I was a little scrub, when I was barely doing poetry around L.A.,” Sonksen tells me. The image above is a signed copy of Coleman’s book “American Sonnets,” dedicated to Sonksen in 2004. He wrote portions of the following poem inside the Ascot Branch library. — D.H.
One for Wanda
In Memory of Wanda Coleman (1946-2013)
Hey Wanda! One of the last moves Austin made before he split the planet:
make sure the Ascot Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library
was dedicated to you. Remember the library you ran to when you
needed a place to escape so long ago. Dozens of your books are now
on the shelf below a framed copy of your Los Angeles Times Obituary.
A dozen feet from your section, four tables are set aside as the student zone
for homework help. Black and brown teens huddle in a circle
completing worksheets while a young woman explains equations.
A seventh-grade boy chases his younger brother while their mother
reads a magazine. In 1957, your chased your dream
to be a published author sitting in these chairs.
The librarian can no longer admonish you for staying late. Your dreamwalks
down Main across San Pedro through Florence-Firestone set off a landslide
of poems bearing witness to African Sleeping Sickness. Apply the Mercurochrome,
a young girl sleeps in her mother’s arms, the California condor are gone
but your books remain stacked on the west wall. Hear the footfalls
from children down the hall.
You were A Native in a Strange Land; you drank a lifetime of Bathwater Wine.
Morning after morning, there wasn’t a pill you didn’t swallow,
you were in touch beyond clichés, erasing all the names of the betrayers.
Your crowning glory on the page channeling blues beyond Broadway:
A chorus of cosmic American Sonnets broadcasting honest-truth.
You asked who will sing your praisesong, I assure you, we are many
Your resurrection reverberates through the firmament.
We will never forget you Wanda. Ms. Coleman, you
put our city on the map; you made history, without you
this city, is a pale rude fiction.
I drove to Florence & Main to say your name.
After visiting your library, I cruised down
San Pedro past Fremont High School.
You said it’s insanity writing poetry
in Los Angeles, yes this is true, but something
significant has happened here, you liberated
a generation of bards sending us down boulevards & avenues
to locate the landscape vernacular.
Poetry alone cannot contain your gravitas.
Driving down Avalon up to 76th Street near
your childhood home, I feel the mercury burning this late
afternoon. I remember your flame-thrower
cocktail of kindness, your uncompromising vision.
Without. You. This city. Is pale. Rude. Fiction.
Born in Watts in 1946, Wanda Coleman is one of the greatest poets in the history of Los Angeles. She published more than 1,000 poems in 20 books of poetry, fiction, and journalism over forty-plus years. Austin mentioned in the first stanza was her longtime husband Austin Strauss, who died in the summer of 2017. Shortly before he passed, he was able to convince the Los Angeles Public Library at Florence & Main to be dedicated to Coleman because she spent a lot of time there in her youth in the 1950s. The italics in the poem are titles of some of Coleman’s books or lines from her poetry.