LOS ANGELES — A native of Watts who long was regarded as L.A.’s unofficial poet laureate, Wanda Coleman died Friday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles after a long illness, said her husband, poet Austin Straus. She was 67.
Born in Los Angeles on Nov. 13, 1946, Coleman was the daughter of George and Lewana Evans. Her father was an ex-boxer who ran a Central Avenue sign shop by day and mopped floors as a janitor by night. Her mother was a seamstress and housekeeper who sometimes worked for Hollywood stars such as Ronald Reagan. Both parents nurtured a love for books and music, which helped soothe the pain of prejudice, uncaring teachers and the cruelties of peers.
Married for more than 30 years to Straus, with whom she wrote a book of love poems coming out next year, she also is survived by two children, Tunisia Ordonez and Ian Grant; brothers George Evans and Marvin Evans; sister Sharon Evans; and three grandchildren.
During four decades as a force on the Los Angeles poetry scene, Coleman wrote more than 20 books, including novels and collections of short stories and essays.
She was most eloquent in poems, illuminating the ironies and despair in a poor black woman’s daily struggle for dignity but also writing tenderly and with humor about identity, tangled love, California winters and her working-class parents.
“She wrote not just about the black experience in Los Angeles but the whole configuration of Los Angeles in terms of its politics, its social life,” said Richard Modiano, executive director of Beyond Baroque, the Venice literary center where Coleman gave powerful readings. “I would call her a world-class poet. The range of her poetry and the voice she writes in is accessible to all sorts of people.”
Among Coleman’s best-known works was “Bathwater Wine” (1998), which brought her the Lenore Marshall National Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets in 1999. Her next volume, “Mercurochrome” (2001), was a finalist for the National Book Award, whose judges said, “Coleman’s poetry stings, stains and ultimately helps heal wounds” of racial injustice and gender inequality.
Opinionated and fiercely individualistic, Coleman was also a critic and former columnist for the Los Angeles Times, whose scornful 2002 review of celebrated author Maya Angelou’s “A Song Flung Up to Heaven” — one in a series of follow-ups to “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” — caused a tempest in the world of letters.
Coleman panned the memoir as “a sloppily written fake” conceived to satisfy commercial rather than aesthetic tastes. Her harsh attack on the iconic black writer drew national media coverage and led the black American owner of the specialty bookshop Esowon to ban Coleman from his store. But she remained unbowed.
“Others often use the word ‘uncompromising’ to describe my work,” she told Contemporary Poets in 2001. “I find that quite pleasing.”
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