Thursday, May 14, 2009

Kongo Square Chat with Poet/Author Wanda Coleman

Well, here it is Y'all! I re-edited it the interview and I hope that it does Miss Coleman justice.

Jaycee: Hey Y'all, welcome to another installment of the Kongo Square Chat. I am honored to finally answer this month's burning question. Who in the Hell is Wanda Coleman?

Audience: Yeah! Yeah! Who in the hell is she?

Jaycee: Wanda Coleman, The LA Blueswoman, is a spoken word Artist, a novelist, the unofficial Poet Laurette of Los Angeles, A Watts Writers Workshop Veteran, a daytime drama writer, a poet and the 1st Afrikan American Female Editor of the Black Adult Men's Magazine "Players". That's who Wanda Coleman is and so much more. So with all that I would like to get into the interview.

Hello Miss Coleman!

Wanda Coleman: And hello Jaycee, and hello to all of you.

Jaycee: Miss Coleman, let me start by asking you, what writer or writers turned you on and hooked you to the idea of writing?

Wanda Coleman: I was raised in the post-WWII America of the 1950s, a time in our history when literature by African-Americans was still largely considered “contraband” and confiscated when brought onto the school grounds in Southern California . I learned about Dunbar, Langston, and James Weldon Johnson from my parents, their friends and family, and the folks at the AME Church.

Those were the days of Little Black Sambo and Little Eva—not to mention Dick, Jane and Spot. But what “hooked” me on writing, especially poetry, were the secular poems one first grade teacher passed out in class. I don’t remember the poems specifically except Joyce Kilmer’s Trees—just that they were copied on a mimeograph machine in bright purple ink and smelled strongly of toner.

When I read those poems, I understood them immediately and their process, which I thought was magical. It was a magic I wanted to be able to perform. That perception got me hooked!

Little Black Sambo

As for the writers themselves, those who turned me on changed with every subsequent decade as I matured, starting with Shakespeare at 10 years of age, and reading the King James Version. By the end of the 50s, it was Arthur C. Clarke, Edgar Allen Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Isaac Asimov, Herman Melville and the like—writers I encountered in the public and school libraries. At that time, there was very little African-American literature on the bookshelves, and most of that was mixed in with the literature's of Mexico and that written by American Indians, and found on one shelf in the anthropology section.

By the early 1970s it was Jeffers, Elliot, Plath, Neruda, Bukowski, Vallejo and anyone else I could scarf on—including Camus, Didion, Nathanael West and the French existentialists.
Jaycee: What about Poetry? Would you share a piece with our readers?

Wanda Coleman: I'd be glad to share.

American Sonnet (10)
Published in the book Hand Dance 1993by
Wanda Coleman
after Lowell
our mothers wrung hell and hardtack from row
and boll. fenced others'
gardens with bones of lovers. embarking
from Africa in chains
reluctant pilgrims stolen by Jehovah's light
planted here the bitter
seed of blight and here eternal torches mark
the shame of Moloch's mansions
built in slavery's name. our hungered eyes
do see/refuse the dark
illuminate the blood-soaked steps of each
historic gain. a yearning
yearning to avenge the raping of the womb
from which we spring

Wanda Coleman: Other than the above, the first poems I read by African-American authors were found in old magazines, like The Crisis. At age 13, Mrs. Clark, one of my English teachers, took me to my first poetry reading. She belonged to Our Authors Study Club. The dark-skinned gentleman poet was a fantastic reader, with a wonderfully Robeson-esque voice similar to my father’s. He read from his recently published book of poems and I watched the audience response carefully—how much everyone enjoyed his “tongue of men and angels.”
It was then, that I decided I wanted to do that too. Five to six years would pass before I was made aware of emerging young Black voices, like LeRoi Jones and Don L. Lee. James Baldwin was appearing on television as our most prominent spokesperson before Malcolm X and MLK were heard of, and the first poet I saw on TV was Nikki Giovanni when she confronted James Baldwin (perhaps on a magazine show called Omnibus) and more-or-less took him to task for not being Black enough.

Jaycee: Some poets have been able to enjoy great exposure through vehicles such as blogs and television shows such as the Lyric Cafe and Def Poetry Jam where do you think the art will go next?

Wanda Coleman: The art you find on television and in movies is largely the art of performance, and very little fine poetry (although they certainly go well together, and factor in music). Performance will always take care of itself, from the street to the tower. Poetry—the writing alone, especially when taken seriously—resides largely in today’s colleges and universities. It has become institutionalized out of necessity, to survive. Poetry does seem to be thriving on the blogs and online zines that have taken over the underground small press world that began when Ed Sanders started “Fuck You” magazine in 1962.
Most of that world has vanished. Where American poetry goes next, and book publishing, which includes fiction and the memoir, depends on the current economic and political changes our nation is undergoing. If President Obama’s governance is able to inspire a deeper appreciation for the fine arts and literature, and the nation subsequently recovers its financial equilibrium, then poetry should experience a renaissance that might dwarf the hip-hop/rap phenomena, yet include that generation of writers, and the writers they are influencing at this moment. When culture-driven shows that maintain high production values start appearing, and actually make money—that will be the day! As things stand now, I probably won’t live long enough to see it (hahaha).
Jaycee: Do you have a style or a particular form that you specialize in? Or do you just focus more on subject matter?

Wanda Coleman: My style is a style of styles. I “free-style” on the page. What is most Black about my poetry comes primarily from Black music (and the classical music of my youthful studies). I use my background as a budding musician (former child pianist and violinist, and vocalist) in my writing in ways many may not readily see or hear on the page. So you could say that composers and musicians have affected my poetry as well—from Franz Liszt to James Brown to John Coltrane. I’ve written an extensive essay on this which appears in my book “The Riot Inside Me!”.

I’ve always worked hard at striking a balance between form and content so that one complements and compliments the other simultaneously. Since I also have a graphic arts background, I enjoy “laying out” the poem as well. So at times my poetic bent may turn visual. As for subject matter, I am primarily focused on the subtleties of racism—the day-to-day aspects of it not readily visible or understood, or reluctantly discussed in public forums—stuff that often gets downright nasty and I get nasty with it. At this time in my life, having written and published more than eleven-hundred poems, I’m more interested in having fun when writing.

Jaycee: So tell me about your time at Players Magazine. What was that like and how did it feel to be the first Female editor of an Adult Men's Magazine? Did you try to steer the mag to more literary stuff ala early Playboy or did you just ride the flow with raw butt nekkatude?

Wanda Coleman: You are only the second person in 40 years to ever ask me about that period of my life. I viewed that as evidence that I had successfully divorced myself from that trauma. So far, I have had neither the will nor the time to write extensively about it beyond veiled references in a few poems, most of those unpublished.

What most folk failed to understand, was that I was a single divorced mother more concerned about supporting her family than anything else. Being editor of a Black men’s Playboy magazine (I had edited other men’s magazines before—primarily for gay and straight Caucasians) was a job to me—if an extraordinarily exciting one. At that time, there were no publications on the west coast that would hire me.
Note: A Choice of Weapons recieved a PDF file of the Premier Players issue featuring an interview with Dr. Huey P. Newton, a short story by Odie Hawkins, articles by Earl Ofari Hutchinson and great photos but sadly I could not translate the file to this medium. (sad face)

The porno world” was about the only one available. I was an aspiring poet and fiction writer in a world where you could count the number of successful Black authors on two toes and half a hand, if that. Too, I was unfortunately naïve about the money end of publishing, and, therefore, was exploited—to my everlasting embarrassment. I learned quick! Nevertheless, my attempts to combat this failed. And I could not find allies. (The extreme jealously I encountered made virtually everyone I thought intelligent an enemy.) And I was not the kind of morally ambiguous person who could parlay that strange situation into money when the opportunities arose—and there were plenty of them. As for the contents of the magazine, that was easy and fun until it became successful.
My first six months on the job were a dream. Because I was serious about poetry, and didn’t want my ideals about it tainted (also naïve), I refused to allow poetry in the magazine. I was openly and admittedly following formulae established by Playboy and Oui—right down to the articles and interviews. What my publishers knew was that I had learned the men’s magazine business from my father. As a child, I had helped him do everything from set cold type to airbrush nudes. I grew up doing layouts and paste-ups. My father and his partners (which included boxer Archie Moore) had been trying to market a Black Esquire magazine since the early 1950s, but Johnson Publications killed their distribution. I enjoyed my job at first because I was living my father’s dream. But once Madison Avenue went nuts about Players, and everyone else followed, things became nightmarish. It’s too much to tell here. I quit in the middle of a nervous breakdown. You have no idea how much hatred there is out there for the black female. In fact, many whites do not even consider us human. I was told many times that THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A BEAUTIFUL BLACK WOMAN! That was difficult to cope with when I encountered it—and I surely did. It should be noted though that I only edited the first six issues of Players. I was not given credit for the sixth issue as the Late Joe Nazel had taken over as the editor then.

JW: What writers were you able to publish?

Wanda Coleman: Frankly, other than Odie Hawkins, Michelle Kidd and Earl Ofari Hutchinson, I don’t recall all their names. Anyone was allowed to play, as long as they could tap into the Black vibe. Therefore, not all of my writers, photographers or illustrators and cartoonists were African-American. I worked with people—many of African-American origin or African origin, from all over the western world including Italians, the British and French. At that time dominant culture publications did not want black material—and that included photo sets of nude Black women. You have no idea how much hatred there is out there for the black female. In fact, many whites do not even consider us human. I was told many times that THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A BEAUTIFUL BLACK WOMAN! That was difficult to cope with when I encountered it—and I surely did.

Jaycee: Both Odie Hawkins and Earl Ofari Hutchinson went on to have long careers that endure to the present. WOW! What writers have you met during the Watts Writers Workshop period that we should know but don't and who should we know that we never will?
Wanda Coleman: Hmmm. I’m sorry. I could have answered your question in a snap a couple of decades ago, but it’s dim in memory now. The only person I’m still in touch with from that period is novelist Odie Hawkins. Two years ago, in order to answer your question intelligently, I would’ve gotten on the horn to ex-New Yorker Marilene Murphy, who did Telepoetics, and would’ve asked her to run the names past me. She was fascinated by WWW. But she’s passed on. Oh—Quincy Troupe was around during that time, and one of my old school mates—Alvin Saxon aka Ojinki (I hope I spelled that correctly). And there was a writer named Cleveland (I mention him in a poem), and Emory Evans—who is now a professor at one of the southern universities somewhere. Native American writer Simon Ortiz was hanging around Watts at that time.

Jaycee: What about the Panthers and the Freedom Movements, did that affect your writing? How so? If not then, then at what time did you notice that it was beginning to?
Wanda Coleman: My first marriage in 1964 was to a white Freedom Rider, and itinerant folk singer and Baptist minister, who used to baby-sit the children of Coretta and Martin Luther King, Jr. Jerry Coleman had come to L.A. with Vernon Jordon, Stokely Carmichael and Jesse Jackson to trouble shoot and raise funds for SNCC.
They where all young men in their early 20s at that time.

Remember, the civil rights movement did not come this far west; however, it had supporters such as “the friends of SNCC”—but they were underground organizations and people were extremely hush-hush about their activities. Being terribly brash, I was fairly vocal about wanting to “write for the revolution,” but it didn’t take long for me to see that that was a delusion. (I was in Frank Greenwood’s Black Playwrights workshop at the time, at age 18.)

I followed my husband, who was fond of passing for Black, through virtually every organization that existed at the time, starting with the NAACP Youth arm to Ron Karenga’s US, to the Black Muslims and the orthodox Muslims. We did not join the Black Panthers although he was fond of corner arguments with Bunchy Carter—who I knew from his days as leader of the Baby Slausons.) It was quite a trip, ending with Robaire’s Group and the Charles Manson Family (discussed in The Riot inside Me). Then—divorce.

Jaycee: Wow! That must have been very difficult.

Wanda Coleman: After that, I decided to put my energies into pursuing my original dream of being a creative writer.

Jaycee: How about the fact that Bud Schulberg was considered to be Red? Didn't that scare you?

Watts Writers Workshop Founder Budd Shulberg

Wanda Coleman: Hahaha. I didn’t know about it, and if I had, I wouldn’t have been scared. You’re talking to the kid who used to sit up in Dorothy Healy’s living room and argue the problems of race and politics. She was an activist in the communist party and headed the L.A. branch at one time. What bothered me about Bud Schulberg was his bloody ego and his Moses complex.
Jaycee: What other Watts/LA Women writers were writing at that time and since then what LA female writers would you say are from the same school of thought?
Wanda Coleman: As for my ego, I like to think that I’m unique. Circa 1967-69, when a militant group of young Black Writers organized the Black Writers Committee in order to fight the discriminatory practices of the Writers Guild west, I was among them. There was only one other woman in the group and I’ve long
Forgotten her name. We were sold out by our leadership and made members of the Guild through what was then called The Open Door Program.

I went through it as the 8th minority member of the guild. In order to make sure we minorities knew how to write, there were several workshops we were invited to attend. In one of those workshops, I met a fledgling writer named Octavia Butler. We would kind-of-be friends for a few years—then go our separate ways.

The Late Octavia Butler

At that time, Octavia was extremely angry at how women were being treated in the male-dominated world. It was the only time I ever knew her to express a strong emotion other than arrogance and curiosity. She later started a workshop with four women writers, two black, two white. Star Bohl had our meetings in her Long Beach home. So there was Etta Weeks (I hope I’ve got that spelled correctly), Octavia, me and Star. We lasted about eight months or so.

Being native born sets me apart thus far. In so far as I know, I’m the only native born literary writer of note from Los Angeles other than Arna Bontemps and he didn’t stay here. He went east. Oh—there’s Michael Harper, who’s a Southern Californian. But he left as well, and doesn’t claim the city. Back to the women—there’s Harriet Mullen, originally from Texas , but I wouldn’t say we’re of the same school of thought or even the same school of writing.

The Late Mrs. Bebe Moore-Campbell

Bebe Moore Campbell—deceased—and there are several other African-American women who write novels and popular fiction, like Campbell and Butler . No crime in making money.

Jaycee: Some Afrikan Women Writers have made a good living writing from place of ANGER! Specifically, Anger at the Black Man, is that a fair assessment? I would say that it's dressed like its Women’s empowerment but its not real empowerment at all just Men Bashing. Would that be a fair statement? "Loaded Question!" I know but let's have some fun.

Wanda Coleman: Well, I’ve certainly been accused of that. But usually, the person doing the accusing hasn’t read very much of my work. Look—I used to work as a bartender. And I’ve heard “the bruthas” talk their women talk as if I were invisible. So I’ve gotten it all—in stereo. As far as I’m concerned, my primary anger is at the forces of poverty that have kept the majority of my people disenfranchised and has murdered many of those I love--men and women. I am a wellspring of anger behind racist bullshit and will forever be. I’ve been spending my anger on these forces—you know, the ones that create the Madoffs—for over 40 years, now. And I intend to go out kicking and screaming about the Hitlers who have perpetrated this economic holocaust. Got it?

Jaycee: Is it wrong in your opinion for an artist to say hey I'm just an entertainer?

Wanda Coleman: No, not if that’s how a particular artist sees him- or herself. There’s nothing wrong with making money; how one makes it is nobody else’s business. Each artist or entertainer has to live with themselves according to their dreams and beliefs. In my case, I chose to walk away from the heavy duty money. I thought it was the right decision at the time, and I still think it was the right decision. But choosing poverty over wealth in this society, at times, feels like insanity—and I have had my share of second thoughts. Walking the straight American-style, if not the narrow, is a bitch and a half.

Jaycee: What's your opinion on formula writers? You know those writers who write novels using a cookie cutter formula? (Please use your own examples)
Wanda Coleman: In all fairness, I don’t read them. My time is short, so I pick my spots. I’ll scan a few pages while in a bookstore to see what’s what, or get a glimpse online. They usually have nothing to teach me. I quit finding predictable writing entertaining at the age of eleven. But formula writers have a readership that loves and supports them. They’re entitled to that. Too—writing for television is formula writing. And I’ve done that much myself. I’m not a snob. I’m a realist.

Jaycee: Would you say it was lazy writing to use a formula? Is that fair?

Wanda Coleman: I wouldn’t say it, because for excellent writers it is a challenge to renew the formula and make it interesting. The best “hack” writers do that. So, no, it isn’t fair to call their writing lazy unless it actually is—and there are plenty of criteria to determine that. Plus, sometimes it’s hard work even to be mediocre.

Jaycee: What about the so called ghettoizing of novels? Do you think a publisher has the right to say I’m gonna market and promote your novel like a street fiction love story, for instance?

Wanda Coleman: Do you mean ghetto-ization? Like the popularity of writers like Zane? Kicked off by Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim? Those kind of urban street novels that seem to get every chump’s blood racing? (Hahaha.)

Jaycee: Well, yeah kinda but I really mean is packaging and marketing a book by a Black Author as a "Black Book"!
Basically, I think the writer should determine the genre on his/her novel and NOT the publisher; however, I understand that the reconfiguration of the tax code circa 1978-1979 created the blockbuster syndrome and made the dollar bill the bottom line. That’s what’s wrong with publishing now, and why so many serious and excellent writers are suffering.
Publishers can no longer afford to sit around and nurse literary writers anymore, because their stacks of unsold books no longer appreciate in value. Everything that doesn’t sell is usually shredded instead of warehoused. The book is disappearing because the tax code has made it too expensive to keep around. Publishers used to be able to support poets and more effete fiction writers, nursing them along until they broke through to the mainstream and/or became famous. Then they could recoup their investment in those types of writers. Not so after the Republicans got finished revising the tax codes.

You know, I managed to live to see the day America would elect a Black man (of any origin) President. But I do not think I will live to see the day when a Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep) will make more money than a Tyler Perry (Medea’s Family Reunion).
Jaycee: Is it any different from what Pigeon, Sig let and Holloway House have done in the past?

Wanda Coleman: Holloway House was a glorified racket or exploitation house. Any editor or writer—regardless of who they were—who came through their doors was ripped off, used and discarded. Bently Morris (if that’s his real name), and his shills, had been running game for 20 years before I showed up with the idea for Players. For example, Iceberg Slim only made a flat fee of $750 on his ground-breaking novel Pimp. It made his publisher-pimps at Holloway over 6 million dollars. Compared to the original Holloway House, Pigeon and Sig are angels, and at least their writers can afford new wardrobes, the snazziest shorts (rides), and an entourage.

Jaycee: What's your favorite piece or novel? Which one is your favorite and maybe it didn't sell as well? Which one is your least favorite but it sold better than you ever thought? Is there a such thing?

Wanda Coleman: No such thing. My favorite books, of 19, are Heavy Daughter Blues: Poems & Stories, The Riot Inside Me: More Trials and Tremors, and my new collection of short stories Jazz and Twelve O’clock Tales (my favorite tales are “Butterfly Meat” and “Jazz at Twelve”).

That’s as close as I can come to picking favorites, because what I like of my own work changes over time and circumstances. I enjoy rereading sections of my tragic-comic novel Mambo Hips and Make Believe. I think some of my stories will absolutely stand the tests of time—like “Back City Transit by Day” which is from Jazz and Twelve and currently appears in Ishmael Reed’s POW WOW anthology, or “Eyes and Teeth” (from A War of Eyes and Other Stories). I’m a literary writer outside the mainstream. I want the reader to be “affected by” my writing, not necessarily “like” my writing in the usual fashion. My books sell better in academe and among serious readers. Sometimes feeling uncomfortable is the proper response to my work.

Jaycee: Miss Coleman, once again, I am honored to have been able to share some time with you. A Choice of Weapons and our readers thank you as well.

Wanda Coleman: And Thank You for allowing me to share.

Jaycee: Well, folks I hope that you enjoyed this installment of the Kongo Square Chat. Be sure to peep all the previous installments as well.

BE Prayerful! BE Mindful!BE Careful!


Miss.Stefanie said...

I always learn from you.

Bob said...

Great interview!