Arts & Entertainment

'LA Blueswoman' poet Coleman takes on life in SoCal in new book

Poet Wanda Coleman with her latest collection,
Poet Wanda Coleman with her latest collection, "The World Falls Away."
Poet Wanda Coleman with her latest collection,
Poet Wanda Coleman early in her writing career
Susan Carpendale
Poet Wanda Coleman with her latest collection,
FILE: Wanda Coleman with Arthur Miller at the 2001 National Book Awards at the Mariott Marquis in New York City.
Scott Gries/Getty Images

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For the last 40 years, Los Angeles-based poet Wanda Coleman has written about the L.A. she loves — and hates.

The University of Pittsburgh Press has just published her 19th book, looking at her life in Southern California.

The poet’s latest collection is titled “The World Falls Away.” "It’s a continuation of my odyssey as an African-American woman, writer, mother, now grandmother, and the city as I live it, the city as it’s defined me," Coleman says.

The 84 poems transport the reader across Southern California and through Coleman’s life. The poem “On Cleaning Up All These Ashes in the Sand” is a series of 16 couplets.

During Indian summer 1955, I decided to live life
sidewise – head pointing to Manhattan, heart in the West.

My father takes me to Disneyland. He tells me America
Rises from a sea of blood. Learn to cry while you laugh.

When I was a teenager, I was my mother’s keeper
I disappeared from the kitchen to make history.

Coleman was born in Watts; she grew up in South Central. In the 1960s and '70s she soaked up the literary scenes in L.A.'s Venice neighborhood, Watts and downtown L.A. at the Woman’s Building. She’s always defended her right not to be pigeonholed as an issue-driven, rhyming black poet.

"Just like we should live in any community or listen to any music, including country and western," Coleman says, "or have any option in terms of our hair; we can wear it straight, we can wear it kinky, we can braid it."

She worries about young African-Americans, she says, because popular media shackles them with negative definitions of blackness while the schools and adults closest to them fail to push back against those images. "I have a grandson who’s gone through the local public school; his image, he comes out of there, he wants to be anything but black."

Observations like that, translated into verse, earned Coleman the nickname “L.A. blueswoman.” She says her odyssey through many neighborhoods taught her survival skills and tattooed the city’s sounds into her memory. That’s what the poem “Noise (3)” is about.

the fan from Taiwan is sputtering. the boring
commercials for male enhancement and arthritis
are on. the idiot thugsta in the spanking convertible
corners curbside, speakers set on boom. space shuttle
Discovery cracks the atmosphere at Edwards.

Seven years ago she quit urban L.A. for the smog-free skies of the Antelope Valley. "It’s like Los Angeles when I was a kid," Coleman says. "I can still hear the trains on the horizon, so the sounds are the sounds of my youth."

Coleman says another element of life in Lancaster, openly expressed racial prejudice, also takes her back to 1950s L.A. She says the new book demonstrates what she’s learned at the feet of her mentors since then.

"I’ve taken a step forward and I’ve reached a plateau," Coleman says, "and now it’s time to descend."

Coleman’s not giving up writing; she says she can’t. In this new stretch of her travels, crafting a novel, non-fiction and a memoir will sustain her on her journey.

Several poets and musicians will join Coleman as she reads from her new volume of poetry Friday night at 7:30 p.m. at L.A.'s Beyond Baroque in Venice.