Wanda Coleman On the Healing Power of Women’s Writing

Feminaissance, a new anthology of women’s experimental essays, poetry and fiction, includes the work of renowned Los Angeles African American poet Wanda Coleman.  I had a chance to speak with her recently about her writing and her feminism.

MONTEI: What role do you think women’s writing has played in the feminist movement?

COLEMAN:  I remain a believer in the power of creative writing to change, heal and transform. Women’s writing will forever remain an important resource and wellspring. At its finest, it inspires, deepens and prolongs the ongoing dialogue around issues worldwide, often immeasurably affecting social change. These changes may seem incremental–we are still counting the first woman to do this or that—and they may come too late for the majority, but they have come and will continue to come despite occasional political reversals and social upheavals. If there had not been a Sylvia Plath, an Ann Petry, a Tillie Olsen and a Joan Didion, there would be no Wanda Coleman.

In your poem “Rape” [included in Feminaissance] you are unwavering in your raw depiction of a woman’s abuse.  It humanizes the dehumanized, which you’ve said is a specific aim of your writing.

There’s a devilish element in my selection of the crude language and graphic narrative of this poem. Some readers will have a visceral response; they will identify with the victim and actually feel raped. That was my intent. I also wanted to go against the prevailing platitudes about rape that often cause naïve women to get themselves killed—believing that trying to fight off a man who outweighs you by 50 to 200 pounds is the wisest tactic. As a young woman, I never thought twice about going blow-for-blow, toe-to-toe with a man, because I’m a big woman. But after enough busted lips and black eyes, I figured there must be more viable alternatives. Even if you’re exposed to STDs, it is still better “to live to fight another day.”

Do you set out to write pieces about sociopolitical issues?

I begin with the advice at the core of traditional writing courses: Write what you know. My content is usually inspired by the day-to-day events that go on around me as I move through time and space. They may happen to me, someone close to me, or I may observe them in close proximity. Often, a line or phrase I’ve saved triggers a poem in retrospection. Then I draw on the basic questions of journalism: who, what, where, when, why and how. Style is usually my last consideration as I reshape and revise my material—using the vernacular coupled with what I know of figurative language.

I think many feminists often feel overwhelmed by the deep-seeded systemic oppression we face.  Are there specific actions or avenues you encourage women to take to incite change?

Remember the phrase “support network?” Make the effort to develop or join one that addresses your needs. Such a group needn’t exclude enlightened men. Also, sustain and maintain—that is, mental and emotional health are as important as physical health. Take care with both; good health sustains activism. And don’t think about it—do it! This is something my father used to bark at me. Now I bark it at myself. The little girl inside me no longer shrinks. She understands that too much talk and the subsequent inaction it often generates may be disastrous when matters are urgent.

Above: Wanda Coleman. Photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/beyondbaroque/ / CC BY-SA 2.0

Comments

  1. This interview appeals to me on several levels: I am an artist, feminist, rape survivor, networker and disabled since middle age (by CFS/ME). I have been delighted to have recently found this blog and learn that back issues of MS are online. An original reader of MS Magazine, I had to stop when I became print disabled (by allergic asthma from print) many years ago.

    Just “made”/reached my 7 0th – 17 1/2 leap year birthday, still learning computer skills in my 2 years plus online. An artist since in my mid-20s, after having just survived “stranger” rape, I decided to go after my dream of being an artist because I realized that one could die at any time. It was the right decision.

    I added writing as part of networking when I became disabled in my 40s. I began the Disabled Artists’ Network in April, 1985: a pen-network of professional artists who are disabled. I have just hit number 283, the 25th “birthday” edition, of the “Report to Artists”, my monthly short, small circulation piece of writing to artists, that is on paper, includes art and feedback from artists. There are two points that I have learned as an artist and continuing as disabled: art is an itch that must be scratched, as can and that art is problem solving, as is disability.

    As a member of a large women’s art group in the 1970s, we fought for inclusion of women in the art world. Some of the nonsense I heard as a woman artist then, I am still hearing said about disabled artists now: “quality” is a major one – the condescending word implying that professional artists who are disabled are not at the level of nondisabled artists. I also retain the women artists’ movement concept of open shows, by artists of artists, limited only by space. I dislike jurying. Juried shows say more about the jurors than the artists and art work. (To be able to make my point, I entered many juried shows in the 1980s and won several awards. General art world shows and shows of women artists:shows open to all professional artists:local, national and international. I then only entered one,two or three shows of segregated, disabled artist shows- I convinced one of the shows to convert to an open show and pay for round trip postage for the art, including insurance, in 1986. I think “mainstreaming” is preferred in showing.)

    Networking has made my career “live”, as well as giving me a way to advocate: for awareness of women (and men; few men were interested in joining a pen-network run by a woman and our two men members have died in the last few years)with disabilities, such in re segregation by lack of wheelchair access, lack of opportunity for homebound artists… Artists writing about their art and lives has been wonderful for all of us, as in showing the art. (Am “out of steam” – CFS/ME)

  2. Thank you so much for your thoughts Sanda. It’s so wonderful to hear about the work you’re doing and the way you’ve translated your experiences into art-making. I think it’s so important that we diversify our ends in terms of Art, and I love what you say about juried shows being more about jurors than artists and art-making. In general, I think what we view as “taste” is arbitrarily constructed so shows like those you put on are crucial to a broader understanding of the purpose of Art and advocating awareness for those traditionally (also arbitrarily) marginalized. So again, thank you so much for sharing your journey!

  3. Thank you for your kind words, Amanda. And for spelling my name right. I need to correct a misimpression: I don’t put on any art shows.

  4. RE: THE WANDA COLEMAN POET FILM

    This is a personal invitation for you to screen online my new documentary GV21 THE WANDA COLEMAN PROJECT: Genius. (period)

    Here is the location:
    Location: https://vimeo.com/85043436

    Who is Wanda Coleman?
    Remembering Wanda Coleman
    November 23, 2013|By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic
    http://articles.latimes.com/2013/nov/23/entertainment/la-et-jc-remembering-wanda-coleman-20131123

    Total Running Time: 87 Minutes

    ENJOY!

    Here are two reviews and commentary from Wanda Coleman herself.

    THE BOB BRYAN EFFECT
    Commentary by Wanda Coleman, Poet, Writer & Journalist

    Given that I am from the African-American subculture where questions are used to intimidate, oppress and confuse, it is rare that I enjoy either conducting interviews, or being the subject of them.

    However, independent and direct in his manner, and radiating empathy (without being precious or solicitous), Bob Bryan interviews his subjects in an unforgettable manner.

    Cool yet excited, all in the same moment, he is asks frank, inoffensive questions of genuine interest. At times his questions are startling, because they force the interviewee to assess and summarize quickly, leaving very little opportunity for B.S.

    He does not arouse suspicion, and does not give off the impression that he has some hidden agenda other than the subject at hand. Because of his careful research, he asks questions that have not been asked 100 times before. (In my case, he asked about how I think! This seldom happens.)

    This does not mean that a Bob Bryan interview is easy. It is not, because, in my case, it demanded that I do some sharp and quick thinking on timeworn-and-worry swollen feet.

    Bob Bryan may not know it, but he asks consummate clean questions, questions that are free of the sociological garbage of assumption, implication and innuendo – questions that told me, in my case, that he was open to what I had to say, and that if he had any preconceptions, he was keeping them to himself. The Bob Bryan experience is lean, comfortable and professional, and one of the best I’ve ever had.
    —Wanda Coleman, Poet, Writer & Journalist

    ———————————————————————————————————————————–

    GV21 THE WANDA COLEMAN PROJECT: Genius. (period)
    Thoughts & Reflections by Poet Austin Straus, Wanda Coleman’s Husband

    Bob Bryan’s interview with Wanda Coleman is a classic example of a sensitive, intelligent, and superbly prepared Documentarian eliciting brilliant responses from a genius poet/writer/journalist who is forced by smart questions to think deeply, eloquently and movingly.

    Many moments in this film made me laugh or cry or just sit there in wonder at the depth and breadth of this woman’s mind. And I was her mate for nearly 33 years!

    This film is far and away the best of all the dozens of interviews Wanda ever did and I am profoundly greatful to Bob Bryan for giving me this treasure I can turn to whenever I feel like being reminded of my beloved’s fantastic mind.

    Bob, you have created a work of art, a masterpiece of the documentary interview.

    Thank you from my heart, Austin Straus=

    ———————————————————————————————————————————–

    Review of GV21 THE WANDA COLEMAN PROJECT: Genius. (period)
    by Michelle “Chelle” Angelini

    Normally, I am not one to watch or listen to interviews, but GV21 The Wanda Coleman Project: Genius. had me riveted to my seat
    in front of my computer.

    I could not tear myself away from Bob Bryan’s unique questions or Wanda Coleman’s inspiring answers.

    I was so drawn in by her wonderful infectious laughter, her philosophy of life, her poetry, and Wanda herself. In the process,
    I learned new words and ideas to inspire me as a writer.

    To describe Wanda Coleman – she was vivacious, beautiful, self-assured – without being vain, and a champion to people who needed one.
    And not just black women, but to people of all races and both genders. I learned from her and learned about myself through her.

    Her poetry drew laughter and tears from me. I learned many facts to apply to myself and to my writing.

    Most of what I learned is her enthusiasm for the craft of writing.
    Her poem “Mastectomy” (from her book Mercurochrome) helped me to understand more about the physical and emotional nature
    of the removal of women’s breasts and I was in tears by the end of her reading.

    What drew me to listen with different ears when she read her poems was the emotion she poured into it.
    She didn’t just read it; she didn’t perform it – she was the poem come alive.

    I would love to watch this interview again to pick up anything I missed, since it was filled with so much amazing information.

    GV21 is not just an interview – it is a lesson in life, love, the craft of writing, and one writer’s way of surviving and overcoming what life handed her.
    This documentary should be required viewing in every creative writing classroom for young and emerging poets who think they want to write poetry
    or anything else.

    GV21 THE WANDA COLEMAN PROJECT will help them understand that the craft of writing is not just taking a pen to paper and splashing words onto it,
    but pouring everything – physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual – into the words and ideas that make it onto the page.

    Because of Bob Bryan’s excellent interview with a poet who will be missed intensely, I have a new-found appreciation for the craft with which
    I have been blessed and skilled to have as a talent.

    Thank you Bob, straight from my heart.

    ~Michelle~ Chelle Angelini .

    http://www.graffitiverite.com/GV21_THE_WANDA_COLEMAN_PROJECT.htm

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