"They'll starve you till your cunt rusts,
till your children betray you to the Gestapo,
till your lover steals cash from your purse."
-excerpt from "They Will Starve You"
The literati doesn't take kindly to four-letter words. The cannon of The Greats is stuffed with polite socialites, not poet-critic-provacateurs like Los Angeles' Wanda Coleman. Yet it's hard to imagine a Tipper Gore-approved couplet that would have perfectly captured the collision of civil rights and feminism in the 1970s as when Coleman claimed, "they'll starve you till your cunt rusts."
For Coleman, whose language is largely affected by "Ghettoese," the lingua franca of Black America which fascinates her most, no aspect of language is off-limits, social decorum be damned. Her willingness to go there isn't without its consequences.
"[That line] got my documentary knocked off of KPBS. They would never air it," she says from her Los Angeles home. "At that point, feminism was in full flower. I wanted the Germanic "T' sound to go with "rust.'
"Quite a memorable phrase!" she exclaims, laughing with a controlled hysteria.
Coleman, National Book Award nominee, college professor and former book critic for the Los Angeles Times, is the sort who will end an essay with the down-home colloquialism of "Nigger, please!" She has titled portions of her books "Metaphysically Niggerish." None of her frank phrases are penned for shock factor, she says. It's a matter of authenticity.
"[My profanity] isn't gratuitous. Mine is functional," she says. "I'm very careful about my words and when I use them. I feel that that I should be able to tap into anything literary in the Western world-the African or the American. If I'm going to be authentic in the moment, then I have to go with what's authentic in terms of the language. I'm not just saying these words to outrage someone or for the purpose of jerking the knee."
Through her now 30-something years of professional writing, Coleman has been called a "renegade," "outsider," even "outlaw." Though she understands the impetus behind political correctness, she believes that such cautious expression too often hurts those it's trying to protect. She prefers a more direct approach.
"Frankness seems to be a part of my nature," she says. "The world has always said "no' to me. I live in a society that's never been kind. I've never been spared any indignity, so that's shaped my psyche. Why should I spare it back? Who am I protecting? From what?"
Most famously, Coleman didn't spare the darling of African-American literature last year. When assigned to review Maya Angelou's newest book, A Song Flung Up to Heaven, Coleman eloquently dissented from the seemingly universal praise of Angelou's work:
In writing that is bad to God-awful, Song is a tell-all that tells nothing in empty phrases and sweeping generalities. Dead metaphors (sobbing embrace, my heart fell in my chest) and clumsy similes (like the sound of buffaloes running into each other at rutting time) are indulged. Twice-told crises (being molested, her son's auto accident) are milked for residual drama. Extravagant statements come without explication and schmooze substitutes for action-there is too much coulda shoulda woulda. Unfortunately, the Maya Angelou of A Song Flung Up to Heaven seems small and inauthentic, without ideas, wisdom or vision. Something is being flung up to heaven all right, but it isn't a song.
The ensuing backlash against Coleman was significant, both for what it said about Americans' defensiveness of its cultural icons and the close-mindedness of organizations who claim to support independent literature (and by extension, independent thought). Hate mail flooded the L.A. Times offices. Esowon Books-a largely African-American bookstore in South Central which Coleman had patronized for some time-banned her from reading at the store (she was scheduled to read for the release of anthology that included her work).
"I would have hoped it would open up more dialogue and to actually look at African American literature-what shaped it, how you assess it, how it functions," Coleman says of her review, adding with a hearty laugh: "Instead, I got a lot of upchuck from the toilet bowl. A lot of brown stuff I couldn't use.
"There is a lot of bogus art that is being lauded as great art. And when we can't trust our critics to tell us what is quality-that's what people go to the critics for. So I was doing my job."
A product of the Los Angeles public school system in the '50s and '60s, which she describes as a "nightmare" of "systemic racism," Coleman was largely auto-didactic. Her poetry confronts the still-haunting specter of racism and its effects, sparing no one, black or white, male or female.
For some listeners, it's too much. At a reading in Buffalo, N.Y., the largely black audience walked out on Coleman because, as she says, they had expected some "nice black lady poetry."
"There's kind of a black sensibility that's preferable-the sensibility that offers uplift," she says. "Whether that's real uplift or pseudo-uplift doesn't make much difference, usually. To me, I find that kind of literature of no value. It's the same as everyone wanting to go to the movies and see a happy ending. When they just want a gender filler, they just assume because I'm black and I'm female that I write a certain kind of way. So they're not expecting Wanda Coleman to show up. They're expecting an imitation Maya Angelou.... And then when I show up, and they're not prepared for what I have to say or how I have to say it, things turn ugly.
"I look like I might be a bureaucrat in the post office-the nice black lady who takes your mail," she laughs. "Then I get up onstage and come alive."
Wanda Coleman will read at the City of San Diego Library (820 E St., Downtown) on Oct. 1. 619-236-5800.