On the Great Wanda Coleman and Holding Each Other More Carefully

This seemed like a good day to write a Thanksgiving post. After all, I have a lot to be thankful for this year, both as a writer and as a person. It has been, in many ways, a standout year.

But I’d be remiss if I just catalogued the great things that have happened to and for me without making note of a huge loss to the poetry world; this weekend, Wanda Coleman, one of our greats, passed away. 

I first got to know Wanda Coleman’s works when I was a teenager. Back then, I read whatever anthologies of poetry I could get my hands on. I had no favorite poets or a particular aesthetic to speak of, but I read everything that came in front of me. Some poems and poets made impressions, and some didn’t in my indiscriminate devouring of poems, but Wanda Coleman and her work stuck with me throughout my readerly growing-up process.  I continued to read her work throughout the years, and came to understand that she was a giant in contemporary poetry.

Years later, I’d have the opportunity to work with Wanda Coleman when I began editing The Los Angeles Review; the first issue of LAR on which I worked, Volume 6, was dedicated to Ms. Coleman. We editors had the chance to publish her work, interview her, reread her works, and build a volume of creative writing around the themes and issues of her own poetry. The entire time we worked on the issue, I was deeply intimidated by our dedicatee. It was Wanda Coleman, after all–a living legend! I was no less intimidated when I finally had the chance to meet Ms. Coleman in person at an event to benefit Red Hen Press. I and my fellow LAR editors sat with her and her husband Austin over brunch and experienced her as not only a regal, electrifying poet, but also as a kind, generous individual, clearly in love with her husband and passionate about her work.

Over the years, I would continue to run into Ms. Coleman at these events, and the last time I saw her, she and Austin read a performance piece called “Red.” Given the power and clarity in her voice as she sang over his words, I would never have guessed that she was battling respiratory illness that would later take her life.

After hearing the sad news that Wanda Coleman had passed away, I learned that her friends had been collecting money to help her with medical expenses. I can’t speak for everyone in the poetry world, but I and at least a good many others hadn’t known that this important member of our American poetry community was ill, much less that she needed help paying for her care.

How can that happen, I wonder? In a community in which we hear about every petty squabble between poets, every bit of gossip about other writers, and every cranky response to someone else’s success, how do we–okay, let me speak for myself–how do I–not know about something as important as a call to help someone who so deserves to have the community rally for her?

Let’s, as a community of writers and readers, hold each other more carefully.

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