I have taught her poetry to my students for nearly all of my career. One of my oldest homemade writing exercises asks poets to devise their own American sonnet after looking at Wanda’s American sonnets. Eventually, I tried the exercise myself. I sent my first attempt, a poem entitled ‘American Sonnet for Wanda C’ (from How to Be Drawn, 2015), to Wanda a year or so before her death in 2013. I was imitating Wanda for years before meeting her. ‘The Things No One Knows Blues’, in Hip Logic, my second collection, is a direct nod to her poem ‘Things No One Knows’, in Bathwater Wine. Yes, she let her guard down when she saw I was a fan. We became friends. I would never say close friends. But we were close poets. Our letters and exchanges concerned nothing but poetry. Her passion for poetry made her sharp, warm, honest. Naturally, I loved her.
Wanda Coleman was a great poet, a real in-the-flesh, flesh-eating poet who also happened to be a real black woman. Amid a life of single motherhood, multiple marriages, and multiple jobs that included waitress, medical file clerk, and screenwriter, she made poems. She denounced boredom, cowardice, the status quo. Few poets of any stripe write with as much forthrightness about poverty, about literary ambition, about depression, about our violent, fragile passions. ‘American Sonnet 95,’ which features this collection’s title, is one of my favourite sonnets by Wanda:
seized by wicked enchantment, i surrendered my song
as i fled for the stars, i saw an earthchild
in a distant hallway, crying out
to his mother, ‘please don’t go away
and leave us.’ he was, i saw, my son. immediately,
i discontinued my flight
from here, i see the clocktower in a sweep of light,
framed by wild ivy. it pierces all nights to come
i haunt these chambers but they belong to cruel churchified insects.
among the books mine go unread, dust-covered.
i write about urban bleeders and breeders, but am
troubled because their tragedies echo mine.
at this moment i am sickened by the urge
to smash. my thighs present themselves
stillborn, misshapen wings within me
Wanda’s poems speak for themselves.