Coleman is a political artist whose vivid, energetic poetry depicts the everyday struggles of poor urban blacks. A poet who prefers the rhythms and language of natural speech to poetic diction, the gritty reality of lived experience to honed imagery, Coleman was instrumental—along with Diane wakoski, Clayton eshelman, and Charles bukowski—in the formation of an alternative literary forum in Los Angeles during the 1970s and 1980s. It was during this time that Coleman earned her reputation as a gifted performance poet (see poetry in performance). Coleman draws on diverse and divergent literary traditions, including Euro-American open-form poetics and the African-American vernacular.
Coleman was raised in the Watts district of Los Angeles. She began publishing poems when she was still in her teens and has written many books of poetry, including Mad Dog Black Lady (1979), Imagoes (1983), and African Sleeping Sickness (1990). Her collection Bathwater Wine (1998) won the 1999 Lenore Marshall Prize.
Racism is a central concern in Coleman's poetry, and her hard-edged portrayals of life in the Watts ghetto— its prostitutes, alcoholics, welfare mothers, workers, and children—show the damage done to individuals by poverty and racism. "As a writer I feel I best serve my readership when I rehumanize the dehumanized, when I illuminate what is in darkness, when I give blood and bone to statistics that are too easily dismissed," she explains (qtd. in Magistrale and Ferreira 497). Especially interested in the experiences of black women, Coleman writes about sexuality, vulnerability, and resilience, about "being on the bottom where pressures / are greatest" ("Women of My Color" ). The women in Coleman's poems work at jobs in which they are "reduced to rubber-tipped fingers" ("Accounts Payable" ) or to sexual commodities. In "Things No one Knows" (1998), the speaker is a poet who has not reaped much financial reward from her labors: "three months behind in my rent for thirty years," she expects "to die poemless and to be / cremated in state ovens."
Coleman's poems are formally innovative, and her experiments with lineation, spacing, word forms, sound, and integration of blues and jazz cadences achieve varied effects. Her poems tend to resist closure and fixed meaning, eliciting instead immediate psychic and emotional responses. This is a poetry of action and experience, fueled by anger and guided by honest, accurate perception.
Was this article helpful?