Wanda Coleman

Winner of the 2012 Shelley Memorial Award



the age of the innerview dawns and the need
            to be first is muted by a
multitude of passings/desire honed so sharp
            the edges bleed, lips and hands
assume a silent patience/at rest as a savage
            brilliance is reborn in this ancient ravaged griot

who am i? what am i? are no longer important questions.
            knowing that i am is finally enough
like discovering dessert is delicious following a disastrous
            meal, a sweetness that reawakens
the palate, or finding that one's chalice is unexpectedly
            filled with elixir of euphoria

and i stumble happily into the cornucopia, arms
            outstretched, upturned, drunk
my heart athrum, bones full samba. the night
            blesses me with his constellations
baptizes me with his deathless autumnal chill
            and i invade the moody indigo

full-throated and singing



Gary Young and Ribogerto Gonzalez on Wanda Coleman

From her first book, Mad Dog Black Lady, published by Black Sparrow Press in 1979, to her most recent collection, The World Falls Away, published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 2011, Wanda Coleman has been shaping one of the most technically accomplished, lyrically compelling, and thematically daring bodies of work. When you consider her novels, essays, and short fiction in conjunction with her primary production as a poet, it becomes clear that she's one of the major writers of her generation.

Advancing the legacy of Bukowski as prototypical L.A. poet, Coleman's fearless representation of the inner city in all its horror, glory, misery and defiant survival makes a vital contribution to American letters. She sings her own life as raw material yet reaches far beyond the personal or confessional in her explorations of experience, she brings an African-American perspective and a feminist sensibility to the task, and she articulates the unspeakable in various forms of musical invention to communicate a spirited response to a troubled reality.

Coleman has sustained a powerful individuality and an uncompromising vision in the service of telling uncomfortable truths—about race, about poverty, about family, about loss and grief, about love and sex, about friendship, about the rhythms of urban life in a landscape dominated by the automobile and the exhilaration of a poisonous but paradoxically inspiring atmosphere. Few contemporary poets can match the honesty and anguished yet celebratory fierceness of Coleman's vernacular and highly literary voice. Known for her electrifying live performances, she scores her work on the page for maximum visual and musical effectiveness, so that the reader can hear the dynamic moves and shifts in her language. Her verve surprises, dismays, inspires, shocks, interrogates, slaps, and uplifts the reader, often in the course of a single stanza.

Like Shelley—on the surface an unlikely forebear—Coleman is a lyrical revolutionary aiming to disturb the body politic. Pushed to the margins by race, class, and gender, but determined to make her way into the heart of the conversation, she claims her privilege as both individual and representative of an unacknowledged constituency rarely so eloquently present in our literature. Her formal experiments test the boundaries of poetic expression, but are grounded in a thorough understanding of classical, romantic, modern, and postmodern verse brought to life with virtuosity uniquely her own. Her ongoing sequence American Sonnets illustrates her ability to wed poetic tradition with contemporary sensibility, and to offer homage to such diverse poetic sources as Wylie, Brecht, Blake, and Vallejo.

As a fitting acknowledgment of her singular contribution to our literature, as both an example of creative evolution through four decades of writing and as a model of artistic integrity, we present Wanda Coleman with the Shelley Memorial Award. 

Go Back to Frost & Shelley Awards Winners' Listing