Born on November 13, 1946, Wanda Coleman grew up in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. During her lifetime she worked as a medical secretary, magazine editor, journalist, and Emmy Award-winning scriptwriter before turning to poetry.
Coleman’s poetry collections include Mercurochrome: New Poems (Black Sparrow Press, 2001), which was a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry; Bathwater Wine (Black Sparrow Press, 1998), which received the 1999 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize; Native in a Strange Land: Trials & Tremors (Black Sparrow Press, 1996); Hand Dance (Black Sparrow Press, 1993); African Sleeping Sickness: Stories and Poems (Black Sparrow Press, 1990); Heavy Daughter Blues: Poems & Stories 1968–1986 (Black Sparrow Press, 1988); and Imagoes (Black Sparrow Press, 1983). She also wrote the books Jazz and Twelve O’Clock Tales: New Stories (David R. Godine, 2008); Mambo Hips & Make Believe: A Novel (Black Sparrow Press, 1999); and A War of Eyes and Other Stories (Black Sparrow Press, 1988).
In an essay about Coleman’s Marshall-winning Bathwater Wine, the poet Marilyn Hacker wrote that Coleman’s poems display,
a verbal virtuosity and stylistic range that explodes/expands the merely linear, the simply narrative, the straightforwardly lyric, into a verbal mandala whose colors and textures spin off the page. Coleman is a poet who excels in public presentations, one whose work moves freely between the academy and the popular renaissance of poetry-as-performance in bars and coffeehouses—but her poems do not require an audible voice or physical presence: They perform themselves.
The poet Juan Felipe Herrera called Coleman the “word-caster of live coals of Watts & L.A.” A recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, Coleman was regarded as a central figure in Los Angeles literary life. The Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin noted that Coleman, “helped transform the city’s literature.”
Coleman lived in Los Angeles until her death on November 22, 2013.