An Interview with Terrance Hayes, by Courtney Faye Taylor
April 5, 2020
This is an excerpt of an interview that will be published in the fall 2020 issue of SLICE.
I encountered Wanda Coleman for the first time on YouTube—a recitation of her poem, “Untitled” in celebration of Luvina, the literary magazine of The University of Guadalajara. Coleman humorously starts the reading by saying, “If you’d like to know anything about me, you can Google me. I am all over the Internet, unfortunately. Not all of it good.” An early line in “Untitled” seems to respond to this: “I will outlive my ambitions or the judgments of others.” Rather than reading the line, Coleman sings it.
Her entire reading is performative like this. Portions of the poem are delivered slowly, deliberate pauses making for meditations. Sometimes a phrase makes Coleman smile. Some words encourage her hands to take flight. Lines like, “I will walk with hips that are monuments,” take me to the lyricism of Lucille Clifton. Sections with the cadence of monologues point in the direction of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls. At the end, Coleman stares into the audience. She outlives the applause, the moment, even the beauty of that poem.
As a poet, mother, Los Angeles native, black woman, essayist, and more, Wanda Coleman is a master of honesty. Her writing is an artifact of a life defined by brilliance, outspokenness, and survival. Once you’ve witnessed Coleman, there’s no denying her irreplaceability in the canon.
To return her voice to its rightful place in the forefront, Black Sparrow Press is re-releasing her poetry in a collection entitled, Wicked Enchantment. The book is a survey of memories, sonnets, opinions, ars poeticas, wonders, and obsessions. Some poems are raw confessions about broken down cars, men that won’t act right, and life as “a candidate for the coroner.” Other poems explore the weight of blackness and womanhood in a world that neither respects nor protects either. In “Doctor’s Report,” Coleman has a diagnosis for “social dysfunction related to color.” I see poems like this one set against the backdrop of South Central—both its rich culture and tumultuous history. For Coleman, this backdrop holds “the faces, voices and sounds that defined the dramas and dreams of [her] young womanhood.”[i] This collection gives us Coleman in all her insight, humor, joy, and complexity.
Wicked Enchantment is edited and introduced by Terrance Hayes, who has both inspired and been inspired by Coleman. I spoke with Hayes about his work on the collection and the mark Coleman left on the literary world and his own.
What I found most interesting in my research, and from reading your introduction to Wicked Enchantment, was Wanda Coleman’s personality. In the introduction, you quote a writer who flat out says, “Wanda Coleman was mean.” And you describe it in comparison to who Miles Davis would’ve been if he were never recognized for his artistry. So do you see Wanda Coleman as having the personality of an unrecognized genius?
Yes, definitely. That’s exactly what I’m suggesting in that quote. I said something [about] how frustrated geniuses can get, which is sometimes how I think about Miles Davis. Frustrated, but we can also say he was mean. And so I think, sure, for whatever reason—everybody’s got their reasons—[Coleman] had fangs. But even in her sort of anger or meanness, there was always brilliance there. Intelligence.
Was she mean in the sense that she was demanding, bossy, entitled? Because sometimes we see those same attributes in men and think, “Oh, this guy is assertive. He’s confident.” So was there this double standard?
No, you know what it was? It was very straightforward. “Mean” in terms of honesty. So not “mean” in terms of power dynamics, which maybe you can think about that in terms of gender stuff. It was just that she was a very honest person, so sometimes she was going to be mean. Again, this is connecting that to a certain kind of genius and saying, yeah, that’s also how I think about Miles Davis, like a certain kind of impatience. Her impatience though, in my assessment of this question, was candor. Her honesty just cut across all kinds of ways, so that’s what really made her a great poet. She just never turned it off, which is why she would maybe not teach something. When you’re teaching, if you have people coming into that space—whether it’s an MFA program or whether it’s a summer conference—you have to be nice to people. She was just too honest for that sometimes, I think.
I believe she judged, one time with Elizabeth Alexander, the NEA. Poets are usually behind that and decide who’s going to get that kind of grant. That’s a pretty big deal, so I know people knew she was good because whoever thought to put her on that panel would also know she’s going to be a handful. But what Elizabeth said was [Coleman] was the most prepared out of everybody. She had stuff memorized and she had stacks and stacks of notes when she came in there. So again, not a question of her intelligence or seriousness about the work. It was just that she might be too hard for some people.
It seems like understanding who [Coleman] was as a person made her poetry all the more real. Do you think knowing her personally helped you appreciate her work?
In her lifetime she got to see the Black Arts poets and the Black Panther poets. She ran with some of them, but she still was “too black” and too smart. It was clear she was intelligent, but she had white boyfriends here and there, maybe she had a kid, she wasn’t in college. So if you compare that to Amiri Baraka who’s going to Howard and hung out with Frank O’Hara and Ginsberg, she just wasn’t that kind of Negro, and she was very aware of that. She also had a chip for people that sort of threw her shade throughout her career because she wrote a lot of stuff and it was one of the ways she was trying to make money. Those big books are uneven…She was making them that thick because I think they were getting paid—her and Bukowski—for how thick the books were. She was writing a lot, and writing passionately, but it also was connected directly to her income, her ability to take care of her family. So what I’m saying is when she was sending that work out, some of it wasn’t great, and I think people would be jumping on her saying, “Who does this untrained black woman from Watts think she is?” And yet, the real poet always knew who she was. I think you can track that. That’s how she got published. That’s how I found her. The people that really understood what a poet is understood that, and that’s the lesson for me: to be a poet at all costs, be honest, try to bring your truest self to the page, and then the real poets will support you. Not everybody else will, but that’s okay. That’s what integrity is. That’s how I think about it. Just someone with very serious integrity about being a poet.
You brought up Watts and I was going to talk about L.A. being a really big component of her work. It’s not just home for her but, in her words, it feels like a place where “her blood runs.” What role do you see L.A. playing in her work other than just a setting?
I only can think about it in terms of how we ask this question of, say, Bukowski who’s on the same press as her and is kind of considered a Californian poet. I think both of them are sort of prone to trouble, and I think both of them are looking to move. I’m just trying to think about how place might impact a person’s work. I think [Coleman] was really going to be a great and alert writer wherever she went. But because she was from L.A. and because she also had aspirations for making a living as a writer however that came down the pipe, she wrote screenplays, she wrote a couple of novels, she wrote, I guess, one and a half memoirs. So she thought of herself as like, “I’m going to be the shit. I’m going to be a big time writer.” And it just wasn’t coming back to her that way. But again, through all of that stuff, the reason that we have that work is that there were still people who knew it. And sometimes I think it was really wounding for her to know that certain people were getting stuff and that she was clearly as talented as them and demonstrating that and, really, a more real poet but not getting the same return on that.
So even when we first met: it’s my first book and it’s been nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Award and they bring her in, and they want her to represent L.A. It’s the Los Angeles Times Book Festival. So she’s there and there’s another poet and they’ve got us talking about war or something and she just comes in furious like, “How dare you bring these knuckleheads in? I lived through this stuff.” And that’s how she talked about it. Like, “I’ve seen all this. I was there in Vietnam. I was on the streets with the Black Panthers.” That’s how she always brought it because that’s how she lived. She certainly was an activist. Even though she was married to a white dude, she was working with the Black Panthers. She always saw herself as politically engaged but, in her ambition, was very angry because people weren’t really giving her due.
I read in a previous interview of yours that after [Coleman’s] death, her papers were being held in a storage unit and that, at some point, because the rent wasn’t being paid on that unit, those papers ended up on the street. What’s that story and how did you get access to those papers?
I know at this point it’s going to be folklore, but I’ll tell you what I know. After she passed away, her husband, Austin, was keeping track of all that… But the problem was, about two years after she passed, he also passed. And then it fell through the cracks. If there’s nobody in the family who recognizes that work is valuable, it stays in the [storage] unit. So it did, until the money ran out. And I think it’s just some fluke I heard from somebody—Kate, who runs Red Hen. News got back to me and I looped it back to some other people and did wind up getting [the papers]. I asked a few people like Pitt because they have an archive, Yale, and it wound up at the Schomburg, which I think is a good place for it.
Is it true that Coleman started writing sonnets specifically to win an NEA?
Again, folklore. But yeah, that’s the general story. Anecdotally, I think I’d go there more quickly, which is to say it’s just another example of her trying to prove to people she knows what she’s doing. If the poems are wild—and I’m saying that they are—or she’s getting this flack from people back on the West Coast, or people who teach in universities are reviewing those books, her response is like, “Shit, I can write sonnets. You think I can’t write a sonnet?” So it’s coming out of that attitude of showing people she can do whatever she wants to do and can do it well. If you look at those sonnets, they’re all over the place. She’s doing all kinds of wild and inventive stuff, and to me that’s really mind blowing, the sense of freedom that she’s demonstrating in that. I think a lot of that stuff is just, again, a response to a certain kind of ambition to show people she can do it.
I can use a crazy sports analogy very quickly: I think of Damian Lillard, if you know anything about the NBA. You know, just a chip on her shoulder of like, “You know I’m the MVP, and I’m waiting for y’all to see that.” It just makes all kinds of inventiveness and petulance and humor around that attitude toward someone: “I am a real poet,” you know?
You talked about freedom, and that’s something I noticed in her sonnets, too. She’s working within the restraint of that form, but carves out her own free space within it. That, to me, resembles her experience being a black woman in America, America being the restraint and the expression of black womanhood being her freedom within it. Do you think there’s a particular message she’s trying to send to black people about freedom?
A lot of our [black] poets that have come through had the support of universities—again, much like myself. And then there are a handful of poets that didn’t have that kind of support. So, to me [Coleman is] a quintessential black woman writing poems because she gotta write them… I’m not trying to be like, “She was the poorest person” or “She had the hardest time.” I’m just saying she was the most familiar to me, the way that Etheridge Knight is familiar to me when I look at the canon. They say something to me about where I’m from, in fact. When I think about the kind of black woman [Coleman] is, I just don’t see any examples of that anywhere else in the canon. And there should be because we see these black women all the time. If your mama could write poems, she’d write poems like Wanda Coleman. She’s so familiar in one kind of way, and in another kind of way it’s like, “Man, I’ve never seen this kind of consciousness.”… She was pushing it in every kind of direction. And again, I just don’t know who else was doing that at that time, or maybe since.
Look for the full interview in SLICE: Persistence (available September 2020).
[i] Coleman, Wanda. “Ruminations on Riots.” Los Angeles Review of Books, 2 May 2012, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/ruminations-on-riots/.
Terrance Hayes’s most recent publications include American Sonnets for My Past And Future Assassin (Penguin 2018) and To Float In The Space Between: Drawings and Essays in Conversation with Etheridge Knight (Wave, 2018). To Float In The Space Between was winner of the Poetry Foundation’s 2019 Pegasus Award for Poetry Criticism and a finalist for the 2018 National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism. American Sonnets for My Past And Future Assassin won the Hurston/Wright 2019 Award for Poetry and was a finalist the 2018 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry, the 2018 National Book Award in Poetry, the 2018 TS Eliot Prize for Poetry, and the 2018 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. Hayes is a Professor of English at New York University.
Courtney Faye Taylor is a graduate of Agnes Scott College and the University of Michigan Helen Zell Writers’ Program, where she received the Hopwood Prize in Poetry. She is the winner of the 92Y “Discovery” / Boston Review Poetry Prize and an Academy of American Poets Prize. Her poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net anthology, and appears in The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, The Adroit Journal, Boston Review, Witness, and elsewhere. Courtney is the Associate Poetry Editor of SLICE Magazine. She is at work on her first poetry collection.
Photo by Becky Thurner