Thinking of spontaneous composition during the 12th August POetry POstcard Fest while editing a Wanda Coleman interview from Fall 2000. She was one of our favorite visitors to the NW SPokenword LAB, as SPLAB was called back then in Auburn, Washington. It was not postcards that helped her free herself from the tyranny of overactive editor’s mind, it was writing for a soap opera.
Paul Nelson: We’ll talk more about some of those fine writers and some of the one who’ve influenced you. What I’d like to talk about is some of your experience in trying to make a living because, as we’ve talked about, we live in a society that does not recognize the social capital that the arts help strengthen and facilitate. You’ve had to do a number of things to make ends meet. Talked about journalism, being a medical secretary, and I think one of the more interesting ones was a script writer for a soap opera, for which you won a Daytime Emmy.
Wanda Coleman: Days of Our Lives, as the sand drips through the hourglass. Yes, I wrote for Days. That was a real adventure. It was very exciting for the year or so that it lasted. I was the youngest member of the staff. It was quite an experience because writing for television is merciless when it comes to deadline. It knows no mercy. It eats writers, it eats every thing you have to give. It was difficult in one way because my poetry was subsumed, it was just gone. Pfft! I, frankly, was worried about that and depressed about it because I didn’t know what’s going on here.
What I found is that my style of writing before working for the soap opera… I was still writing on the legal tablets and the secretarial pads and writing things out in long hand and taking ten, fifteen drafts and still not getting it right. After that stint as a soap opera writer I could crank the poems. When the poetry came back, when it returned, it just returned with a vengeance, and I found that I could sit down and those poems would just start coming. They would just flow. It was almost as though they were writing me instead of me writing them, and I said, “Wow, look at this.”
When my peers look at my books, when I go to poetry book fairs and there are these very fine, thin, lovely books of poetry, and then my volumes are considerably 300 pages, fat books of poetry. People will say, “How do you do this? Why are you so prolific?” Well, that’s a part of it. That experience freed me from whatever there was in my psyche that made me hesitate or take so long to finish the work. I was able to, at that point, see. I had just become a better worker, a better craftswoman.
Another section of that interview is helpful to understand her organic approach to composition by comparing it to Jazz:
Wanda Coleman: …I think there are those who appreciate [Jazz] from the outside and have an aesthetic appreciation of the form, and then there are those who become it, or who allow it to inhabit them and then it speaks through them. I mean, that’s, usually, that defines the difference between singers often when they’re approaching material.
There are those who exist on the surface of a given art and who are unable to really plumb the depths, and then there are those who are just simply vessels. Seeing Betty Carter sing, for example, as I was able to do while she was still living. It was as though the voice inhabited her and she was a temporary caretaker for this phenomenon that came up through her and would zap the audience.
It was incredible to see this woman perform live. You know, unfortunately, she’s no longer with us, and so the world is deprived of her presence, but this woman was an incredible performer, and yet, the rooms would be filled and packed, when she’d play LA, the rooms would be virtually empty, but they would be filled for someone who didn’t have a tenth of her gift, which is one of the tragedies of that kind of magic. It’s a magic that is yet to really be appreciated in our society…