Slam Queen vs. Inaugural Poet

L.A. Poet Dares to Blast Angelou, Stirs Up a Storm

Coleman said, "I don't think it's negative to have a dialogue, as long as it's reasoned out. I also think when a game is being run, that it should be pointed out. We have a long history of running to each other's defense but there are some things that are indefensible."

Fugate said his decision had nothing to do with trying to censor her. "We don't only do book signings with people we agree with. We've had people here when it was contentious, and that's what I thought it would be, and it's not the kind of event we want."

Asked if the store carries Coleman's books, he said no. "They don't sell. We don't carry most poetry anymore. It became clear that we had whole sections that weren't selling. Wanda's books never sold. Yusef Komunyakaa didn't sell. We don't carry Rita Dove anymore because it didn't sell." What does sell? "New books push sales."

Poet Wanda Coleman
photo: Susan Carpendale
Poet Wanda Coleman

In reality, both sides of this minor literary contretemps would probably agree on the current state of affairs in black literature. Clearly there is a business expansion going on akin to the late '60s soul music boom, when hits were routinely copied and sold with similar covers and titles. For most of the not-so-labor-intensive fiction being printed, reviews, if they come, are perfunctory, and largely superfluous. As Fugate put it, "There is a single review printed over and over in the advance publications: 'This book is not well written, but it will not bother the readership.' "

One reason for the controversy is simply that the review was in the L.A. Times, and to be seen mainly by whites. Black publications rarely print tough reviews, and those who write them in mainstream publications will hear from everyone involved. But most black publications are sensitive to the fact that black readers are famously thin-skinned, and so they rarely give any occasion to be deluged with e-mail.

Fugate thought the rush of e-mail Eso Won got during the flap points to a genuine need: "We really don't have any vehicles for real criticism. Those that are out there now seem reluctant to print a bad review, perhaps out of fear of alienating advertisers. There is really no black publication where black writers can do in-depth pieces."

Coleman has a similar beef with those academics who are reluctant to examine the craft of writers like Angelou. "I've been called into classrooms to say 'amen' to her as a poet," she said. "I hate having to come in and disillusion a classroom full of youth, and say, 'This is not poetry, or at least it isn't good poetry.' You're called in during Black History month, not to illuminate anything but really to say 'amen' to whatever is going on at the moment. Instead of archetypes, we're getting new stereotypes."

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