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After four months of controversy, Los Angeles-based poet Wanda Coleman, recipient of the 1999 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets and a National Book Award finalist last year, wryly concedes that she's received more attention for one book review than for anything else she's ever written. One bad review, that is, of Maya Angelou's latest book, A Song Flung Up to Heaven, the third volume of an autobiography by "the Inaugural Poet."
In an April 14 book review in the Los Angeles Times, Coleman concluded, "Unfortunately, the Maya Angelou of A Song Flung Up to Heaven seems small and inauthentic, without ideas, wisdom or vision. Something is being flung up to heaven all right, but it isn't a song." She accused Angelou of writing a book full of "empty phrases and sweeping generalities . . . dead metaphors ("sobbing embrace," "my heart fell in my chest") and clumsy similes ("like the sound of buffaloes running into each other at rutting times"). The book has gotten some other poor reviews, but it seems that Coleman caused trouble by accusing Angelou of hustling the public, selling a skimpy book in large type and large hype at a high price, containing rehashed material and what may be exaggerated claims for a high-minded, race-conscious past.
But a writer like Coleman, whose works have titles that include Mad Dog Black Lady, Bathwater Wine, and Berserk on Hollywood Blvd., can't be all bad. The daughter of a ring-damaged boxer and a domestic who worked for movie stars in Los Angeles, Coleman is a tough, combative writer who has been described by poet Marilyn Hacker as someone who "displays 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." When Coleman says Angelou's prose is loaded with inept metaphors, she knows what she's talking about. Published by a small (now defunct) independent publisher, Black Sparrow Press, and a star of the poetry slam circuit, Coleman is someone who might be called an outlaw critic, and very much the opposite of the public Angelou, a high priestess of pomp and serenity.
The reassuring textures and nurturing tones that rise in Angelou's voice rankle Coleman, representing a facade that she equates with the author's success. "Maya has obviously made her choice. If you come and you make even the racists feel comfortable and you aren't asking for any fundamental [social] change, you're going to get a fat check," she told the Voice.
Coleman's review of A Song was so scathing that her editor at the L.A. Times Book Review told her that the paper had received a lot of letters, running pro and con, and she was disinvited to a book signing at Eso Won Books, the leading African American bookstore in Los Angeles. This shocked Coleman, and according to Eso Won co-owner James Fugate, many locals. Indignant readers across the country went listserv-crazy defending either Coleman or Eso Won.
"When the bookstore thing came down," said Coleman, "I said, 'That's too cold,' because Eso Won is a major center for black writers here." Randy Ross of the International Black Writers Association (IBWA) was organizing the Eso Won event to celebrate an anthology that includes Coleman called Griots Beneath the Baobab: Tales From Los Angeles. Coleman said, "I suggested he ought to go to the media. I contacted the PEN Center West, and Tim Rutten at the L.A. Times picked up on it, then the Los Angeles Sentinel." She wrote an account of the events in Ishmael Reed's Konch magazine, and the episode got on radio and TV, too.
Coleman never saw the letters that came to the Times: "The direct responses I got personally, either by e-mail or phone, or in public, most of it from African Americans, was saying, 'Thank God someone finally said it,' and from whites it was fearful, like, 'We hope you'll be all right.' "
A book review that wouldn't begin to damage the reputation, book sales, or livelihood of the country's most popular and successful living poet became a subject of controversy as much for its rarity as for its rudeness. It was assumed initially by many involved that the mythical monolith of black opinion would simply rise up against the disparagement of a writer who has transcended the capricious racism of the book industry, the crippled chances of an impoverished youth, and the obscurity that traps most writers. In fact, the activist gentry and a lot of fatigued readers joined the fray in horror that Coleman might have been punished for violating the giddiness of an African American publishing boom that promotes sugar-coated black criticism. But Fugate's reason for "disinviting" the critic, as he put it, was a matter of "gratuitous slams."
"I thought it was a very personal attack on Maya," he said. In fact there were some points in the review that he thought were "fair," having to do with the presentation and pricing of a slight text. But to Fugate "the tone was over- the-top" and a swipe at Angelou being well suited to a $50 million Hallmark deal was too much. "There's nothing wrong with saying you don't like the work, or that it's no good," he said, "but the time is past for promoting one's self by reviewing in such a vulgar way."
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."
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."