Cauleen Smith on
In Conversation with
Shantel Aurora of Saint Heron

No matter the medium, art is known to be a creative manifestation of primitive ideas, revelations, feelings and memories. When it comes to heritage and history however, for Black Americans, art also has the potential to be a stainlessly surreal encounter with divine power. The Wanda Coleman Songbook, created and produced by interdisciplinary artist Cauleen Smith, is that kind of encounter, sonically emoting the poetics of Wanda Coleman (1946-2013) as praise songs and prayers. Limited to 500 vinyl pressings, Songbook is a musically driven compilation of select Coleman poems interpreted by an array of artists and musicians, and the inspiration behind 52 Walker’s multi-sensory installation and immersive listening experience, Cauleen Smith: The Wanda Coleman Songbook (closed March 16, 2024).

Born Wanda Evans on November 13th in LA's Watts neighborhood, she is a griot of generations that survived poverty, prejudice, Black feminine malaise, and abuse. Married with two children at 20 years old, Wanda had been an avid reader all her life and a natural force in poetry and performance art. She authored twenty books of poetry and prose, edited the first six issues of Players magazine, and won an Emmy as part of the writer’s room on the soap opera Days of Our Lives. But this was the work of a woman who, on the side, waited tables and worked other temp jobs to make ends meet. Frustrated with the plight of Los Angeles’ Black women, herself included, Coleman’s Bluesy Jazz-infused poetry projected the LA woman’s love-hate relationship with the city making her the west coast’s womanist pulse of poetry. In Cauleen’s own words, “Most poets know Wanda's work well. She's a poet's poet. But what she isn't, is quotable.” She continues, “she's not widely popular in a pop culture kind of way… but I wouldn't say she's just a local poet. She was pretty much an international phenomenon.” 

With A and B sides featuring commissioned contributions by Kelsey Lu, Jeff Parker and Ruby Parker, Standing on the Corner and more, the EP's opener is a gentle rapture performed by Alice Smith. In a refrain centered on eternal life fed by the bliss of love, Smith incants her own interpretation of Coleman’s original poem “In That Other Fantasy Where We Live Forever.” For her rendition titled “ALICE SMITH REBELS,” she centers the profound youthfulness of carefree rebellion. What is likely to raise the hair on your arms, is the B side opener “SATURDAY AFTERNOON BLUES.” With a melancholic serve to savor, recording artist and musician Meshell Ndegeocello fatalistically echoes, “can kill,” the opening line of this piece by Coleman in which she declares herself “a candidate for the coroner.” It’s difficult to do anything but empathize with and/or personally recollect the lovesick despair behind romantic degradation and neglect. At just over 32mins, ‘Songbook’ closes with a five-minute meditation guided by Wanda’s spirit — though the typewriter soundtrack, I learned, is actually Cauleen’s own sonic offering dedicated to the “LA’s Blueswoman.” It’s peaceful, and gorgeously intoxicating, and altogether akin to a hymnal for Black women. These are the psalms of Coleman’s faith in poetry to lift the veil of allusiveness and directly confront the personal and political tenors of feminine Black-American life. Cauleen Smith summons that ancestral faith in Songbook, where communion is meditation with the reverberating lore of the gospel according to our foremothers; in this case, the indomitable Wanda Coleman.

The Wanda Coleman Songbook EP vinyl for audio experience at 52 Walker in NYC. Photography by Rafael Rios.

The Wanda Coleman Songbook EP vinyl for audio experience at 52 Walker in NYC. Photography by Rafael Rios.

SA: How did you first learn of Wanda Coleman’s work or what is your earliest memory related to an encounter with her writing?

CS: I don't really know when I first encountered her work. I've always known about her, but it was when I moved back to California in 2017 from Chicago that I really started revisiting her work and really finding her to be such a great guide and navigator for the Los Angeles that I was experiencing as a Black woman, and the very different experience that we have from pretty much anyone else in that city. So I really found her to be crucial and an important voice.

SA: I have to ask about her American Sonnet series. The Wanda Coleman Songbook has two, one of which is after June Jordan — one of my favorite writers literally ever — who penned a similar ode in tribute to Phyllis Wheatley; and I love how these women saved a space in their work to love on each other. When I was reading about Coleman’s sonnets, much of the criticism was that her particular style of writing broke the technical rules of “THE sonnet” in poetry. Is there anything you can tell us specifically about her 100 American Sonnets, or the significance of the two, “AMERICAN SONNET 61” and “AMERICAN SONNET 18,” selected for ‘Songbook’?

CS: Oh, well, that book [Heart First into this Ruin: The Complete American Sonnets] is a pretty recent release, and I think it's long awaited. I don't really know much about the politics of the publishing world, but I know a lot of people are just really happy to see it because she would write the sonnets along with all these other forms that she experimented with. So if you collect her books you can read them all, but to just have them, all 100, it's really amazing to read them. They are just so dazzling, so it's just exciting to have them in one place so you can study the sonnet through Wanda. 

In the process of making the record and talking to the artists, I collected about 20, 25 songs that I thought cohered and really represented Wanda's whole body of work, but also could make a good record, maybe make interesting songs, the ones that I heard music in. I gave them to all the musicians and they chose. Alice Smith and Kelsey Lu chose their poems immediately. Those were the ones that spoke to them. Then I asked Jeff Parker to write a song based on the same poem that Alice was interested in. And it's so interesting how they took really different directions with the same sonnet, and somehow they still hang together really beautifully. The artists knew what worked with them, which is what I was interested in. And I was like, “I hear so much music in Wanda's poems. I wonder what musicians would do with Wanda's poems.”

Portrait of Wanda Coleman early in her career.

Portrait of Wanda Coleman early in her career.

SA: That was actually my next question. Did you select the poems or did they? So they had already known of Wanda Coleman also, you’re saying.

CS: A couple of them had not. I feel like when I spoke with Kelsey, she was like, "Wow, thanks for introducing me to Wanda." I remember having that conversation with many of the musicians where they're like, "I didn't know about her. I'm so happy I do. She's blowing my mind." You know what I mean? “This is so intense.” But I really curated and selected [Wanda’s poems] because I was obsessed with her. I've read almost all of her books. I haven't read the novels, but all of the poems at least once. You know what I mean? But I thought I should pull out the ones that are the reason that I wanted to make this record. So that allowed them to focus in on things and not be overwhelmed, because 25 poems was already a lot.

With Shay Miller, I was like, "I love this ‘Black-Handed Curse’ song. I love this poem so much. This is the most hilarious thing. To be so mad at someone that you sit your butt down and you write the nastiest pecks you can think of is hilarious. I want to offer that of Wanda, the Vicious Wicked Curse. You know what I mean?” And Shala was like, "Okay, I can do it."

SA: It is just so good. I think it’s my favorite. And her voice is amazing on it.

CS: Yeah! The wicked laughter…


*both laughing*

SA: I read your conversation with George Evans, Wanda Coleman’s brother, for the LA Times. You said, “…the way in which I wanted to work with Wanda Coleman’s work was through music, because so many of her poems are songs. Of what I could find on YouTube, I never really saw her sing, but she’s such a powerful performer.” And my original question was how did you arrive at the idea to turn her poetry into a musical compilation, but I learned from you and Mr. Evans that she was actually into music and theater. And it is really clear through her spoken word performances, now with that info. I didn’t really catch that before. Can you talk a little bit more about the process of translating that variety through the music, and more about collaboration with the artists? Was there anything revelatory or perhaps just really special that came from Songbook’s completion?

Cauleen Smith, Cauleen Smith Studio (2023). © Cauleen Smith. Courtesy the artist and 52 Walker, New York.

Cauleen Smith, Cauleen Smith Studio (2023). © Cauleen Smith. Courtesy the artist and 52 Walker.

CS: Yeah. I mean, for me, it's stumbling on some poems where she literally used a blues limerick. It's a very common thing for her, and I love blues limericks, and it's not a fashionable... Well, Black artists are not into the blues right now, not in that old-timey sense. You know what I mean? So I knew it would be a hard sell, even though that's how I approached every musician. I was like, "I'm trying to make a blues record and I want you on it." And they're like, "What do you mean by the blues?" Meshell Ndegcocello was literally like, "Tell me what blues artist you like, just tell me who you like." And I was like, "Well, I love John Lee Hooker. I love him." And so there's this really nasty guitar blues riff in her song, which I feel like is an ode to that.

But what was amazing to me was how the artists, through their own work, their own sound, their own style, really arrived at something really true to Wanda's vibe. I was not sure that the record would cohere with six or seven different radically different artists from Jamila to Jeff Parker's daughter Ruby, who's I think maybe 20 years old who's just starting out, to someone like Alice Smith who's grand diva. I was like, "How is this going to cohere?" But it's because of Wanda's poems and the way that they had to really get inside of those words and lyrics and find their own way that it all hangs together.

SA: That’s really beautiful. Admittedly, I know very little about Wanda Coleman’s life and I only first heard of her a couple of years ago. My curiosity took me down a JSTOR rabbit hole of anything I could find on her. A lot of it was informative, but quite a bit of it had a tone that centered her momentary rift with Maya Angelou and her overall demeanor as brash and combative. It seems, despite being the first Black woman to win the Lenore Marshall Award (1999) and all the other prestigious nominations and honors, the then predominantly white literary establishment intended to erase her simply for having the audacity. I’d love to broaden the narrative of her personality with the layers I’m sure existed. I see a woman who unapologetically shamed cowardice and fraudulence, and was as proud of her identity as she was sickened by her identity’s conditions for survival. Can you share a bit about her life, upbringing, spirituality, family or anything about Wanda the woman vs the poet? Like, I knew that she was a single mother, but I had no idea she was a single mother of three working multiple jobs “to make my mark on the literary landscape” as she wrote in the introduction to Greatest Hits 1966–2003. What more can you tell us about her?

Portrait of Cauleen Smith at 'The Wanda Coleman Songbook' immersive installation in NYC (52 Walker, March 2024).

Cauleen Smith at The Wanda Coleman Songbook immersive installation at 52 Walker in NYC. Photography by Rafael Rios.

CS: Talking to George about her was really lovely. George is her younger brother, and he just really looked up to her. Wanda was the smartest kid in school. He was like, “We always knew Wanda would be amazing. I was just trying to get by, but Wanda was incredible." And he's actually the person responsible for introducing her to Black Sparrow Press and getting her all inside of the beat poetry scene in LA. As kids, they were down in the hundreds in LA. If you know LA the further south you go the Blacker it gets. And George ended up going all the way to CalArts, which is the Foothill Mountains, North LA and Wanda and he were hanging out in Silver Lake, which is still like, hipster Central. It was then too. You know what I mean? She fell in love at 18, had a kid fresh out of high school. George hated all of her husbands.

SA: I remember reading that.

CS: He can go on about it. Even listening to the songs made him really emotional because he could tell at what point in her life, which poem was written. Based on “the man I love” Meshell song, he spoke about that man, and he just didn't understand why Wanda was attracted to these really not good men. And if you meet George, you'll see, because he's the sweetest. He's like a big teddy bear sweetheart, a gentle man. So I can see how her vibe, the men she was into, he would be like, "No."

And then Douglas Kearney, I had a short conversation with him because he loved Wanda and said she was an intimidating figure, but what she required was respect and regard. And there's a really great interview on YouTube. This young Italian journalist is interviewing Wanda, and at first she's a little bit surly, and then he says, "I read that when you were 13, you did this and that. Then in high school you did that." And she said, "Oh, you did your research." And then her whole affect changed, and she was friendly and funny and very connecting with him. And I was like, "Yeah." I think as a Black woman in LA where you literally get so little respect, appreciation, regard on any level, I can understand her rolling like that. What I love is how Doug Kearney talks about her punching up. So when she criticized Maya Angelou, they came back at her as if, “how dare you?” I think that, actually, for me is one of the things that's really important about her is her refusal to accommodate these aspirations towards Black respectability and her way of really revealing how toxic and limiting and maybe stultifying that those aspirations can really be.

Eso Won Bookstore, which was the bookstore that banned her, closed just recently, and I think it reveals a lot that when the owner decided to retire, he didn't sell the bookshop. He didn't pass it on, he just closed it up. And thank goodness there are two more Black bookstores in LA, run by women who are very open and are great replacements. But I feel this kind of desire to hold and keep and have territory and be proprietary is something that she really resented as a Black working-class person, not a middle-class person. She could really see how that was also meant to keep her in her place. She was not into it. I just love that about her. And I think it's an important conversation to have right now in our post-Obama terror zone of America. What did that get us exactly? And no shade on the Obamas whatsoever. Not at all. But we put a lot into that, and we saw the response to it in terms of policy and what was possible. But then when we look at working-class movements, that really does change the world. So maybe that's a place to look, and I feel like Wanda creatively, artistically is also that place to look. 

Cauleen Smith's The Wanda Coleman Songbook video installation at 52 Walker. Courtesy the artist and 52 Walker.alker. Photography by Rafael Rios.

Cauleen Smith's The Wanda Coleman Songbook video installation at 52 Walker. Courtesy the artist and 52 Walker.

SA: Exactly. Listening to you talk about her confirms what I felt, she simply took no mess. I'm in awe of her and I read that she continued the hustle of working multiple side jobs even after writing on, what was it, Days of Our Lives? The soap opera?

CS: Won an Emmy for writing on Days of Our Lives. She edited, this is a whole project I haven't even got into, Players magazine; which is everybody's Uncle's SKIN magazine. The first six issues, which are actually beautiful, George, her brother, took some of the photos. And that magazine to me says everything about what she envisioned for Black culture, which was a complete integration of high and low. So you look at the letters people were writing in, there's brothers writing in from prison, and then there's brothers working in corporate America, all reading this magazine and having a discourse. There's film reviews for Ganja and Hess, and then there's an article about the best car to get the best woman. It's just all together. And she had this really clear vision, which obviously the publishers were not really into. It was like a Black Playboy, an intellectual side as well as this pleasure side.

People who really did know her, absolutely loved her. I watched on video the memorial for her when she died, all the poets getting together, it was just this outpouring of freaking love. “I miss her. I love her. She was funny. She was fun. She was sweet. She was so fun to talk to.” I've run into so many people who met her and knew her and describe how actually generous she was. And this is one thing I really want to say, it's very important. In her poems, one thing I never heard her say, “I had to learn how to love my Blackness. I had to learn how to love my body.” She never says that. Instead, she's angry that no one sees her and no one sees her beauty.

She understands it very well. And one thing she never permitted or allowed was the world to inform that relationship she had with her own understanding.She understood that she was not the problem. She innately understood that and all of her poems are so unapologetic. Even when the women in her poems are making mistakes, even when the women in her poems are really suffering. They don't apologize. They have dignity. They have self-determination. They are taking responsibility for themselves and have whole hearts. They're fully present, feeling, thinking people, even if we are in pain for them.

There's this one story she wrote, I keep talking about it because it just shook me. It was a story she wrote from the point of view of this young girl who needed money to take care of her kids, met these men, and they were like, "We can get you work." And basically turned her out. It's told from her point of view of how this happens to her. And at every moment where she's like, "This doesn't feel right, but I feel like if I can get some money…" And the moment in which she realizes they really are going to try and break her, or they do break her, she's like, "Okay." But she decides even as this is happening, even as she is being broken, that she's going to survive it because she has love. She has people she has to take care of. So she's just going to survive it. I've really never read anything where there's this most abject thing happening and so much dignity and beauty in the person that it's happening to. This refusal to pity someone like that, instead to say, "No, no. She understands exactly what's happening to her. This is what is happening, and she's going to survive it.” It's just incredible. To me, that kind of complexity that Wanda was capable of is really, really precious and rare. Most people like to speak about themselves and their lives, particularly in poetry, as this process of self-love and this and that. And Wanda was like, "I don't need to talk about it. I already love myself, that's a given. Black people are amazing. We're brilliant. What I need to talk about is how fucked up this world is, how hard it is to love in this world, how hard it is to be in this world. It's not our fault." I just think that's so important.

SA: Truly an amazing woman. I want to ask about Songbook’s ending which was sort of a beautiful meditation guided by Coleman’s spirit where we hear the outdoorsy air turn to a storm, and then the click clack of typewriter keys. What’s the significance of ending Songbook in this way?

CS: Thanks for asking. Most people never mention that.

SA: I loved it. 

CS: So I'm producing this record, and I'm getting all this beautiful music from these brilliant musicians, and I wanted to be on the record too in some way. And my only real skill is filmmaking with sound.

SA: Oh wait! That's you?

CS: Yeah, and it really was a meditation about, I guess, the life of a poet, the life of a writer, imagining Wanda, the details I knew about her life. If you have to ride the bus sometimes in LA on a rainy day, and oh, you just want to get home and write. I was just imagining, just wanting that for her. For every poet. I was like, just get home and just get to your laptop, your typewriter, whatever. Just get there. I depend on that. So that was just my thank you, to say I know it's really about the work. You got to sit there and you got to write it.

Purchase Cauleen Smith's The Wanda Coleman Songbook EP at


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