Lost and Found: 
Wanda Coleman’s Desert Boxes

Charles Hoodby Charles Hood

Wanda Coleman, a poetry god, died poor, and that means she died in the desert (where the poorest people always end up), and because she was poor and because she died in the desert, and because her husband Austin Straus loved her but also died poor, the Wanda Coleman archives (worth, I assume, many tens of thousands of dollars) ended up not at UCLA or Stanford or Howard University or even for sale on eBay, not in the literature vault of the Ransom Center at UT Austin, and not even in the nerdy, buggy loft of some poetry-obsessed superfan, but in a stack of split-sided, water-ruined, roach-infested cardboard boxes abandoned in the desert.

Wanda Coleman Wanda Coleman

Because of course they did. Because that is how society treats poor people in general but also how people in the Antelope Valley, home base of the Flat Earth Society — and of course not all people in the Antelope Valley, but more than seems statistically probable — how people here treat open land, vacant land, degraded land, forgotten land, which is to say, how the people of the Antelope Valley treat the kind of land loosely and often misleadingly called “the desert,” which is to say, how they treat the place that has become the kind of place where people drive to the ends of dirt and dump the stuff they no longer want: televisions, chairs, tables, sofas, drywall (new and used), dogs (alive and dead), children’s toys, children’s bedding, children’s books, children’s plastic dinnerware, and probably for that matter even the children themselves, to shift from the literal to the more generally sociological. 

Wanda’s papers — and I mean both the good stuff, like event flyers from the 1960s and correspondence with literary superstars, and some of the “hmm, what is this” stuff, like bills and ads and empty envelopes — got dumped in the desert because I lost track of them and they then ended up in a storage unit, and then Austin died and then the storage unit’s manager, with the rent unpaid and with all the rest of us in poetry land having lost track of the estate, got fed up with all this poor-person shit filling up his nice clean storage unit, and so he dumped it all in the desert. Because of course he did. Naive simpleton that I am, I always thought that the contents of abandoned storage units went up for auction, and that is how random, risk-taking people could bid fifty bucks and end up owning a long-lost Picasso or something, but no, at least in the Antelope Valley, there are no storage unit orphan box poetry auctions: you just put everything in a pickup truck and drive to the end of a dirt road and heave it down into the dirt to turn brittle in the sun and finally blow away downwind.

Cue up the sad music, since we have the biological death of Ms. Coleman (who once wrote a poem in the form of her own death certificate), but her potential cultural death as well. Please tell me that this will not be a sad story. (Spoiler alert: it sort of is but mostly isn’t.)

The desert in question is the high desert behind the mountains east of Los Angeles, but not the cool, hipster, Gram-Parsons-died-here, Airbnb high desert of Yucca Valley and Joshua Tree, but instead, it is my adopted home town: the scuzzy, meth lab’d, tumbleweed-filled, Right Stuff, tract house desert of the Antelope Valley. Yes, there had been antelope here once, and no, they are not here anymore. (Well, there is a small herd on Tejon Ranch property, but nobody sees them, so that doesn’t count. They are unseen and off limits. They were reintroduced in 1985 from a herd in Modoc County.) The last wild antelope sighting in the Antelope Valley took place circa 1926, even though just fifty years before that there had been plenty of condors and wolves and grizzly bears. The settlers ruined the grass profile and wrecked the water table and shot everything they could, and so that, my friends, was that. Party over: the wildlife was gone.

Wanda Coleman and Austin Straus were following family when they moved to the Antelope Valley, but they were also following history. As gun violence worsened in a post-Riots Watts, some African Americans began to move to safer, more affordable places, including the exurbia of the High Desert. This diaspora included at least one (or more?) of Wanda’s children. 

Austin Straus was a poet and book artist and radio personality and teller of stories, and he survived Wanda by several years. He had no pension, so that was a problem, and his extant family, so far as I ever knew, was only her family. Once Wanda passed, I gather things were not entirely simpático between him and them. And why didn’t he have a pension? His life had not gone in that direction. Once, for example, there had been some teaching, but that ended early. I only have his version about why he was let go by school X and then school Y, but his version, I shake my head to admit, is not to his behavioral credit on the grand karma abacus of life. But that’s fine; we end up where we end up, and he did at least have her archives: if he sold those, he would be okay in some kind of basic financial way, as I assume they had planned all along. Some of her letters and so on in fact had already found university homes. So some material was safe for now, but a lot was left over, and this other body of archives represented a dirty sock of diamonds in the rough anxious to be sold to the highest bidder. Only to sell her papers he had to generate an inventory of what he had. UCLA was not going to do that for him; he had to do the sorting and labeling and list-making himself. Once he did that, let the negotiations begin. 

It was, it seems, too much. Grief, inertia, depression, a lively but easily sidetracked mind — who knows what exactly didn’t work when, but Austin couldn’t do the required listing and sorting. So I was brought in, since I live nearby and am, at times, a friend to the widows and orphans of literature. And so, being devoted to Wanda and at times sympathetic to Austin (and other times exasperated by him), I said, well, sure, I guess I can help? There was too much to be done for me to take it on myself — I still had a job and family and my own books to finish — and I pause here to insert a note to self: “Self, your campus hates you because it hates all faculty, but of the faculty, it hates the smartass English faculty the most, what with all those pseudo-hippies and union agitators, so don’t screw up in any way that might get you fired, since you will, someday, need a good pension. Boring but necessary, these pension things. Don’t leave work without it.”

So I couldn’t stop working and help him full time, but maybe I could find an intern? If there is hesitancy in my voice, I need to bring up some other sad things, like how at Wanda’s memorial service at the Los Angeles Central Library, ahem, oh shoot dang, well — Austin began to flirt with a very nice work colleague who had ridden with us in the same car. Dude, that just is not cool, and not just in terms of paying Wanda Coleman some respect, but what about the fact that this woman in the car was my guest? Show me some respect too: don’t hit on my coworkers when I am giving you a ride. There were other things, some other instances of “less than cool” behavior, too many in fact, and while I did try to help him, after a while he was not tippy top on my list of favorite people. 

The archives, though — now those had intrinsic value. Even though I had a bad feeling about working with him, this was so important to get right that I arranged for a student intern. Monica — and I have changed her name, and the lad below — would be under my nominal supervision via the college, the college where I had tenure but not any kind of magic umbrella against fireable offenses, and then separate from my sponsorship, Austin would pay her for her time directly. In that sense, she would work for him; I was not going to be onsite, not after the first few times. In placing Monica in this job, I was trusting Austin to be a gentleman. For my student, she was devoted to the arts and wanted to serve poetry any way she could. Helping Wanda’s legacy was her way of doing that. Maybe this would help her career, too, if she wanted to go into archival study in graduate school.

Long story short, he was nasty to her in a sexual way. Aw, shit. Come on, Austin. I had to tell him, “Look, that’s it, I am cutting you off. I can’t help you anymore.” 

I hated to do it, but it was my keister that was on the line, not his. Working for who I worked for, I had to avoid any possibility of a career-ending trip to HR; my own pension depended on it. In terms of how readily they went after faculty, I once had been written up for teaching Lucille Clifton’s poem about body positivity, “Homage to My Hips.” I was told that bringing that into the classroom was sexual harassment. It wasn’t, except down is up and up is down and whatever the administration says is bad, is bad. I was cleared in the end, but I had to be wary — wary and canny. Yet even leaving me out of it, just as bad was the experience of the student in question, who was entering literary study as a new and very innocent apprentice. She came away from her time with Austin feeling dirty and shamed — which of course is the very opposite of the liberation theology Wanda Coleman’s own writing tries to embody.

Even so, after that, I still tried to help him — not with the archives, he could sort that on his own if he put his mind to it — but he still needed a place to live, and one friend had an RV parked in her driveway, and him living there was discussed as an option. Somebody else maybe had a room to rent. Nothing worked out, and my life kept knocking on the door, saying, “Remember me? Don’t forget about me.” Some problems you can’t solve. So without meaning to, I lost track of Austin and hence lost track of the archives. The Antelope Valley is a big place — 3,000 square miles, depending where you draw the start/stop lines — and after those last exchanges, Austin and I never crossed paths.

Fast-forward months and months to the afternoon when a shy, sincere student named Danilo stopped in to see me in my faculty office. He needed literary advice. Of course; how can I help? He wanted to publish a novel. Okay, fine, different publishers have different emphases; what was his novel about? Well, he was not quite sure. He was having trouble making sense of it.

Picture me now with a cartoon question mark over my head.

It seems he had found a novel already written, and he wanted to publish it.

I tried to explain that even if the author was dead (God rest her or his soul), the copyright belonged to the heirs. Having a physical manuscript in one’s possession was not the same thing as having the legal rights to publish said manuscript.

Well, there were other papers, like letters and stuff. What about those?

I should clarify that Danilo had no ill intent. There was no desire to deceive anybody, defraud anybody, make false claims. He just wanted to know what to do. In my case, I find things in the desert all the time — an old hubcap, a pornographic novel, or the skull of a raccoon, picked clean as a new china bowl — and I think nothing of adding them to the great ash heap of my life. Finders keepers.

In Danilo’s case, he had found more than a hubcap — he had found the discarded archives of Wanda Coleman herself. This is major-league stuff we are talking about. In their assessment of Coleman, the Academy of American Poets turns to Marilyn Hacker: Wanda Coleman’s poetry has “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.” Good stuff, important stuff, in other words. Coleman is “prescient and innovative,” says the Poetry Foundation. (I wish they would say that about me.) In his poem “American Sonnet for Wanda C.,” Terrance Hayes reminds us that in her work, “Those who could hear / No music weren’t listening.” And: “She’s an elegy. It rhymes, because of her, with effigy. Because of her, / If there is no smoke, there is no party.” 

The nuisance of Austin aside, hers is a party I am glad to have been part of. I started reading her in high school, once I discovered the glories of the bookstore Papa Bach and its poetry journal, Bachy. This store was across the street from the still-extant revival house Landmark’s Nuart Theatre. I could see a classic film and afterwards buy books by her and Dennis Cooper and Eloise Klein Healy and Kate Braverman and Robert Peters and Holy Prado and Paul Vangelisti and everybody else. I was not yet a poet, though I yearned for it with an inarticulate hunger, much less was I a Los Angeles poet, but as I read my way through the shelves at Papa Bach’s and Chatterton’s and the little bookstore attached to Beyond Baroque, I kept hearing people talking about one woman in particular, Wanda Coleman. In his New Yorker review of her 2020 selected poems, Dan Chiasson notes that as one “of the greatest poets ever to come out of L.A., [Coleman] shaped the city’s literary scene like few before her.” 

Toward the end of her life, when she and I were in our desert years, I brought Wanda Coleman to my campus to do readings and run workshops. I was even able to pay her a stipend. Not a lot, but crafty fox that I am, my hand ended up inside the chicken coop more than I let admin realize. From Gwendolyn Brooks to Doug Kearney to Poet Laureate (and campus alum) Kay Ryan, by hook or by crook or by cooking the books, over the years I have found ways to bring interesting writers to meet my most promising students. Richard Blanco had read at President Obama’s second inauguration, and it happened that I was hosting him on the night of the election when Hillary Clinton lost and Donald Trump won. As I drove him back to Kate Gale’s house later that evening, Mr. Blanco was philosophical about the news. “I guess that just means we have more work to do.”

Yes we do — work to do like rescuing cardboard boxes in the desert.

As that office conversation with my box-discovering student evolved, it was getting late. I had to go to class, but I asked him, did he have time to go back? He did. Did he have a truck? No, but his friend did. Did they need money for gas? (Sheepishly: Yes.) Out came my wallet, off went the box rescue team of Danilo and company, and a few hours later, into my campus office came the Wanda Coleman archives. It seems things had gotten scattered; it actually took a few days to get it all rounded up. What’s that Apocalypse Now line? “It was no accident that I got to be the caretaker of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz’s memory, any more than being back in Saigon was an accident.” Do we ever understand why the Venn diagrams of the universe overlap the way that they do? There are hundreds of teachers employed by my campus, a mix of part-time and full-time staff, and a mix of helpful people and some folks who are burned out and only punching the clock, and that is the same as any campus, but out of all of the faculty on campus that day, only one or two besides me would have known who Wanda Coleman was. I knew, of course, but I also worked at the branch campus some days; there was no guarantee on any given hour that I would be on the so-called main campus, which is the site this student attended. How did our lives intersect, Danilo’s and mine, and how had he, a beginning writer, found her archive at all? It feels like fate — or else random luck is indeed very random and very lucky.

Of course, it takes a village to save a poet. The boxes were safe, but now what? Through Red Hen Press and Kate Gale, it was decided that the archive next belonged with a new caretaker, and in this case two caretakers: Terrance Hayes and Amber Tamblyn. I used to work in shipping and receiving: I am good at packing things in clean, bug-free, non-water-damaged boxes and getting them labeled squarely and driven to a Fed-Ex depot. (I too have a pickup truck.) How much of Wanda’s work was lost in the various moves and dislocations? No way to be sure, but I might guess as much as half. That means that half was saved, and is now in a new home, a home that is safe, permanent, and eviction-free.

The story of the desert boxes seems to have gotten garbled in the retelling, though. From a New York Public Library press release, I learned about a truncated, non-desert version of the provenance of the archive. Here is that 2019 document: “The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at The New York Public Library has acquired the archive of poet, essayist, and fiction writer Wanda Coleman. The recently uncovered archive — which was acquired and donated by poet and actress Amber Tamblyn, a friend of Coleman — includes scrapbooks of news clippings, research material, chapbooks, early drafts, press coverage of Coleman’s early works, some correspondence, and notebooks. The archive will be available to the public for research with a New York Public Library card in early next year.” 

Well now. What happened to the desert? I am not quite sure from the wording of this release if they are talking about only the jetsam that was saved from the Antelope Valley’s wood rats and loco weed, or if Ms. Tamblyn (who starred in the movie The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and with whom I once gave a poetry reading) had additional materials already set aside. I am glad that everything has found a home, that’s for sure, and to be honest, once I shipped the boxes, I didn’t worry too much about what happened next. I trusted the world to find a place for the work, and, indeed, it seems that it has. Wanda Coleman ended up stranded in the desert and yet now resides far beyond the desert. Wanda herself from a 2010 blog: “It is difficult to be in two places at the same time, but somehow I manage.” 

“When teaching,” Wanda Coleman wrote in another blog, “I often compare entering the literary world with entering a priesthood — the practice requires discipline, devotion, and great love; the diet is spare and sometimes bitter.” She would know that so well, especially the “bitter” part. The desert is hot, and exposure to high heat changes us: this is the principle of annealing a sword. Great religions have come out of the desert, and romantic warriors like Lawrence of Arabia and Gordon of Khartoum. But there is sadness too, sadness like thinking about the archives of a great writer dumped at the end of a dirt road. What happened to the parts of her work that blew away? Maybe they were used by a raven to line a nest — ravens being birds that thrive in the Antelope Valley, feeding on roadkill and French fries and unattended dogfood. Maybe somebody found some of it, copied it down, and made it into new poetry. Maybe nothing happened to it and it is there still, waiting for you. When you find it, you will hear a voice whispering to you, saying, “I am so glad you have come. I was waiting for you all this time. I love you and I always was meant to find you.” Maybe an especially tall spiral of wind lifted everything up, page after page, pushing it high up on a rising thermal — each page a kind of bird, each page flying and flying, going all the way up to the sun, Wanda Coleman’s poetry heading higher and higher, lost in the glare, headed all the way out of the atmosphere and declaring that this time, baby, this time it is never coming back down.