On Sept. 21, theologist, philosopher, poet and science fiction and fantasy writer Gerald Coleman enthralled students and faculty as he read a selection of his works in an event organized by the English Department. In addition to the reading, the department offered a conversation session with the author the following day. Coleman has written several poetry collections, short stories and an epic fantasy trilogy called The Three Gifts. For the reading, he selected poems from his collections Nappy Metaphysic and On the Black Hand Side, as well as part of a short story from his science fiction fantasy collection From Earth and Sky.
“I’m writing this stuff that the 19 year old me couldn’t find on the bookshelf,” Coleman said of his work. His focus on Blackness and Black fantasy and his melodic rhythm was evident from his first poem. His first poem, “Backstory,” opens with, “Luke Cage was born to deflect bullets as a commentary on the plight of Black men. / We have to be superheroes to get through the day. / They called him Power Man because we didn’t have any.” “Backstory” harkens back to his childhood obsession with comics. The poem criticizes the stereotyping of Black heroes, such as Luke Cage and the Falcon, as criminals who only fought for money, unlike their white counterparts, like Captain America and Spiderman. For each poem he read, Coleman gave context from his life and the anger, pride, despair or love that inspired each piece. This insight into his creative process was fascinating for those in attendance but, as his reading proved, his work speaks for itself.
Checking in with the audience throughout the reading, Coleman humorously reassured them that he would get to the fiction. The audience, however, was captivated by his poems and collectively sighed when he announced he only had time for one more. In total, he read seven poems from two collections, including “Love, Peace, and Hair Grease,” and “Red Summer” from his On the Black Hand Side poetry collection to close out the poetry. “Love, Peace, and Hair Grease” is a piece about the beautiful but complex history of Black braids. The poem opens: “Have you ever had your hair parted by someone who loves you? / Running their finger along your scalp with warm hair grease that smelled like joy and freedom.” On a more somber note, “Red Summer” challenges the racial stereotype that Black people are incapable of building wealth. Coleman explained, “I always have to point people back to the fact that every time we [as Black people] in this country, go back and look at our history, started to build that wealth, that that wealth was obliterated.” One line of “Red Summer” reads: “Even now, you dance on their graves by wondering aloud why we have no wealth to speak of. / As if you didn’t burn it all down with a grin.” The visceral nature of Coleman’s poetry puts the listener into the moments he describes, whether loving or horrific.
Breaking the audience out of their contemplative states, Coleman announced that he would shift into his short fantasy reading. “Speculative fiction was my entry into the world of reading and the works of personal imagination,” Coleman said in his later conversation session.
“It was pure escapism,” he said. “You open up these books and you’re on distant planets or starships or ancient medieval settings, riding horses and wielding magical swords.” This love of all things fantasy has manifested in his writing. Wanting to include something that was “a little more fun to close out” at the reading, he shared an excerpt from his science fiction and fantasy short story collection, From Earth and Sky. He chose an excerpt from “The Messiah Curse,” a story about a cursed immortal who is highly likable despite his calculating nature, as he makes an important deal for a coveted dagger. “You have one shot to make this deal. I’m not going to haggle with you. I have two other feelers out on similar artifacts. So I don’t have to have this one. Here’s what we’re going to do. You’re going to give me a number. One number. And I’ll either pay it, or I’ll get up and leave,” the protagonist of this story declares. Coleman’s fiction, which centers Black protagonists, is no less immersive than his poetry and he left the audience wanting more. Coleman answered a few questions to conclude the reading, but students had more time for questions during his conversation the following day.
Chairs filled up as students crowded into the room and the conversation, moderated by Assistant Professor of English Orchid Tierney, quickly turned to community. Before Coleman began answering questions, he talked about how he felt embraced by the literary community with formative experiences such as reading poetry as an opener to Emiri Baraka at the University of Kentucky and gifting Nikki Giovanni a pen when hers ran out of ink at a book signing. Talking with these successful writers and even having Baraka tell him he loved his poetry affirmed his identity as a poet.
Considering himself a beneficiary of such interactions, he expressed his continual willingness to speak with students at the schools he visits, providing any advice and support he is able to. “Working is about a lot more than just writing your stuff,” he said when asked about life as a professional author. “Working is about getting out into that community and meeting people and talking to people and being engaged in that community in many different ways.”
Coleman emphasized that finding success as a writer requires an ability to interact with both worlds: on the page and off. Beyond writing well, writers need to submit work to anthologies and magazines, attend conventions and participate in panels. He also talked about the variety of connections he has made by participating in “Bar-Con” after events, socializing with everyone from fellow writers to publishers over a drink. “Before anyone is buying your story, they’re buying you,” Coleman repeated multiple times for emphasis.
“The reality is [that] writing is a marathon,” Coleman said. “It’s not a sprint, and you have to do a lot of work outside of just writing a good story to continue to be a working writer.”
But how do you get to that good story? Coleman doesn’t write outlines but rather writes towards certain scenes, the end of the chapter or the end of the book, asking himself “Okay, how am I going to get there?” But, he emphasizes, this is his method. There is no one way to go about writing.
“Write the way that helps you write best. Don’t try to force [or] impose another way of writing on you,” he said, later adding, “If that means that your best writing comes at 2 a.m., do that. Don’t let anybody tell you ‘Oh, that’s not the way to write.’”