Aug. 13, 1965, proved to be the first day of the rest of a new life for Eric Priestley.
That morning, the 21-year-old college athlete emerged from the Central Avenue pool hall where he was living to investigate what sounded like the far-off tinkle of wind chimes. He followed the sound down Central and inadvertently walked straight into the Watts riots, into the eye of a human hurricane that was ripping loose iron storefront bars with bare hands, smashing plate glass (hence the tinkle), buzzing all the while like a swarm of agitated bees.
Terrified, Priestley spent the morning trying to make his way back to his family home on the Eastside. Through the worst moments of the ordeal--policemen training gun muzzles on his face, people dying in spasms in the street--one thought burned clear:
I hope I live to write about this.
Priestley indeed lived to tell the tale, as did many others, in a new community birthed out of ashes: the Watts Writers Workshop.
There, in a house on Beach Street run by screenwriter and author Budd Schulberg, Priestley and scores of others discovered a forum for their particular fire. The workshop quickly evolved into a studio-cum-boarding house where discussions raged into the wee hours on social injustice, particle physics, the placement of iambs and meter in classical poetry, metaphors, the works of Plato, Marcus Aurelius and Homer. It was a greenhouse of ideas and friendships and spiritual alliances, a point of social and artistic convergence that spawned a theater, a coffeehouse, stage productions, a poetry anthology and innumerable dreams of far greater things for L.A.'s black arts community.
Thirty years later, much--and little--has changed in Watts and its neighboring community of South-Central. Still in place, though configured very differently, is a segment of that initial writing community: Priestley and his peers Kamau Daaood, Johnie Scott, Ojenke and Quincy Troupe.
Although many other workshop alumni call L.A. home--the rap pioneers Watts Prophets, K. Curtis Lyle--these five still beat a talking drum not only with the poetry they continue to write, but with a bond.
Daaood fashioned his own workshop at the World Stage performance gallery on Degnan Boulevard, where he and his cronies frequently read to a new, younger audience that regards them as the elder statesmen of L.A.'s black poetry circuit, the most eloquent and informed spokesmen of urban rage. While the bemused old-timers admit they find the urgency that drove them largely absent from the poetry scene now, they still champion the notion that writing provokes change. Even after the last incarnation of the Watts workshop burned to the ground in 1972--something many in the workshop believe was the work of the FBI--and devotees began drifting away, the flames were never quite extinguished.
Daaood concedes that perhaps writing will not engender the radical change his group once envisioned, but "as long as people are finding ways to express themselves . . . hey, that's progress. You have to start where you are."
Here is a look at this gang of five.
His work led him to Africa and around the world, but Priestley, 51, still plies his poetry trade in town. L.A. is not where Priestley always wants to be--the city that made clear his vocation but also shifted and cracked a foundation he once thought immutable.
"I thought I knew black people," he says, shaking his head. "But when you see something like [the Watts riots], it changes you. People flipping up in the air, expiring like mechanical dogs. . . . I never in my life want to see black people with that kind of anger and hostility again." He spreads a hand in the air to describe what eludes description. "It really does something to you."
Fresh as the memory may be, Priestley is far from dwelling in the past. He published an autobiographical novel "Raw Dog" (Holloway House) in 1985, and a collection of poems last year, "Abracadabra" (Heat Press), which spans the nearly 30 years he has been writing poetry.
Last year, he garnered a contract to write the script for a movie based on the life of the notorious L.A. gangster Sanyika Shakur, a.k.a. "Monster Kody." Priestley figures the project will put his formidable street sense to use while significantly boosting his profile as a writer. Where he once consumed the Harvard classics to shape his poetry in the Watts workshop, he now peruses film scripts with the same ardor.
" This is the deal here," he says of the film trade with a characteristically wide grin. "Poetry is cool and all, but ain't no business like show business."
Known among poets for his finely wrought details and ringing delivery, Priestley is still blustery and athlete-solid, a natural storyteller who can take a raucous laugh to a passionate whisper in the pause between sentences.
Whatever accolades Hollywood may have in store, Priestley says none will compare to hearing Ojenke read for the first time and realizing "my stuff was all wrong," then reading with Ojenke at Soledad prison in 1970 and bringing down the toughest house he ever faced. While he empathizes with the sense of disenfranchisement that permeates much black poetry today, he says the power of words has been considerably diluted by the fragmenting of poetry into performance-based genres such as rap and spoken word, the ignorance of literary traditions and a general unwillingness to be emotionally honest.
"I write poetry to keep my head on straight," he says. "And we all really did it because we loved it, because we had to do it. We were there to learn how to make sense of our lives."
The onetime baby of the Watts Writers Workshop--he was 18 when he joined in 1968--now presides over the flowering poetry and jazz scene along Degnan Boulevard in Leimert Park.
Daaood, 45, is all gentle cool and sonorous bass tones, as soothing a presence as the honeyed saxophone riffs emanating from the World Stage during a weekday afternoon jam session. Daaood divides his time between here and Final Vinyl, his collectible record shop around the corner on 43rd Place, next to Fifth Street Dick's Jazz Coffee House.
While he admires Priestley's ambition, his own vocation as a writer and artist has taken a different turn. "As far as poetry goes, it's very difficult to make a living at it," he says with a smile, taking a break in an alley that runs behind the Stage. "This gift, or burden, of being a poet is spiritual work. I write, but I'm not prolific. My life often becomes the writing, the poem. . . . Some of my writing is on the parchment of my heart."
There is a humility about Daaood, as he tends to business along Degnan sporting his trademark beard and tennis shoes, that clearly marks these endeavors as labors of love. He still lives close by, in the middle-class neighborhood where he grew up. Distinctly Westside in the '60s, Leimert Park became an extension of Watts after 1965, then of South-Central in 1992. But Daaood and a new community of supporters from all corners of the city are fashioning this neighborhood into something entirely their own. To many participating in the reinvention, Daaood is the key.
"Kamau represents such integrity," says Michael Datcher, 28, who has helped Daaood run the Anansi poetry workshop for three years. "People want to be like him. Everyone comes here, from dope dealers to engineers to nurses. It's a kind of communal place because of the word. Kamau is our spiritual leadership."
It was important to Daaood to resume the tradition begun by the Watts Writers Workshop of offering writers a place to hang. "Eric calls them 'the children of the workshop,' " he says, referring to the 60 or so poets who crowd the World Stage each Wednesday. "Sometimes in this workshop, man--we feel other people's pain. You see the vulnerability of being open with very sacred truths, of having the courage to look at the sores with a magnifying glass."
And Daaood says his efforts are not just about creating opportunities to vent, but shoring up the city's black arts front as well.
"This is the last kind of place like this in L.A.," he says of the neighborhood. "A lot of us have dug in, making a last stand. The black community as we know it is almost gone."
Among the best-known of the Watts alumni, Troupe came to poetry reluctantly. During a visit to Paris in the early '60s, wrestling with the notion of being a writer after completing an "awesomely bad novel," a friend introduced the St. Louis native to Jean-Paul Sartre. The renowned philosopher sat Troupe down and offered this advice: to get a grip on the language and rein in literary excesses, try poetry.
"I hated poetry," says Troupe, 56, a bit of the St. Louis tough in his voice. "But I found out shortly that I really, really, really loved it."
Troupe came to Los Angeles with still-vague notions of his future, "not knowing what I was going to find." As a journalism student at Los Angeles City College, he covered a black history event and ran smack into an epiphany when Ojenke stepped up to a microphone.
"I heard this extraordinary poetry," Troupe says. "It stopped me dead in my tracks. I went up and talked to him, and that's what got me in the workshop. Ojenke taught me that as a writer, you have to come out of the culture you grew up in . . . in my case, it was the Baptist, jazz-funk, muscular, musical language that you hear every day in the black community."
With his literary legs firmly under him, Troupe left the workshop for New York in the early 1970s, where he became a fixture on the poetry performance circuit and taught college for 20 years. Even though he thought Los Angeles too much of a movie town to support the ambitions of poets and literary writers, he nonetheless made--and still makes--frequent pilgrimages to the city he considers his creative touchstone; for several summers he ran the Malcolm X arts center for youth at Vermont Avenue and 42nd Street, and launched the John Coltrane Summer Arts Festival.
He burst onto the national stage after co-writing a best-selling autobiography of jazz legend Miles Davis in 1990. He is at work on another book of poetry, a collaboration with Cuban artist Jose Bedia, due out next year.
Now a professor at UC San Diego, Troupe admits that L.A.'s writing scene, though far from the glory he knew, is looking up. His friend Daaood, he says, is doing especially great things, "because he's passing on the kind of legacy that we [the Watts writers] left institutionally."
It is oppressively hot in Northridge, the sun's lingering presence fierce though twilight is well along.
Scott hardly notices. In the living room of his apartment, he is chain-smoking and showing the 20-minute video he directed and produced, "Gangsta," watching it as if for the first time.
Produced at the media center at Cal State Northridge, where Scott teaches Pan-African Studies, the mini-documentary is a brief but terribly effective look at the brutal realities of gang life; far removed from Hollywood bad-boy glamour, it is full of kids in wheelchairs, mothers distraught over dead sons, drab streets where well-meaning cops tearfully admit they are losing the war. For Scott, who screens these cautionary stories for at-risk youth, such a crusade is a logical extension of the social-reform zeal of the Watts Writers Workshop.
"I love my colleagues, I think they're wonderful poets, but right now other things need to be done," he says in his measured drawl. He jabs a finger at the television screen. "This--talking to gang members, speaking out on the loss of affirmative action--is my workshop now."
Scott, 48, was something of a Wunderkind in the '60s. His mother raised him and six other siblings in the Jordan Downs housing project ("I'm a Grape Street O.G.," he jokes). An exemplary student, he went straight to Harvard from Jordan High School and traveled to Washington at 18 for an audience with then-President Lyndon B. Johnson. Scott says he returned from his first year at Harvard "just in time for the revolt" in 1965.
As with his colleagues, the workshop altered his course; he dropped Harvard in favor of Stanford, where he earned a master's degree in communications. Summers, however, found him at the workshop, beefing up its library with books and other materials he managed to bring home from school.
After working in several capacities, including public relations coordinator for both the Watts Health Foundation and Charles Drew University, Scott is content with his latest, most satisfying role as teacher. He nonetheless admires the fact that after the workshop's demise in 1970, "some people, including Eric and Ojenke, stood their ground. This is where they were going to make their home. I understood the rage about losing the place, but my credo was always this: We have no friends, no enemies. We just have to keep doing our job. I'm a teacher."
He is, by many of his friends' accounts, the master poet, the man able to explode literary conceits in a single rhyme scheme, the gold standard not only for the aspiring throngs at the Watts workshop, but for younger wanna-bes looking to capture the elusive rhythms of street life in words.
"The first time I saw Ojenke, he was standing in the middle of the street reading poetry," recalls Kambon Obayani, a longtime participant of the World Stage workshop. "He was real. He was reading to the guys shooting dice, drinking, hanging out. It was awesome."
Ojenke--nee Alvin Saxon--laughs at such declarations. Priestley, his friend and greatest fan, always declares the loudest. "Ricky said that, eh?" says Ojenke, looking both pleased and put out. He sits on the floor of his spacious Crenshaw district house, a wealth of African drums arranged in neat rows against one wall.
With waist-length dreadlocks, thick glasses and persistent stutter, Ojenke, 48, cuts an unlikely figure for a hero. But to see him perform live, draped in colorful African garb and hurling image after lyrical image like thunderbolts without a trace of a stutter, is to witness the transformative power of poetry.
"I'm the John Coltrane of black poetry," he says, allowing himself the rare boast. "My style is basically oral. Poetry to me is much more oral than literary. A poem is immediate; its nature can't be calculated. I don't sit down with a contrived idea. Sometimes I have that vision, where I can see the past, present and future in a millionth of a second."
Like Daaood, Ojenke has never focused on publishing his material, preferring instead to "write on the hearts of the people." A collection of his poetry was published several years ago only because a friend, tired of requests for Ojenke's books, took the project in hand. Ojenke pauses when asked if he can loan out a copy.
"Well," he says, a little sheepishly, "I only have one."
Of all the lives profiled here, Ojenke's was most dramatically changed by writing. He was working at Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach, riveting DC-8 airplane panels, when the riots hit in '65. He heard about the workshop in Watts and took off work one day to see it for himself. He had excelled in literature as a high school student and harbored a particular love of sonnets.
"I didn't go back to work," he says. "There were so many kindred souls--I didn't know any before. It was the first time I realized there were other serious writers. I decided then to cast my fate with writing."
In the intervening years Ojenke has also sold drums, read astrological charts and hustled chess, a game he mastered. Like Priestley, he has lived other places--the Santa Cruz mountains, Oahu--but always returns to his native city. L.A. is his place of choice, though Ojenke nurses no illusions about the '60s rising again.
"We [the Watts writers] were carried along by the currents of a movement, but today people are much more individualistic," he muses. "There's no collective concern anymore. Now, anger is random. We were lucky in that the movement aligned a lot of things for us."
Still, he adds, people do seem motivated these days by something. The World Stage has encouraged similar black poetry spots around town, such as the California Coffeehouse in Culver City, Karibu in Inglewood, the Tha Ya Ya Tea House in Mid-Wilshire.
"Getting something going now is like trying to create motion in a tide pool," he says. "But at least places like this are giving people the chance to put their heads together and come up with something."
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Excerpts of Poetry
homeless lay I in high weeds
a seed in scorched soil . . .
on the wine rasping corner
where swagger the lame
trip the confused
stumble the insane
From "Lament on 103rd Street," 1965
Battering ram spitting graffiti on uterus walls
this garden once held sacred turned playground
swelling in asphalt
traffic jams and drive by shootings of pistol whipped lovers
panting in shadows, now dancing in the spotlights of helicopters
From "Tears," 1994
I have seen the dull-eyed sapphires
chasing their sweaty kingfishes
down avenues filled with blues
process 'dos, alligator shoes
sliding between the grooves
of B.B. King's blues into
pits of heroin gloom
From "Sermon from Mount Uhuru," 1970
when music is raised up as prayer & lives
healing as june's sun quilted into black babies
tongues, sewn deep in their lungs as power
& blueprinted here in the breath of rappers
sizzling staccatic, pungent inside blooming spices of words flung everywhere
as clues of generational breakdown--what else can eye tell you
except the world is square, instead of round, that there's no meaning
From "Avalanche," 1995
Later we would hit the streets and catch some Jimi Hendrix
or Sly Stone at the Fillmore . . .
We lived for right then
felt nothing about consequences and why should we?
Immortal we thought we were,
Indestructible voices of the Black Community
Righteous Black Poets with a lock on truth.
From "A Poem for the Children," 1991