Place History: The poetry workshops that answered anti-Blackness with Black excellence
This story is part of Lit City, our comprehensive guide to the literary geography of Los Angeles.
Across from my writing desk there is a framed black and white photo: Four young Leimert Park poets sit front row at the Watts Towers watching a panel of four alumni of the Watts Writer’s Workshop. I’m the young poet with the black journal in his lap and wonder in his eyes. I’m the one who, many years later, serves as steward to the workshop’s successor, the World Stage Performance Gallery.
For decades, the poets of Watts and Liemert Park have responded to anti-Blackness with Black excellence. Articulating the full humanity of Black folk, they offered an inspiring counternarrative to dehumanizing treatment. “How can your low opinion of us be true when we can write high art?” This question for America drove those poets — the elders and those my generation — to show Black beauty to America and to ourselves.
The workshop was founded in response to the 1965 Watts Uprising by “On the Waterfront” screenwriter Budd Schulberg. The Oscar-winning writer would frequently invite heavyweights like James Baldwin and John Steinbeck to speak with members, among them Quincy Troupe, Jayne Cortez, Eric Priestley, Wanda Coleman, the Watts Prophets, Ojenke and Kamau Daáood.
The workshop dissolved in the early 1970s, but in 1989 Daáood helped to keep its vibrant spirit alive by co-founding the World Stage (with legendary jazz drummer Billy Higgins) in Leimert Park. By the early 1990s, Leimert had replaced Watts as the center of Los Angeles’ Black culture scene, hosting Babe & Rickey’s blues club, 5th Street Dick’s jazz coffee house, the Dance Collective and other venues. The World Stage led Leimert Park’s vanguard with its stellar jazz workshops and rigorous Anansi Writer’s Workshop, serving a new generation seeking Black beauty in the wake of more Black pain, including Rodney King’s 1991 beating and the unrest that followed.
The Watts Writers Workshop, a once-proud phoenix that rose from the ashes of the Watts rebellion 22 years ago and then faded in the ‘70s, got a burst of renewal last week with a visit from its first professor, author Budd Schulberg.
Brilliance also brought commercial success as members — including Jenoyne Adams, Derrick Gilbert, Pam Ward and myself — secured publishing deals with major presses and landed on bestseller lists. Musicians, including Kamasi Washington and Terrace Martin, emerged as influential leaders in the national jazz and hip-hop scenes.
The cross-pollination between musicians and poets (who still frequently perform and record together) is one of the most generative aspects of the movement. Jazz musicians, with their rigorous practice routines, have heavily influenced the World Stage’s culture of workshop discipline. Its well-known tough-love approach is rooted in a deep respect for craft that emerges from aggressive revising and fearless feedback. The culture is exemplified by the writing workshop’s No Bulls— Rule, embodied by a large, laminated sign hanging from the podium: a line slashed through the figure of a defecating bull.
This work ethic comes straight from the Watts Writers Workshop. On a recent phone call from his current home in Harlem, N.Y., Troupe recounted an old story about a poet who passed around a lazy poem for critique; workshop member Cleveland Sims threw it out the window, exclaiming, “This is bulls—.” Troupe approves of the sentiment: “I respect good writing and I have no problem at all letting someone know when their writing is not good.”
Not everyone feels that way. More than a few L.A. poets have complained that World Stage poets act like “poetry police”: gatekeepers who get to decide what good poetry is. Some poets come to the workshop once and never return.
World Stage Workshop members wear this as a badge of honor, a mark of excellence passed down from the elders in that photo across my desk to generations to come. We feel a responsibility to maintain their rigorous tradition — and yes, a sense of triumph in competition. In our 20s, we used to argue over which of us was most like specific Watts poets — just as playground ballers would yell, “I’m Jordan,” while shooting a jump shot. With my black journal in hand, I always yelled to my poetic players, “I’m Kamau.”
Datcher is a poet and novelist and the President of the Board of Directors at The World Stage.
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