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Words to Live By : At the Watts Writers Workshop, poets turned social issues into fervent art. Thirty years later, language still consumes them.

October 08, 1995|ERIN J. AUBRY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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.

Eric Priestley

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.

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