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L.A. Voices

PAGE 2 / News, Trends, Gossip and Stuff to Do : A View From the Bus: Poetry in Motion

November 01, 1998|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a moment when the Metropolitan Transit Authority is gettin' "no love," bus-riding poet priestess Roni Walter wouldn't know what to do without the ailing entity--warts and all.

Her bus pass isn't just fuel for the muse but her bid at proactive civic involvement.

"I have no license. I can't drive. I'm extremely hyper. And I'm doing the world a community service by not. So I carry everything in my backpack--a change of clothes, my pieces of paper."

Over the last three years she--and her performance confab, the Bakstreeet Poetz--has become a busy nexus within L.A.'s now-thriving poetry circle. Staging poetry slams and other open-mike events at venues as diverse as the Magic Johnson Starbucks in Ladera Heights, the Comedy Store and the House of Blues, she hosts an intimate weekly showcase that usually gets humming around 9 every Sunday night at West Hollywood's Shark Bar.

Just how this self-described "Southern-fried girl," who was born in Biloxi, Miss., ended up in Los Angeles is still a point of curiosity--even to her.

"I followed my cousin here in '85," says the ever-between-locations Roni, slipping more coins into the pay phone. "There was so much going on. A big gumbo pot of endless possibilities for business and for life."

Those first years were the lean ones, says Roni, 37. Though she had been writing since she was 7, it wasn't until '93 at a poetry reading at a club on Sunset that it hit her: "This is what I really want to do."

Her first big break came in 1995 at a front-and-center House of Blues gig at which she co-hosted a "Roni'z Bakstreeet Poetri" event with celebrity diva Pam Grier. One gig bloomed into the next, and before she knew it, pop star Brandy was reading her poem "Invisible Woman" on the sitcom "Moesha"

When she's not working with her core Bakstreeet crew, she's knee-deep in relaunching her clothing line, Happi Nappi Wear (featured on "A Different World" and "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air"), sewn in between creating poetry programs across the county. A couple of her pride and joys: A monthly children's poetry reading at Borders Books on Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade and mentoring high school students on the mysteries of unlocking the muse.

But, somehow, Roni's never squeezed for time to write or tapped out on subject matter.

"One time I got this idea [on the bus] and took one of the cardboard ads off the wall and started writing on it. But my poetry comes from real life--from walking the back streets when I get off the bus."

What passes outside of the window--no matter how broken-down or at-surface hopeless--becomes inspiration, poetry on the page. From drug abuse, homelessness and the daily struggles of living by a strand, she tries to balance it all with flashes of faith and the pride it takes to keep on keeping on.

"Because I don't drive, because I live with friends, because I keep a lot of my stuff in public storage, sometimes people can't believe I live this life. Sometimes I can't believe I've lived this kind of life," she admits. But maybe it's living a life that walks a careful tightrope between high posh and nose-dive skids that broadens her perspective and aligns her priorities.

"I thank God, because he's written the words into my heart, my mother because she gave me life to give me words. My mother would insist that I spend my summers in the South. Without it, I wouldn't know grits from gravy. Or what it's like busting open a watermelon and digging out the fruit with your hands. My work is a down-home mix of blues-influenced, gospel-inspired, hip-hop swinging, jazz-related Southern-fried back-street flow," says Roni, leaning into a lyric that's more like song, squeezing it in before the coins run out. "And it's the truth."

*

Roni'z Bakstreeet Poetri at the Shark Bar, 826 N. La Cienega Blvd., West Hollywood, 9 p.m. every Sunday; Magic Johnson's Starbucks, 5301 W. Centinela Ave., Ladera Heights, monthly; (818) 509-7927. Roni'z Bakstreeet Spokenwurd Lounge, at the Comedy Store, 8443 Sunset Blvd., the first Monday of each month--poetry, dancing and dominoes.

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