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Eric Priestley Tribute, by Suzanne Lummis

Eric Priestley Was a Poet…


…and a novelist, a beloved figure in the artistic black communities of Leimert Park and Watts, and an original participant in the great screenplay writer Bud Schulberg’s groundbreaking Watts Writers’ workshop, established in the wake of the ’65 riots, graduate CSULA with a BA and Psychology. And, he was one of the most unusual people I’ve ever known. 


I didn’t even know him that long or that well—just long-enough, well enough, to begin to glean what an uncommon number of qualities and gifts had rolled together in this one guy. I have learned more in the wake of his death, end of 2021, New Year’s Eve, at age 78. I’ve learned more about him and picked up more learning.


Simply to write this memorial piece to accompany a couple poems, I had to expand my historical, political and musical knowledge—and not necessarily along the lines one might anticipate (should anyone pause and take time to anticipate). I had some work to do, but the work came with a side benefit—I’m somewhat smarter and more worldly now than I was at the onset of this project.


One) The great composers I’ve listened to include:


1.  Antonio Lauro, the celebrated 20th century Venezuelan musician and composer for the guitar, known for straight forward, uncomplicated compositions in a style called Calle Real;


2. French composers of the 19th century Romantic period, including pieces by Joseph-Maurice Ravel;


3. The adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia by the Russian-Armenian composer and conductor Aram Khachaturian, as performed by the UNC Symphony Orchestra;


4. Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, by the English composer Vaughan Williams, who wrote a range of works from operas to chamber music and was a protégé of Ravel. Fantasia debuted in 1910. 


I would not have if it weren’t for Eric Priestley.


Two) I’ve read a rich, harrowing novel—or, a thing that seems 4/5ths memoir, 1/5 novel—relating the evolution of a black boy growing up the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, with time spent in Louisiana. He’s an odd child, excellent student, something of a prodigy, but born asthmatic and with other strikes against him. He’s abused by the larger society because he’s black, and by other blacks because he’s dark. Though in ill health for many years, he bursts with life, curiosity and a passion for experience, and the narrator’s near photographic memory envelops us in the landscapes of 1950s low-income urban L.A. and the fertile abundance of the rural south. Like the Argentinian guitarist’s trademark sound, the novel’s literary style might be called Calle Real, nothing fancy, few arty detours, straight on and straight ahead.


One other feature belongs to this protagonist named Johnny Murphy: he develops a high pain tolerance. Which is lucky for him—because he’s going to need it.


Mid last year, Eric began to send me occasional Private Messages on Facebook. One included the advice, “Read Raw Dog.”


I wish I’d read it while he lived. We could’ve talked about it.  I’d kick myself, but my pain tolerance is only so-so. 


Three)  I had to read The Federalist Papers.


Yes. Those Federalist Papers, the series of 1787-88 essays by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay aimed at voters in New York State, with the goal of defending the principles underlying the newly drafted U.S. Constitution, and to argue for its ratification.


Fortunately, I owned a copy of The Federalist Papers, I’m not a complete bozo. Or rather, I had on hand the highlights, the choicest bits, in a pocket edition. However, could be I had not read 1. The Spirit of Laws. Vol. I, Book IX, Chap. I. No. X (The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection).


In any case, it was not fresh in my memory. 


I’ve mentioned these areas of Eric Priestley’s wide-ranging interests because I’m trying to understand who he was—this poet-performer I’d met a few times in the 90s and published in the anthology Charles Webb and I edited, Grand Passion: Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond. It’s likely that with his memory, as evidenced in his memoir/novel, he could describe our encounters over two decades ago far better than I could. I remember only that the first poem I heard him read wowed me, a riveting chant-like list of different types of lies. And, this was well before our present era, The Age of Lies (though some would say that label might suit every age.)


I hadn’t heard from Eric in years, figured he’d left town. I was right. Had he Ev-er. He’d moved to China for a stretch of time. Then I heard—via this newfangled thing called Facebook.


6/20/21, 1:21 AM   EricJohn


Peace, Suzanne, good to see you're still in the Room. Eric


6/20/21, 1:36 AM Eric, oh what a while it's been since I've heard from you. And it is Good to Hear. Yes, I'm twice vaxxed, and it seems I've escaped death once again, though it's unlucky to say that—maybe—so ... I take it back. Providence doesn't like arrogance—I could say I've escaped death then get run down by a drunk tomorrow when walking to Rite Aid. And what an ignominious end that'd be -- regional poet dies on the way to local chain drugstore. Witnesses report seeing a Volvo...


EricJohn


Lol


Laughter would be his first response as well as his final expression at the end of our exchange, as he headed toward the malady that’d take him down. Next time I heard from Eric Priestley… Here came the music.


EricJohn7/8/21 10:42 PM

I played piano, & studied composition as a child. I am born on Ludwig Van's birthday, Dec 16th. I studied Harmony in high school under Sam Brown at Thomas Jefferson. He was a musical genius & was the first Black man in Los Angeles to perform Chopin in 1927 I think. He graduated with Ralph Bunch and Woody Stroode from Jeff. Lol. Read my novel, Raw Dog. It's in there. Hope you're well, Suzanne. I think of you always.


He then copied the first of what would be several musical links, Alex Ffrench’s “Dreamland.” It’s gorgeous.  - Wish I’d listened to it sooner, but I was distracted, preoccupied. Busy.  Ah well. Till then, no one had been sending me YouTube links to video performances of late Romantic and Modern classical compositions. More specifically, no black men raised in the L.A. neighborhood of Watts and rural Louisiana had been sending me late Romantic style and Modern classical compositions. So, although after the national and global events of recent years, I’d said nothing can surprise me ever again…  I was somewhat surprised.Eric praised conductor Gustavo Dudamel and his guidance of the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra, which draws together the most gifted high school musicians from Venezuela's “life-changing” music program.


8/16/21, 7:21 PM   EricJohn


https://youtu.be/2ZbJOE9zNjw. It is here we can HEAR the immense ENERGY & brilliance of Dudamel & his command of these kids.



I’m including one of his several links because Eric Priestley wanted me to listen to this. Really, I think he wanted everyone to hear “the immense Energy and brilliance of Dudamel and his command of these kids.” In some respects, Eric Priestley must have been lonely.  Who had time to stop and listen, who knew enough to talk to him about this contemporary and local performance of a work by the Soviet era composer who had to write his music in dread of Stalin’s displeasure, Dimitri Shostakovich, his 10th Symphony?


Read Raw Dog. Indeed. When I finally did, rather late in the game, I discovered the “fictional”? character, Johnny Murphy, was born on Ludwig Van’s birthday. Here’s the protagonist as a small boy.


“I remember many times Mama picking me up asleep by the radio. After The Squeaking Door and The Fat Man I would curl up under that old radio and listen to some of the most beautiful music I had ever heard: Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky and Delius. And when I had asthma really bad and had to take the shots, these were my only release, simply because I loved the music. It sent strange chills over my skull and up and down my spine…. I remember Papa coming home with his black lunch bucket and I would climb up on him and give him a big hug and wheeze for an hour and he would scream at Mama, “Damn, Jean! That damn boy sick again? Every time you look up he sick. Reading them damn books, painting them pictures, listening to that damn shit. Turn that damn music off!” – Raw Dog


I’ve included a link, and down the line another one, because if we don’t grasp the role music played in Eric Priestley’s life, this music—not the rock and rap music we hear coming off car radios then, eventually, in TV commercials for Old Navy and Gatoraid—we don’t get this guy. He was an urban performance poet, but if there happens to be any stereotypes of urban performance poets floating around out there…  They don’t fit Eric Priestley.


And, finally, on my list of assigned or self-assigned explorations, there’s Eric’s political engagement, most visible on his Twitter feed—a cascade of ideas, fact checks and expressions of moral revulsion, responses to national political events as they unfolded. Here was an obsession right after my own heart. Here, he and I had slid into our inescapable red shoes—a reference Eric would’ve understood—and were dancing to the same tune. 


eric Priestley@ejptheonly

Nov 28, 2020

"The Right Questions": are these "Lightweight questions"? Is Trump the real President of the United States, or is Putin? 


Nov 28, 2020

“The Right Questions": what was said at the Helsinki meeting with Putin, where the only people in the room were Trump, his wife & Putin's interpreter?  Oct 31, 2020 Trump raped E. Jean Carrol, the writer in the dressing room of Bergdorf Goodman's Manhattan store in the 1990s. He left his DNA on her dress, denied it, & tried to get the DOJ to defend him. Federal District Judge Lewis Kaplan ruled Tuesday Trump's liable


June 8, 2020

Donald Trump is lame. He is a transparent bigot. I care that anybody, who holds the highest office in the land has not done one thing to bring the American people together. He runs on a platform of political polarization. This divides us.


Aug 9, 2019

DOMESTIC TERRORISM: 58 people massacred 2017 in Las Vegas, 17 students killed in Parkland, Fla., & 31 slaughtered in El Paso, & Ohio. "You count?" YOU BETTER! Politicians swore an oath to defend the citizenry. We are ALL held ACCOUNTABLE under law


Among those Eric followed on Twitter: the late Civil Rights leader and Congressman for Georgia, John Lewis, President Biden, V.P. Kamala Harris, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the Twitter feed of the House Intelligence Committee, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff (Priestley wrote approvingly to Schiff about his efforts and public statements, addressing him as “counselor”), Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, and Los Angeles poet and writer, his long-time friend, Pam Ward. 


This tweet includes a reference we don’t often see on that particular social media platform.


Jun 6, 2020

I remember reading the Federalist papers. Madison said the American people have a right to peaceful assembly and the freedom to exercise that right under the Constitution. Don't recall reading where the President has the right to violate the right to assembly with teargas.


This featured post appears at the top of his Twitter page. Readers here have seen it before.


Feb 7, 2021 

Federalist Papers.“1. The Spirit of Laws. Vol. I, Book IX, Chap. I. No. X (The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection) Two methods for curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.” (Attributed to James Madison).


And so, this is why I had to get eyestrain pouring over pages packed with point 9 type, my trusty copy of The Federalist Papers—not exactly summer beach reading. 


But my lord, those framer guys were smart—brilliant: how they fought to create a government that had never been imagined, or imagined but never achieved, at least not on this scale and this quickly, how they had not much to go on but some ideas from the Enlightenment philosophers and thinkers, Thomas Paine, John Locke and maybe a dab of Rousseau, and leads from the Magna Carta and English Bill of Rights, how they drew from their sweeping knowledge of political history, the multitude of failed governments that had come before, and tried to build in safeguards. They discussed the natural tendency of people to selfishly protect their own interests rather than sacrifice for larger good, the threat of one man or one group gaining inordinate power, a majority tyrannizing a minority, or a minority tyrannizing a majority. In the chapter Eric Priestley noted, Hamilton worried that these sorts of villains might crop up:


Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests of the people.


Running underneath the framers’ elevated 18th century language is this worry, which I’ll now translate into contemporary English:

Y’all are gonna screw this up, aren’t ya?


Before Tom Wolfe and “The New Journalists,” before Hemingway, and well before text messaging, the standard professional writing style trended toward wordy. Even so, some bits gave me a jolt, yes, as if I’d touched a live wire.


A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for preeminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good….Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm. (Wednesday, Nov. 21, 1787)


Oh well, nothing in there sounds familiar (she quipped dryly).


Translation: Any chance there’s enough of y'all out there who care about something larger and more enduring than your own damn selves? Do enough of you have a sense of history, your country and a world larger than what’s contained in your little redi-made, vacuum-packed, freeze-dried Belief Kits?


Eric saw in Trump and his feckless minions all the ruinous qualities those visionaries who stood at the beginning of the nation dreaded. While Trump was sending out the tritest and most odious 280-character screeds ever publicly conveyed by a modern world leader, this poet was using the same medium to quote from the foundational principles of the Constitution. And he was relentless.


Eric Priestly was not only a poet, novelist, member of the Watts Writers workshop, musical connoisseur, and graduate CSULA with a BA and Psychology. He was another even rarer thing, not many of these around now-a-days, and none on the extreme ends of either the right or left: a true American patriot. 


He was a man who cared about something beyond his own damn self, cared about the larger good.


eric priestley@ejptheonly


Oct 1, 2020

Peace. This is the reason hatred is bad. If I could talk to G-d, I wouldn't ask for riches or long life. I'd ask for the ability to discern between good & evil. Peace. Out. Me         

<>      <>      <>                                                           <>          <>          <>


The last missive I received from Eric via, as always, Facebook private message, came in about two months and ten days before he died. Of course, I didn’t know he was dying. We had different friends, mostly, and he never mentioned his health.


10/20/21, 7:41 PM   EricJohn

Republicans are voting against the Voting Rights Bill to absolve themselves in the INSURRECTION of Jan 6, 2021. They KNOW TRUMP broke the law, but to go against him demonstrates their COMPLICITY in a CRIMINAL OFFENSE AGAINST THE UNITED STATES of America. They also know that once it is proven they are complicit they CANNOT sit in the Senate as an ADVOCATE or PARTICIPANT IN INSURRECTION. Read Peril by Bob Woodward & Robert Costa. Trump should have been arrested on the spot for instigating the Insurrection on Jan 6th.., PERIOD!


October 20, 2021 You sent


I know. Buncha rotten criminals. Worse than the ordinary old school corrupt politicians. By contrast, I almost miss the ordinary old school corrupt politicians; at least they weren’t trying to overthrow the democratic system and install a half-insane, fool tyrant surrounded by rich oligarchs (and they’d be the oligarchs, the fawning, obsequious Congressional Republicans.) 


October 21, 2021   EricJohn

Lol


So, our correspondence began and ended with his laughter—a fitting response to the tragicomedy that makes up long stretches, and short ones—and little bursts—of human life on earth. I’d like to imagine his laughter’s still ringing out there, but not derisive, not mocking, an affectionate, forgiving laughter. And, G-d knows, there’s a lot that needs forgiving.  


I’m closing with the first music he sent me, by the contemporary UK composer-producer-pianist of classical soul, Alex Ffrench (born 1970). It’s called Dreamland. Gorgeous. Eric, when we hear this, we’ll think of you always.




Addendum


On May 16, 2022, at 11:25 PM, Suzanne Lummis wrote:

Pam, I'm working up a submission of Eric's poems with an introduction. - Something I don't know but you might. He told me he'd been in China for a few years. I forgot to ask—do you know why he went to China, what he was doing there, or why he returned?- Wish I'd asked him when I had the chance.

Thanks for any information you have.

 

Gracias,

Suzanne


Hi Suzanne, I believe he was teaching literature. He left because it was getting dangerous to share ideas. I used to joke and say “man you better get out while you can.” So glad you are immortalizing him. He was very secretive about being there but it’s a great part of his intellectual journey. He could speak Chinese and multiple other languages. 

Take care!           Pam Ward



Addendum II


Eric Priestley (Dec. 16, Beethoven’s birthday, 1943 – New Year’s Eve, 2021) physically frail but uncommonly gifted child, poet (Abracadabra, Open Mouth Poetry Series, 1984), novelist (Raw Dog, Holloway House, 1985), musical connoisseur, member of the groundbreaking Watts Writers’ Workshop, graduate of CSULA, BA in Psychology, true American patriot, and man who cared about something beyond his own damn self. Spoke Chinese and other languages. Alleged to have had unfashionable ideas.


RIP 

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