Quincy Troupe: an interview by Jan Garden Castro.
CASTRO: Quincy, after James Baldwin died, you edited James Baldwin the Legacy, closing with his "Last interview" in 1987. Baldwin told you, "... I could see that there was something in Miles and me which was very much alike ... something to do with extreme vulnerability ... See, we evolve a kind of mask, a kind of persona ... to protect us from all these people who were carnivorous and they think you're helpless. Miles does it one way, I do it another." I'd like to ask you the same question you asked Baldwin: "How do you do it?"
TROUPE: How do I mask?
CASTRO: Yes. How do you mask?
TROUPE: I think everyone that lives in the world wears a mask at some time or another in their lives. In the United States people wear masks because of various reasons. Sometimes they don't want to offend people they know; sometimes they don't want to offend certain religious or racial groups and they may temper what they say.
Sometimes artists wear masks when they're creating a persona. Some masks speak for you. Some artists wear a mask all the time and then sometimes take it off. And sometimes taking it off gets you into trouble. If I say something about white people, you know, or if I say something in New York about Jewish people, about what I don't like about Ariel Sharon, then it might get me in trouble, even if it's right, y'know what I mean, because some people might not want to hear it. If I say something about Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, black people might not want to hear it; you know, it gets you in trouble. Or if you say something about Bush today, some people will jump all over you. Religious fanatics jump all over if you say something unfavorable about religion.
CASTRO: In this neighborhood [Harlem]? In New York?
TROUPE: Anywhere, any where. You've got people of all political persuasions all over New York. You have this split culture now that's confused about many different things. People wear masks because of different reasons, sometimes artistic and sometimes political. If you say certain things, then you have vendettas coming at you: 'We won't publish his poems.' 'We won't publish his piece.' 'We won't invite him to do a reading here.' I think people wear masks because of those reasons ... I wrote an editorial for Black Renaissance Noire [a journal at NYU; Q.T. is the new editor] talking about [sighs], basically, White Nationalism in this country. You don't see black people as talking heads on television; they have no pundits, perhaps a few.
CASTRO: What about Cornell West, Tavis Smiley ...
TROUPE: They have a certain point of view. Tavis has his own show, basically a black talk show, mostly political, though he does have writers, poets and entertainers on. He's a great host and has a great, serious show, but it's viewed by most whites as a show for blacks. So we've gone back to ... basically, a segregated situation. Not only in our schools, but in our political, social and cultural opinions, in our neighborhoods, and nobody thinks anything about it. I guess people just think it's normal.
You don't have people asking: Where are the serious African American movies? Why don't we have serious African American art shows? I mean, there are a lot of great African American, Caribbean and African scholars, thinkers, writers and poets. There are a plethora of fabulous, great black stories that great black actors can be in, great black painters and sculptors. But hardly anybody says anything about it, and if you do they think you're trying to make trouble. They think it's normal that the American Academy of Arts and Letters is mostly white people.
CASTRO: I thought you were a member of the Academy of American Poets. You're listed on their website.
TROUPE: I'm listed because of donations that I've given. I'm telling you, there are very few African Americans in the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, very few. But nobody seems to mind; they think it's normal. I don't think it's normal. I think it's racist and creates a false image for the arts in the country. At this point in my life, I feel like I should say something. Whereas I used to wear a mask more, I'm taking the mask off, I'm taking the muzzle off now. If it offends people, then they should look at themselves and why it offends them. I mean, if something is wrong, we should be able to say so.
We should be able to say that for the most part the industry of poetry is racist. The industry of literature is racist. There are very few black editors, only a very few, who can green light a book--maybe one or two that I know of in the publishing industry. If you look at Vanity Fair, they have no black writers. If you look at all the major publications, they have few black writers, or editors, if any. You have very few blacks, Latinos, Native American Indians, or Asians in positions of authority. And people think that's normal. That's not normal when the country, in maybe twenty-five years, is going to be predominantly colored. We are going to be the majority in this country.
One other point about African American critics that John Wideman and I talked about--if you look at the New York Times, you have very few African American people critiquing books, even a black book. You know that they aren't going to let us criticize a white book. But they don't let us criticize African American books either. And then we have all of these white people, many of whom are newcomers who are being made into experts on African American music, books, art, dance and film. A lot of white music critics didn't like it that I wrote the Miles Davis book [Miles The Autobiography]. And then I wrote Miles and Me. They just didn't like that I would become the expert ... so they try to go around me all the time. They raid my book, you know, go through and take all the concepts out, without putting quotes around it, you know what I mean?
TROUPE: Yes, they're plagiarizing, they change a little bit, but no one says anything.
Part of it is our fault, too, because African Americans have to stop writing all their Ph.D. dissertations on Toni Morrison. I love Toni's writing, but you know, you have countless dissertations on Toni Morrison; why don't they write four on John Wideman, two on me, and three on Ishmael Reed? But everybody's writing dissertations on Toni Morrison or Maya Angelou. Come on, let's get serious. I think that we have a dearth of serious black critics. Why don't we have more African Americans writing about African American artists and sculptors? I used to tell my students, come on, let's get off the mark. Why don't you all write about all these other great writers, poets, artists and musicians? So black people bear part of the blame, but the establishment bears more.
CASTRO: You have touched on some aspects of many questions I want to ask. My next question revisits some of the landscapes you've opened up. Your poetry volumes each develop many extended metaphors, starting with the title poems: Embryo, Snake Back Solos, Skulls along the River, Weather Reports, Avalanche, and Transcircularities. Could you talk about the holes in old people's eyes in "The Old People Speak of Death," ["turnstile holes the old folks--ancestors--left inside/their tunneling eyes for me to pass through" ...] and the roles that eyes, the river, family, and memory play in your poems?
TROUPE: That's a very good question, a poetic question. When I first wrote the part about the holes in old people's eyes, I was trying to talk about sorrow and loss, especially in black women's eyes--sorrow that these women, these people, these men did not have the opportunity to really exploit the full potential of their lives because they were African Americans living in this country. When I would look into my grandmother's eyes, and my uncles' eyes, and my dad's eyes, I would see these holes full of loss and sadness. My grandmother was a great woman, but she was a maid all her life. She worked for white people all her life, and she couldn't go to school and all of that, but she saved a lot of her money and bought houses in St. Louis and cared for my mother, my late Uncle Allen, and me and my younger brother, Timmy.
My father, on the other hand, was a great baseball player, probably the greatest athlete Missouri ever produced. He was the heavyweight national Golden Glove open division champion in boxing. He made all-state in football, basketball, and baseball. All three major sports. He was a dominant player, and a dominant boxer, and he spoke French and Spanish in addition to English. He could talk fluently about Latin, Cuban, Venezuelan, Puerto Rican, and Mexican culture. Yet he did not play in the major leagues, even though Roy Campanella, who is in the Major League Hall of Fame, was his substitute. My father, like Campanella, was a catcher.
My father, who was the second or third greatest catcher of all time in the old Negro Leagues, and probably the fourth, or fifth, or sixth greatest catcher of all time in the history of all of baseball, and also a great manager, could not exploit all the ability he had because of racism. Once a white man said to him, "Quincy, if you were a white man, you would be making a hundred thousand dollars a year now." Well, this only rubbed hot sauce or pepper into the open wound my father already carried. He didn't want to hear this. It was a cruel thing to say, because he couldn't be white: Ever. I wrote "Poem for My Father" [for Quincy T. Troupe, Sr., in Transcircularities] because he told me that story. I set the poem in the late forties. I realized the pain that he was going through--the fact that he could not play in the Major Leagues. And his team was regularly beating these great white teams, every time they would play. He was the catcher when Satchel Paige struck out nine, or six, or three white players in a row. He told the whole infield and outfield to sit down. It was just Satchel and my father. And he struck out the whole side. All-stars, white all-stars, and he struck them out.
CASTRO: What year was that?
TROUPE: It was in the early forties or late thirties. But I'm talking about the pain that my dad went through because of all of this. He had to play baseball the whole year round, you know, in the United States, Canada, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and Mexico. Here's a man who spoke three languages, knew all about Latin music, knew about Machito, could do all the dances, was brilliant mentally, a gentleman, and few whites took him seriously. When I looked into his eyes as he got older, I saw this sorrow there. And sometimes he would erupt into rage when you started talking about white players like Yogi Berra or Joe Garagiola. He was twenty times better than both of those guys, who are also from St. Louis. He didn't dislike them personally; he disliked what they exemplified. He was much better than them but couldn't play in the same league. He used to talk about this with me, almost on the verge of tears. So those poems are about sadness and unrealized potential.
You could multiply this by a lot of black people, such as Paul Robeson. This man was an absolute genius but couldn't get anything. It drove him into being what they call "an extreme left-leaning person" [laughs], a communist. Well, what do you expect when you graduate number one in your class at Rutgers, you graduate number one in your law school class, you're an All-American football player, you speak countless languages, and you're a black guy and you can't get the jobs that the people that graduated at the bottom of your class get, because they're white? How do you think he felt? I used to look into Robeson's eyes in his movies and in photos, and he had that same look that my Dad had.
CASTRO: Did you actually know Paul ...?
TROUPE: I didn't know him; I met his son. Paul (both of us are juniors, too) and I, we both had these famous dads, and we talked about the whole thing, at a party, about our dads. He said his dad used to be so angry about not only what they did to him, but what whites did to millions of black men and women. That poem for my father was trying to get to that deep image of rage and loss brought on by racism.
CASTRO: I have a St. Louis poetry question. Your poems cover the territory between life and death, from the smell of the St. Louis stockyards and the man swinging his hammer of death in "Rivertown Packin' House Blues" to the strong influence of sports, which we have talked about a little, and of St. Louis musicians, including Miles, John Hicks, and Lester Bowie. Could you talk about the disparate St. Louis influences on your poetics, starting with the poem "River Town Packin' House Blues" and its dedication to Sterling Brown?
TROUPE: I grew up on Delmar and Leonard, a few blocks from the packing houses on Vandeventer Avenue. Every time I left my house, I smelled this foul odor of burnt flesh in the air, I didn't know what it was at first. Then an old man told me, "Oh, that's the smell of them burning the flesh and skin of those cows and pigs that they kill over there on Vandeventer." And I said, "Ohh." And he said "That's the packing houses, the packing houses." And I said, "Ah, that's what that is."
I used to walk through the smell everyday. When I went to Carver Elementary School, I'd smell that smell, when I went to Vashon High School. Later, I got the chance to go into a packing house to see one of my friend's fathers, who was a packing house man. Before they developed these needles to kill them with, they used to hit the cows [sound of hands slapping] in the middle of the forehead with ball peen hammers. He'd hit them, BANG, as they passed by on both sides, and they'd fall down and someone else would cut their throats. And I saw this, all this blood, and the sound of the death cry and gurgle of the cow, pig, whatever, when they were dying. It was horrible. That's where that John Henry feeling in the poem came from.
CASTRO: You used the literary influence of the John Henry poem and your friend's father's example. Yet the poem ended up being about a murderous guy who wasn't necessarily your friend's father.
TROUPE: Oh it's the same guy! It's true, the guy was a killer, made that way by his experience working in the packing house everyday, killing all those cows and pigs. He lived down the street from me. His sons were friends of mine. One spring day, when I was young, I was running through their house--at this point, I lived at 3848 Ashland--and as I was running through their house ... the next thing I knew I was flying into the wall. Their father hit me so hard I almost flew into the wall. When I jumped up, he looked at me and ... I'll never forget those eyes when he looked at me and said, "Little Troupe, don't be running through my house like that. This ain't your house, so don't be running through my house like that." And I looked at him, and I saw this look in his eyes that was kinda like death. And I went, "Wow," inside my head. That was heavy!
CASTRO: How old were you?
TROUPE: I was thirteen, something like that. When I knew he was home, I never visited again until I was older, when I felt I could defend myself if he got upset. Over time I found out from his sons--this was before I wrote poetry--that he'd killed six men. He would go into taverns, have arguments and get into fights; he wouldn't start them, but he'd finish them. He worked every day, never missed work and was a great worker. At the bar, somebody might jump on him, and he'd just kill him--always with knives. You know, cut them to death or beat them to death with a bottle. And that's where that line came from about "Swingin his hammer named death." The whole idea was that there was too much death to bring home to love. Because after you kill cows and pigs all day, you bring that brutality home with you. That's what I saw in him. Then I took a step back when I started writing poetry, because I remembered him. I went and visited with him again in the packing house and started looking at him closer. By this time he was getting older, but he was still the same guy, so I wrote this poem. I thought his image was a metaphor for black people in St. Louis--the way black people killed black people in St. Louis without any regard.
After I wrote the poem, I began to realize he was not just a metaphor for black people, but a metaphor for the way all people are in the United States, regardless of race. There is a metaphor of death hanging over the United States today. Many poets don't want to write about this: they'd rather write about something else that excludes politics. That's cool; I'm not against that. But the man in my "River Town Packin' House Blues" is both a murderer and a kind of anti-hero, because he went to work every day and didn't walk around picking on anyone. But he would put himself in these positions where violence occurred and he would kill anybody who messed with him at the drop of a hat. His employer supplied him with a lawyer because he came to work everyday, where he didn't cause any trouble. He'd always have a very good lawyer, who would help him beat the rap. After all he didn't start the fight. He would provoke somebody. He just didn't throw the first blow, but was just defending himself, like the United States says it is in Iraq: "We're just defending ourselves from terrorists." Even though they haven't found weapons of mass destruction, we were told Iraq was going to come over here and blow us all up, kill us on our own streets. What nonsense!
CASTRO: We've gotten off the beat of poetry ...
TROUPE: I want to say why I dedicated the poem to Sterling Brown.
TROUPE: I dedicated the poem to Sterling because he really loved that poem, and because I learned so much about blues and folk poetry from him. He was a master poet and a master teacher. He taught Toni Morrison, Amiri Baraka, Ossie Davis, and Stokely Carmichal at Howard, along with many, many others. He was a great poet and a great man, in my opinion not mentioned enough as one of the true American master poets, just like Melvin Tolson isn't mentioned enough.
CASTRO: Good. Tell me how sports has influenced you.
TROUPE: I love most sports because it's pure expression. Nobody can take the fact that you're a great basketball player away from you. I played basketball and baseball in St. Louis. I was a really good player, and it was a pure expression. The same thing is true in music although music can be a subjective thing, too.
CASTRO: In Miles and Me, you compare Miles to Mozart and to Picasso and suggest that his style was criticized because he was black, saying, "He represented the best and worst of what we are, of our national character, whatever that is, just as Picasso and Mozart represented the best and worst of their national characters." That was pretty strong. I believe Miles invited you to write his autobiography because he admired the article you wrote about him for Spin magazine. And Miles The Autobiography reveals much more about Miles than most personalities would permit. Why did you decide not to censor Miles' voice and to reveal very intimate details? Did you, nevertheless, leave out some things that will be in your or Miles' archives?
TROUPE: I will definitely have things in The Accordion Years that were left out of our book and Miles and Me. When Miles asked me to write his autobiography, I told him, "We have to tell the whole story, warts and all. We have to tell the story about your abuse of women. I disagree with the way you treated women personally. But it's your book; you can leave it out if you want. But I would suggest you take a hard look at yourself and tell the truth and it will make a greater book." And he agreed. That's another reason why I loved him so--because he was so truthful. Great literature comes from truth telling. Like Ted Joans once said, "All you have to fear from the poet is the truth."
The publisher also cut out some of his deep discussions of music. Critics criticized that. Well, it was there. I wanted to put an index and a discography in the hardback edition of the book. They wouldn't do it until the paperback came out.
CASTRO: Was race a factor in the editing?
TROUPE: I think so. The "bean counters" were trying to keep the hardback book under twenty five dollars. You see, they wanted his life in one volume. I thought it should have been two volumes. We're getting three volumes on Picasso. We have two volumes on W.E.B. Du Bois by David Levering Lewis, and he's won two Pulitzer Prizes for his efforts. Miles Davis is extremely important to this culture, too, and our book should have been an in-depth look.
CASTRO: What's your role in the upcoming movie on Miles?
TROUPE: I was asked to write the screenplay by Rudy Langlais, who is a friend and the current producer. They are supposed to start filming at the end of 2004, or early 2005, but it's Hollywood and anything can happen.
CASTRO: Going back to poetry, your friend Eugene Redmond suggested I ask you to discuss the "notion of cross-fertilization of poetic forms, allied-types of expressions and cultures" in your poems. How did you come up with--can I call this a juju mix?--early in your career? This has obviously inspired several generations of younger poets.
TROUPE: I was privileged to grow up in St. Louis, which is in its own space, culturally and geographically. It's in the middle of the country, and all kinds of things from the north, south, east and west pass through St. Louis. All kinds of music, all kinds of clothing styles and linguistic impulses pass through there. When I was young, my father played base-ball in Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela, and I was able to go with him to some of those places. So I didn't grow up in St. Louis exclusively, but was able to experience other cultures when I was little. I was able to listen to music from these places that my dad played around the house. So at a young age, without even knowing it, I was put on a path of appreciating different cultures. After a certain point, I hated the way St. Louis was set up. You know what I mean? Black and white. I always found it limiting to be in St. Louis.
I was always listening to music in my house--my mother playing Jackie Wilson, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Louis Armstrong; my father playing all those Latin musicians and Charlie Parker and others. I grew up to love Miles Davis and Chuck Berry, who lived down the street. All of this music, this melange, influenced me greatly. Also, I grew up in the Baptist Church, and was a member of the choir, although I couldn't sing well. My first Choir director at First Baptist Church was Grace Bumbry [noted mezzo-soprano]. The second Choir Director was Olly Wilson [noted composer, now in California]. So we had this great Choir, these great singers, and the Church was always rocking. I grew up in the best of times. Later, I used to walk over to where Gaslight Square used to be; they had jazz clubs like ...
CASTRO: The Dark Side?
TROUPE: Yeah, and that place where I saw Miles--Peacock Alley. I used to go across the river to see the great funk organist, Sam Lazar. And all those baseball players were coming to the house when my father was playing--Satchel Paige, Monte Irvin ... I was meeting all those people when I was real little. And then after my mother divorced my father, she married a blues bass player named China Brown. And China Brown used to be in the house band at the Riviera, which was Jordan Chambers's club, who was St Louis's most powerful black politician. White powers conspired to tear down the Riviera because tearing it down ruined Jordan Chambers's political base. But they had the power to do it and so they did. In the meantime, all these musicians came through the house. I have been fortunate to have always lived in a very rich, cultural environment, which has, for me, over the years been very empowering.
CASTRO: How old were you when your parents divorced?
TROUPE: Maybe six or seven. When she married China Brown we were together until I graduated from high school. He used to work as a laundry man during the day and play blues on weekends. As I grew older, I always wanted to travel ... and then I went to Paris in the army, and played basketball all over Europe.
CASTRO: Let's stop in Paris for a minute. You were playing basketball; how old were you?
TROUPE: I was in my early twenties. This was in the sixties, so I must have been around twenty-two. I was on the all-star basketball team. I was on a local army team in Metz, and then I was on a French team that played all over France, playing on Saturdays and Sundays. I learned about French food and French wine, being with these French people all the time. And then, traveling I got to see Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Greece, all these different places, at an early age. That's when I began to realize all whites were not bad. Growing up in the United States where they had lynchings, I felt most whites hated blacks. On top of that I went to Beaumont High School, which was an all white school.
CASTRO: So you had been in a mostly white high school?
TROUPE: I had gone to Vashon, which was an all black high school until I transferred to Beaumont High when I was thirteen or fourteen. It was not a good experience to go to Beaumont.
CASTRO: Switching from an all black school to a mostly white ...?
TROUPE: All white. There were seven black kids in my class. Seven black kids out of three thousand white kids. This was in the fifties--'56, '57, '58--the first years of integration and it was terrible. We used to fight all the time. I was the first black person on the basketball team at Beaumont.
France was the first place that accepted me as a black person. I had a French girlfriend named Carol. A French guy on the team with me came up and said, "You know, you'd make a good brother-in-law." I said, "What?" "You'd make a good brother-in-law," he said, "my sister adores you. Why don't you think about going out with her?" Now this is a white French guy telling me to go out with his sister. That was when I started really looking at France as being different in many ways from the United States. Now, France is racist, too, but I couldn't imagine this happening in the United States during this time. But it happened over there. I thought it was deep. So when I came back to the United States, I had a different view about whites, informed by my experience in France.
CASTRO: Talk about meeting Jean-Paul Sartre.
TROUPE: I met him through Carol. After I hurt my knee playing basketball, I started writing what I call an 'awesomely bad novel.' I don't know where it came from, but I always read books. I was one of the Book Worms [as a child] in St. Louis. My mother turned me on to books. In France I started writing this novel about this African American guy who makes sexual conquests all over Europe; I realized early on it was a silly novel. So I was telling Carol about it, and she says, "Oh, my family has a friend who is a writer: Jean-Paul Sartre." Well, I had no clue who Jean-Paul Sartre was. She says, "Maybe I can arrange a meeting with him and maybe he can help you." So she arranged a meeting with him. I think he wanted to meet me to talk about the race problem in the United States. Anyway, I meet this little guy with glasses: So I'm sitting there and he didn't want to read my novel after I told him I couldn't control the language. But he told me, "You ought to write poetry so you can get a grip on form and language. Distill your thoughts. Through poetry maybe you can get control of the language." The other thing he told me was to carry a notebook around with me all of the time, so I could write down whatever I saw or thought--and I still carry one. I saw him only a couple of times after that, and even though we talked I never knew him well. I was too young and silly!
CASTRO: In your poetry, you've succeeded in addressing some issues of language as a deep metaphor for culture and other forms of communication. One of my favorite lines is from Avalanche, in the poem "& Syllables Grow Wings There." It says, in part,... "california earth-/quakes trying to shake enjambed fault lines of minimalls / freeways & houses off their backs, rocks being pushed up there/ by edges of colliding plates, rivers sliding down through yawning/ cracks, pooling underneath speech, where worlds collide & sound cuts/ deep fissures into language underneath the earth ..." You are trying to communicate what is happening to the world today--the way that language is both uniting us and dividing us.
TROUPE: In "& Syllables Grow Wings" I try to deal with the whole idea of language as it is impacted by geography and the physical space we live in and I try to use that as a mode of expression. To be able to explain a natural phenomenon, an earthquake, but at the same time try to use it emblematically to show the way language works in poetry. And also to explain how poetry works when caesuras, rhythm, and rupture are deployed in the language. I'm always trying to do that in my work now. I'm trying to get to another way of articulating and expressing myself and communicating the whole idea of where poetry and art come from. Art and poetry come from mysterious places inside the poet and artist, like earthquakes and tornadoes come from mysterious places in nature.
I'm trying to do it in a new poem I'm writing at the present time, one which I started in the late eighties but couldn't finish. It's titled "The Architecture of Language," which I'm contemplating making the title of my next volume of poetry. I think it's going to be a long poem, perhaps twenty-five pages. At the present time I have about eight pages that I'm satisfied with: I have a habit of rewriting most poems twelve or fifteen times, which can be problematic. Anyway, in this poem I'm trying to bring all the "cross-fertilizing" aspects of language and forms together, as you brought up earlier in this interview, into something I hope will elevate the cross-cultural aspects of the American--not English--language. I believe in the poet being a neologist, which is one of the reasons I called my last book of poems Transcircularities, which you won't find in the dictionary because I made the word up. It's also one of the reasons I use "eye" instead of the first person pronoun "I" in my poems--but not in my prose writing. I use it also because of my embrace of the concept of the "third eye" in the center of the forehead that comes out of Egyptian philosophy and culture. Some people view the use of "eye" as pretentious, but its use allows me as a poet to get to a more spiritual dimension in the poem than using "I" would. But that's my personal choice and view. It's also philosophical. For the same reason, I try to infuse my poetry--and indeed, much of my writing--with elements of mystery, magic and so-called "duende," which is a concept I picked up from reading Garcia Lorca.
CASTRO: Where does your poetic language come from?
TROUPE: Poetic language comes from this mysterious place deep inside us, like earthquakes come from somewhere deep inside the earth, which is a body, some say a woman's body. Poetry also comes from a body of communal gestures and speech, fragments and words and sounds and rhythms, articulations and all of that. When we hear dogs barking, car horns honking, the sound of music, everything, even colors, that's all in the mix. For me it is miraculous that we can harness or attempt to harness the way that poetry and writing expresses itself--through people like James Joyce in Ulysses, Pablo Neruda, Lorca, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot and Aime Cesaire, Derek Walcott and William Faulkner, Henry Dumas and Gabriel Garcia Marquez--through a kind of natural, incredible use of language. Toni Morrison in Jazz--where she is trying to get to what jazz is through language. Allen Ginsberg in Howl.
We could talk about many poets of today who are trying to go beyond the whole idea that poetry is formalistic, like Jay Wright, Amiri Baraka, Wanda Coleman, Alice Fulton, Jayne Cortez, the early poetry of Jorie Graham, and others. These poets attempt to stretch the boundaries of language and marry it, perhaps attempt to create a new American improvisational form on the page and in the air. The sestina is a form. The villanelle a form, haikus and tankas are forms. Sonnets and odes are forms. As Octavio Paz writes in The Bow and the Lyre, those are merely forms. What has to happen for form to come alive, to become poetry, is that the poet has to pour poetry into the form. It can't just be a line of iambic, or a nineteen-line villanelle. We are in a time of colliding cultures--computers, video games, television, music, assaults on our senses from everything imaginable--so how do you get all of that inside of a villanelle? How do you compose utterances that will fully express and communicate our visions inside fourteen or nineteen lines? That is a very difficult notion. And I'm speaking from the perspective of someone who has written forms and respects them. In the world we live in today, we need more symphonic ways of expressing ourselves in poetry, much in the way that Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane, John Cage, or Miles Davis or somebody like that expressed themselves. I believe in this and that, rather than this or that. And being the operative word here. I believe people can write formal and also symphonic poems. Jazz suites. You can write symphonic, jazzy and at the same time switch, like I do sometimes, and write villanelles and sestinas. Listen, we are all schizophrenic.
I even ran a literary series in La Jolla called "Artists on the Cutting Edge: Cross Fertilizations." This series brought together poets, novelists, like Toni Morrison, John Ashbery, Derek Walcott, Sharon Olds, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Czeslaw Milosz, Gwendolyn Brooks, Galway Kinnell, Campbell McGrath, Denise Chavez, Yusef Komunyakaa, William Gass, W. S. Merwin, Kamau Braithwaite, Marilyn Chin, Jay Wright, Terry McMillan, Rita Dove and musicians Max Roach, George Lewis, Richard Muhal Abrams, Henry Threadgill, Wallace Roney, Sekou Sundiata, just to mention some. This series was wonderfully fulfilling because it served as a mirror that reflected a great cultural world. I loved mixing up everything because this is the way things truly are in the United States: mixed up. Plus the series always sold out.
CASTRO: That's quite a line-up; you should be planning programs for the Library of Congress. This makes me think of two different kinds of questions: first, what and how do you teach your students? And second, where does rap fit into this spectrum of sounds and language?
TROUPE: First, I teach my students ... you know I retired from teaching, but I teach workshops from time to time. What I've always taught my students is to investigate their own possibilities. What is it that they hear? What do they think is important? As a person, as a poet who wants to write, what is important to them? And if they think it's important to write sestinas and villanelles, then that's what they ought to do. But I also tell them they ought to infuse that with as much energy, as much fun as they can. On the other hand, if you want to write both formalistically and the other way, then do that, too. If you don't want to write forms you don't have to. You can write whichever way you feel you can best express yourself. But in my beginning classes, the first thing they have to learn until they get to that point where I see they have it under control is blues, blues-sonnets, regular sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, haikus, tankas, and odes.
I believe poets should come to the table like musicians do. Most musicians know scales, know what they are doing technically [sings a scale]. Then if poets want to create and have an impact on the form, at least they know what it is. Don't talk about a subject if you don't know what it is. I tell young poets, first know what the subject is, know what the form is, what the history is, know the history of poetry, know who Pablo Neruda is, who Sylvia Plath is. You might not like him or her. You might not like Gwendolyn Brooks, but at least know who she is. I try to give my kids all of that information at the same time I'm trying to give the history of poetry and its forms.
In our second class together, they're going to learn more. When they get to the master level, I'll start to turn them loose [laughs], take my grip off them. Because by then I'll know they know a little about what poetry is, who Eliot, Pound, Tolson, Neruda, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sharon Olds, Lucille Clifton, Ginsberg, and Walcott are. But I don't let them fly until I know they know something about it all.
CASTRO: Going in the direction of rap ...
TROUPE: Rap fits into my philosophy of this and that. What is rap? Rap is about rhythms, it's about syncopation and beats. It's also got a certain rhyme scheme, I call them modern day Popian couplets.
TROUPE: Whitman-esque. If you listen to most rhymes of rappers they always remind me of the rhymes of Alexander Pope, the English poet. Rappers employ off-beat sprung rhymes and all that, but their base is still basically Popian couplets. I think rap with beats has a place in poetry. It has poetic properties. At the same time, the rhythms and beats are what's interesting to me, just like the rhythms and beats of Miles Davis. How do you scan a line or phrase of Miles Davis or Coltrane or Jimi Hendrix into a line of poetry? You do it by listening and mimicking the rhythms and beats. You can do the same thing with rap. You can mix it all up, iambic, hexameter, off-rhymes, scats, raps and syncopated accents; you can mix all that stuff up--which is very American.
CASTRO: When I was at Johns Hopkins studying 18th Century intellectual history, we had to read the complete works of the Marquis de Sade, a sadomasochist who wrote about infecting women's vaginas with gonorrhea and syphilis. This was justified at the highest intellectual levels as being a visceral expression which was new in the 18th Century. At the same time, it was obviously sexist and malevolent literature. What happens with rap? Is there the same problem that the message is not as good as the rhythm or the underbelly?
TROUPE: We used to have some very positive rap--Arrested Development and all those early, political groups. They just got swept aside by gangster rap and everybody--white kids mostly--wanting to hear that in the suburbs. The media especially likes to pigeonhole young and older African Americans. If they can pigeonhole a black rapper into a caricature or cartoon character calling women bitches and mother fuckers, posing with head rags, processed hair, baggy pants, goatees, humongous diamond necklaces and rings, horrific looking platinum teeth, they--the media--will, and will make them famous quicker than you can say "kill me." They will give them boatloads of money and media attention for being crass and stupid if you're black. That's the image they want out there. The message, especially the gangster rap thing, reinforces the idea that all black kids are beastly and heartless murderers in black communities. Some are, most aren't. I've never liked that message, but you have to understand it's just like rock and roll. Rock and roll's message for years was about teenage rebellion, about conquering women, and about hating grownups. It's like teenage rebellion. Rebellion has always been anti-parent, anti-social, for the most part, anti-control, and anti-establishment. That's what sells. Guns N' Roses, for example; the crazier they were, the more records they sold. Mick Jagger did all kinds of stuff. Madonna. So black rappers are just black young people doing the same thing so they can sell records.
Rapping fits into the mode of commercialization. You can buy into commercialism, buy four or five cars, diamonds, bracelets, even teeth. Rap beats are infectious, though; Max Roach says rap is the largest revolution in music since Be-bop. I believe that's true, because it has spread all over the world. It is the next step whether people like it or not. The beats are being overshadowed by silly, misogynistic, gangster, murderous, anti-social messages. The record producers don't want social protest or anybody conscious walking around. God forbid these kids start getting political and doing positive things for black communities, like some of them are as I speak, though not enough.
CASTRO: Your point about Arrested Development not making it and more violent groups making it is a really good one. How do you approach giving awards to deserving young writers?
TROUPE: I try to be as honest as I can. I was the Judge for the Cave Canem [Foundation Poetry] Award this year, and about fifty or sixty manuscripts came in without names. After looking through these, I narrowed it down to about twelve. I went through these real quick, because I've been an editor. Then I waited a day and read them again. I got down to six. There were three that stood out for me and one in particular ... I gave that one a one and the others 1As. Then it was down to those three. It wasn't a choice about who was going to be first but who was going to be second and third. Then I picked second and third. I went back and looked at all of them again, and was comfortable. I sent in my choices, and everyone was happy with the choices, because these three poets had already been Cave Canem Fellows; they were up and coming poets that everybody loved. It turned out that the one who finished third had been a student of mine in Chicago. I try not to let my own stylistic preferences come into my decisions. Or race, or whether a poet writes politically or not. I pick the best person in the mix.
CASTRO: Were there any women in the mix?
TROUPE: Not in the top three.
CASTRO: The Cave Canem award was started by ...
TROUPE: Cornelius Eady and Toi Derricotte. They built this organization. It's a big, wonderful organization.
CASTRO: That's great ... Two questions relating to literature. You were a pioneer in anthologizing black literature starting with Giant Talk in 1975. Are you satisfied with all of the black studies departments that have sprung up since then, including those at Harvard and Princeton? Is it good that we now have Chinese American, Latin, Latino, African American, Native American, and other sub-classifications of American literature?
TROUPE: Giant Talk was an anthology of Third World writing, not just black. It was Latin Americans, Chinese, Indians, blacks, some people who would be thought of as white, Palestinians and Indians. I think "black studies" is an important, necessary component of higher education. I was a part of the Black Studies programs, having taught at UCLA, not so much in the Black Studies program but in the Upward Bound program, and then at Ohio University where I came and taught in the African American Studies department and was also Writer-in-Residence and taught English too. Anywhere I've taught I've always had a joint appointment, in English, Literature, African American studies and Creative Writing. I think that most white scholars who are European-based are not going to integrate most African Americans, or Native Americans, or Asians, or Latinos or anybody else into their normal pedagogy. Those programs are going to have to stand, because otherwise you wouldn't have black, white, Asian, Latino or Indian kids knowing anything other than white history.
I think the United States should be ... again, this is where we get to what we call 'subjectivity posing as objectivity' in terms of evaluating literature or art. People come out and say that this is an objective choice and I like this person, this poet over that poet. Like Jasper Johns over Al Loving. It's not objective sometimes. Certain people like certain writers and poets over other writers and poets because of taste and ethnicity. That's normal. I call it "ethnophobia," which is another of my neologisms. Most times their choices have something to do with their ethnicity, the way they've been brought up, whether they were brought up in Rochester or St. Louis. I like John Ashbery's poetry; he was brought up in Rochester, New York on a farm and went to Harvard. That informs the way he looks at culture. The way I look at culture and life is informed through the prism and fact that I was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri and grew up there. Maybe Ashbery listens to Chopin, Beethoven, or Mozart, and maybe I listen to Chopin, Beethoven and Mozart, too, but I listen also to Youssou N' Dour, Jimi Hendrix, Miles, Coltrane, Howling Wolf, and Santana. You know what I mean? Does John listen to these musicians? Maybe. I don't know. But that's cool if he doesn't, but I know whatever either of us considers important has an important and profound impact on what we think and write. That's just the way it is.
This whole idea of objectivity informing the way we make critical choices in literature, in art and in culture is pervasive throughout our country. It's baloney; what's being passed off as objectivity is subjective. Why not say it out front? In terms of all these programs around the country, I think until white kids and kids of color can get to the point where we can move back and forth through all our cultures, and have all of this information right at our fingertips, which is going to be way off in the future, I would say that we have to keep these programs.
CASTRO: Would you like to talk about how Guadeloupe has influenced your work?
TROUPE: My poetry became very urban when I was living in Manhattan, which was a stretch of twenty years. Before New York I had lived in Paris, St. Louis, Los Angeles, other cities. I hadn't lived any place that was remotely suburban or country. So when I moved to La Jolla, California, from Manhattan I became aware, as I had not been when I first lived in California, in Los Angeles, of appreciating rural life. In La Jolla I became aware of the importance of nature, all kinds of natural life and the ocean. I started writing about that. I really enjoyed it ... My work just flipped from being urban to being something else. I started writing long poems about nature and the ocean to the chagrin of some people who liked my writing before [laugh], who wanted to hear those urban, rhythmic poems, like the "Magic Johnson" poem and others. My new poems still had all this rhythmic stuff in them, but the imagery had changed; it wasn't about honking horns, city images and sounds, or people on the street. But when I retired from teaching at the University of California, San Diego in July of 2003, I decided I was not going to stay in California, but wanted to come back to New York.
So my wife and I moved back to New York, and decided to get a place in the West Indies, too. I wanted elasticity in my life, being able to be in New York City and someplace else remote. So my involvement in all of these sounds and looking at the world in a different way through the prism of vegetation, foliage, trees, and animals started in California.
When I started going down to Guadeloupe I realized that Derek Walcott had a step up on everybody because he grew up in St. Lucia, which is a gorgeous place. When I went to visit him a couple of times there, I remember looking at the trees and the leaves, saying, "Derek, it's incredible to live in a place with all this expansiveness and natural beauty." So we decided to live between New York and the Caribbean. In Guadeloupe I've been writing a lot, and my work has been totally influenced by this sensibility. It doesn't mean I'm not political, but my work has changed again, I think for the better. I've written about fifty poems. I love going there, to the beach in St. Anne. My wife Margaret and I have this little house in Montebello, and I write five feet from the outdoors. We open all the doors, and you can see hummingbirds, flowers, bananas and mango trees, frogs and lizards, everywhere! It's astonishing. And this is coming into my work in a real, positive way now. I like what I'm doing. When I introduced the Cave Canem poets, I had to read for twenty minutes, and I read these new poems. Yusef [Komunyakaa] came up to me and said, "Wow, those pieces were really different. Sharon Olds said the same thing. I love what I am doing now, in terms of the writing, what's happening with it.
CASTRO: I have to bring up something that clouded your distinguished career.
TROUPE: Go ahead.
CASTRO: You became the first official Poet Laureate of California, then were forced to resign after a background check revealed that you didn't have a college degree. The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote an essay about this, and their printed opinions were largely that you were a successful professor and didn't need a degree, but the moral flag was raised. However, the moralists must realize that you never would have been hired without a degree. Did you feel set up when this all came down? Have you had further thoughts?
TROUPE: First of all, I would have been hired without a degree, because Fanny Howe didn't have a degree, and she was teaching at the University of California, San Diego, along with other artists who didn't have one. We were all full Professors there because of our accomplishments. I don't feel bad about talking about it, because I felt liberated by saying, finally, that I didn't have a college degree. It has cleansed the rest of my life in many ways, and that's good for my mental health.
It happened when I was teaching at the College of Staten Island. Before that, I never had on my record that I had a college degree--didn't have it on my record when I was at UCLA, at USC, when I came to Ohio University, and when I came to the Richmond College, which then turned into the College of Staten Island. One day, this colleague--I refuse to use his name--came to me--he was familiar with my record--and said, "Quincy, all the things you've done, you would become a full professor if you were on the other track." I was on the lecturer's track. So I said, "What are you talking about?" and he says, "Well, you're on the lecturer's track, you should be over here on the track that leads to full professorship. Now you can't go any higher than being a lecturer." He said, "There would be a large difference in terms of pay for teaching the same classes." And I said, "Really?" I thought about that. So he said, "If I were you I would change that you don't have a degree, and put down that you have one."
So I did. I don't blame anybody for that. I did it knowing what I was doing. I regret what happened, but I don't regret it in the way a lot of people have discussed it, because of morality. I did become a full professor and when the students evaluated us, I was always in the top one percent of all professors on every campus where I taught. I didn't cheat any student out of anything. I was a great professor.
I was honored they selected me. Yet I didn't want to be Poet Laureate of California, because I didn't want to get involved in politics. Hugh Davies, who was the Director of the Contemporary Museum of San Diego, asked me to do it; I told him I didn't want to, but he kept asking me. Finally, I told him he could throw my name in the ring. Then one night, a guy called and said, "You are one of three finalists to be Poet Laureate of the State of California." I was stunned, I really was. The next thing I knew, I was the Poet Laureate of the State of California. I had to go through this background check by the Governor's office that took about two weeks. One Sunday I was in a New York restaurant having lunch with Walter Mosley, Clyde Taylor, Manthia Diawara, and my wife Margaret when the Governor's office called and said I was going to be named Poet Laureate that Monday.
I don't have the facts about what happened five months later. The attorney for the University of California, San Diego called me and asked, "Is it true you did not graduate from Grambling College?" And I said, "Yes." I never lied. I decided right then that I should resign. So I sat down and wrote a resignation letter that day--ten days before the news broke ...
Then all of the stuff started. Some people came out and said I did the right thing: I faced the music. But some people of San Diego, which is a very conservative town, started attacking me left and right. Somebody said to me, "One thing you can say is that you were the first official Poet Laureate of the State of California. They can't take that away from you. It was a fair process, and they picked you because of what you had done, because of your achievements, not because of Grambling College. They picked you." And I said, "Yeah that's true."
The most horrible moment was when my mother started crying on the phone. My mother was eighty-five when that happened. Margaret [Quincy's wife] was crying, my son was crying because he was verbally accosted by a couple of young men at the college he was attending and almost got into a fight. For two months, it was terrible.
Through all of this, Margaret was great. One day she said to me, "You know, Quincy, in all the years I've known you, twenty-six years, except for Stanly Crouch, this is the only time you have gotten this kind of treatment in the press. You should be thankful." Which is true. And that kind of put it all into perspective.
That's how it happened. I was set to retire from the university in July 2003 until I was named Poet Laureate. After I resigned from the position, I went back to my original retirement date and moved back to New York City. In the end I thought it best to resign from both positions--the Poet Laureateship and the university--and to get on with my life. I haven't looked back because life goes on. But as I said earlier, it was an honor and privilege to be named the first official Poet Laureate of the state of California.
CASTRO: In the preface to James Baldwin The Legacy, you discuss Baldwin's genius: "The Baldwin sentence was muscular, compelling, collectable, musical, its own invention, but it was what he did that finally hypnotized us." How do you characterize literature written at the end of the 20th century and at the start of the 21st?
TROUPE: I'll talk about the novelists I like and then talk about the poets. For me, Garcia Marquez is the greatest writer living today. I just love Garcia Marquez. I think John Wideman is an incredible prose stylist, as are Edward P. Jones and Ishmael Reed. Toni Morrison, at her best, can be a very compelling writer ... I really liked Texaco, by Patrick Chamoiseau, the novels of Zakes Mda and one of my true heroes, Chinua Achebe, whom I just love, both as a writer and as a human being. As for poets, I think Derek Walcott is the greatest poet writing in the world today, bar none. He writes like a painter, which he is. Yusef Komunyakaa writes powerful poems, as do Sharon Olds, Alice Fulton, the early C. D. Wright and Jorie Graham, Thylias Moss, and Robert Pinsky. Recently, I was impressed by Rita Dove's poem "Hattie McDaniel Arrives at the Coconut Grove." There are many great writers today.
CASTRO: Let's talk about art in your spacious artfilled rooms. I love the piece behind you.
TROUPE: Yeah, that's the late Jacques Gabriel, a Haitian painter.
CASTRO: Your poetry is informed and inspired by many artists. Could you discuss some of these, including Oliver Jackson, Jose Bedia, and Romare Bearden and their impact on your voice and modes of expression?
TROUPE: The first painting that really impacted me was Picasso's Guernica. When I saw Guernica in New York that painting against war really made a big impact on me. When I came to New York, at first I really got influenced by people like Al Loving. I didn't know who Oliver Jackson was; I met Oliver when I was teaching at Ohio University. Then I discovered Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence. I always liked Raymond Saunders a lot, and Joe Overstreet, Ed Clark, and Al Loving. Margaret and I discovered Jose Bedia together in Miami. I started buying his work. He illustrated my book Avalanche, graced it with some of his drawings and paintings. There are so many artists ... you just commented about the two pieces with the record with the hands on it--that's Mildred Howard. Mildred is a fabulous artist, like some of the Haitians--Jacques Gabriel, Edouard Duval-Carrie. Wilfredo Lam has had an impact on me. Hale Woodruff, the late Ethiopian Alexander Skunder Boghossian is one of my favorites. Sam Gilliam. These people have been big influences on my work. I also like people like Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Vincent van Gogh, Elizabeth Murray, and Frank Stella. Melvin Edwards. Howardina Pindell. Frank Bowling. Charles Alston. There are so many painters and artists I love. All these people have influenced the way I think as an artist, the way I write poetry. Art has informed the visual and rhythmic aspects of my writing.
CASTRO: Frank Stella is another one who didn't have a college degree.
TROUPE: I know. College degrees work sometimes, and sometimes they aren't necessary. Having a college degree doesn't make you a great teacher. That's false, because it excludes a lot of great people, especially in the arts, and in other important areas, too, who would make great teachers. Would they have turned away Albert Einstein, Picasso, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, so many others? People should not be in the classroom just because they got a degree, but because they can teach and impart essential information.
CASTRO: Any closing thoughts? I haven't yet asked about your novel The Footmans, which delves into St. Louis politics, including the dynasty of the Troupe family. How did you approach using your family history as fiction?
TROUPE: The Footmans is the legacy of Charlie Footman. I've been writing it for a long time, because I just wanted to get it right. I never could find the form and structure that allowed the story to flow. Now I've found the structure and it's flowing and I'm going to finish it soon. I've got a grip on it now. One of the things that retiring from full-time teaching has done for me is that it has given me a lot of time, and that's what I needed to finish my novel. Time. I'm also writing what I call my auto-memoir, The Accordion Years. It's short of an autobiography, but longer than your traditional memoir. That's why I call it an auto-memoir. I'm writing about everything I think is important in my life. I feel if I can be as truthful as Miles Davis was in his autobiography, if I can tell the essential truths about my life in that way, then I will have a compelling book, because my life has been full of interesting stories.
CASTRO: Is The Footmans scheduled for publication?
TROUPE: No. First I'm going to turn in The Accordion Years. I'm going to hand in 250 pages to my agent this year and I'll probably turn in the whole book next year. Then I'll give them The Footmans, which I hope they will like. If they do then it will probably come out in three or four years. It's part of a strategy. I want the memoir to come out first and then the novel. I have a children's book called Little Stevie Wonder coming out from Houghton Mifflin in March. I'm turning in my book of essays and articles Coffee House is going to publish next year. It's called Crossfertilizations--pieces on music, culture, and politics. It's going to be about 300 pages, with the complete Miles Davis pieces, and all kinds of essays and articles about culture and politics. Then I'm going to publish an autobiography I'm co-writing with Chris Gardner, for Dawn Davis, the great editor over at Amistad/Harper Collins. This man rose from being a homeless African American to being a millionaire. He owns a company in Chicago.
CASTRO: How did you find him?
TROUPE: He found me! I turn down a lot of people. Chris has got a very rich book, funny, sad, with all kinds of compelling stuff. I like his story a lot, and he's willing to tell the truth.
I'm having fun now and like being editor (since January 2004) of Black Renaissance Noire at New York University's Africana Studies/Institute of African American Affairs. My first issue came out this August. The great lineup features new poetry by Derek Walcott, an interview with Aime Cesaire at age 91, a poem by Kamau Braithwaite, part of Hugh Maskela's autobiography, fiction by Maryse Conde, an essay by Ishmael Reed on the treatment of black men by the media, and a piece by Robin Kelly on Cesaire, along with Eduoard Glissant. George Lewis does a piece on AACM in Chicago, and we have spreads on visual artists Al Loving and Anthony Barboza, who has a great cover photograph. The fabulous February 2005 issue includes Chinua Achebe, poetry by Yusef Komunyakaa, art by Jean Michel Basquiat, and the letters of Chester Himes and John A. Williams.
QUINCY TROUPE's children's book Little Stevie Wonder is due out from Houghton Mifflin in March 2005.
JAN GARDEN CASTRO is author of The Last Frontier (poetry), Sonia Delaunay: La Moderne, and The Art & Life of Georgia O'Keeffe and is Contributing Editor for Sculpture.
photograph by Lynda Koolish