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The Power to Spread the Words

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Speaking by phone to poet Quincy Troupe, not quite 24 hours after his accession to poet laureate status, is almost like listening not to the man, but to a syncopated sample of his voice.

Call waiting interrupts his momentum so frequently that his voice begins to take on a rhythmic texture--the stutter step of ska, with maybe an echo of dance hall reggae or garden variety rap. Oddly like his poetry itself.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. June 15, 2002 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 15, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 7 inches; 274 words Type of Material: Correction
Poet’s name--A story in Friday’s Southern California Living section about the new California poet laureate misspelled the name of one of the writers cited in the story. The correct spelling is Aime Cesaire.

” ... That was my agent. Sandra Dijkstra. She wanted me to mention her name,” chuckles Troupe, letting out a long 5-p.m. sigh, though it’s barely 10 a.m. “I told my wife, Margaret, it would be a day like this.”

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Click. It’s NBC. It’s Tavis Smiley. It’s Fox.He finds a little space to let his thoughts unfurl. “I’m just sponging this all up,” he says, “like Miles Davis would do with music. Like I do with poetry. I’m just sponging this all up.”

All of it--being named California’s first official poet laureate this week, the attendant fanfare, the ribbing from his friends--has caught him a little off guard, perhaps since he came to the notion of filling this post somewhat reluctantly. “I just didn’t know what it was going to entail,” he says, “so my first reaction was knee-jerk. I thought I would have to read poems to every opening of the Assembly and do that type of number,” he explains, the worry still a touch evident in his voice. “I’m very serious about poetry. I think poetry is a sacred art. A great art and very powerful. I didn’t want to sully it....”

But a friend and colleague, Hugh M. Davies, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, where Troupe runs a reading series, pressed the issue, talking up the possibilities. Finally Troupe relented.

Samples of his poetry were mailed off to Sacramento. The field narrowed from 50 candidates to three--Troupe, Diane Di Prima and Francisco X. Alarcon. “I didn’t want to politic for this job,” recalls Troupe. “I didn’t want to call people and say: ‘Vote for me! Vote for me!’ I wanted them to make a choice on merit. About the poetry. Not about the politicking.”

So Troupe remained focused on his work: finishing and shipping off a new draft of a screenplay adaptation of his Miles Davis reminiscence, “Miles & Me” (University of California Press, 2001) to actor Don Cheadle and trying to put the finishing touches on a collection, “Transcircularities: New and Selected Poems” (Coffeehouse Press). “That’s a name I made up,” he cracks. And, of course, he had to attend to his teaching at UC San Diego, where he is professor of creative writing and teaches American and Caribbean literature.

As the selection process neared its end, he was called in for an interview with two of the governor’s representatives--Lynn Schenk, chief of staff, and Michael Yamaki, appointment secretary. Bottom line: “They wanted to know about my work with Larry Flynt ... “ says Troupe, who was the editorial director of Code magazine, a style and culture quarterly aimed at African American males that Flynt published in the mid-to-late-’90s. “Basically, they wanted to know if there was anything about that that might embarrass the governor.

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“There were no nekkid women,” says Troupe. And other than a few pointed editorials he wrote about then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush (“I’ve always been at odds with his political agenda”) and a high-voltage poem titled “A Response to All You: ‘Angry White Men,’ ” written in answer to an tirade by an Aryan Nations member he’d glimpsed on television, he figured there was nothing else to declare.

The governor must not have been too distressed by either.

Troupe collected his new title and kudos Tuesday at a noisy celebration in Sacramento. He traded stories with Gov. Gray Davis and talked art and literature with his wife, First Lady Sharon Davis, who presented him with the honors. And, before the ink was dry on his fancy proclamation, had already started mapping out plans for illustrating, advancing and underscoring the importance of poetry in all of its forms.

“In a way it surprised me that they selected me. Most people, when they talk to me, know about me as a performer. I have a great performing style. That comes from coming up with people like [Amiri] Baraka, Wanda Coleman, Ojenke, Allen Ginsberg, Jayne Cortez. I used to read at those political rallies, so you had to have a style that projected to a huge crowd. 25,000, 10,000 people or 500. So you get a style that is larger than the room you’re in.”

Troupe, 62, is himself larger than life. Tall, with an elegant drape of dreadlocks, he was a basketball star at 14 and is the son of a baseball player. Later, his literary life propelled him around the world, to Haiti, Ghana, Nigeria. He is a two-time winner (1994 and 1995) of the World Poetry Bout in Taos, N.M., a stand-up poetry competition that anoints a yearly Heavyweight Champion of Poetry. But he is probably most famous for his form-bending, bestselling book, “Miles: The Autobiography” (Simon & Schuster, 1988) as well as a segment on the 1989 PBS documentary “The Power of the Word,” hosted by Bill Moyers.

“What bothers me is that people think that this is where it all ends. The performance. But I write villanelles, sonnets, haiku, sestinas. I know what poetry is on the page. What disturbs me is that when people identify me, they think of me only as a performance poet because I’ve evolved this reading style--a style that comes from a certain place,” he explains, “so when I write a villanelle, I’m going to put an African American wack on it. It will still be technically correct, but maybe it has more kind of syncopation in it.”

Troupe, a music fanatic, says he’s absorbed many influences, like his style mentor Miles Davis, who taught Troupe to take it all in and make it his own; Pablo Neruda, Amie Cesaire, Baraka, Sharon Olds. “I grew up in the church, but I couldn’t sing the normal way,” he says. “I couldn’t seem to sing in tune, but I had the passion.” He put that passion into poetry.

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Though he grew up in St. Louis, in a home without art on the walls and few options except the temptations on the streets, his mother read him Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson, and those voices threw open doors to his imagination. “I grew up listening to Miles Davis and Johnny Ace. Earth Wind & Fire, Sly Stone and James Brown, the Temptations. The whole range of people. African Americans grew up in a different kind of way. But that does not mean that I don’t think about what’s going on the page. I’m always thinking about metaphor. Simile. Iambic pentameter. Internal rhyme. I don’t think I have to assimilate into the white, Episcopalian way of writing--say, like John Ashbery--whom I really admire, which is also valid, but that’s not me.”

That’s why Troupe’s very high profile as the state’s poet laureate may begin to unbutton the formal notions of poetry. That will happen, he expects, through the lives he plans to touch and the new and different places, over the next two years, he plans to take poetry.

Having spent his time on the East Coast and then, in the 10 years he’s lived here, slowly shedding his own East Coast snobbery makes him better suited, he figures, for handling the elitism of some East Coast literati. “I know how they all think--that East Coast-centric thinking--because it was how I used to think.”

But living in California--away from East Coast friends, influences and the syncopation of the streets and of daily life--has influenced the way he writes and even thinks about the page. It’s changed him, he says, in more ways than he could have expected.

“I’d absorbed all of New York. The urban rhythms there. But, like Miles, when he would talk not just about style, but about different styles, it made sense. When I was 20, I was writing this way, 30 another, 40 another kind of piece. So as the person evolves, the work is the mirror of the evolution. Over time I could see my voice changing. I wanted it to change. It finally got to the point where I could write these longer lines. They’ve become the tone to carry me into my 70s. Not that I can’t slip back into that N.Y. flip if I want to. But I have evolved another voice that can carry me into my old.... Hold on a sec--”

It’s Tavis Smiley on the phone again.

“Tavis is not used to waiting.”

Troupe, from his new post, figures he can share his history, context and perspective widely. “I would like to take poetry to lunch at all of the major corporations around California. Movie studios. Newspapers. Churches. Places poetry has never been. Maybe for a half an hour or 20 minutes at lunchtime. Maybe before Laker basketball, Dodger baseball. After the national anthem. We bring them in and people can begin to understand that poets can and will be part of the culture. Poets. Not rappers. Poets,” he underscores.

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“I want to see poetry stitched through every fabric of Californians’ lives so that we can appreciate the power and the glory and wisdom of poetry. And not laugh at it. The engineer at Caltech needs to understand that his life needs balance, that art is just as difficult as putting together a mathematical equation. It’s just as important to the culture as being a Hollywood actor or being a doctor. To become a really great poet is just like going to med school. I’ll push that too. I’m a prime example how all of this can make you human.”

Spreading that message will make him a bit of pied piper, like Miles with his transforming horn. “I work with a lot of musicians,” says Troupe. “They may open up a little space for me, and I can make it up on the spot. But if you’re not prepared, sometime you fall on your face,” he cautions, teasing out his metaphor. “If a musician ... takes[s] the floor out from under you, then you go into a free fall. You have to catch yourself, pull a parachute at that point.” In other words, “You’ve got to come back to the text.”

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