*no matter the blistering sun, son
no matter the slit drums, tongues
we are here alive, son
are wind-sun-spirit-music, son
are caw-caw blues razors, son
are keepers of secret guitars*
-Quincy Troupe From “Up Sun, South of Alaska”
Leave it to a Black man from St. Louis to break down the doors.
Quincy Troupe, one of the nation's most highly acclaimed literary figures, knows the meaning of that statement well. During the days of his native St. Louis youth, Troupe, 63, witnessed the dynamic ascension of two of the greatest musical pioneers in history, both of whom came from his hometown-jazz pioneer Miles Davis and Chuck Berry, the true King of Rock and Roll. Not to mention that he subsequently would write the best-selling autobiography of Davis, gaining literary credentials that no other writer can boast by eloquently deciphering Davis' mystique.
Now Troupe, a Professor of Creative Writing and Caribbean Literature at University of California San Diego, is breaking down doors in previously unmapped territory.
Governor Gray Davis recently appointed Troupe as California's first official Poet Laureate-the highest honor any poet can achieve in the state. Stemming from a legislative bill created by Assemblymember Fran Pavley and signed into law by Davis last year, the role of Poet Laureate was designed to illustrate the importance and benefits of literacy and learning through poetry to all Californians-especially young people.
Troupe, who lives in La Jolla with his wife, Margaret Porter-Troupe (owner of the Porter-Troupe Gallery in Hillcrest) and son Porter, the youngest of his four children. He brings to the Poet Laureate role a razor-sharp literary style, as well as a breadth of work (he's written 13 books) that has won praise from diverse artistic communities-everyone from modern Black intellectuals, jazz historians, university academics and grassroots poets alike. He's also on the verge of releasing his 14th book, titled *Transcircularities: New and Selected Poems*.
And while Troupe's two-year term as Poet Laureate will undoubtedly prove fascinating, at the very least, the man's life up to this point is no less intriguing. Troupe recently shared his thoughts on aspects of his work and on some of the people who have impacted his life on the road to Poet Laureate, most notably jazz legend Miles Davis, author James Baldwin and his father, Quincy Trouppe Sr.
*catch the blues song
of wind in your bleeding
human hands, (w)rap it around
your strong, bony fingers
then turn it into a soft nosed pen
& sit down & (w)rite the love
poem of your life*
Music is as intrinsic to Quincy Troupe's existence as red is to Mississippi mud. During a preliminary telephone conversation for this story, the djembe and conga percussions of Congolese rumba singer Sam Mangwana were heard in the background.
Which is not unusual, since much of Troupe's written work is also superimposed over the sound of music-be it a spacey Jimi Hendrix riff, the southern twang of Robert Johnson's 12-bar blues or the sonic call and response of Miles Davis' trumpet.
Music especially resonates in Troupe's work dealing with Black suffering in the Southern killing fields of America. Troupe's vision oftentimes provides a frightening glimpse into the not so distant past of America's post-colonial wilderness.
One cannot help but recognize the unsettling lamentations of Billy Holliday's “Strange Fruit” in poems such as “Up Sun, South of Alaska” from 1979's “Snake Back Solos,” which paints an all-too-vivid picture of the horror of lynching, which thousands of Black people suffered from at the hands of frenzied mobs of racist whites:
*slit balls hung in southern-american winds, then
when drumheads were slit, made mum by rum
& greed songs dropped way down
around our ankles, bleeding up sun, south of Alaska
swinging silhouettes, picked clean to bone by scavengers
black crows, hovering
caw-caw, razor scars, black winged crows ripping
flesh under sun hot flights of slashing razors
crows & crows
& blues caw-caws & moans
& cold blues caw-caws & moans*
Like many children born and raised in the segregated south, for Troupe-born July 22, 1939 in St. Louis-the residual memories of slavery are as alive as his Black skin.
“Slavery is a blues,” said Troupe, reclining at his kitchen table, wearing all black-t-shirt, with sweats and sandals. “It's a very difficult situation to be a slave. I wouldn't know, but I can imagine that it would be a very hard situation-to be on a plantation, and they can beat you at any minute. They can take your wife-the overseer can go to bed with your wife; he can have babies by your wife. I can't imagine living with that kind of horror.”
Yet amid the oceanic trail of trans-Atlantic blood and tears, Troupe also heralds the triumph of Black people over seemingly insurmountable odds:
*& still we move through space towards grace
carrying a sphinx in one eye
a guitar in the other, knowing that time is always
locked in the possession of the keeper*
-from “Up Sun, South of Alaska”
Although Troupe is especially adept at bringing to life the suffering and achievements of Black people, his subject matter spans the prism of imagination. Whether taking forays into neo-hoodoo space in poems like “Conjuring Against Alien Spirits,” or giving illustrious props to late-great jazz bassist Charles Mingus (“One for Charles Mingus”), Troupe is a veritable technician with language, constantly bending and redefining its traditional boundaries. At times he can be as humorous as he is surreal:
*the other brandy, sweetened
night, we dreamed we
was kissing so hard & good, you
sucked my tongue right on out
my trembling mouth
& eye had to sew it back in
in order to tell you about it*
-“The Other Night” from *Three Poems to a Fine Lady in the Park*
Troupe acknowledges that music plays a dynamic role in his writing-so much so that he keeps a photograph of Miles Davis at the desk where he writes every morning, beginning at 6 a.m. and lasting until early afternoon.
“I'm trying to innovate the language and push it, especially in poetry, he explained. “I want to push it to its limits and see what I can do with it-see how I can play with it. And that's what musicians do with sound. You can do that within form or free verse.
“For me, it's a privilege to be a poet, because you can both have the visual aspect and the musical dimension. You have the visual dimension to the creation of metaphors, and the use of figurative language. And then the instrument of language can also be musical. It can be like a saxophone or a guitar solo.”
*this life is
what you make it. Not
what you hope it to be.
but what it is. right
or wrong. what
it is what
it is-right. or wrong*
-from “It Is Not”
An omen in the form of a wounded knee ended Troupe's professional basketball career during the early 1960s. During that time he had been playing in Europe, taking up residence in Paris. His life in professional basketball over, and time on his hands, Troupe dedicated his time to writing a novel he now calls “awesomely bad.”
After discussing the novel with a French girlfriend, she recommended that Troupe meet a family friend-one who would ultimately encourage him to take his writing to another level. That family friend turned out to be the French existentialist philosopher and novelist Jean Paul Sartre.
“I didn't know who he was.” Troupe recalled. “I met him and he suggested that I write poetry and keep a notebook, and that's what I did. So I started writing poetry and keeping a notebook and I've been doing it ever since. I found out that I really, really enjoyed it. And I discovered that I loved poetry as much as I loved to play basketball. It was something that I could do for me-all day long.”
Although Troupe's mother had exposed him to the works of Harlem Renaissance poets such as Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, Troupe's newfound love of the written world led him to works by Martinique's Aime Cesaire, Pablo Neruda, and T.S. Elliot.
“Although I was a bookworm, I really hadn't read a lot of books,” said Troupe. “[Poetry] led me down another path that I had never thought about going-philosophy and all of these great poets. There were all these people I had started to discover, which was fascinating to me.”
*father, it was an honor to be there, in the dugout
with you, the glory of great Black men swinging their lives
as bats, at tiny white balls
burning, in at unbelievable speeds, riding up & in & out
a curve breaking down wicked, like a ball falling off a table
moving away, snaking down, screwing its stitched magic
into chilling circuit air, its comma seams spinning
toward breakdown, dipping like a hipster
bebopping a knee-dip stride, in the charlie parker forties
wrist curling, like a swan's neck
behind a slick black back
cupping an invisible ball of dreams*
-from “Poem for My Father”
It was, perhaps, Troupe's father, Quincy Trouppe Sr., who had the greatest impact on his life.
By the mid-1960's, Troupe had returned to the United States from Europe, moving to Los Angeles, where he began taking journalism classes at L.A. City College (he'd previously graduated with a bachelor's degree from Grambling University in Louisiana).
He supported himself on a small budget, writing as a stringer for the *Free Press*, the *Times* and the *Sentinel* in Los Angeles, while also becoming a member of the historic Watts Writers Workshop, where he taught poetry.
Ironically, Troupe's father had also taken up residence in L.A., opening a popular Pico Boulevard restaurant called The Dugout. As a catcher in the All Negro Leagues, the elder Trouppe had made a name for himself internationally, achieving a level of celebrity status throughout the states, as well as in Puerto Rico, Cuba and Mexico. He added the extra “p” to his name because of the way the locals pronounced it in Latin America.
Troupe grew up idolizing his father and was expected to become just like his dad. (Troupe's parents divorced when he was a boy; his mother, Dorothy Smith Marshall, still resides in St. Louis.) “My father was a big guy-and a manager too,” Troupe said. “He led his team to five straight championships. As a manager/catcher he led the Cleveland Buckeyes to the Negro League Championship. So he was a dominating kind of guy and a very strong minded and willful person.
“It was kind of hard for me coming up because I had to live under that kind of shadow-and I had to find my way to where I wanted to go.”
Troupe was none-too-pleased when he discovered that his son had decided to follow his heart and become a poet-not exactly in keeping with the baseball career he had imagined for him. And generational differences began to create divisions between the two. While Trouppe Sr. adhered to a Booker T. Washington “pull yourself up by your boot straps” mentality, his son held beliefs more in line with “by any means necessary.”
“Up until that point I was in SNCC [The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee], my friends were people like Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown-all these kinds of people. I was in the movement. Police were arresting me for reading incendiary poetry in front of rallies. He [Trouppe Sr.] thought I was absolutely crazy,” said Troupe.
“He told me a couple of times, 'You know junior, you can't do that. You've got to go along to get along.' I said, ‘That's what you do. Somebody's got to break with that-totally. In our family, in the nation and as a Black man.'”
The relationship between Troupe and his father eventually reached a boiling point of tremendous proportions when, one day, a broke and struggling Troupe entered his father's restaurant asked him for three sandwiches-one for himself, the other two for his friends.
Dad wasn't having it.
“He said, ‘You got any money?' I said ‘No.' [He responded], ‘We pay for stuff here,'” said Troupe. “I said, ‘Oh, really. But I am your son.' He said, ‘This is a business.'
“And I looked at him and said, ‘Well, fuck you then, you ol' mother fucker. He was behind the bar. I said, ‘You're my father and that's the way you do me? Well then, ‘fuck you.'”
Furious, Trouppe began to reach for a gun, which he had kept under the bar-but he stopped before his anger could erupt into violence.
“I think he would have shot me, but there was so many people in there,” Troupe said. “He came around the bar to come and get me, and I said, ‘You're too old to catch me, man. It was a shameful thing to do, but I was so angry.”
The relationship between Troupe and his father eventually rebounded, however, with both of them apologizing for the incident at The Dugout. But it would take time for his father to fully accept his son's chosen profession.
That acceptance, however, would grow, especially after Troupe experienced a string of successes leading up to the 1989 release of *Miles: The Autobiography*, which would place Troupe in the literary world's major leagues.
Prior to the release of the book, Troupe's poetry had garnered him a series of university professor positions, which eventually led to professorships at New York City University and Columbia Graduate School in New York City.
By this time, Troupe's father, who had once expressed shear disappointment with his son's choices in life, had become one of his greatest fans. “He would tell people, ‘My son is this great poet-he's doing really well as a college professor.' He'd tell me, ‘Junior, I'm proud of you.'
“I would do things like fly him out first class [to New York City]. I would also get in touch with Lionel Hampton, who was not only my friend, but his friend too. Lionel Hampton would come by. People of that generation respected that. You can say that you're being successful, but they look at the things you do.
After battling Alzheimer's disease for many years, Quincy Trouppe Sr. died in 1993. But his spirit continues to move Troupe in his daily work. “I miss him, you know. He was a great man, and I often think about him. Me and Miles Davis were a lot alike in that we both didn't like to think about death 'cause death goin' come. But it leaves a hole in your life when one of your parents dies.”
*& so we celebrate you, holy witness, celebrate
your skybreaking smile, infectious laughter
hear your glory hallelujah warnings everywhere we look
see clearly, the all-american, scrubbed down, button down
greed, rampant, in these “yet to be united states”
& so we take heed, beg your forgiveness, that you might
forgive us for our smallness, for not rising up with you
for being less than our awesome, pitiful needs
forgive us now in your silence
forgive us all who knew & were silent & fearful
& forgive us all, o wordsaint, who never even listened
forgive us for all the torture, for all the pain*
-from “In Memoriam-for James Baldwin (1924-1987)”
Another individual who would have a surprising impact upon Troupe was the author of Go Tell It on the Mountain, the late novelist James Baldwin. Surprising because when they met, Troupe and Baldwin seemed polar opposites-Baldwin was an openly gay, civil rights pacifist while Troupe was a young militant with little patience for pacifism.
Their first meeting, as Troupe puts it, was actually quite “volatile.” Actor Marlon Brando, a supporter of various civil rights movements in the '60s, had seen Troupe perform and had invited him to a party at his Mulholland Drive home, not far from the Hollywood Hills. It was there that Troupe would have his first conversation with Baldwin-the topic was civil rights.
“I cursed him out,” remembered Troupe. “He was talking about turning the other cheek, saying, ‘Young man, you need to turn the other cheek.' I said, ‘I'm not turning the other cheek. Someone hits me upside the head-they're going to have a nub.”
Troupe then went on the attack, firing salvos of curse words at Baldwin. “I was in his stuff and he didn't back up. Finally, he laid down on the couch and put his arm over his head, and over his eyes, as if to say, ‘Please save me from this young man.'”
Mission accomplished. Not only had Troupe gotten his point across-he had delivered a serious verbal beat-down to one of the 20th century's foremost literary minds.
Or so he thought. As he was about to leave the party, Troupe felt a tap on his shoulder.
“I turned around and it was him. He said, ‘Young man, I like your energy, but you are absolutely wrong-absolutely wrong, and you will learn that one day.”
Baldwin walked back into the house, leaving Troupe somewhat stunned-and speechless.
“Damn-maybe I didn't vanquish him.”
The second time Troupe met Baldwin, this time being introduced by the acclaimed actor Roscoe Lee Brown, it was Troupe who had the misfortune of being hit by the verbal smack-down.
“Eh, I remember you-Marlon Brando-eh,?” Troupe recalled Baldwin saying. “Are you ready to curse me out again? If so, I'll be ready to kick your ass.
“I said, ‘Oh man,'” Troupe recalls, with a laugh.
From that day forward, Troupe and Baldwin would become close friends, and the two of them shared a mutual admiration for one another-not only as writers, but also as human rights activists.
“He wrote like he talked-I haven't mastered that altogether-but I am getting closer with my prose,” Troupe said. “He had the most supple, wonderful sentences. His sentences were remarkable and totally honest.”
Troupe would also be the last person to interview Baldwin prior to his death from stomach cancer at his home in St. Paul de Vence, France in 1987. Troupe said that interview covered a variety of topics, ranging from Ronald Reagan to the state of the civil rights movement.
“I didn't know that he was dying,” Troupe said about that final interview. “I was actually there when the doctor told him that he had two weeks to live-at the most. We talked about everything. We would have talked more, but he got so tired-so I had to carry him back to his room. Some parts of the interview are extraordinary because it's still true. He was extraordinary. He died about a week and a half later after that interview.”
“Unreconstructed black men don't submit to power games. ‘Negro' servants do, and gladly if money is involved. Those ‘Negro' servants who play along are the ones who get along and receive mostly, if not all, of the white power structure's patronage. Those who don't play along receive no breaks, and the power structure is always looking for ways to break them. Not because they aren't good Americans, but because they won't kiss ass. Miles Davis refused to play this game and although he garnered much success in the country, he frequently paid for being an unreconstructed black man.”
From Troupe's book, *Miles and Me*
Throughout the years, Quincy Troupe has matured into a stalwart pacifist, but he doesn't kiss ass or take any shit-understand that. He takes his work just as seriously as an aerospace engineer, cancer specialist-or anyone else whose role is essential to the advancement of humanity.
“I don't brown nose-never have. I believe in hard work and doing the job,” he said. “There are those people that think you have to brown nose and kiss people's asses to ‘get there.' I know a lot of people like that at universities. They're always looking [at me] like, ‘Quincy Troupe has got dreadlocks and he says what he wants.' It's not about that. It's about the quality of your work.”
Miles Davis, Chuck Berry, Paul Robeson, Malcolm X, Robert Johnson, Stokely Carmichael, Ishmael Reed, Amiri Baraka and Prince are among the examples Troupe considers unreconstructed Black men-men who acheived their goals, without sacrificing their convictions.
Troupe's unreconstructed attitude is not merely a resistance, as much as it is his ability to look under the crusted scabs of America and see its bitter truths-a cannibalistic culture where success, especially for people of color, can often be predicated upon Sambo-isms and sacrifice of character.
In that respect, Troupe bears a similarity to the individual central to his theory of unreconstructed Black manhood: revolutionary jazz legend Miles Davis.
Troupe describes in depth his connection to Davis in his 2000 book Miles and Me, which is largely based upon the experiences he had with Davis during his writing of Miles: The Autobiography.
“Miles Davis was a great poet on his instrument,” Troupe wrote in *Miles and Me*. “His sound could penetrate like a sharp knife. It could also be muted, tender and low, like a lullaby, but it was always charged with deeply felt emotion. Miles' sound always made us sit up and take notice. It was burnished, brooding, unforgettable.”
Troupe remains the only writer who was truly ever successful in getting past Davis' legendary diamond veneer-even though that veneer held Troupe at bay for some time.
“Among the St. Louis 'in crowd,' everyone and his mama knew not to walk up to Miles if you didn't know him and just start talking to him like he was your long lost friend,” Troupe writes in *Miles and Me*.
“It didn't matter whether you were hip and black, or hip and white. If you didn't know Miles, you didn't approach him,” he added.
Once Troupe finally developed a friendship with Miles, which came to fruition during the writing of *Miles: The Autobiography*, he found Miles to be a dynamic, multi-faceted artist who was much like his music-always cunning, moving and passionate-and surprisingly loving, funny and caring.
“Everyone who knew Miles Davis loved Miles Davis,” said Troupe, “respected him and loved him-deeply. Even though he could be cantankerous. If he committed to you, he was committed to you.”
Troupe's understanding of Davis is connected directly to his understanding of the Black male psyche-one which continues to remain misunderstood by outsiders and White America-those who are quick to dismiss it as “difficult” or “unmarketable.”
Like his understanding of Davis, Troupe displays a unique ability to understand the struggle of Black men to not only merely succeed in America in material terms-but to achieve success without sacrificing their dignity.
“Black men of that time went through some serious stuff-serious stuff,” said Troupe. “That's why when we see each other on the street, we nod. You don't want to pass and not speak. Guys my age-I don't care if they're bankers or whatever-they'll say, ‘What's happening.' What that means is, ‘Yeah-you're another guy that got here.' You know it without even talking. It's acknowledgement.”
*see now these signals of irreversible breakdowns
the ruination of my once perfect flesh –as medals earned
fighting through the holy wars of passage, see them as miracles
of the glory of living breath, pulsating music through my poetry
syncopating metaphors turned here inside out –
see it all now as the paths taken the choices made
the loves lost & broken, the loves retained
& the poems lost and found in the dark
beating like drumbeats through the heart*
-from “Reflections on Getting Older”
Troupe may be getting older, but as California's Poet Laureate he has no plans of slowing down whatsoever. The duties of his new role include holding a minimum of six public readings throughout California, ensuring that residents would have access to at least one reading during his term.
As a result, Troupe has designs on recruiting a multi-ethnic team of distinguished wordsmiths, consisting of a slice of the state's and nation's top poets. Poets on his wish list include “Amethyst Rock Star” Saul Williams, Marilyn Chen, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Louis Rodriguez, Wanda Coleman, Juan Luis Herrera and Jose Montoya.
Troupe's contemporaries likewise believe that he is up to the task of making poetry a reality for Californians, especially youth.
Anne Farrell, director of development and special projects for the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, nominated Troupe for the California Poet Laureate position, along with the museum's director Hugh Davies.
Troupe, who was picked from a pool of 55 nominees for the poet laureate position, for many years has produced a performing arts series at the museum, titled “Artists on the Cutting Edge X: Cross Fertilizations.”
“He's a whirlwind of energy, and in the first year he put together an evening with [writer] Toni Morrison and jazz drummer Max Roach,” Farrell said. “[Roach and Morrison] did improvisation together. It takes a certain genius to juxtapose those two individuals into one evening.”
While Troupe understands the size of the task in front of him, he plans on completing it in the same way he writes his poetry-with care and attention to detail, in extraordinary fashion.
“I'm a realist about this stuff,” Troupe said, “We got to bring poets that can communicate with these kids-Black, Chicano, White and Asian. When I go in and read poetry to these kids, I've got to get to them. At first they're like, ‘Oh, here comes a poet-and an old one too. It's a certain kind of poet with a certain kind of edge and performative skill who can get to these kids. I know that I can get to these kids, and I'm 63 years old.
“This is a great ancient, powerful and beautiful art. I want people to be aware of it.”