A Conversation with Quincy Troupe
By Rick Marlatt
I first met Quincy Troupe two years ago when he gave a reading at the Museum of Nebraska Art. I had read Avalanche, along with a few other selected poems for a class with Allison Hedge-Coke. I had heard from many others, in addition to his fabulous written work, that he was an unforgettable reader. I had heard correctly. Mr. Troupe wowed the audience for over two hours with poems old and new, somber and ecstatic; artifacts of language always beautifully and carefully composed. Anyone lucky enough to have known and worked with him can attest to Quincy Troupe's respect and passion for poetics, as well as his impressive and important career. I spoke with Mr. Troupe earlier this year, just before he headed down to Houston to do a series of readings and lectures.
You've proven to be extremely versatile in your professional writing. How would you categorize your work?
At the core I am a poet, no matter the genre I might be working in at any given moment. Poetry is the foundation of all my written modes of expression, whether it is fiction, memoir, screenplays, theatrical plays, or journalism. I would characterize my writing as eclectic, always trying to push the boundaries of written expression. When I am writing,
or as I like to say, creating in the moment, I feel that what I am creating - whether it is poetry, fiction, memoir, or non-fiction prose - is very close to the way a musician, dancer, or painter might be doing their work. I believe in elements of improvisation, surprise, collage, as being central to my writing. But I also believe in structure, and I have written poetic forms like the haiku, tonka, villanelle, sestina, and sonnet: and I have created a 21 line poetic form that I call the tercetina.
You've been successful in poetry and prose. Is there a particular genre that you were trained in?
I went to school in Los Angeles and studied journalism. I learned how to write feature stories, news stories, articles, and how to put magazines and journals together, how to lay them out and edit them. These skills have served me well up to today: I have created at least three well received magazines and literary journals, such as the now defunct monthly magazine, Code, and the literary journals, Confrontation: A Journal of Third World Writing and The American Rag. Today I edit Black Renaissance Noire, a literary, visual arts, academic and political journal published at The Institute of African-American and African Affairs at New York University. Although, for the most part, I’m self taught and have written widely in the genres of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and children’s literature, I have read and studied many great poets who influence my work, from Pablo Neruda and Langston Hughes to W.B. Yeats, Whitman, Aime Cesaire, and W.S. Merwin.
Your newest collection is forthcoming from Coffee House Press. How has your poetry changed over the course of your career.
Erranceties will be published in late 2011. The title is a neologism, as was Transcircularities, which was the title of my selected poems in 2002, also by Coffee House Press. My poetry has changed quite a lot over the years, having evolved through the influences of many poets, writers, and artists. I believe my poetry has grown more expansive during the last few years, especially after I moved from New York City to the San Diego area of California, where I lived for 13 years. The poetry I wrote during those 13 years in California sought to embrace both urban and natural elements of the world. It moved toward a syncretism of two distinctly different world views into a common language. I sought to bridge all of these elements by employing metaphors and images that could merge and syncretize all of these various cultural strains into one coherent poetic voice. It was a decidedly difficult challenge, but also a very rewarding one.
Since I moved back to Harlem in 2003, after retiring from teaching at the University of California, San Diego, I have divided my time between living in Manhattan and Goyave, Guadeloupe, in the French West Indies. This move has also brought new challenges of another syncretism for my recent poetry. All of these elements are reflected in my new book.
You are truly an electrifying reader. Are you conscious of the performance element when you compose a piece?
I never think about how the poem is going to sound when I am writing and composing it. The first time I read the poem aloud to myself is after it has gone through many, many drafts. My poems typically undergo up to 15 and 20 revisions. It's at that first reading when I realize how a poem might eventually sound when I read it at a performance. But of course the performance of a poem will change many times, over time, as the hidden mysteries of the language, rhythms, and sounds of a poem reveal themselves after many readings.
Having sustained a terrific career in writing poetry, how would you describe the current state of American poetics?
I think there are some very good American poets writing today. On the other hand, I believe many of the powerful interests, critics, the money interests, and organizations that control who gets published, read, receive grants, what is thought of as great, or good, or mediocre poetry are, in many instances very mediocre in their tastes themselves, and invested in keeping American poetry "safe," that is, non political. But isn't this the way it has been forever? For these people and their interests, poetry - and poets - many times are topics to be celebrated at cocktail parties and dinners, in a culture of very polite, measured manners.
For serious poets, poetry is a very important art form, like great music, or any other great artistic expression. For these poets, poetry is not some frivolous pursuit of trying to be a part of the "poetry biz," or an endless pursuit of positioning themselves to receive grants, honors by being a part of an obsequious "in crowd." There are many American poets who see themselves in the light of taking risks with the art form, being innovative, edgy and yes, political when it is called far. I count myself as being one of these poets, and I enjoy the freedom this state of mind brings with it.
You had a remarkable relationship with Miles Davis, and your work is so heavily musical. Discuss his influence on you as an artist.
I have a book called Miles and Me for which I wrote the screenplay. It’s been optioned for a film starring Laurence Fishburne, Samuel L. Jackson, and Halle Barry. Production starts in New York at the end of April. When I was fifteen years old, growing up in St. Louis, Miles was a tremendous influence on me as an artist. Miles’ career arc has influence my own evolution as an artist in that as he grew older, his knowledge deepened, and he embraced a wide variety of music from Spanish to African to Brazillian to Hip-Hop, Funk, Bluegrass, and Rock. And his discography reflects that musical evolution Miles always disliked the term jazz. He considered, quite frankly, that there was good music and bad music, and he didn’t like the idea of pigeon-holing artists into a certain category. Similarly, I’ve tried to write proficiently in many different traditions, modes, and forms. As a result, people have considered me an urban poet, a natural poet, a hip-hop poet, a jazz poet, a technical poet, a gospel poet, and so on.
It’s interesting because while I’ve changed as a poet, I’m still the same person. I grew up in a lot of different places around the world. I’ve lived in St. Louis, Paris, and Haiti, just to name a few places. So I have a more complex background than many artists do. As a result, while many people, writers and critics included, feel that American poetry is very local and regionalized, I’m afraid I can’t agree with that. Miles was a beacon for me because not only was he the best, he was an artist whose style was not of his place. He lived in many different places vicariously through his music. Like Miles, I feel I’m an American in the truest sense of the word, not as in a melting pot where all the ingredients somehow become the same, but as in a salad bowl. My work echoes the African and French voices from my youth, as well as the gospel music, the Spanish of my adolescence, Miles, Charlie Parker, Coltrane, Hendrix, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, James Brown, and Sly and The Family Stone and countless others. As Miles traveled, so I traveled.
You’re very active with readings, performances, and lectures. What are your thoughts on the MFA? Do you see it as a powerful way for artists to hone their skills?
I was a creative writing professor at Columbia University’s Graduate Writing Program and at the University of California, San Diego for 23 years. I think success with the MFA has much to do with the kind of department you’re in, the students, faculty, and philosophy. And the key to a quality department is diversity. You obviously want to look at reputation and credentials of faculty and programs, but if you’re with a great mix of students with a core of eclectic faculty through whom you can formulate your core as an artist, it’s better for you and your experience. When you collaborate with many different people who come from different parts of the world, with different world sets, perspectives, and talents, you’re able to engage fully in lectures, readings, panels, and workshops.
The beauty of the MFA is you can become the best artist you can while studying and debating with others who are undergoing a similar development. And at the end of the day, you can still be friends. I can tell you the experience is less powerful if all the professors are language poets, or technical poets, or free verse, or imagist. A student should make a decision that puts them in an environment that it is eclectic and diverse as possible. You need a diverse and challenging community of writers, teachers, and curriculum for it to work.
What advice might you give to young poets who are trying to find their voice, and what in your opinion does it take for a poet to find his voice?
The search for voice is a very important one, and it’s a long, arduous journey. I started writing when I was 22 and got hurt playing basketball in France. I knew I right away that I loved to write. My task was, without a formal teacher, going to be to try and learn what writing was. Self taught or not, I think the key is you start reading poets and writers you’ve heard about. From there, you start to decide what poets and kinds of poetry you prefer. Then, you study what it is about those poets and poetry that affects you. Finally, you can start to synthesize these voices with your own. The bottom line is to never deny what suits your breath, your way of looking at the world, and the way you hear language. You have to be true to that.