Quincy Troupe is a poet, journalist, and teacher. Two-time winner of the prestigious Heavyweight Champion of Poetry and winner of American Book Awards for both nonfiction (Miles: The Autobiography) and poetry (Snake Back Solos), he leaves audiences in awe with his incendiary jazz performance style. His most recent work, the picture book Take it to the Hoop, Magic Johnson — is a dazzling tribute in poetry and pictures to the great American basketball athlete. This October paulo da costa spoke with Quincy Troupe during WordFest in Calgary.
Quincy Troupe Well, let me go back to the beginning a little bit – I was a very good basketball player at one time, and when I grew up, I tried to write a number of poems about basketball, but I just couldn’t do it, it didn’t work. It was not a good marriage. Magic Johnson was a great player, not only a great individual player, but he was a great team player, and he made everybody better around him and he made the game of basketball better. He and Larry Byrd and some other people brought the awareness of the game up. So with Magic, I had this character who was an incredible player, and one day I found myself writing a poem about this man. I wrote the Magic Johnson poem in 1985. It became a famous poem amongst basketball and sports people of the United States. It’s been anthologized many times, and Magic used to carry it in his bag wherever he went playing, and he’d get free tickets for me at games. I didn’t think any more about it. Then Bill Moyers did the Power of the Word series and I read that poem. Then the poem got more famous. About three or four years ago, this woman calls me on the phone: because of my biography of Miles Davis, and my other book, Miles and Me, she wanted me to do another adult book about Miles Davis. But by that time, I was already writing the screenplay on the movie, and I told her I had read a seven-part radio series on Miles Davis. I was Miles-ed out, I can’t do anything more on Miles Davis, I just can’t. So she says to me, “Well, do you have anything that children would like?” I said, “Yeah, I have a poem that kids like.” She said, “What is that?” I said, “It’s a poem called ‘Poem for Magic Johnson’.” She said, “Could you read it to me?” So I went and got it and read it to her on the phone. She said, “That’s a children’s book.” And I had never thought about that being a children’s book; it had never entered my mind. I was dumbfounded. Then the book came out, and it’s been one of these big, big books amongst children. And so now this book has found a new audience that it was not intended for. I never thought about the audience. I wrote the poem, and that was it. But now kids are buying the book, kids of eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve or thirteen: they come up to me on the street, or they find out where I’m teaching, and they bring the book; or they come to readings where I’m going to read for adults. I’m used to it now, seeing these kids with their parents and holding this book. Just like hockey is so much a part of the Canadian psyche, basketball and baseball are a large part of the American psyche, so for me there’s no place between what poetry’s supposed to be written about. I think that you can write poetry about anything. Anything.
paulo da costa You use a subject, basketball, which is connected to the lives and passions of many.
Quincy Troupe Yeah. I look at myself as a reader, because I’ve been reading all my life, and I read seriously. I read all kinds of stuff. And I like basketball; I like things written on basketball. I think that some of the best journalistic writing in the world is from basketball writers who write catching the speed of the game, and describe it metaphorically and poetically, but in journalistic style. They’re marvelous. I tip my hat off to them, because they’re great craftsmen. They can put you immediately in a game that you already saw. You saw the game on Saturday and the piece comes out on Monday, so they know that you saw the game, right? So now, writing about it, they bring you right back into the game. It’s different from watching it – you’re inside the poetry, the poetics of language. Even though I’ve only written three or four basketball poems, I try to bring the immediacy I learned from writing that poem on basketball and Magic Johnson into my writing now. I just finished this poem called “9-1-1: Emergency Calls Coming in from Manhattan”; it’s an eight-page poem, and it’s going to be in my new book. I try to bring the same immediacy and a different danger in the poem, because everybody thinks they’ve seen it in a certain way, but they haven’t. For instance, when the building was imploding, it looked like a giant tarantula crawling down the side of this building – devouring a penis almost. You know what I mean? It was an amazing image. There’s poetics in it, as horrible as it is, and I think that in order to get rid of these dreadful images that we have in our heads, we have to do something with it. Before, we had these notions of what the great subjects of literature were, but I think the modern world has exploded. I mean, we’ve got television, the Internet, things are occurring right in front of us, at the speed of sound, and we’re connected. We’re connected to Canada, we’re connected to Europe, we’re connected to Africa, we’re connected to Mexico; and we have people who are watching basketball in Croatia, who are watching American NBA games, and who are patterning themselves after Michael Jordan, because the television comes right into the room. You get hockey players over there who are patterning themselves after the great Canadian hockey players. It’s instant. So we’ve got these different subjects that you can write about that can touch someone, in a sense. I’ve always thought that literature is like teaching. Teaching is, I hate to use this metaphor, this image, but it’s like throwing your line out, your fishing rod, with the hook on the end of it. If you don’t have bait on the hook, your students are not going to bite. And then when they bite, you have to reel them in so that you can put this knowledge into their heads, because most students are reluctant to learn. With a poetic audience, this has also been the problem. Everybody’s got these lofty ideas. Poetry’s a great enterprise; Ginsberg taught us that, Amiri Baraka, Pablo Neruda, they get to lots of people, and it’s a wonderful thing. But at the same time, you get these people riding the subways, reading the sports pages, the Wall Street Journal, reading about business, about movies. And you have to be able to grab them where they are, and bring them in. I’ve learned that from some of the old masters. Poetry is in competition with television, with movies, with the Internet, with video games, with basketball, football and hockey games. So we want it to survive, and we want it to survive on a level where it’s literary, i.e. it’s great language, it has great metaphors, fabulous structure, it’s exacting. We want people to say, “Yes, I’m going to a poetry reading, there’s a bunch of people going.” That’s happening in the United States, and I see that it’s happening here at Wordfest. I see it, and I think that that’s a wonderful thing.
pdc Poetry is growing as a performance art. Poetry in action brings people together in a way that the book cannot. Does this mean that performance poetry is going to grow to compete with TV and games and the book itself?
QT I think that a great performer can make anything sound good. I think a great performer, if they study the craft of reading, can make a telephone book sound good. I think that the task of the poet is twofold. There are some poets who will never read well, that doesn’t mean that they don’t write great poems, but they’re just incapable of coming out of themselves, and being able to free themselves up to read these poems in a way that will make contact with audiences. That’s okay, I don’t have any problem with that. I was shy at first about reading poems. Then I got into it. There’s the poem that you write, and the written poem has to stand up on the page… I like to publish; I publish in the major poetry journals, so I like for my poems to work in terms of the structure and the craft. I wrote a villanelle about Michael Jordan, and it’s exact, it’s a French villanelle, 19 lines and the whole thing, but it has a different attitude, it’s infused with something else. So you have to bring the idea of the craft to the poem (this is what I say to my students at the University), structure, craft, the concerns of language: these have been the concerns of great poetry. You bring that to bear, you bring that to focus on the poem. Then, that’s that. It’s finished. Then when you go to read, this other thing happens. I’m not writing for an audience, I’m writing for myself, but when I go in front of an audience, I create this persona. Pablo Neruda said: you must create a persona to read the poem. So you read these poems in a way that will directly get to somebody. It’s the energy, the urgency, the voice, the rhythm; it’s that immediacy of the experience that gets to people. So that’s what I’m saying – there are two different things. That’s what some people don’t understand. A lot of academics, a lot of my colleagues, don’t understand that. They think that they have to read the poem the way they wrote it, but it’s a sleeping pill. Maybe it’s a good poem, but they mumble over it and everybody goes to sleep. Now, I don’t want people to go to sleep on me. My ego’s too big, I was a basketball star: I couldn’t stand it, you know? So if I’m going to read poetry to an audience, I want them to listen. If you’re going to read like a sleeping pill, why do it? Just don’t read it, let somebody else read it, don’t do yourself that disservice.
pdc If you do that disservice to poetry, people won’t come out to readings.
QT That’s what I’m talking about. And I have a lot of colleagues at the college level of teaching who write great poems, but they are horrible readers, they are sleeping pills. We both know poetry: I wrote a sonnet, you wrote a sonnet; I wrote a villanelle, you wrote a villanelle; I wrote a sestina, you wrote a sestina. They’re both exact, they’re both good structurally, but when you read yours, you read it in a boring way. When I go to read mine, I read it in another way. But both poems are structurally sound, that’s what we’re after; we’re after that craft, even if it’s free verse or whatever.
pdc There are lines being drawn in North America between those who think poetry should be performance and those who think it should be more text-based, more academic. How do you approach this discussion?
QT I’ve been teaching at the college level for thirty years. It’s not a question I deal with. A lot of friends of mine feel more secure reading to ten people; they feel more secure reading to an all-white, suburban audience. I love reading everywhere. I like to go Wyoming, where it’s all cowboys; I’ll go to Harvard.
pdc And you also read in prisons. What is that experience like?
QT Well, it’s the same. Prison people are intelligent, they just made a mistake. When you go to a prison, you’ve got this audience of people who most people have neglected and written off. I know that some of them are going to be on the streets again, so maybe I can humanize them, maybe I can touch them and turn their heads around. I’ve been able to do that to a lot of people. I’ve been able to touch them a little bit. You win some, you lose some. I don’t look at myself as a performance poet; I look at myself as a poet who writes out of the culture that grips him. John Ashbery says, and I love John Ashbery as a poet, he says he writes to the sound of sonatas or Beethoven or Brahms or Schubert or blah, blah, blah. That’s wonderful; it’s European music. When I write, I’m listening to John Coltrane or Miles Davis or Jimi Hendrix or whatever, and it’s the same thing. It’s cultural. It’s what you like and what you consider high art. I happen to like Beethoven and Brahms too. But it’s what people perceive, they want to put you in pigeonholes. That was the difficulty they had with Miles Davis. Miles was always changing, and as soon as they got a little box for him, he was out of the box and walking to another little box. After a while, they got tired of building little boxes. And he was African-American. Now, with Picasso, they said, “Oh, this is European, he can do whatever he wants, he can change as much as he wants, it’s wonderful, he’s so intriguing.” And they loved it. But Miles Davis was changing and changing, and they said, “But he’s a black American, he’s supposed to be involved in pathos, he supposed to be sad, he’s doing this other stuff, what is he doing?” Miles Davis is doing what he does; he’s a creative artist, like I am, like Pablo Picasso, Pablo Neruda and Garcia Marquez were. I’m not saying I’m good, but I put myself in that line. I’m influenced by a lot of stuff. I’m influenced by all kinds of music: African, East Indian music, I like salsa, hip-hop, I like rock and roll and rhythm and blues, along with all kinds of jazz. If it’s good enough, I like it. I’m influenced by painters, great painters. But I’m African-American, so I’m supposed to be involved in sadness. I’m supposed to be involved in the fact that I’m an African-American living in the United States. How can you think like that? I have great parents, I have a strong constitution, and I refuse to accept it. I refuse to accept that I’m supposed to think that about myself, what you think I’m supposed to think. I think I can do anything. So, what is academic? I ask my colleagues that – what is it? That you know everything? That you have 15 footnotes on a page of poetry? That you send the reader to 16 different sources? That’s a treatise, that’s a scholarly paper. That’s not a poem. You shouldn’t have to go to 15 sources on every page when you listen to my poem. I don’t even bother that much, to the chagrin of my colleagues.
pdc A Hispanic, Asian or an African-American community brings different music to the English language. How is it transforming the English language?
QT Totally. They also get angry with me because I say we are no longer speaking the English language. We are speaking the American language. I know white people in the United States, especially the English people, are connected to the navel. A lot of people are not connected. The ones who came over from England are connected to the navel of England, the Queen and all that. I’m not connected to that. I don’t dislike them, but I don’t drop down and genuflect every time I see the Queen of England or Prince Charles. I don’t care what they’re doing. I’m not in it. I’m into what is going on over here. The cross-fertilization of Asians and Latin-Americans and people from the Middle East and everybody coming to this country, and the Native Americans, cross-fertilizing this language with different words and sound and cadences, ways of saying things, does not make it the English language anymore. It makes it the American language. Maybe in another twenty or fifty years, we’re going to need translators when we go to England. And I don’t see anything wrong with that. Let’s stop this pretense. We are different from the English. That doesn’t mean that I don’t like the English, but we look at things differently. The English have a terrible class system, and they’re trying to impose it in the United States. It’s stupid; it’s just stupid. I think the influence of these different people is invigorating the American language. I think some of the greatest poems that have been written now have been written in the United States.
pdc You write from the margins of the status quo. After the September 11 events, and as an American, do you find it difficult to ask the hard questions?
QT No. No I don’t. I don’t have a problem saying to people: “you have to moderate what you have been doing in Israel. You have to. This is what is going to occur if you don’t moderate.” I don’t want to be riding the New York subway with my friends, my son or my wife or anybody else and someone from the Middle East gets on, and I can understand why he is angry, and he blows everyone to bits because of our foreign policy. I can look down the road and see that kind of thing happening. Because it is true that for the last eighty years we having being doing a lot of things in our foreign policy we shouldn’t have been doing. It seems to me that anybody with any kind of sense can look at that and see it. And not only in the Middle East. In Africa and all over the world. I love the United States. In a weird way I’m a patriot. I love the high ground, the high road, the real idea of democracy, freedom, coexisting in the world with people. I have lived in Africa, I have many African friends but I know I am an American. At the same time if we are going to call ourselves a democracy we cannot say we have to be quiet. What about freedom of speech? Am I supposed to shut up just because this awful guy has all this money and did this thing. That should make you pause and ask: what is going on here? It would have been a great thing when this happened if the United States would not have gone into revenge mode and said, ‘listen let’s talk about this’. It would have astonished everyone who had done it. What? They are not going to have a reflex action and bomb everybody? You can see it coming, bombing Afghanistan, Iran, Libya, Syria. Who are these people? What is their religion? Are we fools? Let’s be clear, let’s be serious, are we going to bomb the whole world? They don’t have atomic weapons but they have other weapons. Do you want everyone in North America to live in total fear? Who would want that? A right wing government would want that. See. Because they can keep you in your house and then they can do what they want. It’s obviously clear. But you can’t say that in the United States, if you say it you are a subversive. I’m not a subversive. I want democracy in the country. I want it to be a great place. They want to take the liberties from us. What did they say in Germany when Hitler was coming? Everyone was silent. When they would come to take three people, no one said a thing, then they would take ten, and nobody would say anything until there was nobody left. Don’t tell me there aren’t diabolic people in the United States because there are, this government is full of them. Right wing zealots. They don’t want any discussion. If these people are the policy experts, terrorist experts how did we get in this God damn position? Why did they not predict and tell us this was coming? I knew this was coming. What kind of experts are they? Their job is to know this. But they wouldn’t listen to us because we are just poets and writers. How could writers know? The experts are insurance salesmen. They don’t know a thing about the world, except for the white world. And it is unfortunate that we have these people running our government. This is a multicultural, multidimensional, multiracial world, this is not the 1950’s, no matter of how much they would like this to be the 1950’s, it is not. White people are not supreme. They need to learn to understand other people, other religions, learn to coexist in peace and harmony. I am aware of Man as a diabolic creature, a predator. I’m not that big of a fool. I can see it in Africa, in the Middle East. We have not learned the lessons of History. I guess they are not deep enough and spiritual enough to understand it. We keep making the same mistake time and time again. I don’t want to be part of the status quo because the status quo has brought us to this place where we are at the brink of disaster. Anihilation. Closer to a world religious war. We were not brought to this brink by people like me or Tony Morrison, or the late Allen Ginsberg. The status quo is made of small thinkers, the mediocre people who make themselves into big persons. Then they get their poets, who are mediocre, to represent the American ideal and they put them in the Academy of Arts and Letters, stamping them on the head with a stamp of approval. ‘You are ok, come and have dinner with us, have wine, cheese.’ The status quo is boring. Fuck it. Can you think outside the box? That is what I tell my students. Can you think outside the box? Can you improvise? Can you improvise in New York City? It I take you from La Jolla or a Santa Fe community and drop you in the middle of Manhattan, can you deal with it? You better learn how to deal with it. Beijing, Rio de Janeiro, Paris, Kabul, Lagos, are not like Santa Fe or Beverly Hills. You have to be able to think outside the box.