Troupe, Quincy 1943–

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Quincy Troupe 1943-

(Full name Quincy Thomas Troupe, Jr.) American poet, biographer, editor, memoirist, and nonfiction and children's book author.


Troupe is an acclaimed African American author whose jazz-inflected poems explore political and personal themes and celebrate the contribution of black artists, writers, musicians, and athletes. Many of his poems focus on racial themes, particularly the racial dynamic in contemporary America and the discrimination faced by marginalized people in society. His admiration for the jazz great Miles Davis has inspired several of Troupe's poems, led to his collaboration on Davis's autobiography, Miles (1989), and generated an account of that collaboration in Miles and Me (2000).


Troupe was born in 1943 in St. Louis, Missouri. His father was a catcher in the Negro baseball league, and the racial discrimination that limited his father's career and influenced his personal life became a key theme in Troupe's later work. Because of his father's career as an athlete, Troupe traveled to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela as a young boy. His parents also introduced him to jazz and Latin music, and Troupe developed a lifelong passion for these styles. In high school he became acquainted with the music of Miles Davis, whose work would be a constant inspiration and influence on his work and life. After graduating from high school in 1959, he received an athletic scholarship to play baseball at Grambling College. He left college, however, and joined the army in 1961. A knee injury precipitated his release from military service and he began to write poetry. He moved to Los Angeles, and began teaching creative writing for the Watts Writers' Movement in 1966. He worked as an associate editor for Shrewd magazine and edited an anthology of poetry and essays, Watts Poets (1968). In 1972 his first collection of verse, Embryo Poems, 1967-1971, was published. Troupe received an International Institute of Education travel grant in 1972, which enabled him to go to the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana, and Guinea. In 1975 he edited a collection of African, Caribbean, and Latin American writings, titled Giant Talk. Co-authored with David L. Wolper, The Inside Story of TV's Roots (1978) chronicles the production of the renowned television miniseries about slavery in America, which was based on the book by Alex Haley. The Inside Story was a tremendous commercial success, selling more than one million copies. That same year Troupe was awarded the National Endowment of the Arts Award in poetry. His poetry collection Snake-back Solos (1978) received the American Book Award in 1980. After Troupe wrote a well-received article about the legendary musician Miles Davis in Spin magazine, Davis invited him to collaborate on his autobiography, Miles, which received an American Book Award in 1990. Troupe reflected on his experience working with Davis in Miles and Me. In 1991 he was appointed an instructor in creative writing and American, African American, and Caribbean literature at the University of California at San Diego. That same year he received the Peabody Award for co-producing and writing the radio show The Miles Davis Radio Project. He is also recognized as the two-time winner of the World Heavyweight Championship Poetry Bout in Taos, New Mexico. Troupe was named the first Poet Laureate of California in 2002, but was forced to resign the position when a background check revealed that the education credentials on his resume had been exaggerated. His 2002 collection of verse, Transcircularities, received the Binghamton University Milt Kessler Poetry Book Award in 2003; that same year he retired from teaching. In 2004 he was named editor of Black Renaissance Noire. He has taught creative writing and literature at several colleges and universities, including the University of California at Los Angeles, Ohio University, Columbia University, and the University of Ghana at Legon.


Troupe's verse is characterized by his use of jazz, bebop, blues, and rap music rhythms, and a variety of poetic forms, African and American myth, and black dialect. His first collection of poetry, Embryo Poems, 1967-1971, highlights the musical influences on his work, as several poems in the volume honor the African American creativity and spirituality that originated blues and jazz music. In addition, there are a number of dedicatory poems in the book that pay homage to influential figures in Troupe's life. Music is also a dominant theme in the poems of his next collection, Snake-back Solos, which contains poems praising the talent of St. Louis poet Eugene Redmond, writer Steve Cannon, Miles Davis, and Louis Armstrong. Weather Reports (1991) includes several poems from Troupe's first two collections as well as a few new poems. In Avalanche (1996), Troupe mixed poetic styles to explore the racial politics in America. The poems in Choruses (1999) touch on subjects such as religious cults, the basketball prowess of Michael Jordan, the greed of corporate America, and the masterful musical performances of Miles Davis. In this collection, Troupe utilized a variety of poetic forms—haiku, tanka, villanelle, sonnet, sestina, and free verse—and exhibited the influence of jazz rhythms on his verse. Transcircularities, a selection of Troupe's earlier poetry together with a few new verses, demonstrates his poetic development over the years and includes celebratory verses on such legendary musicians as John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Bud Powell, and Miles Davis. Several political poems also appear in the volume. Troupe's 2006 collection The Architecture of Language celebrates the diverse linguistic influences that make up modern-day American language, touches on political and personal themes, and includes admiring poems on the golfer Tiger Woods and the late comedian Richard Pryor. The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) is the biography of once-homeless stockbroker Chris Gardner and was made into a motion picture that same year.


Troupe is recognized as a talented and provocative poet, biographer, nonfiction writer, and editor. His poems are frequently anthologized, and his poetry and nonfiction work have received several awards, including two American Book Awards and a National Endowment of the Arts Award. Critics often praise him for providing a confrontational, unapologetic voice for marginalized peoples confronting a discriminatory society. In addition, scholars note his inclusion of contemporary issues and events in his poetry, finding his work a trenchant and relevant commentary on the state of politics, culture, and race relations in the United States. The influence of jazz, blues, bebop, and rap on Troupe's poetic style and subject matter is a recurring topic for critical discussion. Reviewers rarely fail to mention the musicality of his language, and many point out the variety of poetic styles he utilizes in his work. They praise his ability to infuse his poems with energy, vitality, and lyrical phrasing—remarking that many of the poems are intended for oral performance—and investigate the influence of art, music, literature, politics, and sports on his work. His verse is often compared to that of the great American poets Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes.


Watts Poets: A Book of New Poetry and Essays [editor] (poetry and essays) 1968

Embryo Poems, 1967-1971 (poetry) 1972

Giant Talk: An Anthology of Third World Writings [editor with Rain Schulte] (poetry, short stories, folk tales, and excerpts from novels) 1975

The Inside Story of TV's Roots [with David L. Wolper] (nonfiction) 1978

Snake-Back Solos: Selected Poems, 1969-1977 (poetry) 1978

Skulls along the River (poetry) 1984

James Baldwin: The Legacy [editor] (essays and interview) 1989

Miles: The Autobiography [with Miles Davis] (autobiography) 1989

Weather Reports: New and Selected Poems (poetry) 1991

Avalanche: Poems (poetry) 1996

Choruses: Poems (poetry) 1999

Miles and Me (memoir) 2000

Take It to the Hoop, Magic Johnson [illustrated by Shane W. Evans] (juvenile poetry) 2000

Transcircularities: New and Selected Poems (poetry) 2002

Little Stevie Wonder [illustrated by Lisa Cohen] (juvenile poetry) 2005

The Architecture of Language: Poems (poetry) 2006

The Pursuit of Happyness [with Chris Gardner and Mim Eichler Rivas] (biography) 2006


David Widgery (review date 5 January 1990)

SOURCE: Widgery, David. "Milestones in Music." New Statesman & Society 3, no. 82 (5 January 1990): 34-5.

[In the following laudatory assessment of Miles, Widgery describes Troupe's collaboration with Miles Davis as a "wonderfully detailed, candid and informative" work.]

The princely stare of the most influential jazz trumpeter in the latter half of the 20th century announces, from the cover of this enthralling autobiography, a seriously badassed mother-fucker. The baleful glare also reminds us of the uncompromising musical originality and political edge which have propelled Miles through four major phases of intense innovation now chronicled in this wonderfully detailed, candid and informative 400-page book.

Davis, son of a successful St Louis dentist, first came to light as the youngest member of the bebop revolutionaries who stormed the Winter Palace of Jazz between 1945-49. Officially studying at the Julliard School of Music, the 19-year-old tyro trumpeter not only succeeded in tracking down Charlie Parker but recording with him those haunting and expressive, if occasionally technically weak, solos on the Dial and Savoy albums of the late forties.

[In Miles: The Autobiography, ] Davis's account of those dizzy years and the upsurge of post-war black self-confidence which they express is fresh, staccato and full of sharp judgments and warm affections. His portrait of Parker himself: on stage, in the studio, and gobbling chicken à la pudenda in the back of a taxi is simultaneously scabrous and deeply respectful. And he is both unsentimental and angry about the tragedies and desperation that dogged the beboppers: their financial exploitation, the lack of recognition by the white-dominated jazz establishment and the general horrors of marching through wintry Harlem slush to buy smack.

But it was after the first bebop wave had dissipated and his own five-year addiction to heroin had been conquered that Davis's brilliance as a composer and leader of improvising musicians became apparent with the series of quintets, most famously alongside John Coltrane, which between 1956 and 1960 produced classics like "Kinda Blue" and "Milestones".

Here too began his collaboration with that most delightful of men, Gil Evans, which was to produce "Sketches of Spain". The amount of musical intelligence packed into these recordings was immense and Miles recalls, for instance, that the drum voicings on the track "Saeta" derived not only from Arabic tonal scales of the black Moors but from the black bagpipers and drummers he had heard as a child at the Veiled Prophet Parades in St Louis. He clearly links the music of this period to the rise of the Civil Rights movement and documents the tremendous precision, not to say ruthlessness, with which he selected and instructed his musicians (the fraught relationship with Coltrane, who was still using heroin, is particularly interesting). As he says of the Sun Ra Orkestra tenor player John Gilmore, one of many Miles fired, "his sound wasn't what I heard for the band".

Before the sixties, therefore, the history of modern American music was being written by ex-Miles Davis sidesmen. But this became even more marked in Miles's mid-sixties Third Period when he led the fusion bands (which effectively invented jazz-funk) with the infant protegé drummer Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, who Miles coaxed onto Fender Rhodes electric pianos, and Wayne Shorter.

By 1968 jazz was, in sales terms, largely eclipsed by rock music and, while scornful of the "hillbilly music" of the English rockers, Davis was alert to the changing audiences and appreciative of musicians like Hendrix and Sly Stone. He also had his own liking for black funk idioms: "Road house honky tonky funky thing that people used to dance to on Friday and Saturday nights." Here, to critical outrage, Miles's expressive lyricism turned into something harsher and live-evil (as one of the fiercest albums of this period was palindromically entitled), the shards and angular rhythms of "Bitches Brew" and "On the Corner".

This epoch ended with Davis's infamous live non-appearances with plastic amplified trumpet and wah wah pedal barely discernible above electronic cacophones. The fusion period effectively ended in a mess of cocaine, sleepers, ill-health, car crashes and violence. Between 1975 and 1980 Davis didn't pick up a trumpet and seldom left the darkened rooms of his Manhattan town house where he orchestrated orgies beneath portraits of Bird, Trane and Max Roach and faux black marble.

But out of these ashes came, miraculously, a fourth renaissance in the eighties with superb albums like We Want Miles and Tutu, a new composing technique, a new career as a painter and, at last, a lifestyle compatible with his diabetes and sickle cell anaemia. And new collaborators like Marcus Miller and Palle Mikkelberg who composed the beautiful album Aura, recorded in 1985 but only recently released.

There are times in this journey from the world of Mintons and 52nd Street to that of Prince and the syndrum where Davis's account is coarse and inexpressive, and he is as weird as ever about women. But his tender account of Bud Powell in Paris and viciously funny transcription of his visit, in black leather pants, to a White House dinner in the Reagan era reveal his personal sensitivity and political sharpness….

Gene Santoro (review date 29 January 1990)

SOURCE: Santoro, Gene. "The Serpent's Tooth." Nation 250, no. 4 (29 January 1990): 139-40.

[In the following unfavorable appraisal of Miles, Santoro laments that the volume focuses more on Davis's personality and his private and business relationships and less on his significant contributions to the music industry.]

Miles Davis is one of the only jazz musicians who could get away with putting just his first name and picture on the front of a book and still sell more than a few copies. After all, for the forty-plus years of his professional career Miles has been standing at or near the center of one musical earthquake after another.

If he came to New York on the pretext of studying at the Juilliard School of Music, he soon found his real mentors, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, and so from the age of 18 he worked with these bebop revolutionaries. By 1949 he'd decided to pursue a new musical direction with arranger Gil Evans and players like John Lewis and Gerry Mulligan; thus was born Birth of the Cool (Capitol). After kicking his drug habit in 1953 he gradually pulled together the landmark group that included John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley and Bill Evans. This group worked modally, rather than simply cycling through chord changes as had been done since the beginning of jazz. A few years later his crackerjack outfit, with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, pushed that notion beyond its limits, and coincidentally launched what became known as fusion. In love with Jimi Hendrix's guitar and Sly and the Family Stone's straight-up funk, Miles went out On the Corner, which not only helped change the way jazz was recorded but earned the undying enmity of jazz critics, including Wynton Marsalis, who has loftily dismissed Miles's work after the 1950s, even though he obviously owes Miles an enormous musical debt. And so on.

Most jazz critics have been bad-mouthing Miles for decades, which is one of the major themes of his autobiography. If Miles is famous for anything outside his music, it's his continual putdown of the white-run jazz industry, from producers to critics, and his street-style mouth—and that language itself becomes another of the book's subjects.

Actually, Miles: The Autobiography reads as if Miles talked it into a tape machine, except for the set-piece opening chapter, a hackneyed prophetic epiphany involving a very young Miles and the blue flame of a gas jet. For the rest, Miles talks his way through his life, his music, his grudges, his fistfights, his persecutions, his addictions, his triumphs. That makes the book by turns fascinating and irritating, controversial and self-contradictory, lyrical and boring, pungent and self-aggrandizing—in other words, a lot like the man himself.

What most people want in star autobiographies are spicy revelations and settlement of old scores, and here Miles doesn't disappoint, even if some of the content does. Apparently, the hot-tempered Miles is as fast with his hands as he is with his mouth, and he doesn't seem to care which person or what gender he hits. Without trying to justify or excuse how disgustingly often he hits "upside the head" the women who pass through his life, I should point out that Miles—who has abused virtually every drug known—became a pimp during his period of heroin addiction in the early 1950s. A lot of his lingo and habits come from those dark days rather than from his relatively sunny, upper-middle-class upbringing in East St. Louis. Then too, he makes it plain how much he respected his father, who appears to have supported him emotionally and financially with virtually no strings attached, and how little he liked his mother, who fought with her husband continually and eventually divorced him. So there's plenty of fodder for would-be psychologists in Miles's antipathy toward women, the myriad casual affairs during his marriages, the recurrent brutality directed at wives and girlfriends (and for that matter band members and friends) and his shrug-of-the-shoulders attitude about this subject.

Other musicians, even Miles's idols, also get brutalized, or are paid back for old grudges. For example, Charlie Parker, described as a brilliant musician and raconteur, is also depicted as a manipulative creep willing to shovel any mountain of shit, shortchange any friend or band mate, to feed his habits; the famously caustic Miles is remarkably unsentimental about either Bird's genius or his—and bebop's—excesses, musical or drug-related. Wynton Marsalis, too, gets some well-deserved lumps for his self-aggrandizing posturing.

Although the book definitely emphasizes personalities and events, the reader gets some sense of the dizzyingly varied musical styles Miles has pioneered or helped launch during his long career. That part of the trumpeter's life gets less attention than I'd expected, and it comes primarily in the form of anecdotal peeks behind the scenes—some fascinating, some rehashed from what look like other sources. And when strictly technical points are raised, they're often not properly explained.

But that's consistent with the way Miles's personality is presented here: cynical, largely unreflective, oddly vulnerable and shy, quick to anger and slow to forget. Away from the bandstand and recording studio, where he's plumbed the depths for sounds and ideas, he seems to keep himself deliberately visceral and shallow—as if too much reflection would dull his intuitive edge. That means, for instance, that his discussions of racism in the music business often become rhetorical or egocentric, rants rather than indictments. This is disappointing because Miles is one of the few jazzers who has had a large enough audience to make big bucks; his complaints of racist treatment could hardly be written off as economic sour grapes. Presented in a more informed and organized way, his attacks on racism in the music business and in society in general could have been deadly enough to extend the legacy of his father, a man active in African-American movements, and teach the rest of us a few things from the inside.

But that's like wishing Miles were Montaigne. For those who want more meat, there's always Jack Chambers's solid Milestones; for the rest, the music will have to continue to speak for itself, as it has done so eloquently for so long.

Susan Spilecki (review date fall 1998)

SOURCE: Spilecki, Susan. Review of Avalanche, by Quincy Troupe. MELUS 23, no. 3 (fall 1998): 216-18.

[In the following favorable review of Avalanche, Spilecki praises Troupe's ability to combine personal observations with commentary on the politics of race, and for his awareness of those individuals who exist on the fringes of American society.]

In his fifth book of poetry [Avalanche ], Quincy Troupe stands before us as a versatile American poet, taking joy in the vast possibilities for motion in the avalanche of language and manipulating the violence of it to speak of life in America and in particular of racial politics. Troupe uses the three stages of an avalanche to "create new language / everywhere." In Section One, the poems mimic the "initial breaking away … in an awesome language of cacophony," their long lines injected with internal rhymes and convoluted jazz rhythms that drive the reader forward, as in "The Sound, Breaking Away."

the assonance of sound breaking from ground
breaking away from itself & found in the bounding
  syllables of snow
moving now beginning to roar above the cracking

But this is not simply language poetry. As one title states, Troupe spends his time "Slippin & Slidin' Over Syllables for Fun with some politics thrown in on the side." The separation of the avalanche is primarily a racial one. "A Response to All You ‘Angry White Males’" is a carefully honed rant which asks who is to blame for the ills of the world, "who wins the title hands down for being the champion serial killer / on the planet, who lynched all those black & american indian people / just because they could, who's polluting, destroying the ecology of the planet." With controlled irony, the poem blasts the opponents of affirmative action, the proponents of proposition thirteen, and the "paper-pushing service empires / that put all you rust-belt blue-collar ‘angry white male’ workers / … out of work." Troupe is not afraid to confront readers politically, just as he is not afraid to create an angry tension through interminable sentences and increasing sarcasm:

who took the whole nine yards & everything else
that wasn't tied down, maybe it was some indian chief,
  sioux perhaps …
or a ching-chong-slick charlie-chan chinaman
& his nefarious gang of thieves, maybe a mexican
 "wetback" perhaps …
who took away all your sweat, all your life savings,
 but it wasn't buddy,
no, it couldn't have been buddy, your next-door
who looks just like you, & is you,
could it

In this as in other poems, Troupe's taunting voice evokes from minority readers righteous indignation and from white readers, recognition and guilt.

Fusion, cross-fertilization and confluence are themes he returns to in order to break the tensions built by such poems. Yes, America is divided between conquerors and conquered, between races and religions, each with their own tongues. But, he reminds us at the beginning of "Poem in Search of a Common Genetic," the addition of new accents changes a language, and the language changes the people who speak it, forcing them together in the act of communication.

It is not an easy change; it has all the force of a natural disaster. But Troupe presents his vision of it with a meditative, hopeful tone:

… burning
is where language springs from like lava erupting
from a volcano, hot & luminous, powerful & new,
as the crossfertilization of beliefs of priests & rabbis
  & shaman
holymen sitting across from preachers & medicine
& imams & buddhists in america, the holy ghost
crisscrossing tongues, this & that in a fusion of you &
                       * * *
the magic of singing in the flow of the mysterious cadence
inside the rowing consonance of the impudent river
clean or dirty water washing smooth ripples across
  our faces
as we raise ourselves up clean inside our own
 american voices
holy throughout the sound of its utterance

The singing, the sharing of new language, sanctifies as it changes, bringing with it cleansing and hope.

The third section of the book mimics the third stage of the avalanche, after settling has occurred and the landscape appears new and clean. Troupe begins the section with half a dozen extremely short pieces focusing on people—including Tonya Harding and a homeless man—and places. The short lines and simple style bring readers up short after the lavishness of the previous two sections, but once Troupe has achieved this effect, he returns to his usual style.

There are weaknesses in the book of course, as in "A Response to All You ‘Angry White Males’" when he suggests, "don't be so uptight, go out & get yourselves a good lay, grow up," thus objectifying women even as he fights against objectification on the basis of race and ethnicity. The same issue comes up in "Male Springtime Ritual," where the speaker complains how hard it is on men in spring, with women "peeling off everything the hard winter forced them to put on / … eye-mean young men, too, fog up eyeglasses, contact lenses, shades—." But throughout the poem, the self-mocking tone with which he humorously accuses men of "eyeballing nipples" also absolves them of it: "it's all a part of the springtime ritual / & only the strongest eyeballs survive."

Throughout Avalanche, Troupe is consistently aware of his job as a poet fusing the personal and the political. He speaks not only for African Americans, although in- deed he repeatedly draws on the imagery of jazz, voodoo, basketball and African myth. He also speaks for all of America's marginalized people, drawing them into the roar of the avalanche and theorizing new futures in the wake of his new "fissuring speech."

Quincy Troupe with Douglas Turner (interview date 25 October 2000)

SOURCE: Troupe, Quincy, and Douglas Turner. "Miles and Me: An Interview with Quincy Troupe." African American Review 36, no. 3 (fall 2002): 429-34.

[In the following interview, initially conducted during a Huntsville, Alabama, radio broadcast in October 2000, Troupe discusses his background, his perception of himself as an African American artist, and the central themes of Miles and Me.]

A Renaissance man for the twenty-first century, author and poet Quincy Troupe is Professor of Creative Writing and American and Caribbean Literature at the University of California, San Diego. A nationally recognized poet and biographer, he has authored twelve books and won two American Book Awards, in 1980 for Snake-Back Solos, a volume of poetry, and for Miles: The Autobiography. He wrote and co-produced The Miles Davis Radio Project, for which he received a Peabody Award; served as Editorial Director of Code, a national monthly magazine for men of color; and has edited James Baldwin: The Legacy. Troupe is also two-time Heavyweight Champion of Poetry, a title he won at the World Poetry Bout, a national competition that draws distinguished poets to Taos, New Mexico.

Troupe's latest work is Miles and Me, a candid account of his friendship with the enigmatic trumpeter. In it Troupe offers a glimpse into the inner sanctum of jazz's "Prince of Darkness." The book also shows the power of music—in particular, the music of Miles Davis—on Troupe's own development as an artist.

On October 25, 2000, Troupe appeared on Return to the Source, a jazz show I produce and host on WJAB 90.9FM in Huntsville, Alabama. What followed was a freewheeling, wide-ranging, engaging interview that covered Miles and Me, the impact of jazz and Miles's music on Troupe's own artistic development, the role of the African American artist, poetry, and Troupe's latest projects, including his first screenplay, for an upcoming movie on Miles Davis.

[Turner]: Your new book is a much more personal account of your relationship with Miles, and in that sense it's as much about you as it is about Miles. We get a chance to see your background and your first exposure to jazz and Miles's music. What was your hometown, St. Louis, like when you were growing up?

[Troupe]: When I grew up there it was segregated. I remember we didn't have a television, and going to listen to Joe Louis fight on the radio. When television came in, it was downtown at the department store, and the black people, including my dad and other black men, would take me down to the department store to watch Joe Louis on television. There would be a whole lot of black people, and white people too, on the sidewalk looking at Joe Louis knock somebody out. Other than that, we would sit around the radio and listen to those boxing matches and baseball games. The only thing we really had to do was to listen to the music, go to the movies, and play sports.

My father was a great baseball player, so I grew up between St. Louis, Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela. He was the second greatest catcher of all-time in the old Negro Leagues. So in my house, we were listening to salsa and other Latin music. My mother liked Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine, Charlie Parker. So I grew up around a lot of different stuff. The second man she married, after divorcing my father, was a blues musician. He played all the blues musicians—B. B. King, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley.

Kids are always against what their parents like. I was listening to Johnny Ace and the Coasters … the Platters. I remember going into this fish joint one day in St. Louis. I was about 15 years old, and I saw these four black guys. I had transferred by that time to an all-white high school, and it was so square at that school. They were listening to Pat Boone covering black songs. I just wanted to be around something hip. These four black guys were sitting in a booth in the fish joint and they were really clean. They had on dark glasses, ascots. I had never seen a guy with an ascot, and a beret. They had their hats up on the three-pronged poles and they were smoking cigarettes, drinking soda, and eating fish sandwiches. I said, "Let me sit behind them and see if I can catch something." They were talking about "the homeboy across the river from East St. Louis" who was playing on the jukebox. It was Miles Davis. I had never heard of Miles Davis. And they talked about the guy on alto who "sounded like Charlie Parker, Bird," Jackie McLean. I didn't know who Bird was. They played the record two or three times. I thought they were pretty hip. Then they got up and left.

I remember going up to the jukebox and finding "Donna," because I remember them saying Miles Davis's "Donna." I put my nickel in and sat down and listened to it. It was great. I put another nickel in and listened to it again, and when I walked out of that fish joint, my life was kind of changed at that moment, hearing that music. From that point on, I was trying to learn everything I could about Miles Davis.

In the book you describe St. Louis and East St. Louis as great trumpet towns. Why?

Because we had these marching bands in St. Louis. We had all these German guys there who were teachers who were teaching the trumpet and the bugle. Out of that tradition came lead trumpet players like Clark Terry, Miles Davis, Shorty Baker, and a whole bunch of other guys; trumpet players are still coming out of St. Louis—Lester Bowie and Russell Gunn. A whole bunch of trumpet players have come out of St. Louis, and a lot of them were trained in those marching bands. The other thing was that East St. Louis stayed open all night long. People could go play in the bars on the weekends all night. You had this great musical milieu, and then you had the river where everybody was coming up in those riverboats and stopping in St. Louis. All those great bands, bringing Dizzy, Roy Eldridge, Louis Armstrong. They were all coming up from New Orleans. You also had people coming from Chicago and Kansas City. So at one time St. Louis was a hub where a lot of people were passing through from Oklahoma, from Kansas City, from the South, and from Chicago and New York. And St. Louis itself had great musicians like George Hudson, and my cousin Eddie Randall, who led the first band Miles played in. All this created a scene.

You describe the first time you heard Miles live and the incident in which Miles cracked the faces of a white couple who approached him in a way he felt was disrespectful. How much of Miles's surly nature was an attempt to live up to his reputation and how much was real?

Miles was a very complex person. He didn't like anybody, black or white, invading his space. He felt that if he wanted to talk to you he would talk to you. If he was having down time, relaxing at the bar, he didn't want people coming up to him. I remember people from St. Louis were just standing back observing him because we knew, but nobody told this white couple that Miles didn't want to meet them, so they got cursed out.

Miles did that when I met him. I saw him curse a big black guy out on the street who had come up to him to talk about a movie he was making. He wanted Miles to be in it. That's how he responded to stuff because he didn't know how to navigate that kind of stuff intellectually. The first thing that came into his mind, a lot of the time, that's what he said.

In the book you talk about Miles and Wynton Marsalis and their relationship, or lack of one. You mention Miles's observation that there was the potential for Wynton to become comfortable with where he was. What was their relationship like?

Wynton was influenced by Miles. When they first met, he was coming to Miles as a protégé in a sense, a young guy wanting to learn. And Miles was giving him as much as he wanted. I think the unfortunate thing that happened was that they were at the same record company, Columbia. Wynton was playing classical music, and then he was playing jazz, and he was starting to get this reputation. So I think he started to feel himself in competition with Miles, as they both played the same instrument. After a certain point, Wynton started to make these disparaging remarks about Miles. He started to say things in the press about the music Miles was playing after Bitches Brew, and certain kinds of music he didn't like. I've never really had a conversation with Wynton about that, but I thought it was kind of stupid for him to do that.

First it was a great relationship, and then it started to disintegrate. The low point came when Wynton and Miles were in Vancouver after Wynton had said this stupid stuff about Miles, and after he had come under the guidance of Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray. (Stanley hated Miles Davis because Miles had cursed him out when he approached Miles in the same way that the white couple had done earlier.) After saying these hateful things, Wynton came up to Miles in Vancouver in 1987 or '88 where Miles's group was playing, and he walked up on the stage like he was going to sit in without asking Miles if he could sit in. So when Miles saw him he went up to him—there are photographs of this encounter—and said something to him that no one could hear. I asked Miles what he said to him and Miles said he told Wynton, "If you play one note I'm hitting you upside the head with this trumpet. Get off my stage." After that, the whole relationship disintegrated.

How do you define yourself as an artist? Do you see yourself as an African American artist, and if you do, what does that mean?

I see myself as an artist and a poet. I'm basically influenced by and coming out of the African American, but American, tradition. I'm African American because I was born African American and proud of it. I don't run away from that. But as an artist, I see myself as a poet first, and then I see myself as a prose writer. I agree with Miles. He looked at himself as a musician and an artist. I don't hear white boys running around saying they're "white artists." I come out of St. Louis, the black culture there and the music there. I grew up in the church. I was a basketball player. I'm a poet. That's the way I approach myself.

Do you agree with Miles that "there is no honor in doing their …"

Miles was talking in terms of classical music. He was saying that he didn't see any honor in doing that and that we should be creating our own stuff. I feel that we should be creating our own stuff, too. But as a poet, I write in different ways. I can write a villanelle, a sestina, a haiku. I can write in those different forms. But I am about trying to raise up in the United States whatever cultural forms that we can raise up here. If I do work in another form, I'm about putting my own stamp on the form. For example, if I work in the French villanelle form, a nineteen-line poem where you pick two lines and repeat them four times throughout the poem, usually it's a kind of bland form, except for one by Dylan Thomas. I wrote a poem in my last book called "Poem for Michael Jordan" using that form. I think I've innovated it just by the sound.

InMiles and Me you mention how you "came to know Miles as almost childlike, delicate, and much softer than [you] had ever imagined him being." Can you elaborate?

Miles was a beautiful guy. When you got to know him, he was soft. Not "soft" soft. He was very sensitive. He was a very shy person. If he liked you a lot, he would do anything for you. He was generous. He would give you money. He was funny. He was a real guy, a human guy. He was always cracking on you, so you had to be ready. But I learned to crack back on him. He was childlike. He told me that great artists have to remain close to their childhood in order to let their imaginations flow, because as you grow older you become victim to all of these rules and regulations. But young children are not encumbered by all that, so their imaginations are free. They can create whatever they want to at that moment.

I agree with him. As an artist, if you can stay close to that sensibility without having all those rules and regulations, dos and don'ts, imprison you, then you're free to create a lot more. I think that's where he stayed in his imagination. That's why he was so fertile. That's why he was so protean.

I think it's hard for a lot of people to imagine Miles as being humorous. Most people could not see that in him.

Everybody that knows him knows that. I remember one time I got together with Santana and Miles's last drummer. We were sitting up there telling these Miles stories, and everybody was telling these funny stories and laughing. We laughed for about two hours. If he knew you, he was a funny guy. If he didn't, he had that mask up because he didn't want people to approach him.

I guess calling Miles "guarded" would be an understatement?

That's right. He definitely didn't want people invading his space. When I first met him, he reached out and grabbed my hair. I knocked his hand away. He was shocked. He looked at me so crazy and said, "What are you, crazy"? I said, "No. Just because I'm here to interview you doesn't mean that you can invade my space. That's your space over there, and this is my space. Miles's space. Quincy's space." His respect for me went up immediately as soon as I said that to him. And it stayed like that until he died.

I especially like the section ofMiles and Me called "Listening to Miles," your assessment of his music and how certain recordings were milestones in your development. What are some of your most memorable moments in terms of Miles's music?

"Bag's Groove" blew me away. Then, when I first heard Kind of Blue, that blew me away. Two other memories. I had just started teaching at Ohio University when Bitches Brew came out. I remember going to the record store and I saw this album cover with this weird painting on the cover, and I said, "What is this?" I bought it and took it home. I didn't want to listen to it until I got my stuff together. So I got some food, some good wine, and I went in the front room. I put this record on, and it was so strange at first. It was kind of like an assault. I was stunned by it, but at the same time it was totally compelling. I listened to it from six or seven in the evening until after midnight. By the time I got up the next morning I was transformed. The same thing happened with On the Corner. A lot of my friends stopped listening to Miles after Bitches Brew. They said, "Man, that stuff's crazy." Then when On the Corner came out, the same thing happened. I was living in New York, and I put on On the Corner and had this amazing feeling about it. Miles was documenting the city and all those sounds and what those black people were doing up in Harlem.

It's interesting how music can impact a person's life. Most people think of music as background material, but music can have that kind of impact, can't it?

Yeah, I think that music has had a compelling influence on me. If I had not heard Miles's music in that fish joint, I don't think that I would be sitting here looking at this beautiful view I'm looking at now. Miles set me on a path that is remarkable in a lot of ways. He's the one that set me on the path to writing and using my imagination, and being creative. I just finished a screenplay based on Miles and Me that the people who produced Hurricane will produce. I would not have written that screenplay if I had not gone to that fish joint. That's what fate is. Because I heard that music, he propelled me into this thing that I do now. The end result, besides all the poetry I've written, is that now we're going to do this movie.

Who are they considering to play Miles?

There are a lot of names being thrown around. They've talked about Wesley Snipes, Samuel L. Jackson, Morgan Freeman. They talked about Danny Glover playing my character, and Forrest Whitaker.

Are you going to have any input into the final decision?

When they optioned it I asked to be one of the executive producers. But this is the way it is: Hollywood is run by who gets the money, and they make the final de- cisions. I'm not going to have a problem with that. First of all, I'm a novice when it comes to Hollywood. Plus, I trust the producer, Rudy Langlis, who was my editor at The Village Voice and Spin. He just did a movie about the Atlanta murders, and he's doing one on the Tulsa riots. He's a great editor and great person. I'm not going to tell him what to do, but I am going to put my two cents in.

In the book you describe Miles as an "unreconstructed" black man. What does that mean, and what does Miles mean to American culture? Will he ever be given the recognition he deserves?

By unreconstructed black guy, I meant that Miles was a black man who did not change for anybody. He was an African American man who came out of East St. Louis, and he wasn't going to kiss anybody's behind to get somewhere. He was going to be himself on all occasions. I think that in this country, because of the fact that we were slaves at one time, the dominant white culture feels that we have to become them. We have to talk in a certain way, dress in a certain way, talk calmly. We do that because we want to get ahead. I understand that. It's that middle-class thing. Miles was that unreconstructed black man who went on his own path.

I don't think people have to change. Picasso didn't change. The Kennedys don't change. Elvis Presley didn't change. Frank Sinatra didn't change. Why should Miles Davis or any African American guy have to change? We aren't running around murdering anybody. We aren't being like Jeffery Dahmer. African Americans are some of the most dedicated, loyal, patriotic people in the history of this country. Because of the fact that he didn't kowtow to a lot of white interests, a lot of people carry a grudge against Miles.

Miles Davis should have everything in this country. In the same way that France and Spain gave Picasso everything, Miles should have everything in this culture, because there's been no other person in this country that has changed the course of music six times. No one. And all the musicians respect him. He's absolutely an international icon. The cover of the January 2000 GQ issue in Japan read "Miles is God." We would never do that here.

Quincy Troupe with Jan Garden Castro (interview date March-April 2005)

SOURCE: Troupe, Quincy, and Jan Garden Castro. "Quincy Troupe: An Interview by Jan Garden Castro." American Poetry Review 34, no. 2 (March-April 2005): 49-57.

[In the following interview, Troupe reflects on such topics as the lack of African American influence in the publishing industry; the personal, artistic, and geographical inspirations for his work; the prevalent themes in his poetry; his approach to teaching poetry; and the controversy surrounding his being named poet laureate of California.]

Quincy Troupe has been featured on two PBS television series on poetry. In 1991, he received the Peabody Award for co-producing and writing the radio show The Miles Davis Radio Project. Troupe is the author of fourteen books, including seven volumes of poetry: Embryo, Snake-Back Solos (winner of a 1980 American Book Award), Skulls along the River, Choruses, Weather Reports, Avalanche, and Transcircularities, which was selected by Publishers Weekly as one of the ten best books of poetry published in 2002 and which received the Binghamton University Milt Kessler Poetry Book Award in 2003. His nonfiction books include Miles: The Autobiography (winner of a 1990 American Book Award) and Miles and Me. He edited the 1975 anthology Giant Talk and James Baldwin: The Legacy. Troupe has taught at the University of California-San Diego (where he is Professor Emeritus), Ohio University, The College of Staten Island (CUNY) and Columbia University.

[Castro]: Quincy, after James Baldwin died, you editedJames 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?

Yes, How do you mask?

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.

In this neighborhood [Harlem]? In New York?

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.

What about Cornell West, Tavis Smiley

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.

I thought you were a member of the Academy of American Poets. You're listed on their website.

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?


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.

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, andTrans- circularities. 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?

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.

What year was that?

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.

Did you actually know Paul …?

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.

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 "River Town 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?

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.

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.

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!

How old were you?

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!

We've gotten off the beat of poetry …

I want to say why I dedicated the poem to Sterling Brown.


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.

Good. Tell me how sports has influenced you.

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.

InMiles 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. AndMiles 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?

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.

Was race a factor in the editing?

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. DuBois 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.

What's your role in the upcoming movie on Miles?

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.

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.

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 baseball 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 mélange, 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 …

The Dark Side?

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.

How old were you when your parents divorced?

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.

Let's stop in Paris for a minute. You were playing basketball; how old were you?

I was in my early twenties. This was in the sixties, so I must have been around twenty-two. I was on the allstar 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.

So you had been in a mostly white high school?

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.

Switching from an all black school to a mostly white …?

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.

Talk about meeting Jean-Paul Sartre.

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!

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 fromAvalanche, 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.

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.

Where does your poetic language come from?

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 Aimé Cesaire, Derek Walcott and William Faulkner, Henry Dumas and Gabriel García Márquez—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.

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?

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 ex- press 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.

Going in the direction of rap …

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.


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.

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?

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.

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?

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 IAs. 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.

Were there any women in the mix?

Not in the top three.

The Cave Canem award was started by …

Cornelius Eady and Toi Derricotte. They built this organization. It's a big, wonderful organization.

That's great … Two questions relating to literature. You were a pioneer in anthologizing black literature starting withGiant 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?

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.

Would you like to talk about how Guadeloupe has influenced your work?

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.

I have to bring up something that clouded your distinguished career.

Go ahead.

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?

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 Laureate-ship 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.

In the preface toJames 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?

I'll talk about the novelists I like and then talk about the poets. For me, García Márquez is the greatest writer living today. I just love García Márquez. 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.

Let's talk about art in your spacious art-filled rooms. I love the piece behind you.

Yeah, that's the late Jacques Gabriel, a Haitian painter.

Your poetry is informed and inspired by many artists. Could you discuss some of these, including Oliver Jackson, José Bedia, and Romare Bearden and their impact on your voice and modes of expression?

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 José 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-Carrié. 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.

Frank Stella is another one who didn't have a college degree.

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.

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?

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.

Is The Footmans scheduled for publication?

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.

How did you find him?

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 Aimé Cesaire at age 91, a poem by Kamau Braithwaite, part of Hugh Maskela's autobiography, fiction by Maryse Condé, 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.



Crouch, Stanley. "Play the Right Thing." New Republic 202, no. 7 (12 February 1990): 30-7.

Detailed overview of Miles that includes a negative assessment of Troupe's use of vulgar language and, according to the critic, inconsistencies and inaccuracies.

Daniels, Douglas Henry. Review of Miles and Me, by Quincy Troupe. African American Review 35, no. 1 (spring 2001): 152-53.

Generally positive evaluation of Miles and Me in which the critic delineates the predominant themes of the volume.

Review of Little Stevie Wonder, by Quincy Troupe. Publishers Weekly 252, no. 22 (30 May 2005): 60.

Brief, favorable assessment that commends Troupe's "catchy" language, his clever blending of Wonder song titles into the biography's poetic text, and his inclusion of significant biographical details from Wonder's life.

Additional coverage of Troupe's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: Black Writers, Ed. 2; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 113, 124; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 43, 90, 126; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 41; and Literature Resource Center.