Quincy Troupe

Article excerpt

His work spills color and speed. There are railroads and city streets and music in that speed. And though poet Quincy Troupe plays no instrument, music is a force that has a place in his writing.

Music has been his inspiration since his birth in the St. Louis of the 1940s, a place and time saturated with jazz and the blues. Troupe remembers St. Louis as "a very hard-working town, known for its steel mills, foundries and packing houses ... a switchover point where all the railroads came together. The Mississippi River brought all kinds of musicians - on riverboats from New Orleans, Natchez and so on - Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstine, whoever was the band of the day."

St. Louis guided Troupe with a firm hand, investing him with a well-cultivated allegiance to the blues, in its musical and literary manifestations. And it hangs on fiercely, in his broad,_expressive face, in his rusty laughter, in the slaughterhouses and rail yards and green hills of his poetry. "I ain't talkin' about going down to the bar, eatin' barbecue, drinking 15 gallons of whiskey, slobbering all over women, shooting somebody and then walkin' around singin' the blues," he explains. "I'm talking about the blues as a cultural form of historical importance, which produced jazz, which produced bebop, which produced rhythm and blues, which produced rock and roll."

This is a long line of begats, and a long line of African Americans figures in Troupe's work. Poems from his current volume, Weather Reports (Harlem River Press, 1991), reach out to jazz and the blues, honoring, Troupe says, "the continuum of African spirituality, where the music comes from. The music of Mahalia Jackson and Lightnin' Hopkins and Miles Davis and Charlie Parker are one and the same; it's all coming out of the same pool."

A poem spirited by the music is "Follow the North Star Boogaloo," sparked by Troupe's eavesdropping on a street corner: "I followed these young people in Harlem one day, and I was listening to them talkin' about all kinds of stuff. ... So [the poem] has their voice, which is a young, irreverent kind of voice, and then there's my voice, and then the voice of history commenting on all this stuff. It's all moving together, though, so you don't really know which is which, except by shifts in tone." Teeming with references to history and the arts, Weather Reports shows Troupe pulling the past and the present together.

Troupe's publisher, Glenn Thompson, is pleased with Harlem River Press' investment. "There's tremendous credibility in having Quincy with us; we're very proud. Weather Reports is doing extremely well, and its sales enable Harlem River Press to take on less well-known writers. I think we're brave to publish poetry in a climate of recession, [but] we want to survive also." To help shift the balance of publishing power, "it's important for known black writers to consider the alternatives. ... Quincy sets an example."

In his inventive collections of poetry Snake-Back Solos (I. Reed Books, 1979) and Skulls Along the River (I. Reed Books, 1984), Troupe blends myth, history and the spiritual world with the tangibles of daily life; he also blends music and metaphor. Music has always been a talisman for Troupe, but it has become distinctly so in recent years. A biography of Hugh Masekela and a book of interviews with Madonna and Sting are in the pipeline. In 1991 Troupe scripted a film, Thelonious Monk: American Composer, for Multiprises Film in New York, and he won the 1990 American Book Award for his revealing collaboration with Miles Davis, Miles: The Autobiography (Simon & Schuster, 1989). The award - and filmmaker Spike Lee's recent decision to make Miles his next film project-capped the book's resounding success, which brought Troupe international acclaim.

He attributes the book's appeal to his slightly irreverent approach - "He didn't scare me. I wasn't in awe or anything; I loved his music, and he was one of my early heroes, but I told him that that was where it stopped, that he was a human being. …