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On the QT
A profile of poet Quincy Troupe

by Herb Boyd

Okay, quickly.  Who is the Poet Laureate of the United States?

   W.S. Merwin. Very good.

   Now, who is the Poet Laureate of New York?

   You mean there is one?

   How about Harlem?

   Wasn’t that Langston Hughes?

For all intents and purposes, but never in an official way, Hughes was the Poet Laureate of Harlem.   But there is a small coterie of literati, the cognoscenti of letters who insist that Quincy Troupe would be a nice choice today.

Indeed.  And particularly so when you take a gander at his resume, his published works, his teaching creds, and his impressive track record as a “C.C. Writer,” the C.C. in this case being the cultural circuit.

“I just got back from San Francisco where I received the Before the Columbus Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award,” he said to me recently.  Each year writers are selected in a number of various categories for the American Book Award, which he has won on two occasions.   He noted that his longtime friend and colleague, Amiri Baraka wasn’t there to receive his award for nonfiction.

“It was a splendid occasion and I spent some time with Ishmael Reed,” Troupe continued.   Reed, the prolific writer, musician, and unbridled public intellectual, is largely the founder of the Foundation.

Before the trip to the coast, Troupe was in the Motor City for a reading.

“It was a very good reading and turnout, and Detroit shows some signs of getting back where it used to be as a culture capital.”

Very few poets and writers can match Troupe’s versatility or energy on the literary ramparts.  Once I asked him how many readings he did a year and he said it was so many that he lost count.   Like the best studio musician who is always in demand, Troupe stays on the road it seems.   Whether in clubs in front of musicians—and he knows practically all of the major players—in the academic realm from high school to college, or at conferences, seminars, or wherever folks gather for fine literature, he’s a consistently powerful presence.

Troupe also has a knack of being in the right place at the right time, especially from the standpoint of being a witness at a historic moment in our culture.   When Miles Davis was looking for someone to collaborate with him on his autobiography, Troupe was ready and willing, and those of you who have had the good fortune of reading  Miles: The Autobiography, you know what a challenge it must have been to work with someone as singularly unique and iconic as Miles Davis.

One of the most memorable moments in Troupe’s life—and it’s not easy to single out one—was his interview with James Baldwin, who was virtually on his death bed.  That interview and other times with Baldwin formed the centerpiece of his collection of essays on the great writer’s life: James Baldwin: The Legacy.   A number of authors, teachers and scholars have found that work indispensable in gaining a better understanding of Baldwin’s furious passage.

Most recently Troupe held forth at the annual Charlie Parker Jazz Festival at Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem.  No, he wasn’t reading.   He was there to hear the music but was soon cornered by several well-wishers seeking his impressions on sundry social and political issues.   He regaled them with intimate stories about Davis, Baldwin, and a gaggle of personalities he has encountered since leaving California and the Watts Workshop, and even before while a student at Grambling.

“Miles was a, well, you know the rest, if you’ve read his book,” Troupe said, choosing not to mention Davis’s favorite expletive.   “But I relished every moment in his company.   He was a genius, and he loved Jimmy Baldwin.”

Among the things that made his relationship with Davis so fruitful—and it may become even more fruitful if the film project on the trumpeter’s life is finished with Troupe’s pen guiding the way—is that he and Davis both originated from the environs of St. Louis.   That commonality served Troupe well when he began to grapple with the awesome task of framing Davis’s legendary trajectory, including the drugs, the women, and the phenomenal musicians under his tutelage and spell.

Plus, given his size and attitude, Davis wasn’t able to intimidate him like he had done to so many others who dared to get too close.   “I was able to deal with him on his own terms without compromising one bit of my integrity or the project I was assigned to complete,” Troupe once told a reporter.

Troupe’s size, something he inherited from his father who was a Negro Baseball League Hall of Fame catcher and one of a few to handle Satchel Paige’s fast ball and curves, was of great advantage during his years at Grambling where he starred on the basketball court just before Willis Reed arrived, who later became a favorite of New York Knicks fans.

But sports couldn’t compete with his desire to become a writer, and the stint with Budd Schulberg and the Watts Writers’ Workshop was the impetus he needed to propel his emerging career. 

My own affiliation with him began in the 1970s when Troupe’s pad in Manhattan was the place to be.   On any given evening you might run into Hugh Masekela or his sister, Barbara, the noted literary agent Marie Brown, Clyde Taylor, or many of the other notables who continue to congregate around Black Renaissance Noire, the publication he currently edits.  

Back in those days his fabulous collection of essays, poetry and fiction contained in Giant Talk was the talk of the town, and it continues to claim a very special place for those interested in a variety of ideas from a diverse international ensemble of thinkers.  And toward the end of the late seventies when Roots was thing, Troupe was approached by David Wolper, who produced the television series on Alex Haley’s epic family saga, who contracted him to write a book about the impact of the series on the world.

When asked about the cultural scene in Harlem today, Troupe was immediately expansive and expressive, noting that all the rumors about a “Second Harlem Renaissance” may be still born if something more isn’t done to promote it.  “There are probably more places to hear the music, poetry, and discuss art than there was in the in the 1920s when Langston and Zora were on the scene,” he observes, “but you’ll never know about it because the media is not interested.  They are preoccupied with violence, death and destruction.  In other words, as they say, if it bleeds it leads.”

Troupe, who lives in Graham Court in the heart of Harlem with his wife, Margaret, and where they host and promote book-signings and artistic performances-- ticks off a list of sites in and around Harlem where there is a prevalence of culture on display.  “St. Nick’s Pub, Margie Elliott’s place uptown for Sunday jam sessions, Lenox Lounge, George Preston’s art gallery and George Faison’s Firehouse are just a few places that come quickly to mind,” he said.

His own place should be on the list as well, except whenhe and his wife are recharging their seemingly inexhaustible batteries on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe.  

But back to the idea of a poet laureate, which is topic that Troupe has some familiarity with since he once occupied such a notch of prestige in California.

Over the last decade or so, there have been at least two people claiming to be Deputy Mayor’s of Harlem.   These are just claims and such positions may never be.   However, a Poet Laureate of Harlem is not just a fancy title or a pipedream; it’s a plateau and honor a community of Harlem’s stature and acclaim should have.   And who should it be?

Well, Quincy Troupe would be a worthy candidate.

Look at these bona fides:  His latest books of poetry are The Architecture of Language, published in 2006; Transcircularies:  New and Selected Poems, published in 2002, and selected by Publishers Weekly as one of the 10 best books of poetry published in that year; Miles and Me, published in 2000, a memoir of Miles Davis, and The Pursuit of Happyness, co-authored with Chris Gardner and published in 2006, which the motion picture is based upon

Moreover, check this out from one of his earlier books Weather Reports:

Eighth Avenue Poem, Uptown

          on eighth avenue

          uptown, in black harlem,

          between 116th & 121

          streets, on corners

          some of the junkies

          have shot so much smack

          into the soles of their feet

          they could step on a dime

          & tell you whether

          it was heads, or tails   


Nuff said.


Herb Boyd is the author of Baldwin’s Harlem.