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The State

Words of Welcome for State Poet

Arts: Quincy T. Troupe of La Jolla, whose verse has won major awards, is sworn in as laureate.

June 12, 2002|JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — The Capitol was absorbed as usual Tuesday with the grueling work of passing a state budget. But in a conference room just off the governor's office, the talk was of poetry--its beauty, its potential, its relevance in our modern, materialistic world.

The man doing the talking was Quincy T. Troupe, California's first formally selected poet laureate. After a panel of literary experts thinned the group of 50 contenders to three, Gov. Gray Davis decided that Troupe was the bard for the job.

On Tuesday, Troupe took the oath of office and recited two poems in his clear, rousing voice. Then the writer from La Jolla held forth on his plans as the official state ambassador for his craft.

"Poetry is a very powerful and beautiful and necessary and ancient art," he told reporters and admiring literati. "I'd like to see poetry everyplace. I know that's a big order."

Charismatic with a broad smile, Troupe, 62, teaches creative writing and American and Caribbean literature at UC San Diego. He has published 13 books, including six volumes of poetry, and collaborated with Miles Davis on Davis' autobiography.

Those familiar with his work describe it as accessible and powerful, calling his readings--sometimes accompanied by music--electric. Favoring free verse over more formalistic poetry, he has won two American Book Awards and the Peabody Award and has twice received the heavyweight title at the Taos Poetry Circus.

"He's a freight train on the loose," said Francisco Dominguez, a Sacramento writer. "It's free-flowing verse, not real academic. He turns into the poem. He's it."

Jose Montoya, the poet laureate for the city of Sacramento, said Troupe's talents make him an excellent fit for the job: "Poets don't usually make good teachers. But he doesn't leave an audience without having left a lesson."

Raised in St. Louis, Troupe became acquainted with poetry during boyhood, when his mother would read him verse on Saturdays as the other kids played outside.

"I hated her for it," he said. But now, he added, "I thank her all the time" for planting the seed.

In 1964, Troupe rediscovered poetry while recovering from a basketball injury in France. He began carrying a notebook and writing verse, while "reading everybody I could put my hands on."

Eventually, he settled on Chilean great Pablo Neruda as the poet "closest to me as an influence. I had to write through him to get to my own voice."

Asked to describe his writing style, Troupe called himself disciplined and focused: "Sometimes it doesn't come, and sometimes it does come and it's terrible. But sometimes it's glorious. And you live for those moments."

In introducing Troupe on Tuesday, Sharon Davis, wife of the governor, said Davis chose him because he is both a "gifted poet" and accomplished educator.

Troupe said he loves to visit schools and share poetry with children and would raise money from Hollywood, corporations and other sources to expand on that work as laureate.

But children, he said, aren't the only ones who need poetry. Troupe would like to bring the power of the written word into the workplace, community centers, churches--even the Legislature.

"Poetry balances the life," he said, "and that is crucial, to learn to balance whatever you're doing with the arts.... You don't appreciate sometimes how art can influence you until you're in it."

As poet laureate, Troupe will receive a small stipend and serve a two-year term. During his tenure, he must present at least six public readings and undertake some sort of poetry initiative.

California has been served periodically by poets laureate since 1915, but their selection has been informal and had more to do with politics than a knack for iambic pentameter. The last one--Charles B. "Gus" Garrigus, a former assemblyman chosen by fellow legislators--had the job from 1966 until his death in 2000.

Last year, Davis signed a bill that formalized the duties and selection process.

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