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The Power to Spread the Words

The state's first official poet laureate plans to bring verse to the people

June 14, 2002|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Speaking by phone to poet Quincy Troupe, not quite 24 hours after his accession to poet laureate status, is almost like listening not to the man, but to a syncopated sample of his voice.

Call waiting interrupts his momentum so frequently that his voice begins to take on a rhythmic texture--the stutter step of ska, with maybe an echo of dance hall reggae or garden variety rap. Oddly like his poetry itself.

" ... That was my agent. Sandra Dijkstra. She wanted me to mention her name," chuckles Troupe, letting out a long 5-p.m. sigh, though it's barely 10 a.m. "I told my wife, Margaret, it would be a day like this."

Click. It's NBC. It's Tavis Smiley. It's Fox.He finds a little space to let his thoughts unfurl. "I'm just sponging this all up," he says, "like Miles Davis would do with music. Like I do with poetry. I'm just sponging this all up."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 15, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 7 inches; 274 words Type of Material: Correction
Poet's name--A story in Friday's Southern California Living section about the new California poet laureate misspelled the name of one of the writers cited in the story. The correct spelling is Aime Cesaire.

All of it--being named California's first official poet laureate this week, the attendant fanfare, the ribbing from his friends--has caught him a little off guard, perhaps since he came to the notion of filling this post somewhat reluctantly. "I just didn't know what it was going to entail," he says, "so my first reaction was knee-jerk. I thought I would have to read poems to every opening of the Assembly and do that type of number," he explains, the worry still a touch evident in his voice. "I'm very serious about poetry. I think poetry is a sacred art. A great art and very powerful. I didn't want to sully it...."

But a friend and colleague, Hugh M. Davies, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, where Troupe runs a reading series, pressed the issue, talking up the possibilities. Finally Troupe relented.

Samples of his poetry were mailed off to Sacramento. The field narrowed from 50 candidates to three--Troupe, Diane Di Prima and Francisco X. Alarcon. "I didn't want to politic for this job," recalls Troupe. "I didn't want to call people and say: 'Vote for me! Vote for me!' I wanted them to make a choice on merit. About the poetry. Not about the politicking."

So Troupe remained focused on his work: finishing and shipping off a new draft of a screenplay adaptation of his Miles Davis reminiscence, "Miles & Me" (University of California Press, 2001) to actor Don Cheadle and trying to put the finishing touches on a collection, "Transcircularities: New and Selected Poems" (Coffeehouse Press). "That's a name I made up," he cracks. And, of course, he had to attend to his teaching at UC San Diego, where he is professor of creative writing and teaches American and Caribbean literature.

As the selection process neared its end, he was called in for an interview with two of the governor's representatives--Lynn Schenk, chief of staff, and Michael Yamaki, appointment secretary. Bottom line: "They wanted to know about my work with Larry Flynt ... " says Troupe, who was the editorial director of Code magazine, a style and culture quarterly aimed at African American males that Flynt published in the mid-to-late-'90s. "Basically, they wanted to know if there was anything about that that might embarrass the governor.

"There were no nekkid women," says Troupe. And other than a few pointed editorials he wrote about then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush ("I've always been at odds with his political agenda") and a high-voltage poem titled "A Response to All You: 'Angry White Men,' " written in answer to an tirade by an Aryan Nations member he'd glimpsed on television, he figured there was nothing else to declare.

The governor must not have been too distressed by either.

Troupe collected his new title and kudos Tuesday at a noisy celebration in Sacramento. He traded stories with Gov. Gray Davis and talked art and literature with his wife, First Lady Sharon Davis, who presented him with the honors. And, before the ink was dry on his fancy proclamation, had already started mapping out plans for illustrating, advancing and underscoring the importance of poetry in all of its forms.

"In a way it surprised me that they selected me. Most people, when they talk to me, know about me as a performer. I have a great performing style. That comes from coming up with people like [Amiri] Baraka, Wanda Coleman, Ojenke, Allen Ginsberg, Jayne Cortez. I used to read at those political rallies, so you had to have a style that projected to a huge crowd. 25,000, 10,000 people or 500. So you get a style that is larger than the room you're in."

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