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Jazzy Language for Complicated Times

Poetry* Against a background of political tensions, Quincy Troupe gives his first reading as the state's poet laureate.

October 05, 2002|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you're a poet, you're supposed to choose words carefully. And if you were Quincy Troupe on Friday morning, you were choosing really carefully.

Troupe, a 62-year-old UC San Diego professor who was named California's poet laureate in June, stood at a lectern at the Omni Los Angeles Hotel downtown, facing a crowd of diplomats and cultural officials from 39 countries. He was there to give his first official reading, and they had gathered to talk about global cooperation and arts exchanges--a delicate chore with the U.S. on a war footing, the United Nations and President Bush at odds, and immigration officials here cutting back on visas for visiting artists.

"I think we need to stop and have a pause here," Troupe had mused before the reading. "War, as far as I am concerned, has never solved a problem. We think it's going to, but it never does."

The poet's pacifism wasn't the only complication. By odd coincidence, Amiri Baraka, a poet-professor friend of Troupe's from days gone by in New York, landed his own poet laureate post two months ago, in New Jersey. And just two weeks ago, Baraka stunned a poetry festival audience by hinting in a publicly read poem that Israel had advance warning of the Sept. 11 attacks. Soon New Jersey's governor was calling for Baraka's resignation (the poet declined), and Jewish groups and others were denouncing Baraka as an anti-Semite. The events troubled Troupe--he sees Baraka as a good man whose words were twisted--and now here stood the California poet with his chance to make international waves.

Two strides from the podium sat Barry Hessenius, California Arts Council director. Three steps from him sat Gov. Gray Davis' secretary of foreign affairs, Michael Flores. Neither had seen or discussed what Troupe would read.

"This is a series of poems," Troupe began, peering at a page through reading glasses, his dreadlocks draped on the shoulders of his black jacket.

We enter the language of poetry

in the same way we enter music:

through rhythms of imagination...

The poet's voice darted ahead, as if keeping up with a bebop rhythm section, and the lyrics jumped from John Coltrane's circular breathing to the hum of didgeridoos to the prospect of Magic Johnson in flight, dealing out passes "like the juju man that you am, / like sho-nuff shaman man that you am, 'Magic,'/ like the sho-nuff spaceman that you am."

Troupe invoked the tolling of bells, the miracle of reconfiguration, the moments "when we are what we think we are." At no time did he utter the words "Israel," "Iraq," "Bush" or "war," nor did he read aloud the line about the seductive sweet strides of the dancing women, or the other line about making sweet love. But he did pause from the reading to tell the audience that "with all these kinds of people that are in California and the world, I think one should talk about healing.... What are governments for, if we're not about bringing things together?"

Beforehand, offstage, Troupe had laid out his intentions and dealt with the Baraka question he knew was coming. "Some people are provocateurs," he said. "I see myself as a healer. If you were catching me when I was 25 or 30, it might be a different story." As for Baraka, "he has the right to write whatever kind of poem he wants, to read whatever kind of poem he wants. I don't believe in censorship."

Baraka was appointed Aug. 28 by a committee selected by New Jersey's Council on the Humanities and Council for the Arts. He set off the controversy at a Sept. 19 poetry festival in Waterloo, N.J., where he delivered a six-page poem, written in late 2001, titled "Somebody Blew Up America." It included the following lines:

Who knew the World Trade Center

was

gonna get bombed

Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers

To stay home that day

Why did Sharon stay away?

A widely celebrated poet, playwright and professor emeritus of Africana studies at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, Baraka won attention as an author and activist in the early '60s. (He was known as LeRoi Jones until his 1968 conversion to Islam, which was later tempered as he turned toward Marxism.)

When the furor erupted over his poem, Baraka declined to apologize or resign his laureate post, and told reporters that Web accounts had persuaded him that Israel, Bush and the FBI all knew in advance about the attacks. New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey, who had approved Baraka's appointment, called for the poet's resignation, but state officials discovered that legislation creating the poet post didn't empower the governor or anyone else to fire the poet.

"I've known Amiri Baraka for many years, and I don't believe him to be anti-Semitic," Troupe said. He noted that the controversial poem was framed as a series of questions, not definitive answers. Baraka "might disagree with some of the things going on in Israel. But there are a lot of Jewish people who disagree with that too," he said.

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