Interviewsand Articles


Interview: Quincy Troupe: A Poet's Journey

by Mildred Howard and Richard Whittaker, Apr 2, 2002



I'd already met and interviewed artist Mildred Howard when she told me about her friend, the poet Quincy Troupe. You ought to interview him, she said. Well, maybe we could do that together, I suggested. Mildred is one of those people, full of life and engagement, and it didn't take a lot of insight to know it would be a great plus to have her involved. Mildred liked the idea and some weeks later, I got a call from her. "Quincy is in San Francisco. Let's do the interview!" The timing clicked and Mildred and I headed over to a hotel near Chinatown to meet Quincy and his wife Margaret. I felt privileged to be brought into what was obviously a very warm friendship among the three of them. Just in the introductions, I felt my spirits being lifted and, after several minutes of a celebratory exchange, we turned to the business at hand…

Mildred Howard:  I wanted to ask you about your poem, Essence Space After Leaving. Could you talk a little bit about how you got to this? “Your presence lingers there where light trails off at the edge of shadows…”

Quincy Troupe:  That poem was written in New York City. I was a bachelor. It was before I knew Margaret, and I was walking through Central Park. There was this beautiful woman who I would see sometimes. I didn’t know who she was. We never talked. She was really beautiful, a black woman. She would be walking toward me and she would just smile. I saw her three times just by happenstance. That poem came out of seeing her in the park where I always used to walk.
     The whole idea was about how lovely she was, her presence being like a perfume, the essence of her. She had this beautiful smile, this beautiful spirit. And then the absence. Sometimes I’d walk through the park and I wouldn’t see her, and “Your absence lingers there.”

MH:  Well, I got another excerpt, “Sometimes brighter than a sudden flash of lightening, and green branches and flowers will grow from these roots darker than time and blacker even than the ashes of nations.” Your work is very visual. It’s almost like a painting.

QT:  That poem is from The Old People Speak of Death. It was dedicated to my grandmother. And just to talk a little bit about the visual qualities—I always wanted to be a painter and a musician. I had the notion that, as poet, you can do both. You can paint with words, and you can have music in the language. I think you can. I’m really taken by the visual aspects of the world.
     And that poem has something of the supernatural, because I was trying to image the whole idea of death. It’s about death, but it’s also about life. You know, life is circular and death is like that. You’re born, you live, you die and then you’re reborn —I mean, in something, maybe it’s a flower or a tree, which is the old African-Indian concept. Africans would go up to a tree and say, “I’m coming to cut you down to make a drum.” They would pay homage.
     In that philosophy, in the Indian philosophy, the human being is equal to the tree. No more, no less. We’re all here. We just manifest according to who we are. They manifest in the way they are. I kind of subscribe to that whole view, and that poem was trying to deal with those kinds of things.

MH:  Poetry is, as you say, both musical and visual. And I’m so interested in time and space, and both art and music have a lot to do with time and space, as does poetry. Could you talk a little about how you think about both time and space in this sense? I know you think about it.

QT:  I think about it all the time. It’s hard to talk about time and space. We live in “this time.” And this is a whole huge space that we live in. There’s a poem by Caesar Vallejo, the great Peruvian poet, where he is walking and, as he walks, he comes upon his own back. He walks so far he walks into himself, and then he speaks to himself. I kind of agree with that kind of concept. Space can be broken and fractured, and you can live in different times and spaces.
     I want to get deeper into the whole Indian philosophy of time and space, the whole idea that a poem can occupy a page and can occupy a space in your mind. A poem can take you to some place, can transport you… a painting or a work of art, can transport you, too. So that sense of breaking up time. I want my poems to always transport, to take someone to some place other than where they are, in a sense. I want you to be able to travel mentally and spiritually.

MH:  That makes me think about my soldier piece because when you walk through those soldiers, you become one of them, and you’re looking at their backs, which is the target. So when I hear you read, I know what you mean about being transposed. That’s what interested me most, how you transpose me from where I am physically to somewhere else. And that leads me to ask how did you get at being a poet? Maybe you could articulate that question a little better, Richard.

Richard Whittaker:  Well I know that anyone who comes to being a poet comes from some really meaningful experiences. I mean, how does one discover poetry? And I wonder what were some of those moments in your life when the concept of poetry itself came to you and took on a real meaning?

QT:  I was living in France between Metz and Paris. I was a basketball player at one time. I was playing basketball on the Army team and then the all-Army team, and then on a French team. So I was playing on three different teams, and I traveled a lot. Then I hurt my left knee. I hurt it twice. As a matter of fact, I had to get a knee replacement, and when I go through airports now, it always makes the alarm go off.
     But the point is, I’d always read. My mother had always read books to me and introduced me to poets and all that. So when I hurt my knee—and I don’t know why—but I started writing this terrible, I call it an awesomely bad, novel. I was going out with this French woman and I told her about it. I told her “This book is just juvenile. I don’t know how to do this.” She said, I have a friend of the family, a writer, and maybe he can help you with it. I agreed with that.
     So the next thing I know, I meet this little French guy with the glasses. He says to me, "I don’t want to read your manuscript, but from what you’ve been telling me, it seems to me you need to get control over the language. So it might be good for you to read poets. Read poets and try to get control over the language." That person, I didn’t know who he was at the time, turned out to be Jean Paul Sartre. He said, “Why don’t you get a little notebook and, while you’re in Paris, write in it everyday you walk around. Just write whatever you think. Try to compose some poems.” And I did that. I still carry a notebook today. So the next thing I knew, I'd discovered something—poetry. It was this great discovery. It’s hard to talk about it. It just pulled me down into it. For one thing, I wanted to get better. I was so bad at it, and I started to love it so much. I read Pablo Neruda, Rimbaud, W. B. Yeats. I’d already read Langston Hughes, and I read Garcia Lorca and T.S. Eliot, Guilliame Apollonaire, Caesar Vallejo, and I wanted to write like that!
     I think part of the way I went at it was because I was an athlete—I was really a great athlete, I really was. I had this competitive drive and I just wanted to be as good as these people. Some people start painting or writing when they’re eight, ten, eleven, but I was in my twenties! I was just starting to do this! I knew I had a lot of catching up to do, so I would write every day! And I discovered I could sit down and write all day long!—just like I could play basketball all day long. I could shoot jumpshots all day. I loved to do that, and I loved to write.
     I’d sit at an outside cafe in Paris, and I’d write bad poem after bad poem after bad poem [laughs]. But I saw that I was getting better. I could see I was getting some control, so that was the beginning of it. Then I started to hang out on the Left Bank. I loved books. I love music. I love visual arts. I like great food and great wine. Clothes, fashions and things like that. And I’ve always loved women! And for me, that’s where it was. I’d sit there all day in the cafe.
     I found some places where they wouldn’t bother me. They’d let me drink two or three beers, and I’d sit there and just write about who ever I saw on the street and whatever came by. I found I loved it! I say this to my students—I loved it as much as I loved to play basketball.

RW:  That thing you said about how you were being “pulled down into it”…

QT:  …Quicksand!

RW:  …Now that’s interesting, because what is that?

QT:  Yes. Well for me I was being pulled down because it was something I really, really wanted to do. And you’re fascinated by how words work together. It’s unknown why you first are being pulled into it, but you’re being pulled in. I was reading all these other poets, like Neruda, and asking how do you make these poems? How do you make these poems so visual? How do you make these poems happen? So there was the mystery and the magic of it, the mystery and magic of composing a poem! All you’ve got are words and space and silence. You’re pulling these words out of this void. It could be any word, and you’re tying to make this thing, see?
For me, that was just fascinating, just fascinating— trying to do that. As I said earlier, this was no overnight success. It was very difficult for me at first, but I loved it and I was writing almost every day of my life at that point; every day I’d find something to write about.

RW:  So you’d write and then you’d read what you wrote. Some of it wasn’t so good, but then here’s something that’s good!—Here’s some magic, some of the words have these magic little atmospheres around them, right?

QT:  Yes.

RW:  So this is the thing, right?

QT:  Well, it took me years! It took me years. I left Paris and I was still writing terrible poems, but I was hooked. I spent a few minutes in New York, and then I went back to St. Louis to see my mother. I found there wasn’t anything there for me. Just wasn’t. After living all over Europe, I mean all over Europe, playing basketball and just living, I was past St. Louis! I couldn’t deal with the people I used to know. They were good people, nice people, but they seemed to be saying all kinds of stupid things! I remember I left one day, took a bus, because my father was in Los Angeles and my cousin was there, and I’d never been to California. I wanted to see what was happening out on the west coast. So I went out there and stayed with my cousin and my father. The first thing I did was I found out real quick where Venice Beach was. Venice Beach was where the poets hung out, so I started going to Venice Beach. And I was still writing bad poetry!

MH:  What year was that, Quincy?

QT:  This was, let’s see, 1963, ‘64. And the Watts revolt—I don’t call it a “riot,” I call it a revolt—that changed my life. After the Watts revolt, I went down to Watts. Bud Schulberg had started this writing workshop there. See, I had been writing by myself. Then I went to Watts and I discovered Stanley Crouch, Jane Cortez was out there. Louis Merryweather was out there. All these interesting writers were out there, Black writers. I’d hardly ever been around any writers, but definitely no black writers! And I met them!
     We started hanging out together, and they started critiquing my work. It was the first time I ever got critiques of my work. “This is a piece of shit!” You know what I mean? [everyone in the room laughs] “This part here is good, but that part there is a piece of shit!”
And I started critiquing their work the same way. By this time, I had really read a lot, and that’s when it really started to click for me. The poems started coming together. I was beginning to see.
     When I was a basketball player I could run all day. I could jump. I had my legs! And now I was getting my writing legs! I could say, “leave this out, leave that out.” It still wasn’t great, but it was getting there. And I could see it myself. My own critical eye was coming.
There was a poem I wrote which was a breakthrough for me—“Ode to John Coltrane.” I wrote it on the occasion of his death. For the first time my voice was coming through—having grown up in the Baptist church, having grown up in St. Louis listening to blues and jazz and down the street from Chuck Berry. My father was a great baseball player and Satchel Paige used to come to the house and all those great baseball players would come to the house and talk stuff and my mother’s second husband was part of the house band of the Riviera. China Brown, who was a big blues bass player, and Bo Didley and all these people were coming to the house…Lightnin’ Hopkins and Muddy Waters. I didn’t know them really, but they’d come to the house, these old black guys smoking cigarettes and talking violent shit, you know. Then being in the church and listening to the ministers and the choir, and the call and response. The language in that poem came through, the refrain line and the repetition that the ministers use. Black people use that a lot. People use it, but black people, specifically, use it to reinforce… and so that poem was really important for me, a breakthrough poem. When I read it out loud people loved that poem, but I knew it before they knew it.

MH:  That also happens in the visual arts. There’s nothing like that feeling!

QT:  Nothing!

MH:  Especially when you’ve done it, and you’ve removed yourself and have become the critic. “Damn, I did that?” …

QT:  …I did it! I did that.

MH:  …It’s a great feeling!

QT:  …That’s true!

MH:  I think it’s that passion that you have in your work. That’s what I was attracted to. I had read your Miles book and then I saw you on PBS, and later I met you through Margaret. I finally made the connection. “Oh! That’s his wife!” [laughter] These two great people together. I mean I’m attracted to things that take me to a different space and time. I think it was that similarity that brought us all together in that kind of way.

QT:  Yes.

RW:  Is there something about poets and artists, that allows them to hold certain moments, those moments of experience that take us to a different space or time? For some reason, it seems most people maybe don’t hold those moments in the same way. Do you know what I’m saying?

QT:  Well I carry my notebook all the time. We just went to a place in December with some friends of Margaret’s and mine, Walter Garden and Teresa Sanchez Garden. We went to Morelia, Mexico. So what are you going to do in Morelia, this beautiful, beautiful town 250 miles south of Guadalajara? I wrote in my notebook all the time. Constantly. Because it was just wonderful—the whole thing.
     So I think that a lot of people look at stuff and register it, but for me, I have to write it down when I see it. I believe that poets think differently than other people. I’m looking for the images and the rhythm of the place. I would think an historian would be looking for something else. I’m looking for language to fit the place. How can you talk about Michoacan, where we were, which is beautiful? What are the images that evoke this place? How do the houses look? What do the people look like? What evokes all that?
     I think you do hold it. There’s a very important experience I had one time with an Ethiopian painter friend. We were in New York City and we were standing in the subway waiting for a train. He said, “Look! Look! Down there. It’s a painting!” So I looked down at the tracks and all I saw were some rats running cross the tracks and tin cans and shit, and I said, “Well, yeah, that’s a painting, but so what?” You know what I mean? [laughing]
     And he said, “No, no, no, no. Not the rats and stuff. See that oil slick? Look at those colors running through that oil slick! All those different colors!” And I had to look at it again. Whoa! That’s right! What it showed me was how a visual artist processes information. He saw that as a little painting. That stayed with me.
     And I used to go around with a lot of musicians. Now Miles used to say things like [imitating Davis’ gruff whispered voice] “Listen at that. Listen at that.” And I would listen. And he’d say, “Yeahhh man. That’s a flute part right there.” [laughs] I just wouldn’t have heard that. But now I hear it! It’s one of those little keys they give you. “Here’s a key. This is what it is.” And I take that and put it in my work.
     When I look at a Mexican landscape, I try to look at it with a visual artist’s eyes, even though I don’t paint. I try to take it in like a snapshot the way, perhaps, a visual artist might see it. And at the same time, I’m listening to the language that I want to lace into these visual snapshots. I’m listening to language, I’m listening to the Mariachi band, the way horns talk, the way the people talk, the rhythm of their language, because I want it to have that kind of stuff in it.
     I’ll be with my lovely wife—and she knows me really well. She knows I’ll stop in the street. I’ll stop in the middle of the sidewalk and take out my notebook and start writing things down. She’ll walk on a little ways and wait. She knows I might have heard something somebody said that’s like a little piece of music. I’ll have to put it down in that rhythm, if I can. That’s the way I work.
     Hammiet Bluet said about Miles, he said, “You know why Miles Davis was so great?” I said, “No.” and he said, “He was the biggest sponge I’ve even known. He soaked up everything!” And I want to be like that. I want to soak up everything! Visual. Food. Wine. Sounds. You know what I mean? I want to soak it up!

MH:  You know sometimes Quincy—I don’t know if it works this way for you, but my head is always going. I’m always seeing something and sometimes, if I could just take a little break… But the minute I say that, it’s still going on in my head! As a writer, do you sometimes want to take a little break? Or is it okay that it just keeps coming?

QT:  I want to take a little break because it’s always coming! [laughs] It’s always coming. I want to take breaks. I really do. To get back to Miles, because Miles was not only my friend, but he was my musical mentor. He used to tell me [hoarse whisper] “You know man, this music is a curse! A fucking curse!” And that’s how I look at writing sometimes. It’s like a curse. It won’t lighten up.       You’re someplace like Hawaii. You’re with your wife. You want to hold hands and walk on the beach, but I’m looking at the lava, and I’m going “Oh man, look at that! Wow. Man, how can I put that in my notebook? Wait a minute Margaret, let me write this down.”
It’s like that painting that’s in Steve Cannon’s house in the bathroom where the man and the woman drive out to the beach and they’re sitting in the car. She’s sitting here, and he’s sitting there, and they’re looking at the ocean. The man says, “De moon sure am pretty tonight!” [laughter] and the woman says, “Oh, be yo’self, you silly man!” [general laughter] You know?
     And I know Margaret be thinking that sometimes! What? Lava, lava? A tree? Turn it off! And I try to turn it off sometimes, because it’s always running. It’s running and it’s running and it doesn’t ever stop, it seems like.

MH:  Yes. And it can really run you crazy, especially if you’re exhausted! If it could just stop for a minute!

QT:  Like the other day my editor called me. I brought a piece with me, this piece on Stevie Wonder —it’s a children’s book, a poem—and it’s down to the last breath. She was getting tired on the phone because I was trying to rework this last little line. It was after five. I could see she wanted to say, “Goddamn, I’ve gotta go. I’ve got TO GO!” And I’m saying, “wait a minute, wait. Let’s do this, let’s do that.” And finally she says, “Quincy, why don’t you just take it with you, and call me.” [laughter] It just won’t stop.

MH:  You know, I did the first bottle house in 1990. I read The Autobiography of An Ex-Colored Man, and he was talking in there about the bottles turned upside down. The next morning I woke up and I remember telling John, “I think I’m going to do a house out of bottles.” It was just there. Other things I have to really, really work at, but sometimes they’re just there.

QT:  For me there’s the whole idea that the poet doesn’t choose the words, the words choose the poet. I mean I can be going through a dictionary and see a word, and it’s not me saying it—it’s the word saying, “I’M WITH YOU! Don’t you love me?!” [laughs] And I’m saying, yeah! It jumps out, and I write it down. I don’t even know it’s going to happen.

MH:  Do you see words, or do you hear words? How does that work?

QT:  They register in my head and sometimes, like for my new book “Transcircularities”—I’ll make the word up. I was trying to think of a word that would fit this book, that would be the title. I wrote this poem that had no title, a poem about war. It’s not about war, it’s about the profound circularity that us human folks continuously are caught in, like Bush is doing now.
     Take war. We are so simplistic that’s what we reduce everything to when we could find another way to deal with it. We’re a very young nation, but you look back—and there’s a line in my poem called “Borders” where it says history is a highway full of car wrecks. The car wrecks are nations.
     We never look at the signs. The sign says, “Slippery Road.” “Twisting and Turning.” “Ice.” But we got a Ferrari. We’re wealthy. We got money—a two hundred thousand dollar car! Shit! I’m taking this at seventy! And you’re looking at the sign, too! [laughs] You’re saying, “Oh, I can do this. I got a Testarosa! Next thing you know, you’re off in the air, and you crash. You know what I mean?
And this is what we do constantly. We don’t look at the signs. We don’t pay attention, and so therefore here’s man, humankind—most of the time, men—continually making these simplistic mistakes because of power, hubris—the whole thing.
     So I wanted a title for the book, because this book is a drawing to a close of certain kinds of poems I’m going to write. And I always wanted to suggest that we always make these same kinds of mistakes and there was no word for it. That’s what I’m getting to.
     So I made this word, “Transcircularities.” Trans—it’s over and beyond. It’s everybody, not just white people. Everybody. It’s ancient culture. Look at them! And it’s circular. I’ve got a nuclear bomb. You got a nuclear bomb. It’s ridiculous. The Africans are killing each other right now as we speak. It’s just stupid.
     You see this kind of stuff, and a lot of it comes out of religious fervour and nationalism. I’m a Muslim. You’re Christian. Right now, posed at the border of Iraq, is Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son, who has insulted all the Muslims. He’s going to take Evangelicals into Iraq to convert them! It was in the New York Times today. I read it coming up here. Wait a minute, man!
     The poem is about that, and the book is about that. There are hopeful poems in it too. What I’m saying is that if you can’t find a word, you make it up. That’s what poets do.

RW:  That’s a really big problem, isn’t it? Often there isn’t a word because, partly, the language is getting worn out. Good words get used up. So how does the poet make the language new? Making a new word is good, if you can do it, but it’s not easy.

QT:  No, it’s not easy. But you have to create new words when the old words are worn out. It’s like lava adding to the landmass. Poets have to add to the vocabulary, create something else. That’s consistent with what the poet does. The whole idea of creation—according to Octavio Paz, and I agree with that—is this violence to language. You wrest words from their habitual places and give them new meaning. Like if you said, “Man, that’s a bad motherfucker there!” Now, what did you mean? See? It’s tonal. “That’s a bad motherfucking suit you got on.” That means, it’s good! You can say, [lowering his voice] “That’s a bad motherfucker there.” That’s good, too! But if you say, “Fuck you, motherfucker.” [laughs] See, that’s dangerous. It all goes back to the whole idea that there’s all these different ways you can use words. It’s tonal.

RW:  You know, often with cultures that lie outside of the mainstream, let’s say Black culture, for instance—the Black American culture is very vital in this way, there’s a tremendous contribution from Black culture in the creation a living language and a living music.

QT:  Right.

RW:  They produce this living material, which then gets co-opted by the mainstream culture.

QT:  There’s things like “24/7” “Twenty-four seven” started with black folks. Twenty four hours, seven days a week. “I can do this twenty-four seven.” “Waiting to exhale.” by Terry McMillen is in everybody’s—I mean people use that all over the place now. People don’t even know who said it, the title of her book. “Yo”— all kinds of words.
     The rappers have given us new words. The jazz musicians gave us new words. The blues musicians gave us new words. Just people standing on the corner gave us new words—African Americans. We’ve been a constant feeder into the language. That’s why I always ask, “How come we don’t celebrate Black poets more than we do?” We’ve given all this stuff to the language, and it’s not like people don’t write good now. Take a poet like myself who can write in form. I can write villanelles. I can write sestinas, odes. I can write Haikus and Takas and sonnets, as well as free verse.
     They say, “He’s a jazz poet.” Well, wait a minute. I don’t like to be pigeon-holed. I have a real problem with people saying, “You’re a jazz poet.” I have been influenced by the music of jazz, but I have also been influenced by Beethoven. I’ve been influenced by B. B. King. I’ve been influenced by The Beatles. I’ve been influenced by Chuck Berry. I’ve been influenced by the great gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson. I’ve been influenced by Mildred [looking at her] and Oliver Jackson—painters, you see? So you can’t just say that you fit this little thing.
     And here’s another thing, just a small thing. Someone will say, John Ashbury is a great American poet and then they’ll say, Quincy Troupe is a great African-American poet. I get put over here in this little niche, you see? Why don’t they say he’s a great “white American poet”?

MH:  That happens to visual artists, too. Mildred Howard, African American artist.

QT:  I know. It’s a way of ghetto-izing you, in a sense. They want to put you in a little place. I know I’m an African American, and I’m proud of being an African American. I am. But if you’re going to call him “a great American poet” you can call me the same thing—if you think that.

MH:  When we first got here, you said you were exploring this whole notion of what this life could be here in America— within the context, I guess, of being a poet.

QT:  Well, I think I play and use the same tools everyone else does. I look and listen to everything. We’re all in this country, in a way. African Americans are feeders into the mainstream culture. A lot of it originates with us, but it’s American. It’s American because that’s where we all are! This is where we are.
     We listened to Robert Pinsky last night. He came to read. And Robert Pinsky is a Jewish American. But people don’t go running around calling him “a Jewish-American poet”—they don’t say that. But a lot of his stuff comes out of that. You see what I’m saying? It comes out of being Jewish. That’s okay. But that’s not where all his poetry is. He’s all over the place. He’s a really good poet. And I come from where I come from, but it’s the same thing, I don’t believe we’re speaking English anymore. I think we’re speaking the American language, but I don’t want to say “the American language” because it’s insulting to the Canadians and the Latin Americans and the Central Americans. We’re not speaking British English. We’re speaking a language that comes from this particular place—from Canada to Mexico and from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This particular culture, with its musical and its visual and other characteristics, is what has influenced us.
     One of the ways you can see this is if a white guy is in Paris and I’m in Paris. He’s with his wife and I’m with my wife, and we’re walking down the street. He and his wife have never been there, and he finds out real quick that the French don’t care nothing about him either—that he’s a stranger. And so when he sees me he says, “Heeeyyy!” And he wants to hang out with me! [laughs] “Hey man!” And he starts talking about hot dogs, the New York Yankees or the Oakland Athletics. Let’s talk about Miles Davis or Elvis. What do you want to talk about? Let’s talk about Budweiser beer. You know what I mean? Because the French are going to say, “What are you talking about?”
     In Paris, he can come and talk with me. But when he comes back here, most of the time, he sort of fades into that false white thing. Then black people are over there. But in Paris, we can be together. And that’s what I’m talking about. See that’s where we are. We’re in that special place that is America. And it’s robust. it’s robust, this American culture. It’s vital. It’s energetic. It’s ingenious. The painters and the poets. The best poets in the world are now coming out of here. That’s the truth. I don’t think that the novelists have caught up yet. They’re getting close, though. But they got to use their imagination more. They’ve got to get closer to the Gabriel Garcia Marquez model. I’m sorry. One Hundred Years of Solitude. You got to get close to that. If you can’t get close to that, don’t say nothin’.
     I’ve got friends here who can write and who are famous. I ain’t going to mention no names, but they don’t come close to Garcia Marquez. Tony Morrison is a great novelist, but she ain’t close yet. She’s a great novelist, but Marquez? He’s a colossus! Up here! [reaching high, laughs] I mean, that’s what you’ve got to get to.
It’s like Miles Davis as a trumpet player and as a bandleader. It’s one thing to be envious of and jealous of somebody. But the fact of the matter is, you’re not as good as he is! That’s the point. You might not like it. You might think he’s vain, and all of that stuff. But the man had the magic as our friend brother Ray Corbet said, “The man had the magic.” He had the magic and he had the genius, and that was it!

MH:  And you know it. The minute he had played one note, you know it’s Miles.

QT:  That’s right. Now people dislike Miles because they thought he was arrogant and vain, and he could be hostile. Okay. But Miles wasn’t arrogant, he was confident. And if you’re a black man, being confident is akin to being arrogant!

RW:  Now can I ask?—I know you were close with Miles Davis—What was it that he had, that magic?

QT:  Well, it was like—it’s unknowable. It was a combination of things. If you got in an elevator with Miles Davis, let me tell you something—this was before I knew him well—you felt the energy inundating from this person. You felt the energy jumping at you all like this. It was palpable. You also felt the danger. That was also there. If you said something out of line, you might get dressed down! And you knew it. I don’t care who you were. If you said something that was stupid, you were going to get dressed down.
     He didn’t suffer fools lightly. At the same time the man was—it’s like Picasso. You look in the man’s eyes and you know the man is a genius. You look at Miles in the eyes and you just know it. You look at Picasso’s eyes, the way he turns and looks at you like that—you look down—because the energy is coming out like that, scheeouu! Like radar. You take two people like that, and it’s not wrong to compare both of them, because they had prodigious energy and they were always working.

MH:  You know who looks like that to me? Raymond [Saunders] Because Raymond has that…

QT:  …demonic. It’s demonic

MH:  Yeah. And he might say anything at any time. I don’t think he can really help himself.

QT:  Can’t help it. He can’t help it. Miles can’t help it. You see it in them. You see it in their work. They’re risk takers, too. Everybody else, if they get famous for something, they stay right there. They just do the same thing over and over again…

MH:  …It’s so boring.

QT:  …Yeah. It’s boring. They make money. Now take Garcia Marquez—100 Years of Solitude. That book sold—it’s still selling—30 or 40 million copies! It made him absolutely rich. So what did he do for his next book? He wrote Autumn of the Patriarch, which is a book that busts everybody’s head. Six chapters. Six paragraphs. I’m telling you, the last chapter is a 100-page sentence! And most people can’t get through that book. It’s a brilliant, brilliant book, but most people can’t get through that book. So here’s a guy who’s internationally famous and he writes a book that goes against the grain. Miles Davis was like that!
     He does Sketches of Spain. Everybody loves it. “Oh, MIles, we love it!” Kind of Blue “Oh, we love that!” And next he’s doing something else. People are saying, “No, no, no, no, no. We want you to do that again!” And he’s, “Fuck that! I’m not doing it!—I can’t do it.” So that’s what I’m saying. Those kinds of people can not stand still. They have to keep moving, keep creating—because their whole thing is to challenge themselves.

RW:  So when you talk about Miles Davis or Marquez, they don’t stop because it’s like this journey into some new place. Maybe that’s what the poet can do. Keep going on that journey, one step at a time.

QT:  Well I think it’s like that. I have to keep going deeper. I wrote a poem called “9/11.” The poem is in three parts, and I wanted to say something different from what everybody else was saying about 9/11. I wanted the first part to be almost like a rendering of what you saw on that day. The first thing you’ve got to remember is that the sky was blue. Absolutely blue! Clear as a bell. And it was a blue day. And it was about New York. So what does that do? The policeman’s uniforms, the blues, all of these different things—what does “blue” strike? What can it mean? What did those people think? The people who went there to work everyday. What did they think? What did they think when that plane hit that building? Trying to imagine that—that this impregnable bullding had been hit by an airplane. Not that it was about to collapse, because they didn’t know that. What did they think?
     Maybe they thought it was a movie, you know, because that’s the way we think nowadays. “Oh, this is like a movie!” And then what were they thinking at the last minute. Maybe they thought Arnold Schwartzenegger was going to come and rescue them. Bruce Willis! Someone is going to come and get me! Batman! Superman! Someone is going to come and rescue me. “This can’t be happening to me, because I just came from my house. This is America!” We’re up 100 stories high and this thing is burning like this?
     I’m trying to get inside such a person’s head. “This is glorious! I have a great job!” And then they had to step out on that ledge. They had to step out…and jump. And their clothes were flapping, and they were falling. And when they were falling, they looked up before they hit the ground and the building was coming down, like a tarantula! Again, those energies. It was like that, those energies coming down and eating up this building.
     That’s what it looked like. And what was it like? It was deep! It was heavy! But it was also like those Black blues singers in the South who were talking about cotton, and being lynched. Because this was a castration! See what I’m saying? Because those black men had been castrated. This was a castration. They castrated that building. Whack! Just like those black men in Mississippi and Louisiana who got their penises cut off. So I wanted to look at it like that. It was like one of those disaster movies. Eerie. So I’m trying to push into the poem. I’m not trying to insult anybody. I’m just trying to talk about—this is what is happening. This is a 911 call coming into Manhattan. What does it mean?
     I wrote that about eight or nine days after, and look where we are now. It’s terrible. I wanted to write a poem that didn’t condemn anyone. It made me sad. We used to go there, and I loved that building. I also knew that someone was trying to hurt us badly. They had been complaining a long time. The fact of the matter is that it happened. And what does that mean to us? How do we become better people?
     You think that the United States, as a country, had all this good will—and now, two years later, it is gone. It has vanished. What happened? I just wanted to write a piece that would make people think. So you have to push deep as a poet. That’s what I’m saying. How do you use form? How do you make it work? How do you use language and form? My next book, I don’t know what it’s going to be called, but it’s going to be about connections in the world. How we are all connected—to trees, to animals, to each other.

MH:  So it’s back to that whole Native American thing you were talking about.

QT:  That’s right. You see we’re more similar than we are different. We’re more similar. But the problem with most people is, I think, that we fixate on the differences. We fixate on how I am different from you, or you. But what’s the similarity? Let’s deal with that.
Everybody’s different. I’m different from my wife. I’m different from my son, but how are we similar? How can we make this place better? How can we make the world more spiritual? What can I give to it? What can I give to this enterprise? You know, for me to live in, for you to live in, for our kids to live in. What can I contribute to that? Knowing that we’ve got some differences.
     I don’t know if you can do anything with poetry or art. What did Guernica do? Colin Powell had to stand in front of it in the United Nations. It’s a powerful painting. I’ve stood in front of it maybe six times and just looked at it. And they covered it up! They covered it up. They didn’t want Colin Powell standing in front of that at the United Nations. He was about to talk about war, and what would the people think?


About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine. Mildred Howard, born in SF and raised in Berkeley, CA is a well known and much respected artist. 


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