James Autry and Quincy Troupe take poetry off the page and take it to the people – a high school classroom, a corporate boardroom, a church service and Sing Sing prison.
JIM AUTRY: It's almost desperately important to me for people to hear my poetry and feel it, and have it be part of their own story.
QUINCY TROUPE: People want to hear the voice. They want to hear you sing, you understand? They want to hear you sing. They want to hear the voice. They want to hear something that's accessible, I think, that connects, in some way, to their life.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Quincy Troupe and Jim Autry, two poets who lift poetry off the page and take it to where people live and work, from the corporate boardroom to the prison cell.
BILL MOYERS: [on camera] I am Bill Moyers. Sitting at a farm in Vermont some months ago, I heard Jim Autry read one of his new poems. Jim's a friend, a corporate executive whose first book of poetry was about growing up in the South, something he and I have in common. But this night he read about the experience of firing a salesman. The people in the room - busy people who hadn't thought a lot about poetry in everyday life - were touched and moved to silence and reflection. We knew the experience of that poem was true. I feel the same way, that I've touched the truth, when I listen to Quincy Troupe. Jim Autry's words come softly and gently to the heart, like a lover in the night. Quincy Troupe's race right to the brain, like rockets exploding into rhythms and sounds I haven't heard before. One of the poet's first duties is to entertain, and Quincy Troupe performs like a troubadour. But it's not the performance he or Jim Autry want us to think about, leaving a theater. It's life, and our lives: Quincy Troupe and James Autry.
JIM AUTRY: Hey, Jim. It's Jim Autry. Yes, okay. How are you doing? How's business?
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Jim Autry is president of the publishing group of the Meredith Corporation, a Fortune 500 media giant based in Des Moines, Iowa. His magazines include Better Homes and Gardens, with the fourth-largest circulation in the world. Autry worries about the profit margin and the bottom line, but his poetry addresses the feeling life of business.
JIM AUTRY: What I'm trying, more than anything, to do, is just pull away that macho veneer of business and get to the emotionality of it, which is where most of it takes place.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] He often reads his poems to groups like this one, managers, directors and officers from the Principal Financial Group of Des Moines.
JIM AUTRY: So, here we go. "Thoughts on Firing a Salesman."
[In Des Moines, Iowa]
It's like a little murder,
taking his life,
his reason for getting on the train,
his lunches at Christ Cella's,
and his meetings in warm and sunny places
where they all gather,
these smiling men,
in sherbet slacks and blue blazers,
and talk about business
but never about prices,
never breaking that law
about the prices they charge.
But what about the prices they pay?
What about gray evenings in the bar car
and smoke-filled clothes and hair
and children already asleep
and wives who say
when they come to bed?
What about the promotions they don't get,
the good accounts they lose
to some kid MBA
because somebody up there
thinks their energy is gone?
What about those times they see in a mirror
or the corner of their eye
some guy at the club shake his head
when they walk through the locker room
the way they shook their heads years ago
at an old duffer
whose handicap had grown along with his age?
And what about this morning,
the closed door,
and somebody shaved and barbered and shined
fifteen years their junior
trying to put on a sad face
and saying he understands?
A murder with no funeral,
nothing but those quick steps outside the door,
those set jaws,
those confident smiles,
that young disregard for even the thought
of a salesman's mortality."
I'm going to lighten up a little bit. This is called "Romantic Revelations." I'm sure that
you don't know anyone in your company who's ever been like this person in this poem.
“My friend has an infallible rule for spotting romances in the office,
a rule true and proven over the years,
accurate in direct proportion
to how hard the lovers try to hide.
My friend calls it his law of romantic revelation,
and it goes like this:
If you think they're doing it
they're doing it.
Sounds silly but it's damn near perfect
if you have any power of observation at all.
If for instance a very solid citizen
forty-five-year-old guy stops
getting a haircut every week
and as the hair begins to hide his ears and collar
you notice the gray ones are gone,
or if he shows up in an Italian blazer, unvented,
with notched lapels,
Next thing you know he's collecting wine and original prints.
Then one day you're in a meeting
on personnel policy
and find he's become a feminist since the last meeting,
or you notice in the corner of his office
a new Land's End canvas bag
for his running shoes and designer sweats
and one of those ‘Fit at Fifty’
posters on the wall.
You have but to keep your eyes open
and the object of his affectations comes into focus,
and the Law of Romantic Revelation unveils
its infallibility once again."
This has a funny title for a serious poem. This is called "What Personnel Handbooks Never Tell You."
“They leave a lot out of the personnel handbooks.
Dying, for instance.
You can find funeral leave
but you can't find dying.
You can't find what to do
when a guy you've worked with since you both were pups
looks you in the eye
and says something about hope and chemotherapy.
no triplicate forms,
no rating systems.
Seminars won't do it
and it's too late for a new policy on sabbaticals.
They don't tell you about eye contact
and how easily it slips away
when a woman who lost a breast
says they didn't get it all.
You can find essays on motivation
but the business schools
haven't codified what the good manager says
to keep people taking up the slack
while someone steals a little more time
at the hospital.
There's no help from those tapes
you pop into the player
while you drive or jog.
They'd never get the voice right.
And this poem won't help either.
You just have to figure it out for yourself,
and don't ever expect to do it well."
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Jim Autry's father and grandfather preached the gospel in this Baptist church in Pine Grove, Mississippi. From the places and memories of his youth, Autry drew the inspiration for his first book of poetry, Nights Under a Tin Roof. It's been a long journey from here to the boardrooms of corporate America, but Jim Autry has never forgotten who he is, or where becomes from.
[interviewing] Can you still hear a lot of those voices? I mean, literally hear them in your brain, in your mind?
JIM AUTRY: I can. I do, indeed. In fact, one of the things that was most important to me, when I started writing that Mississippi poetry years ago, was being able to just insert those voices, using the mechanical device of indented italics, you know. I was afraid people might not get it, but they do. And those- I didn't have to put quotes, or any of the techniques that writers use. I just stuck them in there, the way I was hearing them, voices from the past.
BILL MOYERS: But did you have to recall them, or did they come?
JIM AUTRY: They came, I hesitate to use words like mystical, but it was that way. I hear those voices. And in a place like this, I hear those voices. I can walk in that church and close my eyes, and I can hear my father preaching. And I hear the voice, and I just write it down. Dad was a circuit-riding preacher. This was one of his churches.
BILL MOYERS: And he was 33 years here the pastor?
JIM AUTRY: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: What do you most remember about your father?
JIM AUTRY: Oh, the most vivid images are those of him preaching. He would- he would stalk the audience sometime, the congregation. And he had a red bandanna; he'd mop his face with it and go down to the pew and look someone in the eye and point. He was a wonderful speaker, great deliverer of the sermon and a wonderful storyteller.
BILL MOYERS: Your grandfather was a preacher right here. Your father was a preacher. Why not you?
JIM AUTRY: I used to ask myself that question a lot, and there were times, as a young man, I thought I would be a preacher. And- I don't know, I guess I never got the call.
BILL MOYERS: Is poetry a form of proclaiming?
JIM AUTRY: I believe it is. Maybe my poems are my way of preaching.
JIM AUTRY: This poem is called "Communication." It started because of- my beloved Aunt Cassie used to yell into the telephone. You know, she'd get on the phone and she'd yell at it, like this voice has to go a long ways. So that led me to write this poem called: "Communication."
[In Des Moines, Iowa]
“Now we dial the phone
but Aunt Callie still yells into it
and ends every sentence with a question mark
as if she can't believe that all her words
can get through those little wires
But back then we stepped out and pointed our voices
across the hills
It would follow the bottoms and up the next hill
and in a few minutes
it would come back from Cousin Lester
When there was trouble
Uncle Vee would blow the fox horn
or ring the dinner bell
and someone with a car would come
not knowing the problem but that we needed a car.
When Uncle Vee yelled or blew the horn
there was a message to send
‘Don't you boys be out there
yellin' up somebody
'less you got somethin' they need to know’
But we'd yell
and the old folks would know we were just yelling
and let it go
our high voices somehow falling short of the next hill
the dogs not even coming from under the porch.
Weeks would pass without a real yell
then it would roll up the hill from Cousin Lester's
And Uncle Vee would step out on the porch
and cup his hands and answer
and turn his head and listen
nodding at the message I could never understand.
It's how we heard Cousin Lottie got snake bit
and James Louis came back from the Pacific
It's how the foxhunts were arranged
and the hog killings set
They yelled about babies born and people cured
about fires and broken bones and cows loose and dogs lost
the words always short and spaced
for the distance they had to travel.
Now there are the wires
and Aunt Callie still yells for the distance
and looks at the phone
holding it so her eyes can aim the words
through the instrument and across the hills
where they are to go."
JIM AUTRY: I came to poetry very late. I had spent a- just a lot of my life trying not to be a white Southerner, you know, just not- trying not to be a white Southerner. I'd come back down here and visit, be in these hills and see the old people and the paved highways, the franchise foods, sort of the homogenization of the culture. And the people dying off. I began to feel a sense of loss about that, but at the same time, a sense of somehow try to preserve it, do something to save it, at least for me.
BILL MOYERS: When you come back, what's the biggest change down here?
JIM AUTRY: Language is changing enormously. In fact, a lot of the language down here you just do not hear anymore. At the store yesterday, Cousin Ira McGoy was talking in his own way of saying, and he doesn't- he'll say, "Erse," "Erse is doing this," instead of "We." It's not exactly "us" and it's not exactly "we," it's sort of "erse," and I was reminded of my Uncle Leland. I drove up to the house one time and I asked Uncle Leland, "Where's Aunt Cassie?" and he said, "She's in yonder in bed with the sorriest of the 'tis boys, Arthur." Arthur 'tis. And this language is just disappearing, no one talks that way anymore.
BILL MOYERS: You've got some character who talks about "chilren," the "chilren."
JIM AUTRY: Yeah, chirren.
BILL MOYERS: Chirren. It's C-H-I-R-U-N?
JIM AUTRY: Chirren.
BILL MOYERS: What happens when we lose that kind of language, and we talk the way we talk in interviews?
JIM AUTRY: [laughs] Well, I think we lose something precious. I think that the whole- the rhythm and the texture and the sound of the language, I mean, to me, that is the everyday poetry.
BILL MOYERS: And that's what you're remembering in so much of your poetry.
JIM AUTRY: Yes, it is.
BILL MOYERS: You're really plagiarizing, in a sense, on those voices from the past.
JIM AUTRY: Well, there's not an original thing in there. That's the way it comes back to me, because I've heard it so many times before.
BILL MOYERS: It still pops into your mind? Just the terms, the languages.
JIM AUTRY: It pops-
BILL MOYERS: What are some of them you remember, the most vivid ones?
JIM AUTRY: Oh, the most vivid ones are the comparisons, can I say this on television? "Busier than a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest."
BILL MOYERS: You just-
JIM AUTRY: I just did. But some of those comparisons, how they used to describe things, you know, it's hotter than, or colder than, or busier than.
BILL MOYERS: -a lot of my past came back this morning. I heard a lady in the kitchen talking to another lady about a third lady who was gone, and this lady said, ''Where is Myrtle?" - I think that was her name - and she said, "I don't know. She's just a-blowin' and a-goin'." And I hadn't heard that since I was back in Marshall, Texas, like that. They don't say that anymore, you know, you don't hear, "Where's Myrtle?"
"Oh, she's outside," not, "She's a-blowin' and a-goin'."
You know, when you come back here, you remember. I wonder what happens when- when these places disappear, when people don't have the memory that you have. Will they still write poems about this sort of thing?
JIM AUTRY: Well, you know, I've wondered. I've thought about my own sons who- and I think, what are they connected to? Are they connected to some house on 56th Street in Des Moines, Iowa? What are the things they'll remember? I've wondered that many times.
What would they write about?
BILL MOYERS: Well, that makes me think, you know, sitting here, read this for me. Seems appropriate for this place.
JIM AUTRY: Okay. "Genealogy."
[In Pine Grove, Mississippi]
in these hills
who you were and who you will become
and not just who you are
She was a McKinstry
and his mother was a Smith
And the listeners nod
at what the combination will produce
those generations to come
of thievery or honesty
of heathens or Christians
of slovenly men or working
'Course her mother was a Sprayberry
And the new name rises
to the shaking of heads
the tightening of lips
the widening of eyes
And his daddy's mother was a McIlhenney
Oh god a McIlhenny
and silence prays for the unborn children
those little McKinstry Smith Sprayberry McIlhenneys
Her daddy was no count and her daddy's daddy was no count
Old Brother Jim Goff said it
when Mary Allen was pregnant
Might's well send that chile
to the penitentiary soons he's born
gonna end up there anyway
But that lineage could also forgive
with benign expectation
of transgressions to come
'Course, what do you expect
his granddaddy was a Wilkins
The Whitsells are a little crazy
but they generally don't beat up nobody outside the family
You can't expect much work out of a Latham
but they won't steal from you
In other times and other places
there are new families and new names
He's ex P&G
out of Benton and Bowles
and was brand management with Colgate
And listeners sip Dewar's and soda or puff New True Lights
and know how people will do things
they are expected to do
New fathers spring up and new sons and grandsons
always in jeopardy of leaving the family
Watch young Dillard
if he can work for Burton he's golden
but he could be out tomorrow
And new marriages are bartered for old-fashioned reasons
If you want a direct marketing guy
get a headhunter after someone at Time Inc.
Through it all
communities new and old watch and judge and make sure
the names are in order
and everyone understands.
BILL MOYERS: Now, where did that one come from? I've heard conversations like that all my life at family reunions and funerals and burials.
JIM AUTRY: Well, it just comes out of the way people describe one another down here. And all my life, when someone is talked about, like if there's some characteristic that may come up, you'll hear that line. "Well, you know, of course his mother was a Wilkins," as if, "Well, what do you expect?" You know?
BILL MOYERS: Yes.
JIM AUTRY: It occurs to me that what may be happening in this room has happened at other readings I've done in Benton County and Union County, and that is people get to trying to figure out who I'm talking about. And all I will say to you is what I've said to the other folks, and that is, don't be looking for the facts, 'cause I'm not so concerned with the facts. But everything here is the truth.
The next poem is called "Smells of Life on Greyhound Buses During World War II."
[In Des Moines, Iowa]
There was a salty ham one time
a prize from the country
during meat rationing.
It covered the sweat
and sour smells.
of summer wet undershirts
of field worn overalls
of overdue diapers.
After a while it filled the bus with thoughts of food
and talk of hot biscuits
and butter and red eye gravy
that ham made me center of the bus.
There was a staff sergeant
from Camp Currier, Missouri
and the old men called him sojer boy
and he became my friend
and patted the ham and said
he would cure his own again
when he got home from the war.
Sometimes now I wish for that salty smoky ham
but would it fit under the seats of 727s
on stratospheric routes
And could it work its aromatic magic
or would that manmade unhuman air
blow it all away?
BILL MOYERS: Does a poem like this help you not to be ashamed of being a white Mississippian, a white Southerner? Have you come back to something that you couldn't acknowledge immediately after you left, that you love about this and about these people?
JIM AUTRY: Yes, it really has. In fact, all this poetry has. What I've what I was feeling, I think, was that somehow I'd sort of condemned it all, you know, I'd sort of written it all off in my quest to not be the white Southerner. And I used to look back in anger quite a bit. But when I felt all this happening down here, I realize that I am what I am, for reasons, and that all of it is part of me. And I am part of it.
BILL MOYERS: So many poets, when they remember the past, dredge up the painful, the hurting; the wounding. And yet your poems about your boyhood here are idyllic: almost nostalgic. I think, too good to be true.
JIM AUTRY: Well, it's not a distorted picture, in that it's real. It's real as it happened. But it's also not a complete picture. There is a part of this life which I simply have not addressed, at least I haven't done it yet. I haven't been moved to do it.
BILL MOYERS: That's the ugly side of it.
JIM AUTRY: And that's the ugly side of the racial relations.
BILL MOYERS: There was one you wrote last year, when you came back for a reading with blacks and whites, "Writers Day," wasn't it?
JIM AUTRY: Yes, I have it here. It's called "Mississippi Writers Day, June, 1988."
[reading in Pine Grove, Mississippi]
The irony was lost on no one.
There we sat,
poets, writers, teachers, scholars,
in the chamber where some
of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers
deliberated on how to solve
the nigra problem,
then passed the poll tax
and set up separate but equal schools
and decided that everyone had to read
and understand the constitution
before he could vote.
We sat there,
in the chamber in the building
whose bricks were made by slaves.
We sat and listened
to black poets,
to angry black poets
who read their words
so that no one could ever feel safe
reading them in a white voice.
It was a lesson about words
and how their color changes.
It was a lesson about places
and how their power changes.
It was a lesson about people
and how their fear changes.
JIM AUTRY: The next poem is about love and community, and it's entitled, "Death in the Family."
[reading in St. Louis]
People hug us and cry
and pray we'll be strong
and know we'll see her again someday
And we nod and they pat and rub
reassuring her to heaven
She's with Jesus now
no suffering where she is
Then sit on hard benches and sing
of precious memories how they linger
and farther along we'll understand it
Cheer up my brother
We're not forgotten
The preacher studies his Bible and stares at the ceiling
and the song leader in his blue funeral suit sweats
and strokes the air
with a callused hand
We'll understand it
all bye and bye
And powdered and rosy cheeked
Miss Anne sleeps in an open coffin
the children standing tiptoe to see through the flowers
but scared to go near and drawing back when lifted
And the choir brings a balm in Gilead
and a roll is called up yonder
When the trumpet of the lord shall sound
and time shall be no more
And big men shake heads white at the hat line
while women weep and flutter air with palm leaf fans
And later we stand amidst the stones
by the mound of red clay
our eyes wet against the sun
and listen to preachers and mockingbirds
and the 23rd Psalm
Men stand uneasy in ties
and nod their hats to ladies
and kick gravel with shoes too tight
and talk about life
Nobody no better'n Miss Anne
Smoking bull durhams around the porchv shaking their heads to agree
and sucking wind through their teeth
Never let you go thirsty
bring a jugga tea to the field
They open doors for us and look at the ground
as if by not seeing our faces they become invisible
There are not enough chores
so three draw well water
and two get the mail
and four feed the dogs
and the rest chop wood
and wish for something to say
Lester broke his arm one time
and Miss Anne plowed that mule
like a man
put in the whole crop
And they talk of crops and plowing
of rain and sun and flood and drought
The seasons passing in memory
marking changes in years and lives
that men remember at times
when there's nothing to say
Ladies come with sad faces
and baskets of sweets
teacakes, pecan pies, puddings, memories
and we choose and they serve
telling stories and god blessing the children
I declare that Miss Anne
was the sweetest Christian person
in the world
Saying all the things to be said
doing all the things to be done
like orderly spiritsv freshening beds from the grieving night
poking up fires gone cold
filling the table and sideboard
then gathering there to urge and cajole
as if the dead rest easier on our full stomachs
Lord how Miss Anne would have loved that country ham
No sadness so great it cannot be fed away
by the insistent spirits
That banana cake is her very own recipe
I remember how she loved my spoon bread
She canned the berries in this cobbler
And suddenly we are transformed
and eat and smile and thank you
and the ladies nod and know they have done well again
in time of need
And the little girls watch and learn
And we forget the early spring cemetery
and the church with precious memories
and farther along we do understand it
the payments and repayments
of all the ladies that were and are
and we pray ever wi!l be. Amen.
QUINCY TROUPE: [teaching] The poem feeds on the living language of a community. The living language; the living language. ''Yo, bro!" You know, if you say that in Harlem, if you say that in an African-American community, ''Yo, bro," you know, ''Yo, bro," we might say, if we're bourgeois, "Oh, we can't say that." But it's a communication, it's a communication. It is language. Language is a living thing. Language is living. It is not a static thing. It grows.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Quincy Troupe teaches creative writing at Columbia University and here at the College of Staten Island. Like Jim Autry, Quincy Troupe's poetry celebrates the living language.
QUINCY TROUPE: [teaching, College of Staten Island] I think that it's important to try to write in the language of the day. I always tell people, "Would you say that like that in the str- where you live?" You know, would you say that like that? Would you say that like that in your neighborhood? If somebody comes out and says, "Tis better to do thusly, oh, it is so beautiful to ride the night winds this evening, oh, the sun is coming down on me thusly, and I feel so emblazoned," you wouldn't say that. You wouldn't say that. In no neighborhood. No neighborhood, particularly mine, you know. I wouldn't say that, I wouldn't say that. I'd have to find another- would you say that, MS. Hess?
MS. HESS: I can't quite agree.
QUINCY TROUPE: That's okay.
MS. HESS: -you know, if you want to stand on a mountaintop and say, you know, ''The world is beautiful," why not? You don't have to be in your neighborhood. You can get out of your neighborhood, and go to the top of the mountain.
QUINCY TROUPE: Who would you talk to?
MS. HESS: You can talk to the clouds.
QUINCY TROUPE: The clouds. That's right. I agree with you.
MS. HESS: And the reader might, you know, there have been poets, they get out of the neighborhood.
QUINCY TROUPE: Yeah, but then, if language, language feed on the language of the community, do poets feed on that, is that where poetry comes from?
MS. HESS: Oh, yes, of course.
QUINCY TROUPE: So then if poetry feeds on the language of the community-
MS. HESS: Well, we're part of the community. We're part of the fiber.
QUINCY TROUPE: I agree, but then, I'm trying to find out what the community on the top of the mountain is.
2ND STUDENT: What the lady is saying is that there are many levels. Everybody climbs to the height that they wish to.
QUINCY TROUPE: That's right.
2ND STUDENT: There are less people on the top of the mountain than there are at the base, but that doesn't mean that the people at the base speak with more emotion, more depth, more feeling or more clarity than those that speak on the top. If I can go back and show you the way that it might possibly go, you said, "Tis better to do thusly."
2ND STUDENT: So I said, well, "Tis better to do thusly: to taste the fullness of your lips, caress the curve of your thigh, to murmur, 'Goddamn, but you're fine.' "
QUINCY TROUPE: [interview] Poetry is supposed to evoke, because you- I think one of the things we have to remember is that poetry at first was song. It was the troubadours, it was the griots, it was the singers.
BILL MOYERS: The what?
QUINCY TROUPE: The griots, which is an African troubadour, a secret man who sang and brought the songs to the villages and brought the songs to the people. So I look at myself as that kind of person, because I think that I want the words to sing. I want to communicate, I want to communicate. I think a song communicates very well. It's intangible. You can't put logic on it, you see. You can't put any kind of logical thing on it.
BILL MOYERS: The interesting thing is that you can't put the meaning on it. The meaning comes out of the listener.
QUINCY TROUPE: That's right.
BILL MOYERS: Evocative, as you say.
QUINCY TROUPE: It is evocative. But I think I know it's there, in everyone who is human. Everyone who is human who's heard and has been touched, and has listened to say, the wind, you know, listened to some wind in the mountain or in a tree or a bird talking to them, you know. There's no logic in listening to a bird singing. There's no language. There's no language but the sound, and the beauty of the sound, the purity of the sound, the beauty of a wind in the mountain, the beauty of a wind in the trees. There's no words there, but it touches you someplace, some secret place inside. So I want my words to do that.
“At the end of tunnels they become trains,
or at the bottom of pits they become blackness
Or in the broad waning daylight" [fade to voice-over]
''And only God knows where they go."
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Troupe was born in St. Louis, and he goes back to read his poetry at Duffs Bar and Restaurant, where the hometown crowd considers him a favorite. Folks here know he's got the rhythms and realities of life just right.
QUINCY TROUPE: This is a poem about the neighborhood. And we used to call St. Louis "River Rhythm Town," some of us, and so this is called "River Rhythm Town."
[At Duffs Bar and Restaurant, St. Louis]
River rhythm town,
under sun / moon laughter.
river blues town filled
with blues people
do in' blues dues thangs
cycles of shinin laughter
listenin to dues sounds everyday
of Chuck Berry Miles Davis
Little Richard The Dells
& John Coltrane
Walkin the hip walk,
wearin the hip new thangs,
laid off clean as a broke dick dog
in the cut,
chasin hot black girls down
rhythm & blues,
doin the belly grind in corners
of smoke filled red lighted
music risin hot
between cold funk
of wall to wall
partyin black shadows
weavin spinnin dancin
drink in in the beauty of sensuous
black foxy ladies
rubbin thrills against pain
of imprisoned skin screamin for release
from overworn tight-fittin fabrics
& eye remember smiles
dazzling as daybreak,
& soft as mother's
warm embracing eyes
eye remember love
in the grass sweating as rivers
from our fused flesh
eye remember thrills
eye remember smiles
eye remember love
in the grass sweating as rivers
from our fused flesh
eye remember sadness
eye remember St. Louis,
river rhythm town under
sun I moon laughter,
river blues town filled
with blues people
doin blues dues thangs
& eye remember death
shattering as daybreak
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The doors of Sing Sing open often for Quincy Troupe. He comes to New York's maximum-security prison to read his poetry, and to help inmates find words to express their own feelings.
QUINCY TROUPE: [At Sing Sing Prison] My name is Quincy Troupe, and I'm from St. Louis, Missouri. I'm telling you this because some of the poems that I'm going to read are connected with where I come from. St. Louis was a very violent town, and I was very violent when I was growing up there. But I played basketball, and I went to college on an athletic scholarship, so that's how I got out of there.
This first poem is about the neighborhood that I grew up in, and I lived in south central St. Louis, and it was where the packinghouses were. This poem is about the smell that was in the air in that neighborhood, and it's called "South Central Vandeventer Street Rundown."
[At Sing Sing Prison]
To leave any house
was to smell the scent,
burnt flesh scent hanging
noxious in the air,
& to leave any house
was to know the odor,
burnt flesh hanging
like death in the air,
burnt flesh hanging
like death in the air
& to know the odor
was to know
where death came from,
packin house slaughter house
burnin flesh blues,
spreadin the news 'bout death,
spreadin the news 'bout death
& can smell it in springtime,
can smell it in summertime,
can smell it
seven days a week singeing air,
in autumntime, in wintertime,
all the time anytime,
burnt flesh hanging.
as death in the air,
burnt flesh hanging"
as death in the air
This next poem I call a literary blues poem, a little literary blues poem with work song rhythms, which is about a man who worked in a packinghouse, and that poem is called "Rivertown Packinghouse Blues." It's a blues, okay?
[At Sing Sing Prison]
Big Tom was a black nigguh man,
cold & black,
eye say Big Tom was a black nigguh man,
black steel flesh,
standin like a gladiator, soaked in
animal blood, bits of flesh,
standin at the center of death,
swingin his hammer called death,
swingin his hammer named death
Big Tom was a black packin houseman,
eye say Big Tom was a black packin houseman,
loved them years,
& swang his hammer like ol John Henry
swang that hammer twenty years
of cows & pigs screamin fear,
the man underneath slit their throats,
the man underneath slit their throats
Big Tom was a 'prentice for ten long years,
eye say Big Tom was 'prentice for ten long years,
was helper to a fat white man,
who got slow,
was helper to a fat white man,
who swang a hammer
till he couldnt do it no mo,
so he taught Big Tom how to kill
with a hammer;
he taught Big Tom how to kill
& twenty years of killin
is a lot to bring home,
eye say twenty years of kill in
is a lot to bring home,
& drinkin too much gin & whiskey
can make a gentle I man blow
dont chu know
eye say drinkin too much
gin & whiskey
can make a good man
dont chu know
Big Tom beat his wife after killin all day,
his six chillun too,
eye say Tom beat his wife after killin all day,
his young chillun too,
beat em so awful bad, he beat em right out dey shoes,
eye say he beat em so awful bad
he made a redeyed hungry alley rat spread the news
these black I blues people was payin, couldnt even bite em,
cause of the dues
these black I blues people was payin
Big Tom killed six men, maimed a couple a hundred,
& never served a day,
eye say Big Tom killed six men, maimed a couple a
never in jail one day,
the figures coulda been higher, but the smart ones,
they ran away,
eye say the number that was maimed, or dead, coulda
but the smart ones,
they ran away, swallowin pride, saved from the graveyard,
the smart ones,
they ran away
Big Tom; workin all day, thirty years,
uh huh, sweatin heavy
Big Tom swingin his hamma, all right, twenty summers
Big Tom killin for pay,
Uuh huh, twenty autumns, outta need,
Big Tom dealin out murders, like a houseman, all night,
in the painyards, outta false pride,
Big Tom drinkin heavy, uh huh,
laughing loose in taverns,
Big Tom loose
in Black communities, death fights cancels light,
& Big Tom keeps on, stumbling
& twenty years of killin
is too much to bring home to love,
eye say twenty years of killin
is too much to bring home to love,
& drinkin heavy gin & whiskey
can make a strong man fall in mud,
eye say drink in too much I gin & whiskey
can make a good man have bad blood
dont chu know
can make a strong
Big Black Tom was a cold nigguh man,
strong & black,
eye say Big Black Tom was a cold nigguh man,
hard steel flesh,
& stood like a gladiator, soaked in blood,
bits of flesh,
stood at the center, in the middle of death,
swingin his hamma called death, 260 workdays,
like ol John Henry,
eye say swingin his hammer named death.
QUINCY TROUPE: I like to read it, that poem called "Rivertown Packinghouse Blues." Now, the reason I read that poem is because this was a man who, at- I don't know when it happened in his life, but I knew him. He was stripped, after a while, of all kinds of feelings, you see, by his experience working in that packinghouse.
BILL MOYERS: Killing every day.
QUINCY TROUPE: Killing, every day. There were nothing but cows and pigs. I mean, after a point, nothing had any meaning to him, but breath. You know, if you lived, if you did something to him, he would kill you. You see? That was his answer to it all. And he had no feeling about it, you see. So he was a person to me, that had been stripped of his humanity, in a sense. And I think that a lot of prisoners in somehow, in someplace, have lost touch with their humanity, you see, have lost touch with that humanity. They're trying to regain it.
[At Sing Sing Prison]
1ST STUDENT: When you're writing poems, they don't necessarily have to coincide, like going in rhymes, you know. How do a person go about jus writing them out, and how you go about bringing them together to make a complete poem?
QUINCY TROUPE: I think that a lot of people- you know, the notion that you have to rhyme couplets or you- everything has to rhyme, I think that if you can work that real well, that can work. There are some people I know that can really work the rhyming patterns. In poetry, though, I feel it's kind of interesting, because poetry- I tried to get it close to the speech pattern. I mean, in a sense, colloquial speech, the way I talk. You know, the way I talk. It's a little heightened, but I think that it- you have to find- I think people have to find their own voice. You've got to get your own pace, your own cadences, that's true to you, that you feel comfortable with. And that comes from listening to yourself. Sometimes I would suggest that you read your poems out loud to yourself, you know, and you can hear it, orally.
2ND STUDENT: I didn't know if you wanted to stop, you know, the questions or not. I was-
QUINCY TROUPE: You want to read?
2ND STUDENT: Yeah, I was-
QUINCY TROUPE: That brother want to read. Said, "Man, let me read a poem, Jim." Go ahead.
2ND STUDENT: This is called "Portrait of a Madman," all right?
People tell me,
''You're not normal,"
''You're a suicidal nut,"
"It's just that plain."
I'm not crazy,
But some think I am,
Because when I add two and two together,
I come up with eleven.
I'm not crazy,
I'm perfectly sane.
So what I can't buy a new yacht,
Or a boatload of cocaine?
They gave me 25 to life.
Do you think I care?
I don't have a dime left,
And I'll be locked up till I have gray hair.
I sold crack to one and all,
From the bum with the bottle
to the kid in the street.
I always had a place to feast.
But one kid bugged out
And killed ten people,
Then he ran into a church,
Andjumped off the steeple.
Now you know my story.
Forget about the fly things I once had,
Because those things ain't what's driving me mad.
It's that kid who keeps comin' around,
Trying to buy that fatal crack.
Please tell me a way to keep him back.
I'd tell him, "It's over, kid,
Can't you see I'm in prison?"
But he says, "No, no!
You just started selling to me!"
Then he picks, pick, pick, pick, pick
Till he picks me apart,
But I'm not crazy,
He can't make me crazy,
He can'tmake me crazy.
No, he can't make me sorry!
Most crazy men don't believe themselves
But they must meet their fate,
So if you're just in remission,
Spit out the bait.
QUINCY TROUPE: I'll tell you what I think, right off the bat. See, I think that you have a great subject. I think it's honest. I think what you're talking about is honest. But let me- you've got some images in there that's working, you know. I think that, when you talk about the insanity, right, the insanity of going crazy, I think that you have- you can make it crazier. See, I want you to be biting off steeples, you know? I want you to be taking a chair and eating on that, you know? I mean, I want to see a true nut, you know? A true nut. I mean, I want to see the images totally out there. You see what I'm saying?
OTHER STUDENTS: He was holding back, there.
QUINCY TROUPE: Yeah, I think he's holding back a little bit.
2ND STUDENT: I was.
QUINCY TROUPE: You did?
2ND STUDENT: It was just- I couldn't do it here.
QUINCY TROUPE: I know, but that's-
2ND STUDENT: Because I didn't know-
QUINCY TROUPE: - I'm telling you, man, one of the main things about poetry is truth. To write the truth. Write from a place of truth. You know what I'm saying? I'm serious. To write from a place of truth, man. And when you write from a place of truth, it happens, you know. I think you took it a little too far. You don't have to give everything in poetry. Let the reader participate. You don't want me to you don't want to tell me everything. Don't tell me everything. Leave some holes. You know, some holes?
1ST STUDENT: Some of us have been alienated. This society has alienated certain people, you know. I'm one of those. I don't like to feel too much, because when I feel, I feel real, and when I feel real, I act real, and rationalization doesn't come in when you're feeling, with me. So rather than, you know, deal with it, so to speak, I alienate myself. I try to keep emotion out.
3RD STUDENT: I think that that's a good point that you brought up, about being afraid to really put in there what you wanted to, because sometimes I find that I put too much objectivity into the stuff that I write, rather than subjectivity, because I'm really afraid to deal with a certain feeling that might come out in the poem, people will think, "Man, this is a weird guy." I wrote a poem one time about spring lovers, and I was in here, there was a lot of pain there, of not having a lover of my own. But I was really afraid to tap into that pain and let the real pain come out, because of- I don't know what would have come out. So I kept it pretty objective.
QUINCY TROUPE: I think that people need to see people's experiences, like yours, like what you're talking about. I think they need to really, truly look at it. I mean, we're up here at this place, you know, it's not a nice thing to be in here. I know that. You understand what I'm saying? But you need- people need to know that. If it's joyful, if it's sad, you put it out there, because then it's out of you. It's not inside. It's out. Not only that, we learn from it. We learn from your experience. And that's what's great about writing, is that people learn from who- you don't even know. You touch them. So I think it's important to be honest. Let it out. Let the joy go just like you let the sadness go. Just like- let the blues go. You know what I'm saying? Like you let the love go, let the pain go. I mean, all of us go through pain. It's hard to live, period. In the world. Just to be in the world, it's hard. And poetry, for me, is a way of expressing it, more deeply than anything else, I have discovered.
[At Beaumont High School, St. Louis]
I went to this school before this school was basically all-black. At that time, it was an all-white school, and we were the first people to integrate this school. That was back in the late '50s. And it's very important to know that I went to this school, that I'm from this neighborhood, and that I come from this place. What I'm here to talk about is poetry. Now, I know most of you all say, ''What? Poetry? What is that? What is poetry?" And I know what you understand and think about poetry, because I used to think the same thing. Because in St. Louis, when I was growing up, if you walked around with a book and somebody caught you reading a book, with the people I knew, you was considered a sissy. You understand? You was considered that. So I developed a habit of when I had books, of putting them in my back pocket, and having my shirt out, so that nobody wouldn't see the books. Because I didn't want to fight every day. We had to fight enough as it was, you know? So I developed that habit, but I kept on reading, because peer group pressure, I know, to teenagers and to young people in high school, is very important. Everybody be trying to get up in the image. Everybody be trying to style. Everybody be trying to high-profile, you can understand? And everybody be trying to get high. I understand that, because most of my friends went to prison getting high. A lot of them dead now. A lot of them in prison now. You know, they used to say, ''Why, Quincy, why you walking around with that book? Why don't you do this? Why don't you do that?" We have to first look ahead, and understand that life is short. You see, knowledge doesn't come from the way you look, you know. It has something to do with what's in your head, or what's here [indicating heart], what you feel. And a long time ago, after I left this city and moved and lived in Los Angeles for a long time, I began to understand that. Because I used to write those real- I call them "high academic poems," high academic poems, you know, thither and thou and thine, and us'n. No, not us'n. But that kind of stuff. I mean, you'd be trying to write high language because you think that's what it is. But after a while you realize that you've got to write from where you come from. This is a Mississippi River town. St. Louis is on the river. It has a culture. And you don't know that some of that is rubbing off on you now. Whatever it is, it has something to do with barbecue, greens and some other stuff. It has to do with the way you wear your hair, or what- the way you walk now. Whatever is hip here, that's what you're into. But it's from St. Louis, see? And you've got to write out of what you come from. You've got to write out of where you come from.
BILL MOYERS: You do go home quite often, to that neighborhood in St. Louis.
QUINCY TROUPE: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: Why do you keep going back there, of all places?
QUINCY TROUPE: Well, I think that for art, for artists, I think it's important for me to kind of move into that place. Because I think that language comes out of a place. And I think it's important for a writer to go there and listen to where you come from, because I think that you begin to- we begin to drift away a little bit. And I think it's good to go back and keep listening, and recharging the battery, you know.
BILL MOYERS: What are you hearing now when you're out there?
QUINCY TROUPE: I hear the same rhythms, but you know, the words change. Like for example, we would say. something like, "Be cool," right? We'd say, "Be cool." They say, "Take a chill pill."
BILL MOYERS: Take a chill pill?
QUINCY TROUPE: Take a chill pill. Or, "Chill out," you know, or something like that. Which is the same thing, if you think about it. It's a C-sound, it means chill, it means cool, it means be cool, but it means take a chill pill. So you- language changes, because language is living.
BILL MOYERS: [crosstalk] Life is changing.
QUINCY TROUPE: Yes. But language is a living thing. It's like a body, it gets old, it gets young, you renew it, you try to make it better. It's like this, it changes. It's a living being, that's the way I look at it.
BILL MOYERS: Language changes you and you change the language. That's why language is life.
QUINCY TROUPE: That's right. That's exactly right. You're alive, language is living, you're living, you change it at the moment. You change it right then, you know, right at that moment.
BILL MOYERS: That's why I get so much more pleasure out of hearing a Quincy Troupe than I do reading the poem.
QUINCY TROUPE: Mm-hmm. Yes.
BILL MOYERS: You are resurrecting that language, or you are turning that language around right at the moment of creation, and sending it into a whole new direction.
QUINCY TROUPE: That's what I want to become, a force. It's- you know, at that point of impact, of creation, you see. When you're creating, you become a force. And you become a conduit for the spirit to flow through, which might sound mystical, but that's what it is, you know. You are the conduit for the spirit of language to flow through.
BILL MOYERS: Take a poem that is anything but mystical, the poem about Magic Johnson. I- I never thought I'd hear a poem about a basketball star.
QUINCY TROUPE: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Now, how would you tell me, the untutored, to hear that poem?
QUINCY TROUPE: Well, first of all, that poem is about a sport, a game. And it's about a great player who plays that game. So my task as a poet was to recreate in motion a player playing. It had to be a very fast poem. The language had to be like this [snapping fingers]. It had to start slow, because basketball games start slow. They don't start fast. They start slow. And then they pick up momentum, as you go, because you have to have the tipoff, they jump, and then they try to feel each other out. And then as it moves, it gets into a blur. Now, Magic Johnson, when I saw him play, I said, "I have to do something about this guy. You know, I don't know what I can do about him." So the idea came to me one day to write that poem. And the way I end that poem is, I used the word "magic," like- "spaceman, you am, like the sho' nuff spaceman you am." One day- I was writing that poem, I got on the elevator one day, coming up to my apartment. And there was this old lady on the elevator. And in the South, old- and see, Magic Johnson to me was like a, well, a juju man, a griot, he was like a root doctor, you know, the way he played. He was a magic person, you know. And the language- when I heard this old lady was on the elevator, about 80 years old, black lady. So I get on the elevator, and she say, "You sho am dressed up today." I said, "I what?" She said, "You sho am dressed up." I said, "sho am"? I hadn't heard that word in a long- that phrase in a long time, to myself, because I don't- you don't say that. You say- you're supposed to say, "You sure are properly dressed," you know? And she said, "You sho am dressed up." I said, "sho am," yeah, "yes ma'am, I sho am."And so I got inside, and I went- I came in- I came in- and I was thinking about the Magic Johnson poem. I came in and I said, "Hmm, the Magic Johnson poem." I went to the typewriter, and I said, "Yeah, I'm going to put this- two words in it, "sho am." So I used the language. You see, it's like trying to do something with the language, the language you hear, rather than what you hear- at the academy, you know. I wanted to celebrate that old lady, too, who was- whose spirit came to me and I see in Magic.
BILL MOYERS: He's a poet. He's a poet out there on that court.
QUINCY TROUPE: On that court. He is.
[At Beaumont High School, St. Louis]
take it to the hoop, "magic" johnson
take the ball dazzling down the open lane
herk & jerk & raise your six foot nine inch
frame into air sweating screams of your neon name
"magic" johnson, nicknamed "windex" way back in high
'cause you wiped glass backboards so clean
where you first juked & shook
& wiled your way to glory
a new styled fusion of shake & bake energy
using everything possible you created your own space
to fly through--any moment now we expect your wings
to spread feathers for that spooky take-off of yours
then shake & glide till you hammer home
a clothes lining deuce off glass
now, come back down with a reverse hoodoo gem
off the spin, & stick it in sweet popping nets
clean from twenty feet right side
[At Sing Sing Prison]
put the ball on the floor, "magic"
slide the dribble behind your back, ease it deftly
between your bony stork legs, head bobbin
up & down, you see everything on the court, off the high
yoyo patter, stop & go dribble, you shoot
a threading needle rope pass sweet home to kareem
cutting through the lane, his skyhook pops the cords
now lead the fastbreak, hit worthy on the fly
now blinds ide a behind the back pinpointpass for two more
off the fake, looking the other way
you raise off balance into tense space
sweating chants of your name, turn 360 degrees
on the move your legs scissoring space like a swimmer's
yoyoing motion in deep water, stretching out now
towards free flight, you double pump through human trees
hang in place, slip the ball into your left hand
then deal it like a las vegas card dealer off squared glass
into nets living up to your singular nickname, so 'bad'
[At Duffs Bar and Restaurant, St. Louis]
you cartwheel the crowd towards frenzy
wearing now your electric smile, neon as your name
in victory we suddenly sense your glorious uplift
your urgent need to be champion
& so we cheer, rejoicing with you for this quicksilver,
moment of fame, so put the ball on the floor again, "magic"
juke & dazzle, shaking & baking down the lane
take the sucker to the hoop, "magic" johnson
recreate reverse hoodoo gems off the spin
deal alley-oop-dunk-a-thon-magician passes, now
double-pump, scissor, vamp through space, hang in place
& put it all in the sucker's face, "magic" johnson
& deal the roundball like the juju man that you am
like the sho-nuff shaman man that you am
"magic," like the shonuff spaceman you am.