Reading Between The Rhymes

Literary Luminaries Troupe, Harjo, Vea And Jennings Elevate The Spoken Word.

By Wendy Kowalski

POETRY READINGS served straight-up are passé. Poets are under the gun to connect with live audiences--a tricky situation with so much hi-tech, graphic gadgetry vying for our affections.

As if the literary merit alone of poets Quincy Troupe and Joy Harjo isn't enough, Tucson audiences will have an opportunity to see first-hand the revival of poetry and performance art as Troupe and Harjo, the latter with her band Poetic Justice, take center stage in Grace Notes: An Evening with Quincy Troupe, Joy Harjo and Poetic Justice, Alfredo Vea, Jr., and Dana Jennings. This isn't a reading, it's an event. And it isn't at any coffee house, either. It fills the historic Rialto Theater in the downtown Arts District on Thursday, February 5.

Books Harjo, in particular, takes oral tradition into another dimension, playing her saxophone against a tribal-jazz-reggae backdrop. "It's poetry you can dance to," says a reviewer of Poetic Justice's new CD, Letter from the End of the 20th Century (on the Silver Wave label).

Harjo, a member of the Muskogee (Creek) tribe, was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She has taught in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and lived for a spell in Tucson. "In my tribe, poetry is not separate from music, and I think that in all root cultures of the world, all of us in music and poetry hang out together," she says via telephone from her L.A. home.

The smooth progression for this William Carlos Williams Award-winning poet reflects her sensitivity to nature and to her roots. She's known for her volumes of poetry In Mad Love and War, and most recently, The Woman Who Fell from the Sky. And her early collection, She Had Some Horses, was a groundbreaking work of women's poetry. A running theme in each collection is the retrieval of lost memories: Memories take the form of spirits, of the cycles of love, and of musical rhythms.

Less than a year ago, Reinventing the Enemy's Language was released. Co-edited by Harjo, this anthology of native women's writings is both the most personal and comprehensive of its kind. It not only includes familiar writers like Gloria Bird, Leslie Marmon Silko, Laura Tohe and Louise Erdrich, it gives voice to a number of poets published for the first time.

Quincy Troupe also draws on the power of music to bring his poetry to life. He espouses the power of the spoken word, which he proudly calls the "American language."

"Quincy is to poetry as Miles (Davis) is to music," says Bob Holman, Troupe's friend and producer of Mouth Almighty, a unique New York-based label devoted solely to spoken-word recordings. Together they recorded Troupe's track on The United States of Poetry, a CD compilation that explores oral poetry from kids' Double-Dutch rhymes to works by award-winning poets.

It's an apt analogy. Both Davis and Troupe are from St. Louis. Troupe co-authored Miles: The Autobiography, and has written a soon-to-be-released memoir of Davis. And in this excerpt from "Snake-Back Solo #2," from the recent collection Avalanche, he pays homage in both rhythm and rhyme to Davis, Louis Armstrong, Steve Canon and Eugene Redmond:

with the music up high, boogalooin'

bass down way way low

up & under, eye come slidin' on in, mojoin'

on in, spacin' on in on a riffull of rain

riffin' on in full of rain & pain

spacin' on in on a sound

like coltrane

& my metaphor is a blues

hot pain-dealin' blues, is a blues

axin' guitar voices, whiskey broken, niggah

deep in the heart, is a blues in a glass filled with rain

is a blues in the dark

slurred voices of straight bourbon

is a blues, dagger struck off in the heart

of night, moanin' like bessie smith

is a blues filling up, glooming

under the wings of darkness, is a blues

is a blues, a blues

In his teacher's voice, Troupe explains how he captures "a feeling of jazz, a feeling of the gospel, a feeling of sermon, a feeling of spirituals, a feeling even of rhythm-and-blues and rock 'n' roll," through refrain and repetition.

His ability to engage a crowd earned him the championship title at the Taos Poetry Circus in 1994. He's also plied his skill at unconventional venues like prisons, where his poetry often fills a spiritual gap.

Like Harjo, Troupe's poetry has enraptured worldwide audiences--sometimes as many as 2,000 at a time. To watch him perform is to watch him sculpt the air, his hands animating his words, his voice punctuating the refrains.

Troupe's passion for the word comes from his belief that the living language should be preserved. "I wanted to write poems the way that I heard Americans speak," he says. "Who's going to preserve the language the way we speak it other than poets? It's certainly not going to be Bill Gates...It's not going to be Ted Turner. That's our role. That's our task. So that's what we do," Troupe finishes, his voice leaping and smiling at the same time.

Grace Notes: An Evening with Quincy Troupe, Joy Harjo and Poetic Justice, Alfredo Vea, Jr., and Dana Jennings runs from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday, February 5, at the Rialto Theater, 318 E. Congress St. Cost is a $5 donation at the door, to benefit the UA Extended University's Writing Works Center Scholarship Fund. For event information, call 626-4444. For scholarship information, call 626-2235.

Quincy Troupe leads a writing workshop from 2 to 4 p.m. Thursday, February 5, at the Hotel Congress, 311 E. Congress St. Cost is $15, and pre-registration is recommended. Call 626-4444 for registration and information. TW

 Page Back  Last Issue  Current Week  Next Week  Page Forward

Home | Currents | City Week | Music | Review | Books | Cinema | Back Page | Archives

Weekly Wire    © 1995-97 Tucson Weekly . Info Booth