The Poetry Project

A Gathering of the Tribes Interview

With Chavisa Woods, Quincy Troupe, Sheila Maldonado, and Danny Shot

A Gathering of the Tribes Executive Director, Chavisa Woods (CW): You’re the new Head Poetry Editor of Tribes Magazine Online. Tribes was founded in 1993 by Steve Cannon. When did you first meet Steve?

Quincy Troupe (QT): I met Steve when I first came to New York. I've always been friends with Ishmael Reed. One day he came and said, “Why don’t you meet me down at Steve Cannon’s?” I had heard of Steve. He was living on the Lower East Side, on, I think it was third street up on the second floor.

CW: Right, that became Tribes later.

QT: Yeah. We all meet there on weekends, and all kinds of people would come by. In fact, the whole Lower East Side would come.

I've always lived on the Upper West Side, in Harlem. I was fascinated with how different the Lower East Side was from where I lived, which was kind of bourgeois. Where I lived, Park West Village, they called it Dark West Village because all the bourgeois Black people lived there. I’d never thought of myself as a bourgeois Black person, but when I moved there, I found that out. I was always going back and forth from there to Downtown, and I was just fascinated by how different both neighborhoods were. Steve and I hit it off. He loved music. That's what really bonded us. He loved jazz, and we would go to these clubs all the time. Sometimes he would come up town to McHale's, which is on 96th and Columbus. He would come up and stay all night with me and we'd go there. And then, usually, I would meet him at clubs downtown. So that's how we met.

Quincy Troupe

CW: And what year was that?

QT: The early 1970’s. I was living up here, but I would always go down to see Steve and Ishmael and Victor Hernández Cruz and that whole group of people down there.

CW: It sounds like what later became Tribes in the 90’s was already informally happening even in the 70’s. That 285 East 3rd Street space was always an artist hub before he officially dubbed it Tribes.

QT: Right! We were all in there, you know, down there. They accepted me into that whole group. I always had fun. It was intellectually stimulating. I was a poet and they were novelists for the most part. Ishmael was a poet too, but he tried to hide that. And that's when Steve wrote that book, Groove, Bang, and Jive Around, which I thought was great… I thought that was a great book.

CW: Tribes has always been really deeply rooted in the Lower East Side. Could you talk a little bit more about the culture specifically of the Lower East Side in the 90’s and how that was different than the culture uptown?

QT: Sure. Well, there really wasn't an uptown arts scene, except for music. Downtown was where art was happening, especially literary. I was living up here among a lot of middle-class people, lawyers and bankers, and they were black, a lot of them were black, some white at the time, but they lived on Western Avenue, and black people lived in a different area. But we thought we could all get together, but not really, we didn’t really, not like they did in the Lower East Side. The Lower East Side was like really, really mixed, and that's what I liked about it. That it was really so different. It reminded me of L.A. because I was in that kind of group of people there; Mexicans, Asians, black people, white people, it was all kinds of people really coming together; that’s the kind of group that I was hanging out with in L.A. When I came to New York, I fell into this middle-class thing because I had kids, so I couldn't hang out like a lot of people. I had kids and I had this beautiful lady, and we were living together. She had a great job, and I had a job at the university. So that's why it was different. But I would go downtown all the time, because I missed that kind of mix. You know, I liked it mixed.

CW: Yeah. Steve talked a little bit about that with me; about how much more diverse it was in the Lower East Side even when he first moved there. And also, he said people were so weird in the Lower East Side that, when he first moved there, the cops wouldn't come there because it was so poor, and so full of what they considered the most extreme weirdos. He was also in an interracial marriage with four adopted white daughters, and he said that they wouldn't go, as a couple, past 14th Street for most of like the 80s, because of the way that they would have been received elsewhere. He said he only really felt comfortable in the Lower East Side.

QT: I don't think he would have run into any problems all the way up here though, because there were a lot of interracial couples way up here. They were just bankers, though, you know. They were bankers and lawyers. It was like that.

CW: Oh! Maybe he just didn't want to go past 14th--

QT: No, he didn't want to go.

CW: He liked being downtown so much.

Steve Cannon and Chavisa Woods

QT: Oh, yeah! It was a trip to try to get him to come uptown at all! You know, I mean, finally I stopped trying to get him to come up here. I realized I had to go downtown if I wanted to see him. And Ishmael was the same way. Ishmael was a product of that whole scene, and so is David Henderson, and so is Victor Hernández Cruz. They were all my good friends.

CW: Tribes originally started as a small press and an artist salon. And I think you probably remember Steve had a really open-door policy. He literally never locked his door.

QT: That's true.

CW: He was a mentor to so many artists. He loved fostering connections across communities, and countless people relied on him when they needed support. Danny and Sheila, how did you become connected to Steve?

Associate Poetry Editor, Sheila Maldonado (SM): I knew Steve through Paul Beatty and Melanie Goodreaux, a New Orleans writer, like Steve. They both thought of him as a father figure but I realize he reminded me of my father too. My father liked to mess with you and wanted to be in your business. Steve told me go read everywhere, just jump in. And I did.

Melanie Goodreaux and Sheila Maldonado with Steve Cannon

Associate Poetry Editor, Danny Shot (DS): Nancy Mercado introduced me to Steve Cannon, I think in the late 1980’s, perhaps the early 90’s. Steve was so easy to get along with. Living in Hoboken, I often wanted a destination for my trips into the city. Don’t get me wrong, I worked in NYC my whole adult life, but when I wanted to hang out, Tribes was the place to hang. As the publisher of Long Shot magazine, Steve and I were friendly rivals. We supported each other, shared contacts and attended each other’s events. As a matter of fact, we held our Long Shot going away party at Tribes in 2004.

CW: Sheila, Tribes’ Fly by Night Press published your first book of poetry, one-bedroom solo.

SM: Yes. I started it in grad school in the early ‘00’s. I read from those poems all over the city for a few years, but it probably took my father passing in 2008 for me to finally decide to make the book happen. Paul mentioned the book to Steve and that is how it got going with Fly by Night. There wasn’t really an official editor at Tribes. Steve told me to get my people to read it and give me feedback. Quite a few poet friends looked at it. Steve got me the designer and printer. My friend Chris Myers made the cover. It was all super hands-on. I got my readings and took it out in the world. Put it in the small bookstores, like Word Up and St. Mark’s and La Casa Azul (R.I.P.). Sold it from my site. It was pretty fun.

Sheila Maldonado's first reading at Tribes, 2003

CW: When I met Steve, he took me on as a mentee, when I was 21. He also published my first book through Fly by Night Press. It was really important to him that I read people from all over the world, authors of dissenting philosophies and diverse perspectives. He really loved bringing people physically together in a space where so much was allowed; people who were different in so many ways having conversations about art and politics all day and all night. I just want to know, as we move forward with you as the new head poetry editor of the online magazine, Quincy, why is diversity and inclusion important to you, and how will that inform the voice of the poetry section of Tribes Magazine Online?

QT: In the late 1960’s, I did this huge anthology––about 600 pages––called Giant Talk, which was the anthology of that time. Hardback. Random House. Toni Morrison was my editor. And it included writers from all over the world; poets, novelists, essayists; Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Wole Soyinka, Ralph Ellison, Ishmael Reed, and Steve is in there, Steve Cannon. I had a lot of Lower East Side writers and poets in there, Victor Hernández Cruz. People from all over. And that anthology made a huge splash. It solidified my reputation as an editor, because I was always interested in writers from everywhere. I was never one of those… a black person who was just interested in black literature. You know, I was never that kind of person. I know a lot of them really, some black guys are friends of mine, writers, you know, they are just interested in black people, and there are white people who are just interested in white people, and there are Asians who are just interested in Asians, Latinos who are only interested in Latinos, and on and on. But I’ve never been like that.

CW: Yeah, queer artists who are only interested in reading queer books...

QT: Yeah, that kind of stuff. I'm not like that. You know, I want to see everybody. If a queer writer’s good, I'll read them. I’ll publish them. If they're not good, I'm not gonna publish them. That’s all.

CW: But what makes a poem good? When you sit down and read a poem, what are some things that you're looking for in that poem? What do you want it to do? Can you give me an example of a type of poem that really gets to you, really strikes you?

QT: I taught poetry at Columbia graduate school. Campbell McGrath came out of my class. I'm a stickler for, and I teach, form. I can teach a villanelle, a haiku, a tanka, an ode, a ballad. I understand all those forms. At the same time, I'm a free verse person. But if you look at my books, I got all those forms going through it, too. I created this form called the 7/11, which is an alternating form off the throwing dice. If you throw a seven you win, if your total’s 11… you win. I was always interested in creating an American form, so I created the 7/11. There's a lot of people doing them now. It's fun for me to do that, but I'm still a free verse person. I love the flow and the freedom of writing really good free verse, but it also has to have a lot of rhythm in it, because I come from a musical position. Some people used to call me a jazz poet, but I hated that, because I'm not a jazz poet. I'm just a person who uses rhythm, and energy. I'm also technically trained, and when I read somebody's poem, I automatically start counting syllables. I automatically start asking, what is the structure of this poem? I'm looking for an internal kind of structure. I’m looking to see if they know what they're doing, and aren’t just throwing it all together haphazardly. I don't like haphazard poems, thrown together like throwing paint on the wall, splat, and then they say, “Oh that's a great painting.” Bullshit, it's not a great painting!

CW: Right, no effort. No deliberation. Like a diary entry that happens to be written in stanzas...

QT: Yeah, it has to have some kind of logic to it. I want the poet to be able to explain to me what they're doing. You know, some people, you talk to them about it and they don't know why they did it!

CW: They don’t know what they’re doing if they don’t know why they did it.

QT: Right! They don't know why they did that! And that's kind of strange to me. Miles Davis was a good friend of mine. Miles was really a stickler, like, he would ask his musicians, you know, this is the way he talked: “Why the fuck did you play that?” And the guy said, “Well, I liked it.” “Why did you like it?” You know, he said, “Well, I liked how it sounded.” He said, “Really? That shit was fucked up. You know, we got a band. It's a band. It's not just you! You know, it's not just you. You got these other people in the band! You not by yourself, motherfucker!” I watched people get terrified. Miles was no big guy, but he did not play. No, he did not. He said, “Why did you do it that way?” and somebody said, “I liked what I did.” He’d say, “Well, I didn't fucking like it.”

CW: Yeah, you want artists to be making deliberate choices.

QT: Yes. I want them to know what they are doing and why they’re doing it. I don't mind automatic kind of writing too. There’s freedom to do that. But then when you get through that, you got to go back and look at it. You got to know what you're doing and why you're doing it. It’s got to be perfect, the poem.

SM: What I look for is a feeling of hearing people read downtown. I like a mix of aesthetics. I prefer the unpretentious, accessible, plainer language. I like humor and music and image. I don’t need you to save the world or represent super hard. I can’t with the sad or overly serious, but that is poetry for many and I am getting sadder and more serious. I don’t want to though. I am not the only editor here, luckily.
I told a former student recently who asked about publishing that she should read a lot of online and print journals and look up presses where she has seen peers and writers that she likes published. I know it will all be harder now that we are not meeting in public much. I used to get published from readings here and there. I am really made of relationships with many writers. So many of those people helped me to publish.

DS: We are three editors and obviously we have different literary tastes and preferences, so I’m speaking for myself as a member of a team. I’m looking for writing that exhibits a certain passion, or to put it more bluntly, writing in which the author seems to give a damn about their subject matter. I prefer writing that deals with the world head on and confronts the issues of the day in a non-clichéd way. I mostly like poetry that is forward-looking and offers a unique or unexpected perspective on our world. My advice to emerging poets is threefold: Read, Read, Read. Other than that, I’ll leave you with the words of Willie Shakespeare, “and this above all, to thine own self be true.”

Quincy Troupe and Danny Shot with Steve Cannon

CW: Quincy, I want to ask, but let me know if you're not ready to talk about it yet.

QT: Go ahead.

CW: Your book Miles and Me is going to be made into a feature film. And I just wondered if you would talk a little bit about what the process for getting it made into a film, and how that feels now that the book is going to come out in this other medium?

QT: I wrote Miles's autobiography with him. That book has been translated into 30 languages and, and just continuously sells. And this one, Miles and Me, has been translated into 20 so far. Miles was really an interesting guy. He had a place in Malibu and a place here in New York. He was sitting on his veranda and looking at the water— the ocean-in Malibu— And he said, “Quincy, I know goddamn well you’re going to write a memoir about me, ain't you?” I said, “Yeah, I will later at some point.” He said, “Motherfucker don't write about it until I'm dead.”

CW: Wow. Why? Why is that?

QT: That's what he said!

CW: Yeah, but why?

QT: He said, “Don't write about it now. I don't want you to write a memoir— I didn't pick you to write my book about my life for you to turn around and write a memoir about my ass right after you get through with this book. Can you promise me that?” I said, “Yeah, I can promise you that. You gave me this great opportunity. And I'll promise you, I won't write it until you die, but I don't want you to die, man”. He said, “We all fucking gotta die, shit.” And so, when he died, I did it. I wrote this memoir. I decided to write about our friendship, because we had this really great friendship.

When I finished that book, my friend, Rudy Langlace, called me up and said, “Look, man, I got this company and we decided we'd like to do a film based on your book Miles and Me.” And so I said, “Cool.” Who's gonna write the screenplay? He said, “You're gonna write the screenplay.” I said, “I've never written a screenplay before.” “Yeah, yeah. But you wrote the Miles Radio Project that won the Peabody. “

CW: You wrote a seven-part radio piece for National Public Radio…

QT: Right, I did. And so I took every scene out of my book that I thought would be germane or would be powerful in a movie. I had 250 pages. I said, "This is too big."

CW: That’s more than a feature film!

QT: Right, I said, "It’s a feature film." He says, “No it's like three feature films!” He says start cutting it, so I started cutting it. I had the scenes in there with my son and I had to cut him out. He said, “You are gonna have some hard choices. Think, what's the essential thing? It’s the relationship that you have with Miles Davis. That’s what the movie's gonna be. Your daddy is not gonna be in it. Your mama ain't gonna be in it, and your son ain't gonna be in it.” He says, “The movie's gonna be about you and Miles Davis, about you as a poet, and him as a musician.”

CW: Right, because it’s Miles and Me not Miles and everybody.

QT: Ha! Yeah, that's right. And so, then I got it down to 130 pages and he said, “Now you got to add some more. It’s too thin.”

CW: Oh man!

QT: So, that was the process.

CW: You cut it and then built it back up.

QT: Yeah, I built it back up. And it was arduous. You know, I was learning a new craft.

CW: While doing it at the same time. Talk about growing your wings on the way down. That's really–– that's intensive. When is it coming out?

QT: It was supposed to start shooting early in March. But now it’s delayed. First he wanted Denzel Washington in the movie, okay? I said, I don't know man, Denzel is too old. He's too old to play me at that time.

CW: Oh wow you said no to-––

QT: Yes! I said he's too old to be opposite of Michael K. Williams, who’s in his 40s. I know Denzel really well. We talked and he said, “You really don't want me to play you?” I said, No, no. You're too old! I'm too old to play me. I said, Hey, man, I was 40 years old then, when the book is set.

CW: Yeah.

QT: I have no problem with him being the director. I love Denzel Washington as an actor and as an artist. So, that was the process. It's gonna come out next year. My big book of poems Duende is coming out in 2021 from Seven Stories Press and then my memoir The Accordion Years is going to come out later that year. Then I have a novel as well.

CW: One movie, three books, and you're the new Poetry editor for Tribes Magazine Online! So you're a little busy.

QT: Yeah. I try to stay busy.

CW: You sure do!

Danny, in (1982) you co-founded and served as the Editor in Chief for Long Shot magazine, which ran for more than twenty years. When speaking of publishing poetry, what do you think has changed most significantly since you began and what’s remained the same?

DS: First of all, the internet. Our first issues were typeset by friends at Rutgers Targum (where Eliot Katz and myself went to college) and we cut and pasted artwork with an exacto knife and rubber cement. Throughout Long Shot’s existence, I would check the mail and there would be a packet of poems from Charles Bukowski, or Allen Ginsberg, or Amiri Baraka. I was fortunate to study with Miguel Algarín and Alicia Ostriker at Rutgers, so that opened many doors for us. The reason Long Shot could exist for 20 plus years is we had a very good distribution network. Then over the years the distributors went bankrupt. What’s the same is the generosity of poets. Well -known poets are comfortable sending us their premium work, for which we are quite grateful.

Steve Cannon, Danny Shot and Jesus-Papoleto Melendez

CW: When I first came to Tribes, it was like nothing else I’d ever seen; it was simultaneously an artist salon whose doors were basically open 24/7, an art gallery, a small press, a venue for readings and concerts, and of course, a person’s (Steve Cannon’s) home. What first drew you to Tribes?

SM: SM: I wanted to be associated with Tribes because it is and was multicultural and multi-stylistic. It is New York that way and I am New York that way. I make no sense as a person without New York. My family is Honduran and I am from here. I wandered the Village as a teenager and didn’t work up the nerve to steadily get in front of people with a poem till my late 20s. I was glad I was put to use working with Mariposa to organize the readings for Tribes when Steve had to leave the building in 2014, and with you, Chavisa, when he passed last year. I got to meet and hear all those writers who were drawn to Steve and Tribes. I was late to Tribes, but when I got to do that work, I felt like I had always been there.

DS: What I loved and love about A Gathering of the Tribes is its eclectic vision as well as its inclusive vibe. That comes from its founder, Steve Cannon as well as you, (Chavisa) its new Executive Director. As much as I think of myself as a loner, Tribes presented and hopefully will continue to offer a sense of community.

#262 — Fall 2020