ON POETRY, MUSIC AND GROWING UP IN
INTERVIEW WITH KYLE AUSTIN
Kyle Austin: In the introduction to Sins and Felonies, Walter Lockwood notes that the poems which you, GF Korreck, Frank Salamone, and David Montgomery produced were very different from one another, and anyone who reads the anthology can see that you each have forged a unique voice. What was it that ultimately bonded the four of you together?
David Cope: Frank and I were older and bonded as friends when we were editors at the college’s Display magazine. We were both bad boys with an attitude, yet coming at our art from very different aesthetics—I through Ginsberg and Kerouac, Pound, Shakespeare, Chaucer, and translations of the Provencal troubadours; Frank through the lyrics of Dylan and poems of Ferlinghetti, among others. I was deeply enmeshed in music by the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, and those blues masters the Stones had turned me onto—especially Howlin’ Wolf and Robert Johnson. We shared a love of Dylan during those heady years. Frank’s musical foundations ran to the old folk and labor traditions, Woody Guthrie and Dylan, as well as a wide variety of blues masters, especially Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Charlie Patton, and Blind Blake. He was also way ahead of everybody in following British masters like Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, and Fairport Convention. We turned each other on to the masters—both poetic and musical—that we grew up with separately.
Korreck and Montgomery came the year following—Korreck’s immensely ironic humor was already well-developed, and his writing was intensely constructed. Montgomery specialized in short prose “sketches” which were at once surreal and psychologically complex, and he had already mastered the art of collaging sketches into larger works—paratactic construction without closure, to use the formal term. Montgomery could play Dylan’s songs with abandon and knew many of the folk masters, but his heart was in Buddy Holly’s music; I recall one night when we were all singing together as he played; he had gotten so involved with his playing that he didn’t realize that his fingers were cut up and spraying blood across the floor.
We kept in touch even when we each went our own ways, enjoying the differences of our talents as much as the odd “outsider” mentality that came with our individual personalities. It’s hard to explain what caused this—respect for another’s talent, a love of the way weirdness emerges differently with one’s friends, the strangeness of the times (it was the sixties, after all). We followed Frank’s musical career in the 70s, spent evenings with Dave and Gary when they were living in Lansing, watching weird late night movies or The Midnight Special, singing songs together and sharing our writings. I won a few awards, was published in major venues across the nation, and I began my Nada Press and Big Scream magazine in 1974. Dave and I often showed up at a big party house on Ethel Street, where we recited poems, listened to new music and argued about music and poetry; pianist Pat Klimas did spectacular performances of classical pieces on her piano, I read poems and Dave and Frank performed into the late night, all of us weary from jobs and burning to share our works.
For my own part, whenever I’ve made a friend, I keep him or her for life if they’ll have me—and these three were central to my own development in those formative years and have been important to me ever since.
KA: What was it like working with these men on GRJC's literary magazine? Was the publication a united front, or were their differing artistic currents pushing and pulling at each other? The intro describes the work you all did as "controversial" and "impressive." How much freedom were you given with regards to content and subject matter? Do you think young poets are censored in today's academic world?
DC: Frank and I worked together; Gary worked with David. The currents of the times were multiple—consider the variety of styles typical of the beat poets, who in many ways gave us models for our own journeys. The same was true of music then. Frank and I were certainly controversial; a religious biology prof at the college wanted us thrown out of school for publishing “obscene” poems and stories—works with swear words in them—and that prof also wanted the then-young teacher Walt Lockwood censured for allowing these kinds of choices by his editors. Dr. Marinus Swets, chair of the Language Arts Department, defended us all on the grounds of freedom of expression, and Walt’s career and our student days were saved as a result.
KA: There is a youthful intensity that pervades
many of the poems in Sins and
Felonies, and Lockwood notes that
your voices have mellowed over the years, but only slightly. How do you feel
your poetic voice has changed over the years? Do you approach the craft
differently now than you did then?
DC: My poetic voice has grown and changed with each book. I have insisted on continuous experimentation, above all not repeating a mode of expression in a way that simply repeats a formula. The works that find publication must be authentic, not merely craft or cleverness but a voice that needs expression. The only difference is that, as I’ve grown older, it is harder to come up with something new and different; I’ve been successful, but largely because I have concentrated on those things that challenge me in different ways, e.g. “A Dream of Jerusalem” or “Blues for Frank” or “American Pewter with Burroughs II,” poems I could not have written when I was younger because I did not have the skill or depth of experience to penetrate as deeply into the subject.
KA: Between music and poetry, which of the two drew your attention first in life? How were you introduced to them?
DC: Poetry! First grade memorizations of the 23rd Psalm and 100th Psalm, readings from a book of classic poetry for children, writing my first poem, an imitation of Emerson’s “The Snowstorm,” when I was still in 8th grade. Music came to me when the Beatles’ first album came out (my friend Daryl brought their first album over around Christmas time in 1963, and I immediately got my own copy, and when they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show a month or so later, I was hooked). When the Stones’ “Satisfaction” came over the radio, I heard a voice that spoke to my own angst and anger as a young alienated boy. The die was cast at that point.
I suppose I should note that I grew up listening to classical music from about sixth grade onward—Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Beethoven’s 6th and 9th symphonies, and some others. I eventually picked up on an enormous variety of classical masters, as well as the musical traditions of many nations around the world.
KA: What music were you listening to when you came into your own as a poet? Do you feel that the artists you listened to influenced your poetry, or added to your voice?
DC: “When I came into my own”—tough to nail that down to a specific time frame—the journey is a metamorphosis that has never quite stopped, each new age frame or decade a revisioning of the self and my own place and sense of the work. The bands and music already noted here were my foundational voices; in the 70s I picked up David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley and Taj Mahal, filling out my blues collection and beginning to build my love of jazz, especially Miles Davis, Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie. In the 80s, I added The Clash and The Talking Heads, and in the 90s, Kurt Cobain. The exploration of other music has continued throughout my life. Recently, I (finally) took my old LP collection in to sell at a local record shop—465 albums, of when 275 were rock, jazz, and blues recordings. The rest were classical. My current CD collection is actually much broader and more comprehensive than that group.
Musical influence on my poetry—again, it was all of a piece—Allen Ginsberg’s reading of “Howl” on the 1969 Moratorium Day in Ann Arbor coincided with the release of the Stones’ Let It Bleed, and we were already singing “Street Fighting Man” and “Gimme Shelter” on the streets, marching and mourning the dead fallen in Vietnam and friends beaten by police. Each age has, if it’s lucky, a multiplicity of voices in various art forms, and it was a godsend to those of us who lived through that desperate time.
KA: Explain what you believe the connection between music and poetry to be. Why do you think these two mediums are able to capture human experience and emotion so acutely? Why does one (music) garner so much more social credibility and attention than the other (poetry)?
DC: The earliest poems were sung on the tortoise shell lyre, and many great poems have been sung—think of the Old English epic Beowulf. The Provencal troubadours—Arnaut Daniel, Bernart de Ventadorn, Bertrans de Born, Marcabru and others—sang their poems with string instruments, and the eleventh century lais of Marie de France were sung to a harp. In Shakespeare’s time, his own songs as well as the songs of others were performed with a lute at the plays, and there were great lutenist composers—John Dowland and Thomas Campion, among others.
The greatest of poems, of course, were/are generally not performed as musical compositions, relying instead on their uses of rhythm and meter and the various musical components of language (e.g. assonance, alliteration, etc.) to underscore the emotion of their content. Pound called for an “absolute rhythm” which subtly “plays” the feeling in the verse.
“Social credibility”—depends on what part of society one is talking about. Musical performances reach many more people through the medium of composition and accessibility, but if one is a scientist of language, the poets are the masters. I just returned from the Sleepy Bear Festival up beyond Honor, Michigan, and was amazed at the wild applause given to some bands whose lyrics would best be described as bad trash (I should note that at least one band, Max Lockwood’s Big Dudee Roo, presented carefully constructed lyrics). There are of course great lyricists, and some song lyrics do rise to the level of credible poetry: Lennon and McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby,” Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” Jagger and Richards’ “Paint It, Black” and “No Expectations,” The Clash’s “Lost in the Supermarket” and “Something About England,” Robbie Robertson’s “American Roulette,” and so on.
I think there is room for a middle ground, poets and musicians working together in interesting ways—witness Allen’s work with The Clash, or, at his Closing the Bardo ceremony in Ann Arbor, the presence of Patti Smith’s band as headliners in a program studded with great poems, and Natalie Merchant and violinists from the Detroit Symphony as performers recalling Allen’s influence on us all.
There is a great tradition of collaboration, too, beginning with Kenneth Rexroth’s mid-50s performances at the Blackhawk Lounge with jazz musicians, Jack Kerouac’s spontaneous work with Steve Allen, Allen Ginsberg’s work with progressive musicians on The Lion for Real, and collaboration by Gil Scott-Heron, Anne Waldman, M. L. Liebler, and Jim Cohn with their respective musicians.
KA: Describe the poetry scene in Grand Rapids in the 1970's. Did things turn out the way you all thought they would? How did your expectations and anticipations hold up to the progression of time? What is your impression of the role poetry plays in this city today, and what would you change about it?
DC: In the 70s, the poetry scene involved Eric Greinke’s Pilot Press and my Nada Press/Big Scream magazine. The great public events of those years involved the National Poetry Festivals that came to Grand Valley and brought the enormous influence of a wide variety of literary masters directly to local and nationwide poets and students. It was a watershed of influence on our writing, in my case ranging from connecting directly with Allen Ginsberg, walking out to a midsummer bonfire with George and Mary Oppen, to witnessing masterful readings by Charles Reznikoff and Kenneth Rexroth, and seeing the younger wild work of Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley and others.
Grand Rapids has always had an ephemeral scene—poets having to go elsewhere to get published and recognized, poets here trapped in unpaid oral performances whose staying power evaporates after the performance is done. Hopefully, the current younger generation of poets will make the move to publication and broader recognition of their work.
“Expectations and anticipations”—I never thought like that. I worked my tail off to perfect my poems and sent them out for publication, made connections with poets and editors, and “did my homework.” When my poems won the Pushcart Prize (1977) and were published in City Lights Journal and the annual New Directions Anthology (1978), I was gratified—but I was also working a night custodial job and supplementing my income with weekend apartment cleaning for slumlords even as my wife and I were raising a daughter and buying our house. There was no room for expectations there—it was “nose to the grindstone” on every level, and when something came through, celebrate—but keep trying.
Role in the city today—Lord knows. We have a robust open mic scene, but as I have often said, this kind of thing is ephemeral, without the solid base of reaching beyond the city to connect us properly to the world. Publication is the key to moving to true professionalism in the art, and poets should be properly compensated for their work. The art deserves that respect at the very least.
KA: Do you believe schools do enough to introduce young people to poetry and foster an interest in it? Why do you think our society marginalizes the contributions of poets while giving disgusting amounts of attention to politicians, celebrities, and athletes?
DC: Currently, there seems to be a trend in education toward deemphasizing the arts in favor of an utilitarian approach to learning: writing as merely a job skill, learning as training for a career, with little or no importance attached to broadening one’s sense of culture and awareness of its changes, or of coming in contact with our deepest and most complex cultural commentators. It bothers me because people educated in this way have very little sense of values beyond their own pocketbooks and whatever rubber-stamp values were passed on by their parents or others—this in a time already so fragmented that the very concept of “values” or “ethics” is little more than pat assumptions with little or no critical thought.
Beyond that, I wish schools would do more to introduce young people to poetry, but I am also deeply concerned that teachers understand what poetry actually IS rather than using it as the sort of silly word games typical of elementary schools or “symbol hunting,” as if a poem is an elaborate game of “Where’s Waldo”—which too many teachers make of it. Poetry is a complicated nexus of cultural memory, it is a sensitive voice that charts the difficulties and struggles one goes through in this life, and it is to be treated intelligently by teachers who understand it, not the way it too often is passed off in school systems now. As Williams said, “you can’t get the news in a poem, but men die every day for lack of what is found there.”
I do believe there are limits to what a school can do for young poets—there has to be an inner fire, a passionate love of words and a deep human need to share one’s thoughts, to unravel one’s complexities. Without that, no amount of instruction will make one a poet.
Society and marginalization: well, yes, the honest arts do disappear in society-wide media and we are given contests and crap like Glee in their place, but I’m not sure what can be done about it. Anne Waldman once said we need to keep the lights burning in our moisopholon domos (house of the muses) as we enter the Kali Yuga—the dark age which is our time. We need to persist and bravely perfect our arts, share them as we can, without expectations.
KA: Now that you're older, do you think that the arts truly possess the capacity to change the world, or are they able only to describe it? What is the role of the poet and the guitar player and the songwriter in our hyper-connected, yet fractured modern world?
DC: The final argument in Shakespeare’s career is about The Tempest, his last masterpiece, where Prospero leads the villain Alonso to recognize his faults and do penance; other villains in that play are merely curbed, attain no true transcendent awareness. Dante’s Commedia is ultimately about the search for Love and its transforming power—but in both examples, the readers disagree about whether these works celebrate that transformation or crash against the rocks of the charnel house of the fallen world.
At their best, poets and composers/guitar players can give a voice to those whose experiences have overwhelmed them—giving them a language with which to understand themselves. The arts also provide a space for both artist and audience to “feel their feelings” and realize a shared connection as people. If we can open those doors, we have done our job on the most basic level.
In my own life, I have twice had people come to me and say they had gotten through a season or a difficult passage in their lives because my poem had given them the strength to keep going. Such testimonies are indeed gratifying to one who writes with the hope of helping others; still, there is my own sense that one should have “no expectations.” Put it out there in whatever venue or medium one can, and let it happen as it will. The arts can be doors to awakening, but they can also be a room full of empty mirrors and an echo chamber of illusions. Know thyself, as the oracle once put it.
I do have a quibble with those artists who use their work as a mere vehicle for their political views. This kind of work is mere propaganda, shirking the much more difficult psychological and experiential nexus at the heart of a great work.
KA: What music are you listening to these days? What poetry are you reading? What are you currently working on in terms of your writing?
DC: Current reading:
Poetry: Gertrude Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation, Janine Pommy Vega’s The Green Piano, Jack
Ridl’s Broken Symmetry, The Lais of Marie de France, John Ashbery’s translation of Rimbaud’s Illuminations— and manuscript submissions for the next issue of Big Scream.
Memoir: Grand Rapids-based poet Carmen Bugan’s Burying the Typewriter (annotating the text for fall classes; see my review of this book here: http://therapidian.org/price-liberty-bugans-burying-typewriter).
History: Tacitus, Agricola and Germania; Gildas, On the Ruin of Britain (de Excidio Britanniae, 5th century Celtic history); Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain (source for some of Shakespeare’s plays, major source for Arthurian legend).
Novel: Round Earth, Open Sky, a tour-de-force of magic realist style, by Kirpal Gordon.
My current CD wallet (stuff I play in the car): Paris Café Concert (French cabaret songs from the 30s); Stones’ Beggars’ Banquet; Duke Ellington’s Live at Newport 1956; Herbie Hancock and Foday Musa Suso, Village Life; The Fugs’ It Crawled into My Hand, Honest; Bruce Springsteen ‘s Wrecking Ball; Stones’ Through the Past, Darkly; Aaron Neville’s Icon, R. Carlos Nakai’s Canyon Trilogy, Dr. John’s new CD, locked down; Frenchie Le Fou, my daughter Jane’s mix of contemporary popular and classic French songs; Robbie Robertson’s Music for the Native Americans; Miles Davis’s Round About Midnight; Frank Salamone and Jimmie Stagger’s Suitcase Live in 76 at Battleground; Allen Ginsberg’s The Lion for Real; Patti Smith’s Outside Society; Fairport Convention’s Liege and Lief, Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew disc one; Stones’ Steel Wheels; Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue; Robbie Robertson’s Contact from the World of Redboy; Dr. John’s City that Care Forgot; Women of the World Acoustic (Putumayo); John Renbourn, The Lady and the Unicorn; Duke Ellington (Ken Burns Jazz); Stones’ Exile on Main Street; An English Ladymass by the Anonymous Four; Robbie Robertson, Storyville; Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, After the Dance; Billie Holiday (Ken Burns Jazz); Thomas Dionne, what the heart knows; The Clash, London Calling; David Byrne, Rei Momo.
Current writing projects: reviewing and pre-cataloging ten years of papers donated for my archive, The David Cope Papers, at the University of Michigan Special Collections Library—I’ll be spending the next three days with the chief archivist, fine-tuning the catalog, after which it’ll all be uploaded. My archive will be complete—all the important papers from my poetry career, from 1972-2012. I’m also editing work on my own book, Moonlight Rose in Blue, and soon I hope to send it out again for publication. Once I complete these projects, I’ll turn my attention back to Song of the Owashtanong, the anthology of Grand Rapids poets I edited last year—hoping to find a publisher. I’m also preparing to host the Carmen Bugan event at the college on September 20.
[This interview, conducted on 29 July 2012, was originally published at Through the 3rd Eye at http://throughthe3rdeye.com/node/947. Used by permission of David Cope and Kyle Austin.]