David Cope Biography


"This is where I walked away many years"

—Charles Reznikoff


David Cope was born in Detroit on 13 January 1948, and grew up on the banks of the Thornapple River in Western Michigan. A descendent of the Quaker family of paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope, David had a childhood marked by adventures along the river and a mania for writing until his parents' bitter divorce in 1961. During his teenage years, Cope lived a life of contradictions—gang activities, Kerouacian hitch-hiking, wild partying and a manic desire to know all the poetry ever written. Later, he studied under Robert Hayden at the University of Michigan, where he mourned the deaths of childhood friends in Vietnam, became involved with the anti-war movement, witnessed Allen Ginsberg's 1969 Moratorium Day reading at Hill Auditorium and the massive police bludgeoning of demonstrators on the night of the Chicago Seven conviction. 


Enraged at what was happening to the nation, Cope quit school short of graduation in 1970, married his wife Suzanne and moved back to Grand Rapids, where he worked three years at Miller Metals Products, following that with eighteen years as a custodian in ghetto and barrio schools, at Lincoln School for the learning disabled, and finally as dock manager at Grand Rapids Junior College. During this period, he tried to live deliberately as an anonymous workingman, following Whitman's plain-speech example. Cope attended the 1973 National Poetry Festival in Allendale, Michigan, where Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan, and recently-reunited objectivist masters Charles Reznikoff, Carl Rakosi, and George Oppen gave him deeper lessons in poetic lineage and craft, and taught him to let go of his anger.


In 1974, he founded Nada Press and Big Scream magazine, a homemade poetry journal which has published over 200 poets and which Allen Ginsberg described as his favorite small-press mag. Scream has been in continuous publication ever since, with 53 issues including Nada Poems (an anthology of seventeen poets in Cope's generation) and Sunflowers and Locomotives: Songs for Allen, tributes for America's greatest 20th cy. bard. Allen had first introduced Cope to other Whitmanic wild boy poets of his generation—Andy Clausen, Antler, Jim Cohn, James Ruggia, and a host of others. Clausen and Cope read together at Naropa Institute (now University) in 1980, and David's Quiet Lives was published in 1983 with a foreword by Ginsberg. In 1987, David read at Naropa with Carl Rakosi, a pairing he still considers his greatest honor as a poet. In 1988, he received an award in literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters for On The Bridge.


After ripping a calf muscle in the late 80s, Cope moved from custodial work to teaching full-time, finishing up post-graduate work while developing one of the first multicultural literature classes in the state. He also developed the college’s Shakespeare, Women’s Studies, and LGBTQ Literature courses, and taught Shakespeare at Western Michigan University for seven years. David and his wife Sue have sponsored refugees, led anti-nuclear teach-ins, and he was instrumental in organizing the 1990 environmental conference at Naropa, where he oversaw the writing of “The Declaration of Interdependence,” a key ecopoetics statement later published in Disembodied Poetics: Annals of the Jack Kerouac School (ed. Waldman and Schelling) and naming crucial environmental issues facing the nation and the world. He participated in the 1994 Beats and Other Rebel Angels Conference at the school, and after Allen’s death in 1997, read with Anne Waldman, Bob Rosenthal, and others at Allen's "closing the bardo" ceremony held by the Jewel Heart Community in Ann Arbor. David also participated in the 2002 symposium welcoming Anne Waldman’s papers to the University of Michigan Special Collections Library. Cope was involved in an effort to bring Women’s Studies courses and greater gender awareness to his college community in Grand Rapids, directing the 2006 Women in the Arts Conference and curating the Women’s Studies website for the fledgling program.


David has published six books of poems: Quiet Lives (1983); On The Bridge (1986); Fragments from the Stars (1990); Coming Home (1993); Silences for Love (1998), Turn the Wheel (2003), and one chapbook, Masks of Six Decades (2010). Cope was poet laureate of Grand Rapids Michigan from 2011-2014, directing the city’s first Grand Rapids Poets’ Conference and editing Song of the Owashtanong: Grand Rapids Poetry in the 21st Century (Ridgeway, 2013). Now retired from his teaching career, David is doing craft interviews, readings, research and writing on his long-delayed Dante Project, editing and publishing Big Scream, and working on a book of his later poems. David’s manuscripts, correspondence, and other papers are permanently archived as the David Cope Papers (1972-2013) at the University of Michigan Special Collections Library.