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DAVID COPE

Online Interview for Becky Spaulding at The Collegiate

Becky Spaulding: Can you tell me about how you were chosen as Poet Laureate? Did you apply, or did the Arts Council seek you out?

David Cope: The Grand Rapids Humanities Council revamped the selection process last year to make it open and public, soliciting entries from the larger community; when the Humanities Council went under, the Arts Council took it over.  Candidates had to submit a short bio, a publication history, a selection of their poems.  A selection committee narrowed the candidates down and ultimately selected me. 

BS: What are the duties of the Grand Rapids Poet Laureate?

DC: I am to be an advocate for poetry in our community—it’s vague as stated, but most laureates will develop their individual projects according to their gifts and interests.  Rod Torreson, for example, developed the Thru the 3rd Eye website so that his students could feature poets that interest them, write reviews and interviews, and publish their work online.  In my case, I’ll edit an anthology of Grand Rapids area poets to give us a benchmark of the breadth of talent we have in this area, and as a way of highlighting our regional style.  I’ll also develop a poetry conference here at GRCC, likely in May sometime in the next few years, to bring high school and undergraduate students, people on the “scene” and our heavily published writers together so that we can build a community.  I have already set up appointments with grants people and spoken with our Print Solutions department about getting a rough estimate of costs for the anthology—so my work has already begun.

BS: What will this mean for your own career? Do you plan on publishing more books? 

DC: It should be helpful in getting the attention of publishers.  I plan on publishing two more books beyond the Grand Rapids anthology noted above:  a Selected Poems (chosen from all of my books from 1983-2010), and an anthology of the best work published in my Big Scream magazine between 1974 to the present.  The title “laureate” may open some doors in that direction.  Mostly, however, I think of it as an opportunity to help our poetry community here in Grand Rapids.  The focus of this thing should not be me, but the work I can do with it.

BS: How did you start writing poetry? Who are some of your influences, favorite writers, etc? 

DC: I began quite young—intrigued by it as early as 7 or 8 years old, writing my first piece at age 13, an imitation of Emerson’s “The Snowstorm.”  One thing led to another, and now at age 63, here I am.  I am deeply thankful for professors I had when I was a student at GRJC (GRCC in earlier years):  Walt Lockwood, Lucy DeLoof, Bill Dix, Marinus Swets.  These folk saw that, though a troubled kid, I had a gift, and they gave me the space to develop as a writer.  I’m also thankful for my years at the University of Michigan, where the great Robert Hayden was my professor—a gifted poet and teacher, and as compassionate a man as I’ve ever met.  Finally, as a young poet, I should remember Allen Ginsberg for helping me find national publication at a time when poets need someone to help them do that. 

Favorite writers:  Shakespeare (of course!), Dante, Chaucer, and our national poet, Walt Whitman.  Of the twentieth century writers, William Carlos Williams and Charles Reznikoff, Allen Ginsberg (whose writing kept me sane at age 18-23), Diane di Prima, Anne Waldman.  People my own age and younger:  Sharon Olds, Andy Clausen, Antler, Jim Cohn, and a raft of others.  Plus all the writers I teach in my various classes—I’m crazy about Louise Erdrich’s Anishnabek novels, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, the slave narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, the great Lakota visionary testimony, Black Elk Speaks, and the works of Hemingway.  There are hundreds of others.

BS: Has teaching influenced your writing in any way?

DC: It diverts one attention from one’s work, so one has to compartmentalize all of the things one does.  I cannot, for example, edit and publish my magazine during the school year, because I have had anywhere from 150-200 students per semester whose needs are at least as important as my own writing.  The gig is to master the art of time management, and wait for the words to come.

BC: How long have you been writing? What are your favorite subjects to write about?

DC: Covered, above.  Favorite subjects:  the idea is to make a collage of the many concerns I have during a given period of my life.  These are arranged in suites in each book, sometimes with a very pointed theme, as in Gone (as you are) in Turn the Wheel, all those poems that came out of the second Iraq War. There are also series--subjects and motifs that recur from book to book:

the love poems for my wife Suzy (whom I met when we were both students here), poems of canoeing and kayaking, mountain climbing poems, portrait poems of distinctive people, and the ongoing poems dealing with war and the price people pay for it.

The key point is not to predetermine a subject, but let it come to you—the words appear, and you follow them, spontaneously.

BS: Did you always want to write? To teach? What in your past has led you to become who you are today? 

DC: Write, yes.  Teach, no (though I do enjoy it).  What has led me to become what I am today:  there’s a book in this, but I’ll suggest a few items:  a mother who read to all of us and gave us ways to expand our frame of reference, an imaginative homelife, my parents’ divorce and my subsequent years of rage and trouble, Martin Luther King as a childhood hero who stood up and taught us all to be kind and just; anti-war and civil rights demonstrations while a college student, loss of dear childhood friends killed in Vietnam,  seeing the Rolling Stones at Olympia in 1969 at a time when we all—band and audience alike—needed to go crazy in order to find our own sanity, hearing Allen Ginsberg read “Howl” to a tearful and needy audience of 3500 at Hill Auditorium, marriage to my wife Sue (who as my grandfather once said, “made a man of me”), quitting school short of graduation—3 years in spray paint factory as lugger & hi-lo driver, followed by 18 years as custodian in ghetto and barrio schools and atLincoln School, publishing my poetry magazine from 1974 on, meeting Allen Ginsberg (who found national outlets for my stuff, and helped me get summer teaching/reading stint at Naropa Institute—now University—in 1980, 1982, 1987); publication of my first book, Quiet Lives, with Allen’s preface; decades of flying out on weekends to read my poems in New York, New Jersey, Colorado, and elsewhere while working blue collar and raising a family; hired in as full-time prof in 1991 on condition that I finish graduate school; six years of stellar learning at WMU grad school while teaching 18 hours each semester; kids off to college; my and Sharon Wynkoop’s decision to start a Women’s Studies initiative in 2005, announcing it and being joined by Katie Kalisz, Mary Lucas, and others.  The Women’s Studies initiative was perhaps the greatest experience of my academic life:  we perfected true collaborative learning together, figured out what we had to do in order to change the gender climate at our college, and developed classes and college-wide conferences over a period of four years.  It was exciting, and even more so to find students who were as excited as we were.

BS: What are you most proud of having done in your life? Are there any moments, successes, or even failures that really stand out in your mind? How did they affect you?

DC: I’m very proud of the fact that I have expanded our policies and curriculum so that we will be current with schools elsewhere, giving our students access to learning necessary for the next century:   I developed the first recycling policy for this college and designed the paper recylcing system here when I was still a custodian; I also developed our multicultural literature course (now taught by Roland Gani), my own Shakespeare course, as well as the Introduction to Women’s Studies (WST 200) and the LGBTQ Literature course (En 284, Nora Neill’s course).  This process of opening the curriculum so that ALL students can explore their voices and lives, to understand what they live with and how to grow as people, must continue if we are to remain a relevant and compassionate college.  I also was instrumental in bringing Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman to read at our school, and I designed the Pablo Neruda Conference and the Women in the Arts Conference, and was heavily involved with both the Hemingway 101 Conference and the Women in STEM Fields Conference of a few years ago.  The Poetry Conference I am now developing will be my last hurrah as a teacher.

Other than that, I’m proud of my work as a poet, and of the many great friendships that have grown from it.  I’ve traveled around the nation, won awards, seen my work published, given readings, and am as content as a cat with all that.

BS: I know you started the Women's Studies courses at GRCC -- can you tell me a little bit about what inspired you to do so? 

DC: Well, I designed WST 200 and was the member of our teaching team who brought the students to the YWCA Domestic Crisis Center so that they could do volunteer work on behalf of the women and children there.  That experience taught us that some knowledge goes beyond academic success, that it can change things for others if one is attentive and motivated, but it also gave us a way to break down the walls between ourselves so that we could truly be a collaborative team.  As a man, being a part of that teaching team—and working with those astoundingly focused students in defining what this course woud be and how we could combine “empowerment” with “compassion” and “collaboration” will always be a signal period of growth in my life.

What inspired me?  In my Quaker background, the women have been educated and powerful for generations.  My aunts on both sides graduated in chemistry from the University of Michigan during a time when women did not take these courses; my aunt Frances earned her Masters in Chemistry by the time she was 22.  More importantly, my wife Suzy and my old friend Sharon Wynkoop have both been excellent teachers, patient, but pulling no punches in helping me grow to understand the true meaning of gender equality; when we were first married, Sue gave me a copy of Our Bodies, Our Selves as a way of showing me aspects of women’s lives that many men never understand.  I’ve been surrounded by gifted women all my life, and the discussions we had led to developing our program.  The insights and friendships gained as a result of that process are personal treasures. 

BS: [Anything else you’d care to mention?]

DC: Check out my webpages for broader sense of my career:

My webpage at the Museum of American Poeticshttp://www.poetspath.com/Dave_Cope/.

The David Cope Papers at the University of Michigan Special Collections Library (note that the online presence only extends to 2002; we will update this to 2012 in the summer of that year): http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/f/findaid/findaid-idx?c=sclead&idno=umich-scl-cope.

My GRCC Shakespeare class websitehttp://cms.grcc.edu/shakespeare.

[Grand Rapids Community College, 20 April 2011]

 

Portions of this interview were quoted by Ms. Spaulding in an article for The Collegiate newspaper: Spaulding, Becky. "Professor Cope appointed Poet Laureate."  The Collegiate (April 27, 2011) 10.  Print. Used by permission of Mr. Cope and Ms. Spaulding.