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Through the 3rd Eye: Interview by Rachel McGinness


Rachel McGinness: You were appointed poet laureate in April, what steps have you taken toward your projects of creating a benchmark anthology of local poets, and setting up a poetry conference at GRCC for established and well-known poets to build relationships with emerging poets?


David Cope: In May, I completed cost estimates for putting on a four day conference which would involve the area’s heavily published poets, emerging poets and poets involved with the various “scenes” in the city, as well as Dyer-Ives, KDL, and Literary Life contest winners, college and high school students from the area.  I also developed a template for the four days, which will involve afternoon and evening readings, as well as discussions and panels (Editing Discussion, Small Press Panel, Thru the 3rd Eye Panel, Teaching Poetry, Reading Series Panel, and Working with a Publisher).  I also got a cost estimate for a 192 page anthology of local poets in an edition of 500 or 1000. Finally, I had meetings with the GRCC grants person, my dean at the college, and with the Arts Council, to discuss ways to make these things happen.


In June, I completed an extensive contacts list, including Grand Rapids area college connections, KISD high school connections, Media Contacts, Libraries, Bookstores, and Cafés. 


Before summer is over, I need to make initial contacts with published poets to invite them to participate in the anthology and conference.  I will also need to do another round of meetings and hope to find funding for these projects.   


RM: What inspired you to pursue these projects?


DC: I saw a void here that needed to be filled.  


The anthology will give local readers and writers a sense of the variety of styles and approaches to the art characteristic of its most prominent practitioners.  It lays a foundation for a wider understanding of the kinds of poetry found in Grand Rapids, and what constitutes our regional styles. 


The conference will hopefully bring professional, emerging, and student poets together so that we can all become acquainted in ways that have not been done before.  I believe that this kind of communication will strengthen us all as writers and make us more aware and appreciative of each other’s efforts.


RM: What is the process to become the poet laureate?


DC: The Humanities Council rewrote the requirements for the position last year, to make it a more open process in which poets could formally submit their work and have it reviewed by a panel of experts.  Poets now have to submit a selection of their poems, a list of works and publications, and a short biography. 


RM: What is the most rewarding part of being poet laureate in Grand Rapids?


DC: Getting to know people who love the city and its writers, trying to make connections that will help us all grow as writers and as pilgrims on a journey to awareness.  I think this position will give me another avenue to expand my skills, my awareness, and hopefully allow me to help others.


RM: Where is your favorite place to write in Grand Rapids?


DC: Any place I happen to be when the words begin to come to me.  At home in Grandville, usually, but it can happen anywhere—even while teaching a class or eating a burger at the Cottage Bar.


RM: How has your time teaching at Grand Rapids Community College influenced your writing?


DC: It has given me access to some of the brightest young poets in the city, and as in any human interaction, I both teach and learn from them.  Working at the college has also given me the means to bring some excellent poets to our town (Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, Antler, Jim Cohn, and  former GRCC student Carmen Bugan, author of Crossing the Carpathians and Burying the Typewriter, a harrowing memoir of growing up in Ceaucescu’s Romania).  I’ve been able to develop or be a part of some terrific conferences (the Pablo Neruda Conference and the Women in the Arts Conference, which I designed (the latter with help from members of the Women’s Studies Initiative), and the Hemingway Conference, where I was a presenter).  Finally, it has allowed me to hone my craft through close reading of great texts with intelligent students, ranging from the plays I teach in my Shakespeare class to the poetry, plays, and short stories that show models of good writing to creative writers and composition students. 


RM: How have you evolved as a writer as you’ve become more seasoned?


DC: This has been a long, complex journey.  After a decade of experimenting with a variety of styles and approaches to content, I began writing brief anecdotal vignettes borne of the objectivist or imagist approach to the art:  these constituted the approach in my first two books, the second of which won the American Academy/Institute Award in Literature in 1988.  As I grew more confident, I began honing for sound as well as substance, allowing the “tools” derived from my longtime immersion in Old English and Middle English poetry, Dante, and Shakespeare to help me find more and more elegant phrasings and syntax.  The only constant was the desire to stay “close to the nose,” to write poems that reflect the complexities of real lives, and to avoid cleverness and word games:  everything had to be functional—“a poem is a machine made of words in which there is no extraneous part,” as Williams said.  I became more and more comfortable experimenting with typography, the use of allusions, figures of speech, etc., as long as they didn’t intrude on clarity.  The journey has been a long one, and in these later years, it’s important that I don’t merely repeat earlier motifs, but find a way to transcend or extend them as a way to more accurately reflect the stages of life wherein I find myself now.


RM: You are involved in so many aspects of poetry from your Big Scream Magazine to being in charge of the Dyer Ives poetry contest, to your new role as poet laureate, what are some of your favorite aspects of each activity?


DC: First, I should note that I have given up the Dyer Ives position and passed it to my colleague, Professor Mursalata Muhammad.  Favorite aspects?  I love editing Big Scream.  Now in its 50th issue, the magazine has been a means to hone my editing skills, to understand the often complex psychology of the poets who send me their work, and to grow personally through the ever-changing personae of the magazine. 


Basically, one has to love poets and the art form itself in order to do any of these things—the poet laureate position, the Dyer-Ives and KDL contests, the magazine, readings, publication, making connections and friendships with others, the whole bit.  I knew it would be the focus of my life when I was in eighth grade, and I have never swerved from that.


RM: What poets inspire you?


DC: More than I can name—a whole raft of my contemporaries, and among older poets, the American lineage of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Williams, Stein, Pound, Langston Hughes, Charles Reznikoff, George Oppen, Robert Hayden, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Diane di Prima, Ted Berrigan, Anne Waldman, Sharon Olds, etc.  As foundational poets:  Dante (in Italian and in the Singleton and Mandelbaum translations), Chaucer, Shakespeare, Jonson, Dekker, Sir Philip Sidney, John Dowland and Thomas Campion, Christopher Smart, William Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley’s “Adonais,” Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” Yeats, Dylan Thomas.  Others:  Lope de Vega, Federico Garcia Lorca, Pablo Neruda, José Marti Julia de Burgos and Luis Pales Matos, François Villon, Pierre de Ronsard, Joachim du Bellay, Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Guillaume Apollinaire—hundreds of others.   Among the ancients:  the Song of Songs, Jeremiah, Ezekial, Isaiah, Sappho, Theocritus, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Ovid, Catullus, Propertius, Virgil (especially the Eclogues).  Also, among the Chinese and Japanese: Li Po, Tu Fu, Po-Chu-I, Han Shan, the poems in A Zen Forest, translated by Soiku Shigematsu, and the koans of Two Zen Classics: Mumonkan and Hekiganroku, translated by Katsuki Sekida.  This is for starters.



July 2011