An Interview with David Cope on the 1st Annual Grand Rapids Poets’ Conference

1. This is the first annual Grand Rapids Poets’ Conference. To what extent were you involved in the event's conception, and what does a conference like this mean for the poetry community in this city?

The entire event was my conception, and I wrote the grant for it, worked with GRCC personnel to design the entire conference, set it up, and do all the promotion from designing the website (see and poster to sending press releases and doing involving English professors at GRCC, the other involving my laureate committee at the Arts media interviews such as this one. I consulted with the featured poets and two committees (one Council) regarding scheduling, venues, and grant questions. I wanted to feature not just all four laureates, but poets from the four major schools of the area, independent poets, and those representing the various scenes here in town.

What this will mean for the poetry community of the city: it will give poets and those who appreciate poetry a chance to get together and develop a larger conversation about what we have done and are doing here. It will give us contact so that we are all much more aware of the scope of work being done here, and perhaps begin the process of defining the art as practiced in Grand Rapids. Many cities have long traditions of work identified with them—New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and even smaller cities such as Ann Arbor or Boulder, Colorado have identifiable traditions of poetry produced in and speaking for the cultural nexus of place. Grand Rapids has it, too—excellent work produced from the 1960s to now—but we have to bring everyone together to see it.

2. What has been the greatest joy so far in your experience as the Poet Laureate of Grand Rapids? The greatest challenge? What plans do you have for the future of your appointment?

My greatest joy has been getting to know and work with a wide variety of deeply committed professionals who have willingly given of their talents and their wisdom to help me with my projects as laureate. These folk range from Mayor Heartwell, President Haas of GVSU, President Ender of GRCC, and Caroline Older of the Arts Council, to my committees and a wide variety of people such as Dean Laurie Chesley, grants administrators Judith Larsen and Lisa Dopke, venues coordinator Becky Yoder, Klaas Kwant (video recording) and the young web designers at GRCC (Dan Syckle and Andrew Schmidt), as well as campus police and custodians, all of whom contributed to make this work. I have many people to thank for their contributions.

The greatest challenge—keeping up with the daily work load involving coordinating everything involved with the conference while simultaneously teaching six classes (150 students) and publishing the 50th edition of my small press magazine, Big Scream.

Future plans include two major projects and a few others.
First is Song of the Owashtanong: Grand Rapids Poetry in the 21st Century, the 192-page anthology of Grand Rapids poets that I have edited. This task is almost complete—we’re doing layout and design, and selecting covers for it now, and I’ve written a grant to hopefully have the funds to publish it under my own imprint, Nada Press, perhaps with administrative help from another local press or institution. This work will become my first priority after the conference is finished.

Second, the laureate program has moved to the Grand Rapids Public Library, now that the Arts Council is folding. I hope to raise funds to permanently establish the laureate program at GRPL so that it may continue after my term is over; my first stop will be to explore the possibilities of establishing the laureate fund base with the GRPL Foundation, with the likelihood that I will be speaking with various grant-giving and other funding sources.

Beyond that, there are two other projects coming up in the 2012-2013 school year. First is hosting a reading and book signing for Romanian expatriate and GRCC honor graduate Carmen Bugan, whose Burying the Typewriter, her gripping memoir of growing up under the tyranny of the Ceaucescu regime, won the Breadloaf Conference Bakeless Prize for non-fiction; this celebration will also feature the recent publication of Carmen’s study, Seamus Heaney and East European Poetry in Translation: poetics of exile (see Second, I hope to organize a benefit reading for the YWCA Domestic Crisis Center, a group that is doing superb work on behalf of victims of domestic violence. The DCC has long been an important local resource for me, ever since the days when I took my Women’s Studies classes there for volunteer work and got to see firsthand the difficult and heroic work of compassion they do.

3. Talk a bit about your perception of poetry in Grand Rapids. Is it a scene on the rise, or has it been here all along, just waiting for an event of this magnitude to give it proper exposure?

I have been a part of the Grand Rapids scene ever since the coffeehouse scenes of the late sixties, the GVSU National Poetry Conferences of the seventies, the Twilight Tribe and other related movements of the eighties, and the work that has continued through poetry slams and readings at the Reptile House, 10 Weston, the Art Museum, etc. in the nineties and beyond. The scene has sometimes seemed almost dormant, but has repeatedly come back with strength and new vision. The Dyer Ives poetry contest, KDL contest, and other contests have given poets opportunities to share their work in print for the first time, and readings series such as Grand Valley’s Poetry Night and the long-running series at Aquinas College have given local writers exposure to the famed and upcoming writers on the national scene. At present, we have a very strong scene, ranging from the many poets who have been publishing their work over the past fifty years to an enthusiastic and potent younger crowd giving readings via the Smokin’ Spoken Word series at the Hookah Lounge to readings at Wealthy Theatre and other venues, now even doing readings at the BOB and attracting respectable crowds. The Poetry West Michigan Facebook page keeps us all informed of upcoming events, including not only the conference, but the upcoming April 6 reading of works based on artist Robert Rauschenberg’s famed art, now on display at GRAM. The Conference will highlight not only those featured poets who have published for decades or are movers and shakers in the local scene, but also there will be three open mic and prize winners’ readings at the conference; I have tried, within the limitations of the four-day format, to highlight as many of our local poets as possible.

4. Our site aims to support developing poets. What does this conference have to offer the young poets out there?

For younger poets, there are not only the three open mic readings already noted, but also panel discussions involving craft, poetic community, reading series, the teaching of poetry, a website session featuring Rod Torreson and the poets from Through the 3rd Eye, and a session on working with a publisher, including questions of copyright and editing. Beyond that, the evening readings will give everyone a measure of the varieties of craft and professional skill needed to grow as poets. When I was a young poet, perhaps the most important item in my growth as a poet was exposure to the works of others; it gave me a sense of the possibilities for my own art, of the things I needed to master if I was to become the poet I saw myself as—and none of that has changed for younger writers who are serious about their craft and development of their vision today.

5. One of the more interesting aspects of the event is the use of the conference format. Can you give us an idea of how these panels will operate with regards to audience participation?

The format is based on the summer sessions at the Naropa University Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, as well as on conferences at the University of Michigan Special Collections Library, the National Poetry Conferences at GVSU in the 70s, the annual AWP Conference, and the various reading series from ML Liebler’s series at Wayne State, or Allen Ginsberg’s Brooklyn reading series, which involved panel discussion and a formal reading for each poet. Panel discussions and presentations will respond to questions raised by the moderator of each session, but there should be an opportunity for audience participation. Evening readings, of course, are formal events featuring the poets scheduled for each night, but again, there will be opportunities to question the poets afterwards.

6. Poets give to the world in a variety of ways. How different has organizing an event like this been from say, doing a public reading or publishing a new book of poetry?

Doing a public reading is the easiest of these three, though mastery of presentation comes more easily to some than to others. Awareness of public reading styles of published poets can give one a measure of the possibilities—and what to avoid.

Publishing a new book of poetry—the first time through is an enormous learning experience involving everything from submission to copyright and editing practices, understanding the limitations on what a publisher can and cannot do, and going out to promote the book. It’s always a long process involving patience and establishment of a good working relationship with everyone involved, too.

A conference like this one, on the other hand, is an enormous undertaking that involves complex organizational skills, an ability to cover hundreds of items needing attention over a long period of time, and a good working relationship with a wide variety of professionals. I’ve been doing these things for over two decades now, and I can say without hesitation that this kind of work is only for someone who can multitask to the max, and who has the wide variety of contacts—both in the writing community and with local and regional organizations as well. It also helps to have enormous patience, a lot of flexibility in planning, and a good sense of humor.

7. One last question. Is there anything you'd like our audience to keep in mind as they plan to attend this event?

Three items: first, parking at GRCC can be a real problem, especially during the daytime events. Best to plan ahead, carpool, and give yourself a little extra time to get to sessions in a timely fashion. There’s a parking file at the conference web page to assist you, and don’t be afraid to ask questions when you arrive. See

Second, use the Poets’ Bios and Links file at the website to give you an idea of the careers and work of the various poets you’ll be seeing in action. When you arrive, it’s a good idea to take notes and ask questions of the poets when possible. Young poets can make connections with those who have “been there,” and this can be useful for finding their way in their own careers. I was once a young poet who met and shared my work with the poet Allen Ginsberg, who was impressed with my work and found ways for me to be published on the national level, so I know from personal experience that developing those connections can be helpful.

Third, visit the links at the website. I’ve provided links to major contemporary poetry sites, writing programs at colleges and universities, and key sites such as the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) and the International Directory of Small Presses. In addition, there are downloadable files involving writing the brief review, audio archives of poetry, readings and scenes across the nation, poets’ individual web pages, and such upcoming programs as the Prison Creative Arts Initiative. With all these, my hope was to give young poets access to a variety of the kinds of work poets do.

Works by David Cope

Through the 3rd Eye was supported in its inception by the Grand Rapids Humanities Council and is currently made possible by continued volunteer effort and private support. Copyright 2013.