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Grand Rapids Poets’ Conference to strengthen the city’s cultural identity

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By Matthew Waldrep
A&E Editor

In an effort to examine and celebrate Grand Rapids’ cultural identity, GRCC will be hosting the first ever “Grand Rapids Poets’ Conference.”

The Grand Rapids Poets’ Conference will be a gathering of local poets from GRCC, Grand Valley State University, Aquinas College, and Calvin College to offer readings as well as seminars and discussion panels to help in the development of current and future Grand Rapids poetry.

“It’s a way of bringing poets and students from the four main colleges together at GRCC,” said Grand Rapids Poet Laureate and GRCC English Professor David Cope. “It’s an opportunity for students attending panels to understand the mechanics of the profession, from readings to publication, teaching, and varieties of cross-artistic expression, a dream of shared     cooperative learning that I’ve long                                     cherished,” Cope said.

Professor Cope’s dream of the coming together of Grand Rapids poets to share ideas and help the growth of other poets has been in the works for nearly a decade.  After being made Grand Rapids Poet Laureate last May, he decided to make his dream come to life, organizin the conference as well as creating an anthology of Grand Rapids poetry in the 21st Century, two of his major goals for his three-year term as Laureate.

“Laureates are expected to serve as ‘ambassadors for poetry’ in the city during their terms,” said Cope.  “Each Laureate selects the kinds of projects she or he wants to do and finds a way to make these projects happen.”

Grand Rapids has four Poet Laureates including Linda Nemec Foster, Patricia Clark, Rod Torreson, and David Cope.

When discussing the matter of cultural identity in Grand Rapids with Grand Rapids Public Library archivist Tim Gleisner, Cope noted Gleisner’s observation that cities like Grand Rapids have often turned elsewhere for models of cultural expression.  Cope explained that in these cases, a city like Grand Rapids would have no indigenous cultural identity defined by its own writers, composers, or artists.

“This conference, then, begins the discussion of cultural identity in Grand Rapids, exploring who our master poets are in this first generation, and allowing others to emerge and contribute their voices,” Cope said.

Cope explains poetry as a valuable tool in understanding and defining people’s unique and personal life experiences.  According to Cope, poetry can be a means for students to take personal experience outside themselves and make it artistic expression.

“Troubled students can employ it to articulate their feelings, to set themselves outside themselves, and as the old bluesman would say, let it out so you don’t have to carry it around with you,” said Cope.

From an early age, poetry has played a significant role in Professor Cope’s life, from writing his first poem in the eighth grade to going on to writing six poetry books and winning several awards including the American Academy/Institute of Arts and Letters Literature Award in 1988.

“For students and others groping for a way to understand their own experience, perhaps the poets can open a few doors for them,” said Cope.  “For those with aspirations to teach, to write, or to engage in scholarly study, this is a rare opportunity to flex those mental muscles and test them.”