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David Cope: The People’s Poet

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David Cope: The People's Poet

After Cope published two poetry books, Swets decided it was time for Cope to share his knowledge with students. And it was a lifetime of passion for the art of poetry that led him to the career in which he would be so respected by so many in the community.

“I wanted to be a poet at about age 6,” Cope said. His family belonged to a Presbyterian church, so Cope was required to memorize readings.

“I memorized the 23rd Psalm and the 100th Psalm, and I fell in love with words right then,” Cope said. “And it wasn’t so much the religion as it was the feel of the words in my mouth and the way that they sound and the ability to make them sing.”

And it’s this love of poetry that would follow Cope through his childhood all the way past retirement, through all the worst times and through all the best times.

“By the time I was 11, my old man had left the family and my ma had to raise the four of us alone, and I was pissed off at the whole world at that point,” Cope said. “I was a thug when I was a kid. I had all this rage that was in me, and the poetry was a way to begin talking about my feelings.”

Cope remembers being drunk in high school with friends while also reading poetry like “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas.

“We were bad boys, big time,” Cope said. “We had a gang—that’s what it came down to.” He said by the time he was in 10th grade, his mother took him to the sheriff’s department to talk to a detective, who threw him in solitary confinement and said, “Boy, if you don’t change your ways, this is where you’re gonna wind up.”

Cope said it was expected that he continue his family’s tradition of attending the University of Michigan, but his grades were not good enough in high school, so he went to Grand Rapids Junior College instead, where he met two English professors that made a lasting impression, Marinus Swets and Walter Lockwood, a fiction professor.

“(Swets) taught me it’s OK to be nuts,” Cope said. “You can still find a way to…get a job that’s satisfying even if you’re a little crazy.”

They saw some talent in Cope and gave him the responsibility of editor of Display Magazine. The Display staff shared an office with The Collegiate staff, which was where he met Suzanne, a freshman reporter who would become his wife.

After his time at GRJC, Cope was able to move on to the University of Michigan.

“I studied under Robert Hayden, the great black poet, when I was there,” he said. “I was very fortunate. I had great teachers. Don’t get me started on Michigan. I can start wavin’ flags like you wouldn’t believe, and it’s not just the athletic teams. Greatest library in the Midwest.”

However, Cope stopped pursuing his education at the University of Michigan eight credits short of receiving his bachelor’s degree. He said he needed a job to support his family and needed a break from academic work, so he took a job at a spray paint factory.

“I went in there and I worked at the factory and I got to see all these people with sixth, seventh, eighth grade educations,” Cope said. “There (were) women whose husbands had died because they (drank themselves) to death because of what the job did to them.”

He was there for three years, learning all the “cussing and carrying on and hearing that song ‘Okie from Muskogee’ in the backroom.” He was also breathing in the nasty fumes that came with working at a spray paint factory.

“That experience brought me down to the bottom, but it was also the time when I’m reading Whitman about ordinary people, and so I’m realizing: these are my people to write about for my first book.” The book “Quiet Lives” was eventually published in 1983.

Once Cope realized he needed to stop his work at the factory, he began a job as a custodian at Jefferson Elementary School in Grand Rapids, which he said was important because they had a library of African-American literature, and he read all the slave narratives and other writings. It was also his first experience as a minority, being part of a population that was predominately black.

“And that all came in handy later ‘cause…I was the one that developed the multicultural lit. class here (at GRCC), so I began my research, if you will, for that class, although I didn’t realize it at the time, when I was a night shift custodian.”

In 1974, Cope published his first poetry magazine of 51 so far and finished his University of Michigan bachelor’s degree in English.

“By that point in time, I wasn’t ready to go out and seek teaching jobs,” Cope said. “The idea of it really turned me off. I was very comfortable with the custodial working man’s life.”

But while working as a custodian, Cope sent some work to the famous poet, Allen Ginsberg, who reached out to Cope, trying to learn more about this “crazy hick from the sticks who worked as a janitor.”

Ginsberg sent him a check and requested more copies of his work, which he sent to several people, including Bob Dylan, though Cope never heard back from them.

Ginsberg called later asking Cope to go to Naropa that coming summer to lecture about the poetry of Charles Reznikoff and also read some of his own work, and Ginsberg would introduce Cope to other poets of his generation. This call came shortly after his wife had a miscarriage.

He thought: “OK, I’m having the worst day of my life on the one hand, but on the other hand, this is the moment I’ve been waiting for in a career sense. I didn’t know what the hell to do.

“I went to Sue and said, ‘Alan’s asking me to do this this summer. I don’t know what to say. What do you think?’ And she said, ‘Go.’ This is a woman in her grief that was right there for you, and everybody needs somebody like that,” Cope said.

“…Don’t get me started on my wife,” Cope said. “I’m absolutely crazy about her. It’s almost 43 years now.”

After this opportunity, Cope said he was at the point where he was working as a custodian while also sending his work all over the country and getting published.

He had since worked at several other elementary schools and finally moved to Hall School in Grand Rapids and worked as the head custodian, where the principal learned of the work he was doing and asked him to teach. Many of the students were bilingual or spoke mostly Spanish, so he shared some Spanish and English poetry and told the students who did not understand to just feel the rhythm.

When it was time for the students to do some of their own writing, he just said: “Write a snapshot of something in your own life.”

“Hall was an interesting neighborhood,” Cope said. “…There was the old drunk that every morning would be trying to make his way home and he’d wind up passing out either in the street or by it, and the prostitutes would have to run out and drag him off the street before he got run over. We also had two gangs in the neighborhood at the time who were fighting it out with each other.

“During that period, I was snapshotting the neighborhood in my poems, and that’s the period of my second book.”

Cope worked as the head custodian at Hall School for a number of years but then became a travelling custodian, requesting GRJC as his home base in 1981.

“I said I think I could learn something from Danny Babcock, who was the head custodian down here at the time, and I knew I would, but that wasn’t the prime reason I came down here,” Cope said. “It was so I could get at the public library and get the books.”

After three years there, Cope eventually filled the position of dock manager. It was shortly thereafter, in 1987, when Swets spoke with him about teaching his first English 101 class.
Cope remembers walking into that room feeling like a “fish out of water.”

“And I went in there and I started teaching and they liked what I did,” he said. For four years, Cope worked as the dock manager during the day and worked as an adjunct professor at night.

“It was like I was balancing two entirely different personalities,” Cope said. “‘Cause down there, they can cuss a blue streak. We have a good time down there, big time. And up here, I learned…you’ve go to behave yourself.

“I figured out how to fit into this upstairs thing, but there’s a part of me that’s always going to be a blue collar thug. I mean, it’s who I am. And I’m going back to that when I get outta here,” Cope said, laughing.

Finally, in 1991, Cope was hired as full time professor with the agreement that he would go back to school to get his master’s degree. So for three years, he was raising three kids, teaching 19 hours of classes in a week, and working on his master’s degree at Western Michigan University. He stopped with a master’s degree plus 30 credits.

Since his time at GRCC, Cope has developed the classes: Multicultural Literature (one of the first in the state), Shakespeare, Drama, Women’s Studies and LGBTQ Literature (with the help of GRCC English instructor Nora Neill).

Mursulata Muhammed, a GRCC English instructor who was recently published in a book edited by Cope, said Cope inspires her to feel accomplished at the end of the day.

He’s not just a teacher, but he’s a fan of his students,” Muhammed said. “He’s a writer, he’s a publisher, he can find people and encourage people to do things that they hadn’t thought that they were capable of doing. And as a student, we need those. And I say ‘we’ because I do feel like I’m a student of Dave’s.”

Muhammed said Cope is the biggest cheerleader of Carmen Bugan, his former student who is internationally famous and up for the Orwell Prize for “Burying the Typewriter,” a memoir about growing up in Ceausescu’s Romania.

Bugan said she still goes to him today for a critical perspective during her “ever-challenging process of creating poems,” she wrote in an email.

“I wouldn’t really be able to think of myself as a writer and critic without acknowledging him as a shaping force in my work,” Bugan stated. “Moreover, if I didn’t meet him in his role of a supportive professor, I would have never believed that anyone would listen to me and my personal ambition of making literature available to the wider public.

“It’s inspiring to see someone spend their entire life as a force for good: after meeting him, you want to do the same.”

Another one of Cope’s former students, Azizi Jasper, who has been involved in spoken word poetry in Grand Rapids for over a decade, recalls the inspiration that came from his own experience in Cope’s class.

It challenged me to think outside of the norm of how I normally write, and it also challenged me to find my personal voice,” Jasper said. “I think that Dave just really opened my eyes…and (allowed me) to find that potential within my own writing abilities.”

Though Cope is retiring, Jasper thanks him for his contribution but cannot see him slowing down anytime soon.

“He was always the coolest kid in the class, even though he was teaching it,” Jasper said. “I believe that true artists never retire, so I look forward to seeing more work that he’s going to be doing in the future, be it as poet laureate or just campaigning the art in general…Dave isn’t gonna sleep until he’s asleep.”

After retirement, Cope plans on publishing his final book, working on the garden he’s been tending for the last 35 years, bike riding and kayaking, and possibly travelling with his wife to San Francisco, New York and Paris.

“The one thing about retirement is, my dad always said, you’re just as busy as when you were working, but you get to call the shots on your hours,” Cope said.

“And in July, I want to stay home and watch the Tour de France,” he said. “I love that damn thing. Bike riders in beautiful landscapes.

“My daughter Anne says she doesn’t know if I’m the gayest straight man that ever lived or the straightest gay man that ever lived, and I said, “Well, I like watching men in tights, for what that’s worth,” Cope said, laughing. “It’s one of those funny things. My family all knows I’m nuts.”

Though Cope is retiring from GRCC at the end of this year, he has no plans to tone anything down before the end of his tenure.

“My wife, Sue, was saying, ‘You’re gonna give yourself a heart attack.’ Well, yeah, maybe,” Cope said. “By God, I’m gonna say I lived my life.”

He recently launched another book, “Song of the Owashtanong: Grand Rapids Poetry in the 21st Century,” a collection of poetry by Grand Rapids poets dealing primarily with West Michigan. The poets and publisher agreed to have proceeds go toward replenishing the laureate fund so Grand Rapids may continue to have poets laureate after Cope’s term ends in 2014.

Poets laureate must “represent the art to the community and choose his or her own projects,” as well as have a history of public work and published writings. The position pays a $1,000 stipend each year, with Cope’s term lasting three years.

Muhammed and Jasper were two of the poets published in this latest book.

“He’s done a great, awesome, terrific job at being a poet laureate and making sure that that poet laureate program stays around, so I know he might be retired from teaching, but he’s going to be doing a lot of work,” Muhammed said.

Besides organizing the first Grand Rapids Poets’ Conference last year, Cope brought Bugan to campus last semester.

“I…wanted to go out with all flags flying and all canons firing…I’m gonna keep punching right until the last minute I’m here.”