Building a network one poet at a time

April 25, 2011
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When it comes to business, David Cope calls himself the “black sheep” of the family.

Cope’s father, Robert, was one of the founders of Muskegon’s Dilesco Corp., now Great Lakes Die Cast, and an early developer of participative management practices. He was a consultant and speaker for the American Management Association and spent time in Japan studying best practices there. Much of what he learned overseas was used to forge the successful metals company he started here in America in 1974. The elder Cope even wrote a book on the subject: “Successful Participative Management in Smaller Companies.”

And son David? Well, he dropped out of the University of Michigan a few credits short of graduation, worked at a metals factory for a few years before tiring of it, knocked around inner-city schools as a custodian for 17 years, put in a stint working at Lincoln School for the developmentally disabled, and finally ended up as a dock manager at what was then Grand Rapids Junior College.

But don’t be fooled. Because somewhere along the way — or maybe at every single stop — Cope learned a thing or two that contributed to what he is today: an innovative college professor and Grand Rapids’ newest Poet Laureate.

“My father always said there was no room for a star: Make sure everyone’s voice is heard and respected,” he said. “As poets, we all need to see each other in the same light, with the same respect.”

And as Poet Laureate, Cope will work to make that happen.

His three main goals during the three-year term revolve around exposure, continuous learning and service.

First up is creation of an anthology — he calls it a “benchmark text” — featuring West Michigan poets from as far north as Big Rapids to as far south as Kalamazoo, and from the lakeshore to the eastern edge of the county. The idea, Cope said, is to create a nearly 200-page volume that puts the spotlight on local poets and offers insight into where poetry is in West Michigan right now.

Next, he wants to work with GRCC to set up a weeklong conference at which as many as a dozen poets would present seminars to experienced and aspiring writers on such topics as getting published, the role of the small press, and maybe even some financial strategies. (His advice: “Keep your day job.”)

The conference Cope envisions would be for writers of all talent and experience levels, from gifted high school and college poets to “street poets.”

“We would like to create a conversation,” he said, “an atmosphere where everyone is teaching everyone else.”

Cope’s “day job” is a professor at GRCC, where he has led classes in Shakespeare, creative writing and drama. One of his early triumphs involved creating one of the first multicultural literature classes in the state.

His teaching methods borrow liberally from his father’s productivity and participative management principles. Simply put, he melds his classes into a team.

He takes his students out of the classroom setting and puts them into real-world situations. Cope works with the YWCA Women’s Crisis Center to bring students there to help in any way they can. Along the way, the students get a good look at lives that often are profoundly different from their own.

“This is learning that is not just academic fluff. It’s learning as a social experience. We accomplish an enormous amount every time we see them. It’s a form of service learning, with real-world applications to what they’ve learned.”

A third goal as Poet Laureate is to create a “service learning” atmosphere among poets in West Michigan, in which fundraisers are planned around poetry events that will help the area’s underserved.

“These might be readings on a Friday night where admission is charged, the sale of creative works, etc. We need to create a network of people who are thinking of others, serving others.”

Cope’s passion for learning and service, as well as poetry, makes him more than a figurehead with a fancy title.

“Lots of cities have a Poet Laureate. Lots of states have it. You can follow it right back to the British. But this isn’t an award for me. Awards are not a big deal to me. I’ve worked my butt off and won lots of awards (including one from the American Academy of Arts & Letters for his book, “On The Bridge,” in 1988). This is a platform for me to do things for something I love. And I will do whatever I have to on that front.”

Cope draws his gritty approach from his father’s business teachings and his employment odyssey working a series of blue collar jobs. But his poetic influences come from the highest levels. He counts among his friends and peers the “wild boy” poets of the 1970s and ’80s. Allen Ginsberg, probably the most famous of the Beat poets, penned the foreward to Cope’s “Quiet Lives.”

For the last 37 years, Cope has been publishing Big Scream magazine under the auspices of Nada Press, knocking out about 50 issues during that time. The effort is a labor of love and features works contributed by poets from West Michigan and throughout the country. He usually prints about 100 copies, and 75 percent of them are handed out to friends and colleagues.

While he doesn’t make money from the effort, what he gains is a deeper understanding of the poetry movement in the United States.

“I’ve developed a network all over the country based on my relationship with Allen Ginsberg and that magazine.”

Cope said Big Scream brings people together from other parts of the country to share a common bond. He said there are scores of these magazines throughout the United States, collectively called the “small press,” and Cope sees them as essential ingredients to developing and nurturing the next generations of poets.

“When you look at the small press, many of them are here for a year or two and then gone. But to me, it’s all about relationships. I get to know them (the poets) and I keep them.

“My father said the best thing about Japanese companies is that they would think 30 to 40 years down the road, not about short-term gain. He said the classic mistake in American business was that changes would be made, but upper-middle management wasn’t made aware of what those changes would involve. From a productivity standpoint, that’s not the way to do things.”

So Cope applies his father’s management principles, his work experience with blue-collar colleagues, his service to those who are less fortunate, and his interactions with students who are eager to learn, and then comes up with his own job description for Poet Laureate.

“There is an enormous amount of talent in Grand Rapids — more so than in a normal mid-sized city,” he said. “There are a lot of good things here, and there’s a history. The ideas of sharing and compassion in poetry have always been there. I just want to build on that.”

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