Q&A with poet David Cope -- Allen Ginsberg described him as one of the leading lights of next generation

"It can give a troubled heart words of solace, and if one is attentive, a way to give voice to one’s feelings.  It can become a journey of friendships, appreciation of great skill in one of the oldest arts, and if one is persistent, perhaps to be humble and kind.  No wants on this poet’s part—float your boat with poem down the stream, and be content with wherever it goes."

David Cope: Big Scream Blues

David Cope is a poet in the Objectivist tradition and the founder of Nada Press, a small press which publishes the literary magazine Big Scream and other poetry. Born 1948, Detroit, Mi. Education:  BA University of Michigan, MA+30 Western Michigan University.  Married 50 years, 3 grown children. Taught Shakespeare, Drama, Creative Writing, Multicultural Literature, Women’s Studies, etc. at Grand Rapids Community College for 22 years; school custodian 18 years before that.  Kent County Dyer Ives Poetry Competition, first place adult category winner, 1971, 1972. Pushcart Prize winner, 1977. Distinguished Alumni award, GRCC 1984. Seven books and two chapbooks published, winner of award in literature from American Academy/Institute of Arts and Letters, 1988. Editor and publisher, Big Scream magazine, 1974-2021. Poet Laureate of Grand Rapids, Mi. 2011-2014; editor of three anthologies: Nada Poems (Nada, 1988), Sunflowers & Locomotives:  Songs for Allen (elegies for Allen Ginsberg, Nada, 1998), and Song of the Owashtanong: Grand Rapids Poetry in the 21st Century (Ridgeway, 2013.

David Cope / Photo by William Cope

The Correspondence of David Cope and Allen Ginsberg (1976-1996).  2017-2018 publications include The Train: “Howl” in Chicago (chapbook, Multifarious Press, 2017), and The Invisible Keys: New and Selected Poems 1975-2017 (Ghost Pony Press, 2018).  Also in 2018, David’s “In Silence” appeared in Chinese translation by Professor Zhang Ziqing as part as group of 9-11 poems in Houston Garden of Verses, and nine of his poems were included in translations by Zhang in Poetry Periodical (Beijing). In 2019, David’s poems were translated and discussed in vol. II (1379-1386) of Professor Zhang’s three volume study, A History of 20th Century American Poetry. Cope was the only American poet conferee at the Suining International Poetry Week in Sichuan, China (March, 2019). His work from that journey appears in A Bridge Across the Pacific  (Jabber Publications, 2020). His “River Rouge” appears in RESPECT:  The Poetry of Detroit Music, ed. Jim Daniels and M. L. Liebler (Michigan State University Press, 2020).  The Correspondence of David Cope and Allen Ginsberg (1976-1996) is scheduled for publication in 2021. The David Cope Papers are maintained at the University of Michigan Special Collections Library, and his webpage, The Dave Cope Sampler, is online at the Museum of American Poetics.

Interview by Michael Limnios                  David Cope, 2015 interview @ blues.gr

How have the Beats and Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I was a child of the time, my teens and twenties caught in the rapid-fire hell of the 60s.  Martin Luther King Jr. was an early hero of mine, yet the struggle for ahimsa and civil rights was obscured in violent confrontations with vicious racists, thugs, klanners and cops.  Early on, I also wandered in a hipster haze with rock and soul from London, Detroit, and San Francisco even as I continued my voracious reading of poets and dramatists.  My parents’ divorce shocked my system, but the more difficult loss involved friends Chris Clay and Jack Zoodsma, butchered in Vietnam, while others came home from the conflict with shattered lives and PTSD nightmares. Still others were tear-gassed and beaten in Chicago riots, while Ann Arbor Chicago 7 marchers were clubbed and dragged to jail.  Through all this, Allen’s poem helped me deal with my feelings, learning to start with what I was given and finding my way to some kind of sanity:  “I’m with you in Rockland where you’re madder than I am”  turning eventually to “what’s the work?  To ease the pain of living.”

At the 1973 National Poetry Festival in Allendale, Michigan, Allen’s admonition that we had lost ourselves in anger, that we had forgotten the sanity that comes of contemplation and the universal need for kindness even to those whose privilege or lack of awareness has led to immense suffering.  Although I have struggled to live by that credo, the last four years have been a deep nightmare and a severe test of my compassion.  My poetry and the work with my Big Scream magazine and with Chinese poets in translation have given me a means to contain my feelings re the last US administration, though my initial poem from the election to January 20 sequence ends with the admission that “Yearning for Guan Yin’s poured waters, for / mercy & quiet compassion, I too have failed.”  The compassionate life, contemplative life, is a passage involving hard truths, difficult choices—as Gandhi once said, “turn the searchlight inward.”

"I’m in love with words, and they appear when something awakens within.  Beyond that, “it’s a mystery.” I don’t really have hopes about what others may take away from my poems—there’s the old story of the poet who folds the poem into a little boat and lets it go downriver, where someone who might need it may find it.  No attachments." (Photo: Friction Obscure Genius cover by Allen Ginsberg)

How do you think that you have grown as a poet since you first started and what has remained the same about your poetry?

I’ve felt from the beginning that I should be true to my own experiences, that I should continually widen my perceptions of what poetry does both as craft and vision, learn from others but find my own way, and let the work follow my time and journeys on this earth.  I try consciously not to repeat myself, to avoid the staleness of a vision that can no longer grow. Right now, I’m working with Giant Steps Press preparing The Correspondence of David Cope and Allen Ginsberg (1976-1996) for publication. This is a task I have awaited for years, as it is my way of honoring Allen for his help as I found my way.  The book could be described as a true bildungsroman in some ways, the gifted but troubled youth learning from his elder until they reach a point of friendship where they’re working together on projects involving cultural diversity poetics, ecological awareness and nurturing poetic community, sharing enthusiasms. The youth grows to the point where he sees a need for a conference honoring his elder while he still lives, the tale reaching a finale—Allen calling me to say farewell as he lies dying.  It is also a new beginning, realizing that my generation must fully mature and take its true place among the outrider poets who sing free of academic shackles and corporate publishing.  My visit to China in 2019 gave me a greater awareness of that nation’s ancient poetic traditions and the need to help the current generation of Chinese poets be heard on the international scene, something I have worked on diligently with translations and original Chinese poems en face in recent issues of my Big Scream magazine.  I could never have foreseen these kinds of changes in my poetry and editing work when I was younger, though the bedrock of my poetic labors remains similar to how it was when I started.  The Muse has been good to me, surprising me with changes that have allowed me to pursue greater understanding of my chosen craft and of the notion of ecce homo.

Where does your creative drive come from? What do you hope people continue to take away from your poems?

I’m in love with words, and they appear when something awakens within.  Beyond that, “it’s a mystery.”

I don’t really have hopes about what others may take away from my poems—there’s the old story of the poet who folds the poem into a little boat and lets it go downriver, where someone who might need it may find it.  No attachments.

What were the reasons that you started the researches about Chen Zi'ang and Du Fu poetry and life?

A person may spend a lifetime learning all the traditions of Chinese poetry and never fully grasp its enormity as a literature, but the T’ang era poets are as good a place to start as any.  Du Fu is perhaps their greatest poet, and studying his work is a revelation of marvels, sorrows and quiet pleasures. I did not know Chen Zi’ang’s poetry before going to the Suining International Poetry Week and Chen Zi’ang Awards, so I researched his work and discovered that he was a forerunner for the other T’ang poets, stripping away the pompous ornamentation and sly sexuality of predecessors, calling for harmony in the court at a time when others were killed for speaking their minds in this way, and writing honestly about the price of war:

The sun-bleached bones lie torn apart. . . .

                        Han soldiers, three hundred thousand of them,

                        Were once sent to confront the Hsiung-nu.

                        One sees only the dead on the battlefield,

                        Who would pity the widows and orphans by the border?

I was privileged enough to visit both Chen Zi’ang’s childhood home in Shehong and to read my poem “In Silence,” on the horrors of the World Trade Center destruction on 9-11, in the garden of his reading house. I later went to  Du Fu’s memorial garden and “thatched hut” where he went for solace after tiring of court and political intrigues in a reign that involved endless wars.  This visit was the payoff for a week of dialogues, visits to spiritual and cultural sites, and in general being feted as one of seventeen international poets wherever we went.  That trip was a life changing experience, galvanizing my work as a poet in his seventh decade, and showing me a much more detailed understanding of one of the great literatures of the world—much of their poetry as exacting as the Greek lyrics of Sappho and others.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience with Allen Ginsberg?

Allen was nurturing, kind and supportive as I found my way under his tutelage, gave me gifted poet friends in my own generation, and through them I’ve met others, and younger poets as well.  Allen also provided a model thru his relationships with his peers, and my generation’s outriders have grown together, learning how to love each other, aware of the journey we make together, the need to recognize that none of us is beyond reproach & that all of us should learn how to forgive each other & not allow idiosyncrasies or anger to affect the long relationship. These connections have defined my life as a poet, as one of a great crowd of kindred spirits moving through time toward our spirit walks into the sunset.   (Allen Ginsberg & David Cope, 1983 / Photo by Sharon Guynup)

"I’ve felt from the beginning that I should be true to my own experiences, that I should continually widen my perceptions of what poetry does both as craft and vision, learn from others but find my own way, and let the work follow my time and journeys on this earth."

How did your work with Big Scream begin? What are the highlights in the literary magazine's life so far?

The 70s were an outgrowth of 50s and 60s indie magazines and publishers who made non-academic and refreshingly new poetry available in print.  While working in a factory after quitting school, marrying, educating myself in a wide variety of poetry traditions, winning two local poetry contests and seeing Allen, Robert Duncan, and the objectivist poets at the 1973 National Poetry Festival, I saw the need for a vehicle to build a poetic community.  Local poet Eric Greinke helped me start Big Scream, and I have remained true to the idea of a magazine of poetry without advertising or bios—the thing itself. I have never made a profit on any of the issues, giving away a large portion of the print runs to editors and poets, keeping to the notion of building a community of poets who love each other’s gifts.  Once I have published a poet, he or she is welcomed to keep sending work my way, as I prefer to follow their journeys even as I chart my own. 

The magazine went from stapled ditto and mimeograph pages to computer-generated print and eventually to quality paperback publication.  More importantly, I published Allen and Diane di Prima and their finest students, as well as a gradually expanding list of beat and postbeat poets, usually with a small print run.  As the style of the magazine grew, my editing skills did too, ultimately learning not only to honor a great gallimaufry of styles and approaches to the art while maintaining the importance of the demotic idiom.  As my own poetry changed from book to book, so the magazine did as well. 

Highlights—each issue has its memorable poems by both famous and unknown poets, but some issues do stand out:  1988’s Nada Poems is one of these, the first quality paperback I published, largely as a result of winning The American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters award in literature, which put a big check in my hands.  Also, Sunflowers & Locomotives:  Songs for Allen, elegies for Allen Ginsberg by both famed and student poets (1998), and Big Scream 59 (2020), for which Michael Schumacher, Jim Cohn and I edited the little-known final poem of Allen’s The Fall of America, “Denver to Montana Beginning 27 May 72,” as well as translations from the Chinese (originals en face) and a whole group of pandemic poems. Many of the pandemic poems in that issue were later translated into Chinese and published in China by my translator, Professor Zhang Ziqing.  Finally, this last issue, #60, came together very quickly, and features many of the living members of my generation and a group of gifted younger poets appearing in the space of a month.

"I was a child of the time, my teens and twenties caught in the rapid-fire hell of the 60s.  Martin Luther King Jr. was an early hero of mine, yet the struggle for ahimsa and civil rights was obscured in violent confrontations with vicious racists, thugs, klanners and cops.  Early on, I also wandered in a hipster haze with rock and soul from London, Detroit, and San Francisco even as I continued my voracious reading of poets and dramatists." (Photos by David Cope's literary magazine Big Scream)

What stands out most in your mind from the postbeat era (70s-80s)? How has the world changed most since those days?

Two items:  first, the horrors we experienced then are premonitory to the spreading violence and hatreds fueling the horrors of the Kali Yuga across the world in these dark days.  Second, although Allen and a few others were speaking of ecology in years prior to 1970, that Earth Day teach-ins at universities across the nation gave many in my generation impetus to analyze our own lives and the ways we lived them.  We are now on the brink of global catastrophes involving climate change, and yet I still hope the human race will wake up and make the difficult and necessary changes to eventually pull our world back from the brink.

What touched you from the wisdom and compassion of Guan Yin? What do you think is key to a 
life well lived?

I am not formally a buddhist, though I have long been attracted to Avalokiteśvara and his goddess counterpart, Guan Yin, as emblematic presences of compassion and mercy.  She and Chen Zi’ang are proudly accounted iconic citizens in Suining; there are two ancient temples and a working ashram dedicated to her presence there. When  the Chinese press asked about my devotion to her at the Suining Poetry Week in 2019,  I said that “she represents all the qualities most lacking and most in need in today’s world—compassion, kindness, and mercy.”  Life well lived—I think each person should find his or her own way. 

What is the impact of poetry on spiritual and sociocultural implications? How do you want it to affect people?

It can give a troubled heart words of solace, and if one is attentive, a way to give voice to one’s feelings.  It can become a journey of friendships, appreciation of great skill in one of the oldest arts, and if one is persistent, perhaps to be humble and kind.  No wants on this poet’s part—float your boat with poem down the stream, and be content with wherever it goes.

Giant Steps Press - Home

"Life well lived—I think each person should find his or her own way." (Carl Rakosi & Dave Cope, 1987 / Photo by Allen Ginsberg - David Cope at Fox & Crow / Photo by Danny Shot)

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