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

"Find your own way and remember to find peers and friends to share the burden and the ecstasy of a life in the arts--and thank those who help you. Take advice from elders like me with three grains of salt."

David Cope: Scream With Rhyme & Clarity

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. A University of Michigan graduate and lifelong Michigan resident, Cope is retired from teaching literature and writing at Grand Rapids Community College and Western Michigan University. David Cope was born in Detroit, and grew up on the banks of the Thornapple River in Western Michigan. A descendent of the Quaker family of paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope, David had a childhood marked by adventures along the river and a mania for writing until his parents' bitter divorce in 1961. During his teenage years, Cope lived a life of contradictions—gang activities, Kerouacian hitch-hiking, wild partying and a manic desire to know all the poetry ever written. Later, he studied under Robert Hayden at the University of Michigan, where he mourned the deaths of childhood friends in Vietnam, became involved with the anti-war movement, witnessed Allen Ginsberg's 1969 Moratorium Day reading at Hill Auditorium and the massive police bludgeoning of demonstrators on the night of the Chicago Seven conviction.

Enraged at what was happening to the nation, Cope quit school short of graduation in 1970, married his wife Suzanne and moved back to Grand Rapids, where he worked three years at Miller Metals Products, following that with seventeen years as a custodian in ghetto and barrio schools, at Lincoln School for the learning disabled, and finally as dock manager at Grand Rapids Junior College. During this period, he tried to live deliberately as an anonymous workingman, following Whitman's plain-speech example. Cope attended the 1973 National Poetry Festival in Allendale, Michigan, where Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan, and recently-reunited objectivist masters Charles Reznikoff, Carl Rakosi, and George Oppen gave him deeper lessons in poetic lineage and craft, and taught him to let go of his anger. By 1974, he moved from the factory job to his first custodial job and founded Nada Press and Big Scream magazine, a homemade poetry journal which has published over 200 poets and which Allen Ginsberg described as his favorite small-press mag. Allen had first introduced Cope to other Whitmanic wild boy poets of his generation—Andy Clausen, Antler, Jim Cohn, James Ruggia, and a host of others. In 1987, David read at Naropa with Carl Rakosi, a pairing he still considers his greatest honor as a poet and later received an award in literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters for On The Bridge. David and his wife Sue have sponsored refugees, led anti-nuclear teach-ins, and he was instrumental in organizing the 1990 environmental conference at Naropa, where he oversaw the writing of “The Declaration of Interdependence,” a key ecopoetics statement later published in Disembodied Poetics: Annals of the Jack Kerouac School (ed. Waldman and Schelling) and naming crucial environmental issues facing the nation and the world. Later, he participated in the 1994 Beats and Rebel Angels Conference at the school, and after Allen’s death in 1997, read with Anne Waldman, Bob Rosenthal, and others at Allen's "closing the bardo" ceremony held by the Jewel Heart Community in Ann Arbor. As of 2015, David has been married 45 years, has three grown children, and has published six books of poems. Now retired from his teaching career, David is doing craft interviews, reading, doing research and writing on his long-delayed Dante Project, and his Big Scream magazine will have been in continuous publication for 42 years as of 2015. He is currently working on a volume of later poems and his selected poems. David’s manuscripts, correspondence, and other papers are permanently archived as the David Cope Papers (1972-2013) at the University of Michigan Special Collections Library.

Interview by Michael Limnios  

Photos courtesy of David Cope  Archive / All rights reserved

What experiences in life have triggered your ideas? How would you characterize the philosophy of your poetry?                          (Photo: David & Suzy Cope, '80s)

After my apprentice period trying out many different ways of making poems, the poems that made it into my first book involved taking a realist stance toward political experiences ranging from the police beatings of demonstrators on the night of the Chicago Seven conviction, to “snapshot” poems grown from work experiences at a spray paint factory, responses to great national and international events, as in “American Dream,” an impressionist poem-sketch of the police shootout with the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) and the house fire that led to the rebels’ deaths, to my “Further News from Nicaragua,” or the “Tiananmen Square Sequence” and the many poems derived from America’s seemingly endless wars.

Some poems involve my long romance and marriage to Suzy, the births of my three children, the beauty of the natural world, my work experiences as a factory worker (3 years), custodian (18 years) and eventually as a college professor (22 years), my abiding love for the earth, air, and waters of our planet, responses to poems, music, or art by others, as in my recent poem riffing on both Robert Rauschenberg’s collage and the quote from William S. Burroughs that inspired him, “American Pewter with Burroughs II: ‘Green is a Man / To Fill is a Boy,’” or in “Blues for Frank,” a three part elegy for my friend and local blues legend, Frank Salamone, which also recounts many of the great blues guitarists and singers in the traditions.

There are poems from running “series” throughout my work—a strong elegiac element, the poems that follow my years and years of kayaking the rivers of my state, Michigan, but also the poems of ordinary life—a hike to a bagel shop in Beulah which was also a meditation on my mother’s life and death; a visit to an antique shop, where the many cast-offs being sold are both bargains and mementos of the brevity and fragility of this life, and of the hard choices made by survivors when, after the funeral, they must disperse the flotsam of a parent’s life.

Poetry is usually borne of suffering or of desire, and while in the Buddhist sense it is limited by its emotive/imaginative source, some poems do achieve a kind of transcendence, “clarity” about our lives, as insisted upon by George Oppen.  Sometimes a poem can speak for the sufferers; I suppose Allen Ginsberg said that best: asking himself “what’s the Work?” His response: “To ease the pain of living. / Everything else, drunken / dumbshow.” Beyond that, I prefer to write tightly, using “no word that doesn’t contribute” as Pound recommended, while not being limited by any school of poetics, “style,” approaches to the poems—it’s “anything that works” when the words come. Clarity is the key—with attention to the “minute particulars”—without it, one is nothing but an intellectual gasbag blowing in the wind.

Reading with Andy Clausen and Antler, introduced by Allen, on March 15, 1983, at the 67th Street YMCA in NYC. Coincidentally, launch party for book, Quiet Lives (Allen has it in his hand).

Which is the moment that you changed your life most? Which has been the most interesting period in your life?

There are many. When my father left the family for another woman, I was filled with rage at the apparent betrayal—I was a typical angry boy, a raging punk—but by the time I was in my twenties, I had found love, and Allen Ginsberg advised me that I would “never find peace” until I made peace with my father. I called my dad and over a long hike through dunes and woods to the great Lake Michigan shore, we talked through all the things that had separated us.  It was as close to a liberation as I have ever come. 

Beyond that, meeting my peers in Boulder, 1980, and developing a true community of poet friends from across the nation would come second, as this ongoing relationship—maintained primarily through my Big Scream magazine and through Jim Cohn’s Napalm Health Spa, as well as those occasions when we are permitted to read with each other on stages—has been one of the key focal points of the last forty years. 

My ongoing relationship with Suzy, too, has been a means by which to understand love, its many dark recesses, its moments of shared enlightenment, but perhaps mostly its continual redefinition as understanding grows.

The most interesting period of my life—no matter when, whether 18 years old, 44, or 67—my answer would always be “right now.” It’s a gift—live it to the hilt.

What has been the relationship of music and activism in your writing? How important was music in your life?

Music has been a continuous presence in my life from my very early years.  Defining moments include the first times I heard the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, falling in love with Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring while reading Dante at age 16; learning the great blues traditions and building an enormous library of the recordings; seeing the Stones and B.B. King in Detroit at a time when B.B. began his set with a lightly melancholy phrase, “wouldn’t it be good if Love really could save the world.” When a word from Mick would have sent us downtown to attack the police, he proved too wise for that, though their fateful Altamont concert, where Hells Angels beat Meredith Hunter to death, would follow only a few weeks later.  There was also the great opening to jazz, going wild with Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue while working as a second shift custodian in the poorest neighborhood in the city, and not long after that, falling for the great Duke Ellington band in their Newport 1956 incarnation, where in “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” Paul Gonsalves played 27 straight choruses as the climax of the piece and drove the audience to ecstatic madness. I recall going to Ann Arbor (140 miles) during a snow and ice storm to pick up my then-freshman daughter Jane in 2005, the two of us travelling at about 35-40 miles an hour on the return trip, listening to that cut from the Duke all the way home. We just couldn’t get enough of it.                   Photo by Scott Baisden

Of course I’m always aware of and attentive to the residual music in the lines of my poetry—the dance of the intellect among the natural rhythms of the lines—but music also emerges as a subject, as in the aforementioned “Blues for Frank,” and in “Old Dowland Lute,” a poem that celebrates the music of John Dowland, the “Eric Clapton of the renaissance,” while musing on my ten-year old daughter Anne’s first flight, to visit my sister in Los Angeles. Perhaps the favorite of my music-based poems, though, are two poems on the last days and death of Old John, who had been a “premier piano player.” The first, “At the Croyden,” shows others putting him down as a mindless drunk and rambler, while he turned to me as I was mopping the hallway, showing me his hands, and “I saw the invisible keys.” The second poem, “The Invisible Keys,” is a three part piece: a realist opening on his death, found sitting up on his toilet, with the landlord arranging his funeral; the second section captures John and his band in their prime, freeing their audience by “burning away sadness & anger, unpaid bills / & careless loves, / burning a bright new fire / to get them all to that coming dawn.” The final section shows a woman waking in the dawn, heartbroken with failed love, but hearing the notes of the song, feeling the memory of what could be, and stepping out:  “who knows who / might turn up today, / toes still tapping to that old song.”

Activism has been something I’ve engaged in whenever I feel moved. We marched on the streets and some paid a terrible price during the Vietnam War in the 60s, and later saw that we too had engaged in the kind of anger that only escalates violence, even when we wanted peace. Later, when I saw the emerging tale of the Tiananmen Square Massacre and its aftermath, I was reflective: “once we too dreamed /we’d sing our way to peace: / brothers, sisters, /I send this slender prayer for you.” Sue and I did anti-nuclear lectures at colleges and high schools in the seventies, sponsored a family of Vietnamese refugees and helped them make their lives here in the U.S., and I helped develop Naropa’s first Ecopoetics Conference of 1990, which brought poets, activists, and environmental scientists together for a sharing of minds about our planet’s future. “The Declaration of Interdependence,” a collaborative statement borne of that conference and developed from my initial draft of the document, was distributed to the press and later published in Disembodied Poetics:  Annals of the Jack Kerouac School (edited by Anne Waldman and Andrew Schelling. University of New Mexico Press, 1994). 

During my working years, I designed our college’s paper recycling system and wrote the policy committing the college to environmentally responsible practices, I also designed and taught the first multicultural literature class on our side of the state, was an initiating member of the committee that fought for and developed our Women’s Studies Program, designing classes and leading students to do volunteer work on behalf of victims residing at the local Domestic Crisis Center. I also helped a friend design the first LGBTQ Literature course at the college, and was director of our three day Women in the Arts Conference, also serving as a committee member for the Women in STEM Fields Conference (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) that followed. I’ve been involved in efforts to legalize marriage equality, doing a PSA for “Until Love is Equal,” and I support the “Black Lives Matter” movement. 

Activism does take a toll on one’s personal life, and it can bring one to a kind of ideological madness that includes a narrowing of the mind, anger at those one views as enemies (and who sometimes seem to be enemies), and a deadening of compassion. It is both liberating and potentially a trap for one who leads with his or her heart, and I think that there are times when demands for ideological purity can lead to a total defeat for the things one values; thus I tend to be a realist, working for what is possible now while keeping my “eye on the prize” for the future. One recalls the defeats of 1968 and 1972, when rejection of Humphrey gave us Nixon, and when our support of McGovern—great man—led to the rout of everything we held dear. Hard lesson. 

David Cope, poet David Montgomery, poet-blues guitarist Frank Salamone, and poet Gary Korreck

What do you think was the relationship of Blues / Jazz culture and forms to the poetry and the Beat generation?

Simon Warner’s recent book Text and Drugs and Rock’n’Roll (Bloomsbury, 2013) is an excellent guide to the Beats and their work with musicians—they were, I think, much more connected to the rock music of the sixties and beyond than to the blues elders, though there are some connections.

I suppose one should start with Langston Hughes, who was likely the purest of the blues poets, beginning with his early poem, “The Weary Blues.” There were, of course, attempts by whites to be a part of blues culture quite early, but it was clearly the domain of African Americans, both as cultural statement and as formal lyric structure. The blues was important as artistic expression to the beats and others—Amiri’s early book Blues People made that clear, and my former teacher, Robert Hayden, was famed for his “Homage to the Empress of the Blues” and other poems with blues roots. Serious early attempts on the part of white poets include Kenneth Rexroth’s 1955 Live at the Blackhawk Lounge and Kerouac’s jazz sentences in the famed club sequences and musings of On the Road (see pages 240-243 of the recent republication of the book, for example). Jack had a real sense of how the blues can work through suffering to set one free—though his voice was famously “untrained,” it had a natural sincerity, a spontaneity, an emotive honesty that are features of the greatest blues, as seen in his work with Steve Allen and later in Blues and Haikus, where he worked with Zoot Sims and Al Cohn. 

During the same period, Norman Mailer commented somewhat skeptically on the phenomenon of white kids rejecting their own cultural roots and adopting what they thought of as black ways—seeing in this not the attempts to cross cultural boundaries and find truths denied themselves, but as an identification built on rejection of their parents’ values, and as such, appropriation of the values of blues or jazz culture rather than a true grasp of what those cultures represented. It could be summed up in the words of the young white blues aficionado, who saw him or herself as “getting into the blues,” when in fact the artists themselves sang to free themselves from the blues, if only through voicing their sorrows—oppression, poverty, racism, the horrors of untrue love, and to expose the cruelties, as in Leadbelly’s “Bourgeois Blues,” Son House’s “Red Cross Store”—telling young blacks to avoid that store, where they would be conned into joining the army—or Billie Holiday’s famed “Strange Fruit.”

David Cope, Andy Clausen and James Ruggia, Hoboken/ NJ 1983. Photo by Sharon Guynup

I do think there were some successful collaborations between white and black musicians, and poets on both sides of the color line have tried to find ways to employ what may be seen as formal structures and approaches to art “belonging” to each. One thinks of Claude McKay’s astounding sonnets, most notably “If We Must Die,” written in the Shakespearean format, and of Allen Ginsberg’s many adaptations utilizing works from a variety of cultures, his blues eliciting a wry smile from Bukka White. Allen’s First Blues remains a special recording for me, as he signed his copy to me on the date of my first NYC reading and book launch:  “For David Cope in New York March 15, 1983 Welcome to the Apple.” Allen’s work with his harmonium and later with Steven Taylor included not only his efforts at blues, but also “rags, ballads & harmonium songs,” an undeniably unique and idiosyncratic approach to combining a gallimaufry of poetry with varieties of music borne of proletarian traditions. He was also an early friend of Bob Dylan, whose performances of Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” or Bukka White’s “Fixin’ to Die” were searing in their intensity. Dylan’s own compositions—especially “Only a Pawn in Their Game” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”—were solid blues, and these and many of his other songs earned him a place on the stage, performing for civil rights marchers when the times were definitely “a-changin.’”

The 60s and 70s led to some fairly successful, if culturally queasy collaborations between British and African American blues musicians, and perhaps that has laid more of a groundwork for true cultural exchange. There are many later African American blues poets, ranging from The Last Poets and Gil Scott Heron to the work of Nikki Giovanni, Audre Lorde, and younger poets such as Tyehimba Jess and Terrance Hayes. Locally, a younger post-hip hop poet whose ear moves deftly from that tradition through jazz and blues lines while confronting the issues of today, Azizi Jasper, is making a big noise in clubs here and in Detroit, and should be heard by wider audiences.  Of contemporary white practitioners, Bruce Springsteen’s “American Skin (41 Shots,” a song based on the murder of Amadou Diallo by New York cops, is a pure blues in the tradition of Leadbelly, Son House, and Lady Day.  My old friend Andy Clausen is among the finest of blues poets, as per his public performances and his recent group of selected poems, Home of the Blues (Museum of American Poetics Publications, 2013). Anne Waldman has experimented with it, too, as in her “Kali Yuga Blues,” and both Jim Cohn and Detroit’s M. L. Liebler have produced their own variations on the traditions.

Blues and jazz are important American musical traditions, and while there may be many critical disagreements about cultural ownership and appropriation, they are deeply important as works that highlight the difficulties of collaboration and the struggle to find a true conversation across barriers that divide us, and perhaps as ways to work together. Just as Claude McKay reinvented the Shakespearean sonnet in his superb work, so too the blues—or blues-based poems—can make for extensions of our cultural legacies. This history is difficult, fraught with naïve assumptions and dismissals, yet it can bear fruit both in poetry and music, if we are all patient.

Poetry is usually borne of suffering or of desire, and while in the Buddhist sense it is limited by its emotive/imaginative source, some poems do achieve a kind of transcendence, “clarity” about our lives, as insisted upon by George Oppen.  

Which meetings have been the most important experiences? Are there any memories l which you’d like to share?

Too many to recall them all—meeting my peers in 1980, reading with Carl Rakosi in 1986, sitting quietly with Allen backstage after his annual readings at Hill Auditorium, Ann Arbor, during the last years of his life, for starters. Most recently, my old friend Jeff Poniewaz—who was premier eco-activist and ecopoet, lover of Antler over five decades, superb previewer of Milwaukee Symphony performances, and Milwaukee poet laureate—invited me to read with him in the Woodland Pattern reading series. Lake Michigan had frozen over completely during last year’s hard winter, and was barely free of the 80 mile-wide ice sheet when I took the ferry across the lake and reunited with Jeff and Antler. Jeff had struggled for over a decade with cancer, and it had taken a third of each of his lungs, caused weight loss to the point that when I last saw him, he was so bony that he had to sit on three pillows to be without pain. We had several days of reunion, in which Antler and I walked the Milwaukee River Trail that Jeff had fought for decades to keep intact despite the incursions of developers, and all three of us visited the environmental center where he had taught “The Literature of Ecological Vision” over a twenty-year period. Our reading was attended by an overflow audience, and Jeff went first, laboring in his condition but fully in command of his poems, reading with quiet passion. I followed, and when I returned to my home in Michigan, I felt that he might not have much time, publishing two poems on the visit in my annual Big Scream magazine, Jeff agreeing that honest descriptions of his condition should be kept in my script. He died in December of 2014, and I wrote my elegy and paean for him, “Adieu à Jeff Because” (his last name is Polish for because), sending it on to the Woodland Pattern folk along with a photo of the two, ecstatic on a long hike up the Fourth of July Trail to the Continental Divide. As it turned out, Woodland Pattern dedicated their fund-raising marathon reading to Jeff, and printed a fine card with both my poem and photo, to be distributed to everyone at the marathon.  This was one of the times when I felt that my poem could be a voice for those in grief, a quiet craft to bring one to the other side, and indeed, Antler himself wrote me shortly thereafter, thanking me for it. 

What were the reasons that made your generation to start philosophical, social, political and spiritual searches?

So much has been written about this that I doubt I could add anything of value.  Those who stayed true to their ideals or their art through their forties and beyond have embodied the search and the struggle in ways that could inspire others in younger generations. Far too many bought into the commercial nightmare-paradise that we hoped to avoid, when as young rebels we were “liberated from the frozen storm,” in the words of Pete Townsend.

I’m always aware of and attentive to the residual music in the lines of my poetry—the dance of the intellect among the natural rhythms of the lines—but music also emerges as a subject...

What is the best advice ever given you and what advice would you give to the new generation?

Allen’s advice to make peace with my father, and to seek out “the best minds of my generation.” Best advice to younger poets: Find your own way and remember to find peers and friends to share the burden and the ecstasy of a life in the arts—and thank those who help you. Take advice from elders like me with three grains of salt.

If you could change one thing in the world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

It would be good if we could halt the technological and industrial madness that is destroying our planet and giving nations a thousand “reasons” to make war and be hateful. I’m not an optimist in these matters, of course. 

What are your hopes and fears for the future? What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you?

When my brother-in-law John died, Sue and I bought grave plots right next to the plots he and her sister had purchased. We also selected our tombstone and wanted it placed on the grave as soon as it was finished—they could engrave our last dates when we kicked off. I explained to the cemetery manager that I wanted to dress up in a tuxedo, drink champagne, and dance on my own grave—and have a friend photograph the whole bit. Naturally, he freaked out at this, and yet it’s not important whether I do it or not. I love to laugh—both at the genuine silliness we all get caught in, in crazy family memories and goofy situations among poets, but also because sometimes laughter is the best way to get through suffering. I don’t, in any case, stake my sense of priorities or direction of my own life, on hopes or fears—I enjoy doing the dishes and laundry, watering our orchids and houseplants, and when the springtime comes, returning to my garden for labor and ease, and to the local bike trails and rivers for long bike rides and kayaking. It’s good to have many friends while we’re still here and in our right minds, and to share our poems with each other, working to “ease the pain of living.”

Atop Mount Audubon, Colorado 13,200 feet, summer 1982, with poet Tom Swartz and his dog Josh

Where would you really want to go with a time machine? What memorabilia (books, records) would you put in?

I got a kick out of this question, recalling Allen’s old line: “It’s a hard question . . . / which would you rescue, your mother-in-law/or the last text of Shakespeare?”  I guess I’d never want to go anyplace else in time—I take a trip in time and space every time I see a Shakespeare play or the Lysistrata of Aristophanes or Beckett’s Endgame. Journeys with Dante or America’s own Walt Whitman are endlessly complex, endlessly involved in difficult time periods and two kinds of horrendously violent and yet culturally emergent nexus—so I guess that, like Blake, I’m a mental traveler. 

I’m actually quite comfortable here in my own little bungalow, in my garden watching trees and bushes I planted over the past forty years growing to their fullness, with the return of many species of birds and mammals. I also assume that I won’t be able to take anything with me, though I have joked that, if there is an afterlife, Shakespeare owes me two favors and should be waiting for me when I get to the other side. Twice, while driving 50 miles south through heavy blizzards to teach the plays, I was nearly killed, and I have laughed that I nearly gave my life for him both times. I do love his work that much, as well as the work of Dante and others. I would hope that some young poet would pick up my work in years after I die, and perhaps find succor in it, as I did with so many poets when I was very young and finding my way, and as I do still.

What would you say to Naropa? What would you like to ask Shakespeare? Which scream need our civilization?

To Naropa, Milarepa, and Marpa, I would say, “thank-you for giving me three boats useful for negotiating the seas of Samsara.” To Shakespeare, not a question but a thank-you: “thanks for all your masterworks, and for giving me texts with which to make it through my worklife with passion and conviction, sharing my love of these poem-dramas with thousands of students and hopefully igniting them with the fire that still lives in your spirit.” Screams needed by our civilization: good question. “Howl” has been written, and perhaps in this age of increasing madness and environmental despair, a bit of compassion and kindness would be good for us all.

David Cope at the Museum of American Poetics

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