It’s safe to say that David Cope has made his mark as poet laureate of Grand Rapids. Forgoing ceremonial stagnation, he assumed the position with two distinct and ambitious goals in mind: The first was to organize the city’s inaugural poets’ conference, which he did back in April of 2012 with tremendous success, while the second involved editing and publishing an anthology that did justice to the diverse and immense poetic talent of the area. The conference proved to be the perfect launch pad for such a collection, and now, nearly a year later, the upcoming release of Song of the Owashtanong: Grand Rapids Poetry in the 21st Century (Ridgeway Press) marks a bright future for our poetic community and stands as a realization of Cope’s dedicated vision.
The 16 poets featured in the anthology reflect Cope’s desire to display how the poetry scene in our city has grown over the years, both outward and inward. The group possesses an intriguing diversity on multiple levels. Their ages are spread across two generations, and though they all share the common bond of having lived and worked in Grand Rapids, their ethnic and cultural backgrounds are quite varied. The poems in this collection speak volumes about the importance of connectedness. Though many of them are set in specific places, they extend themselves out of the place they describe and into the world and the larger pool of human experience.
Carmen Bugan, a Romanian-born poet whose family immigrated to Grand Rapids, illustrates this concept perfectly in the anthology’s opening poem, entitled “A birthday poem for my father.” Separated into two halves, the poem begins by describing her father’s life in Romania:
Leaving a harsh father in his carpenter shop,
He talked with the wind, wandered
Alone to the other end of the country, where
He began a life of politics and prison.
He whistled through the visor in the door
In the bowels of the stone, held his vision
Above blows dealt him in torture rooms.
He owned nothing but scars when he married.
The scene sounds otherworldly, as though it were a passage of a novel the poet had read. It is a construction of memory and related experience where Bugan is likely piecing together stories her father told her into her own impression of his life before the family came to America. The second half of the poem is more rooted in the poet’s own memories, beginning with a recollection of her family’s early life in what must have seemed like a new world:
I see us fifteen years ago:
Helen Street, Grand Rapids, Michigan
Nights we all danced and wept with freedom,
The five of us like fingers to a hand.
It is not an attachment to place that is explored here, but rather an attachment to life and the essential connections of love and family. Though they may have moved across the ocean to a presumably more stable existence, they remain in constant dialogue with the collective experience of life and all the places in which it is played out:
He is milder with old age, smiles more,
Same stories return like old reels;
One about crossing the Iron Curtain on foot,
Another about women who loved him in Sibiu.
What is essential here is again the idea of inter-connectedness. Though Bugan does not possess the same experience of Romania as her father, her life is informed, affected and shaped by it nonetheless, and in the poem’s end she describes how this idea lends itself to the concept of existence as an idea or feeling rather than an attachment to a specific place:
He drinks, makes his move on the chess-board.
I make my move and drink to him.
We toast to emptiness, to disillusion and to love.
Tomorrow we will fix the flooded basement, settle here.
Mursalata Muhammad, a poet native to Detroit who has lived in West Michigan for nine years, adds to this conversation with the aptly named, “Detroit,” a poem which approaches place from a socially-critical perspective which explores how one place can be seen as a microcosm of larger human concepts like racial inequality and social injustice. The poem begins by describing the various minority groups that populate Detroit and how each one is limited by the social restraints of their environment, then moves into a conclusion that illustrates the aforementioned concepts beautifully:
All over I breed:
People who’ve forgone living any American greeting card lines
opting to hone skills that make survival a most profitable commodity
Women who don’t love and those that do until it
breaks noses, detaches retinas, kicks fetuses from wombs
Crime that’s 100% equal opportunity
accompanied by un-sexist police ass kickins
Give me my props:
I once had Paradise in an Alley
Now I got Joe Louis’ fist hovering above the place where white men meet
Muhammad’s poem, especially its jarring opening line that states “like most over-peopled places, I’m a toilet,” does a tremendous job of showing that the shortcomings of Detroit and places like it are reflective of the larger shortcomings of humanity. By connecting this place to the larger pool of human experience, she forces the reader to confront the fact that what is going on in the broader world affects all of us just as much as what happens in our immediate surroundings.
W. Todd Kaneko, a Seattle native who came to West Michigan to teach at Grand Valley State University, gives us one of the anthology’s most memorable and unusual poems with “This Poem wants to be a Professional Wrestler.” Kaneko, like all the poets in this collection, is extremely adept at giving his poems depth, allowing the surface subject to slowly blossom and connect to a larger idea. Here, he opens by fondly recalling time spent with his father after his parents’ separation:
I’m twelve years-old at my father’s house in this poem
where it’s always Saturday at midnight. The Dynamite
Kid is bleeding after that attack by the Crippler and
The Masked Assassin. Don’t worry, my father says.
It’s all fake. Then in the morning, he drives me back
to my mother’s house where I practice my dropkick
on my sister.
The poet seems to identify, through his own father, with the struggles of single fathers who perhaps don’t get to see their children very often. The houses themselves are the surface setting, but underneath them Kaneko explores the unsettling feeling of realizing the unfairness of a world which attempts to separate the winners from the losers. He moves on to say that in other poems of his “my father and I will talk / about my grandmother’s failing health and the evening / news. We will be too worried about terrorism and tired / blood to trade punches.” This poem, however, he wants to be different. He wants it to be strong, not vulnerable, and thus desires for it “a macho nickname like Atomic Butcher or Barbarian / Strangler,” which will make the poem “magnificent in its tiger-skin trunks and / crimson mask.” The poem’s ending reveals it to be a kind of meta-poem which speaks to the powerful ways in which poetry can translate human experience and specific images, like that of Kaneko’s father, into a dialogue about larger issues that occur everywhere on earth, which in this poem happens to be human vulnerability and the struggle for strength in the face of defeat:
My father and I will chant this poem’s name
all night. We will cheer the metaphor and jeer the line
breaks – it’s not all fake. Suspend disbelief so we can believe
that men like us can win, even if just for a little while.
The aforementioned poems provide only a brief glimpse into the rich poetic textures present in Song of the Owashtanong. The voices and styling of the 16 poets in this anthology are as intriguingly diverse as their biographies, and in 192 pages their best work is amply represented. David Cope has done an admirable job with selecting and arranging, and the transition from page to page and from poet to poet leaves the reader wanting more.
This collection gives poets and lovers of poetry throughout West Michigan cause for celebration, as we finally have a polished public record of the tremendous talent that our region holds. But it also serves to remind us that, in order to be effective, compassionate, and worthy as poets and human beings, we must look beyond our immediate surroundings to understand how our homes, lives, and experiences are in constant conversation with the rest of the world. The search for this understanding is never-ending, and lies at the heart of every true poet’s labor, yet nowhere in this region has a collection of poetry more true to that search been published until now.
On April 5th, Song of the Owashtanong will be officially released at an event designed to celebrate this unique achievement with our poetic community. The public is welcome to attend the ceremony, which will be held in the Ryerson Auditorium at the main branch of the Grand Rapids Public Library from 7-5 pm. There will be readings by some of the included poets, as well as an opportunity to meet them and purchase signed copies of the anthology. All proceeds from sales will go towards the city’s laureate fund, helping to ensure that future generations will be able to benefit from the invaluable services of poets like David Cope and past poet laureates such as Rodney Torreson, Linda Nemec Foster, and Patricia Clark, who all work tirelessly to preserve this ancient art form that is so important to all generations of life on this earth.
The following is a complete listing of the poets featured in Song of the Owastanong: Grand Rapids Poetry in the 21st Century (in order of appearance):
Linda Nemec Foster
W. Todd Kaneko
David W. Landrum
An in-depth interview on the collection with poet laureate and editor David Cope can be found HERE