An Interview with David Cope on Song of the Owashtanong: Grand Rapids Poetry in the 21st Century

Song of Owashtanong, being an anthology of Grand Rapids poetry, is the first of its kind. Walk me through the process that led to the creation of this collection.
Cities like Boston and New York have long histories of poets and writers who have spoken for them, represented them—consider Boston’s transcendentalists, or writers who were early on seen as representatives of New York—Melville and Whitman. Among the modernist poets of the twentieth century, William Carlos Williams raised the celebration of one’s hometown to an epic poem in his famed Paterson. More recently, there have been anthologies of poets working in and celebrating the identities of the cities they call home; these ranged from Allen DeLoach’s The East Side Scene (1968), Padgett and Shapiro’s An Anthology of New York Poets (1970), and David Meltzer’s The San Francisco Poets (1971). A major strand of contemporary poetry—both authors and their approach to practice—is known as the New York school, and features major poets such as Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley, Anne Waldman, and others.
So the pattern of celebrating one’s space—one’s local culture, one’s historical and daily-living particulars, is well established. The problem is that, though there is at least one Midwestern anthology (City of Big Shoulders: An Anthology of Chicago Poetry, 2012), poets in most Midwestern cities too often have looked to the east coast or west coast for their models, for representation in anthologies, and for publication. Cities like Grand Rapids had no real literary identity, and yet as one who has lived here all my life, I participated in the various scenes and groups of poets our city produced from the 1960s onward, each decade displaying new growth, a different approach or an expansion from the writers that came before. I knew we have the talent here to put out a book like this. Thus, when I first applied for the position of the city’s poet laureate, I proposed two major projects as the work of my term: the first Grand Rapids Poets’ Conference, which as you know was held in April of 2012, and the editing and publication of this anthology. I knew then that we currently have an unusually large group of recognized, heavily published poets for a city of our size, that we are gifted with these voices speaking on our behalf, but also that we would never understand our own poetic cultural identity until we make it visible in print. The conference was the first step—gathering all these people together so that they could all see each other, get to know each other and to appreciate the works and individual lives they have lived.
To put it simply, you have to make friends to make a scene. Once that was accomplished, I asked the poets to send me 10-15 pages of what they considered their best work, along with a brief bio and publication credits for the poems. The poets did this, and I decided to present them in alphabetical order, with my introduction at the front and the bios and credits at the back. Given that book signatures are 32 pages, I figured that I could present 16 poets and all the ancillary matter in six signatures, thus having a full book that used up all the white space available in those 192 pages. In the process of selection, I strove to find the greatest cultural and gender diversity I could locate within the frame of high quality contemporary work. The book is close to evenly matched in gender representation, and I was able to bring some new voices on board; still, I wish I could have found first-rate work by LGBTQ, Latino, and First Peoples’ authors.
Once the poems were in, selection was as easy a task as I have ever had as an editor—a few poems had to be cut from longer manuscripts to make room for more work by authors who were not adequately represented. For example, Azizi Jasper’s selection was shorter than most, and I wanted his immensely significant generational statement piece for the anthology, so I deleted a few poems by other authors to make room for him and give him a selection closer in length to others. I did not have to make major deletions or editorial challenges in others’ works, and to my knowledge, there is only one major editorial mistake: Carmen Bugan’s “Acciecati dalla Meraviglia” speaks of her ancestors living under the reign of the Roman emperor Trajan, but the text read “Trojan.” Carmen submitted the poem with the mistake, and I failed to catch it until the book was already in print; we talked it over, and she noted that The Harvard Review had previously printed the poem with the same mistake. The initial remedy for the first printing was, then, to prepare an Erratum card noting the correct reading of the line, and to insert that with the poem in the text.
We then went through three rounds of proofing the book—making up a pdf of the text and cover, sending it out to the poets with the request that they proof their work and suggest corrections. I should thank our layout and design master, Scott Baisden, for his precision and infinite patience in working line-by-line and word-by-word with the poets re their suggestions and concerns.
During that whole initial period, I had obtained a grant for the book as the last gesture of the Greater Grand Rapids Arts Council to the laureate program, so we had funds to publish the first printing. I was in the planning stages of presenting it to publishers when my old friend M. L. Liebler, master Detroit poetry impresario, band leader, and poet in residence at Wayne State University, suggested that we could use his imprint, Ridgeway Press, as a way of getting it out; he would give his press’s name, an ISBN number, and connections to distribution networks, and I would oversee the actual printing, promotion, etc. The poets agreed to forego royalties on their work, instead being paid with complimentary copies; M. L. asked for nothing in way of recompense for his part, and I worked with longtime area poet Eric Greinke to locate major promotional venues and to establish pricing. We both agreed that pricing it low would make it easier for poor poets and students to afford it; accordingly, despite its size, we priced it at $12.95 per copy. I then wrote the press releases, sent out review copies, and put the “machine” in motion.
I should note that all of the proceeds for the book will go to the Laureate fund, which was left nearly without a funding base when the Arts Council went under. The proceeds from this book and grant work I’ll do next year are all geared to making it possible to have future laureates in this city.
Why do you think a collection of this kind had never been published before?
Nobody thought to do it. I had the know-how from my many years as an editor and published author, and I grabbed the idea and ran with it.
Tell me a bit about the title, . How was it chosen and how does it relate to the collection as a whole?
The ancient first peoples’ name for the Grand River is the Owashtanong, a word that means “far waters.” I have always admired these people who gave this place its first identity—whether we are talking about the Hopewell peoples, who gave us the mounds that speak for the land and way of life here over a thousand years ago, or the Anishnabek peoples who settled this land centuries after that, and who still live among us and celebrate their culture and way of life in pow-wows each year. The title thus honors the long history of people who are too often forgotten in the cultural matrix and thus the long history of the communities that have lived here, but it also restores the original name of the river that gives the city and environs its identity—we are, after all, “River City.” The choice of the word “song” goes back to Walt Whitman’s practice—“Song of the Open Road,” for example—poetry as musical speech. Put “song” and “Owashtanong” together, and you have a musical title—and thus the photo of the river on the cover.
Your introduction deals in part with the difficulty of having to choose from such a wide range of poets during the compilation process. How did you choose the poets/poems and what factors influenced your decision most?
My primary concern was to choose writings that adhere to the highest standards of contemporary poetic practice, but I also wanted work that was significant—ranging from the personal and the vulnerable to those poems that explore the larger issues of our lives and times. Variety of styles was also important. I wanted to honor all four poets laureate, poets who have been publishing and garnering honors for decades or who, despite not pursuing publication, have spent those same decades honing a personal vision developed with craft and close attentiveness to language use. Beyond that, I hoped for as much cultural and gender diversity as I could find, and I wanted to include some younger poets to show a sense of the change already occurring among the poetic practices for our city.
Your introduction also indicates that the poems in Song of Owashtanong are not about a specific place or places, but rather the idea of place in general. Why do poets so often grapple with this idea?
Well, not exactly about the idea of place in general—what I was trying to show was that this was not a book that would be trapped in the sort of provincialism that books like this could involve, but that our authors are as far-ranging as in any city with a sophisticated grasp of the world beyond the self and beyond one’s own city and place. We are enriched as a local culture when we acknowledge the wisdom and depth of feeling drawn from other places. Carmen Bugan’s poetry reflects this most clearly: as a Romanian immigrant, she represents the beauties and horrors of her homeland even as she places Grand Rapids squarely as the locus for the beginning of her new life. Kim Wyngarden’s poems from Russia give us pause to think of levels of suffering that American cities like Grand Rapids have never experienced, and when she brings them home to us, she in effect asks us to reflect on our own lives and the place that we inhabit.
Poets do grapple with the idea of place because this is the ground wherein we live—the history that makes us what we are, the lives that have been lived out here and passed on—and which, curiously, still live among us, even if only in memory or dream. For me, the trip to the Antietam battlefield—where 23,000 men were killed, wounded and missing in one day—not only brought back that most terrible war in our history, but it also gave me pause to reflect on an individual life caught in the horrors of his own memory of killing another man in a different war. That man—my wife Sue’s father—brought the suffering of the 23,000 and many others back home to the place where both he and they lived, and memorializing his suffering is to recall the suffering of all those others. We are in a sense borne of the place where we live our lives, but our place is enriched, sorrow is acknowledged, and we are made more wise by linking it to others.
There is a wonderful variation of styles present in this collection. What is it about poetry that allows different poets to effectively approach similar ideas, feelings, or experiences with separate words and techniques?
Individual vision and practice form a complex matrix in the imagination of the poet: the poem or collection of poems is individualized in the predilections, life experiences, awareness of traditions and poetic mastery, memory, and time of living that ultimately define the styles and approaches each individual poet chooses to represent his or her work.
Did your experiences as poet laureate of Grand Rapids thus far help you in the compilation of this material, or in the planning of this project in general?
Yes, in one sense: it gave me the “bully pulpit” to set up the conference, get the grants, and tweak the media for the success of the first project, and I have used it to facilitate editing, media work, and publishing connections for the anthology. It also helps that long before I was given the laureate status, I have had my finger on the pulse of the art as it is practiced here—I have known most of the poets in this collection for years or decades, and I have followed their work, celebrated their successes, and enjoyed their company, so it was quite easy to bring us all together, both at the conference and in the anthology. There were surprises—I was new to Todd Kaneko, for example, when Patricia Clark suggested that I consider his work, and I was surprised and delighted to meet this young, vigorous talent. Lew Klatt was one that I only knew a little, and both the conference and anthology have enabled me to appreciate his work in much more depth than I had seen before that.
In the introduction you express your desire to see this type of collection repeated in the future. Do have any plans to do any more collections during the remainder of your tenure?
No more collections for me—I’m retiring from my career as a professor at GRCC this year, and once the anthology is complete and out there, I want to find a publisher for the final definitive collection of my own poems, Moonlight Rose in Blue. I may continue publishing my Big Scream magazine (now in its 51st issue, and in continuous publication since 1974) if I can afford it in retirement, but otherwise I’ll likely retreat to sending my work out for publication as it comes to me or as requests turn up in my email or mail box, and doing readings in whatever cities I visit.
Any future collection (and hopefully collections) should be done by a younger generation—perhaps those younger poets coming up at the various colleges—Mursalata Muhammad, Todd Kaneko, Katrina Kalisz, Michael Sikkema, Lynnea Page-Jenkins, for example. There may be others—some of those now laboring in the open mic scene, or poets such as Katherine Marty, whose superb work I had hoped to include in the current anthology, though sadly she didn’t respond to my requests. Someone in that or a younger generation will have to step up: develop the broader editing skills necessary for a larger anthology, master the business of getting funding or grants, as well as the entire set of skills necessary for book publication and the art of promoting the work. Each generation must define its own identity and remake the identity of the city as cultural artifact and generation to the next.
Finally, it would be helpful if the Grand Rapids Public Library could secure funds so that the laureate program may continue—I do believe that the laureateship, if treated as something more than a ceremonial or workshop post, can be a real force for making projects like this happen.
There is a release event planned for the collection. What can those interested in attending expect from this event?
It’s a celebration of poetic community, and we’ll hold it at the Ryerson Auditorium in the Grand Rapids Public Library on Friday, April 5, from 7-9 p.m. . Expect a short speech, brief readings from the anthology, an opportunity to meet the poets, buy the book, and get it autographed—the usual stuff of a book launch. I hope we can bring a lot of people together for this event, as I believe it’s a special cultural celebration for our city—establishing the city’s identity in this oldest of arts.
Will this collection be published anywhere online?
There are no plans for this at present. It’s a big collection and online publication would require funds.
Is there anything else you'd like to add about the collection or the release event?
After the book launch, the book will be available at Schuler Books around town. We also hope to sell it to local libraries, and I’ve sent review copies to a large number of state and national review outlets—so we’re hopeful that it may have a larger impact on the state and national scene. Thanks for giving me this opportunity—hope to see everybody at the book launch.

Works by David Cope

Through the 3rd Eye was supported in its inception by the Grand Rapids Humanities Council and is currently made possible by continued volunteer effort and private support. Copyright 2013.