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Poet laureate David Cope initiates first poetry conference in city

David Cope, local poet laureate and program director of the inaugural Grand Rapids Poets' Conference, talks to us about the conference-as well as his own influences and inspirations.
Grand Rapids Poet Laureate, David Cope.

Grand Rapids Poet Laureate, David Cope. /Courtesy of David Cope

Underwriting support from:

The Rhododendron by David Cope


“Poetry as singing speech” is just one way that Grand Rapids Poet Laureate, David Cope, describes his love for the art. Beginning as a child by reciting the 23rd Psalm and reading William Blake, Cope credits his mother with encouraging his passion by introducing him to Emerson. After discovering Thoreau and Whitman on his own, Cope explains, “I began writing poems somewhere in that period, and eventually the writing became a way of hearing my own thoughts speaking back to me.”

Cope thinks of poetry as “an art that has saved countless lives when people have been in need of words to define their situations and find their way.” Although it may seem that fewer people in general are reading and appreciating poetry, Cope is not concerned, easily listing off five regularly occurring poetry events in Grand Rapids alone. He believes that Grand Rapids could use a little help from our own master poets in defining our city, as other major US cities have done in the past. “I thought that it was time we gathered all our people together—those with long and stellar careers, as well as the emerging younger poets—so that we could begin that process of cementing a local identity, of defining what we are as cultural representatives of our city.”

The upcoming poetry conference hosted by GRCC and organized by Cope is his first major step in that direction, and the first day of the conference offers a panel on the importance of poetic community. His hope is that it will help the Grand Rapids poetry scene gain momentum and appreciate itself, offering attendees a chance to make connections. Cope himself identifies the value of renowned poet, Allen Ginsberg, as his own mentor, saying “Allen wrote the foreword for my first book, Quiet Lives, helped me find publication for two decades, and even introduced my poems to Chinese students when he was there in the 80s.  More importantly, he was a dear friend, one of those with whom one can share time without having to say a word—though we shared a lot in the business of poetry, there were many times when just being together was enough.” Cope hopes younger, less experienced poets will be able to form similar relationships with the more seasoned poets of Grand Rapids, who may be able to help them in finding their way in their own careers.

The Grand Rapids Poets’ Conference is free of charge to attendees, and runs from April 2-5. There is a daily schedule available on their website, along with the panelists’ bios, all of whom reside in Grand Rapids. There will also be a special appearance by Mayor Heartwell at 1:00-1:25 p.m. at 108 Sneden Hall, where he will discuss the citywide importance of poetry as a cultural artform. Parking for the conference might be an issue, so attendees are encouraged to carpool and give themselves extra time to arrive.

Cope recommends taking notes and asking questions to encourage the development of the Grand Rapids poetic community.  He explains, “I think the conference is like any complex event—one may have hopes, but it will define what it is through the interactions of those who show up.“



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