Michigan native son and University of Michigan alumnus David Cope is a poet and educator based in Grand Rapids. Allen Ginsberg once described him as one of the "leading lights of the next generation." In terms of influences, Cope is most often associated with the Objectivist group, which includes Charles Reznikoff, Lorine Niedecker, George Oppen, Louis Zukofsky, and Carl Rakosi and was a movement heavily influenced by Pound, Stein, and W. C. Williams. Objectivist poetry strives for direct treatment of subjects and regards the poem as a formal object of art. Much of Cope's work, particularly his early poetry, is in this tradition; later work has added new layers to this foundation. In addition to being a writer-poet, Cope is the founder of Nada Press—and with it, Big Scream magazine—which has published the works of over 200 poets during its thirty-nine years of existence. Cope has taught courses in Shakespeare, literature, creative writing, philosophy, and Women’s Studies at Grand Rapids Community College, and taught Shakespeare at Western Michigan University from 1997-2004.
David Cope was born January 13, 1948, in Detroit, Michigan. He moved at an early age to Western Michigan, near Grand Rapids, and he spent his childhood there. His parents divorced when he was eleven, and Cope's mother took on the duties of supporting and raising him and his three siblings, reentering the workforce as a kindergarten teacher. Cope developed early on a love of poetry memorizing and being mesmerized by psalms in Sunday school, and Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience , at a young age. He composed his first poem at age eleven in response to Emerson's "The Snowstorm." Despite a troubled and at times rebellious youth, which included gang activity, Cope sustained and developed his interest in literature and poetry, immersing himself as an adolescent in the works of Kerouac and Ginsberg.
Cope attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor from 1968 to 1970 as a transfer student from Grand Rapids Junior College. At the University of Michigan, he studied under Robert Hayden, majoring in English. Along with his wife-to-be, Suzanne, he also became active in the anti-war movement growing on campus.
In 1970, partly in disillusionment at the national state of affairs, Cope dropped out of college just short of completion. He married Suzanne and returned to Grand Rapids. (Cope later completed the courses necessary for graduation at Grand Valley State College and was granted a bachelor's degree by the University of Michigan in 1974.) David Cope worked for many years as a factory worker, and later as a custodian, in an attempt to live what he then considered the more authentic life of the "anonymous workingman." During this time, Cope retained his love for and involvement with poetry. In 1971 and 1972, he was winner of the Dyer-Ives poetry award, and in 1973 he attended the National Poetry Festival held in Allendale, Michigan. There he learned from and became personally acquainted with major Objectivist figures and other important poets, including Charles Reznikoff, Carl Rakosi, George Oppen, Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan, and Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg was to become a mentor to Cope, remaining a good friend until Ginsberg's death in 1997.
In 1974, Cope, by now working as a custodian at inner-city Grand Rapids schools, founded his Nada Press. Through this small press—actually a mimeograph machine in his attic—he published poetry chapbooks and the "little magazine," Big Scream , both of which served as venues to publish well-known poets and lesser-known poets who might not otherwise be heard, including Nada Poems, an anthology of younger poets (1988), and Sunflowers and Locomotives: Songs for Allen, a collection of elegies for Allen Ginsberg (1998).
Through Nada Press, Cope published several chapbooks of his own poems, including Stars in 1976, praised highly by Allen Ginsberg, and in 1977, he was awarded the Pushcart Prize for his poem “Crash.”. The year 1983 saw the publication of Cope's first full-length book of poetry, Quiet Lives , issued by Humana Press; a year later, he was given the Grand Rapids Junior College (now Community College) Distinguished Alumni Award. Other books which followed have been On the Bridge (1986), Fragments from the Stars (1990), Coming Home (1993), Silences for Love (1998), Turn the Wheel (2003), and Masks of Six Decades (2010). In 1988, the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters gave Cope an award in literature for On the Bridge .
From 1987 to 1991, Cope worked simultaneously as head custodian and as an adjunct English instructor at Grand Rapids Junior College (now Grand Rapids Community College). In the early 1990s, Cope began teaching full-time at Grand Rapids Community College and working toward completion of his M.A. at Western Michigan University. It was also during this period that he created one of the first multicultural literature courses in the state.
Throughout his literary career, Cope has been engaged politically and socially, through such activities as spearheading anti-nuclear teach-ins and sponsoring refugees. In 1990, Cope helped design the 1990 Ecology and Poetics Conference at Naropa Institute (now University), where he supervised the drafting of the environmental statement, "A Declaration of Interdependence." Cope has also taught poetry at Naropa Institute's intensive Summer Writing Program in 1980, 1987, 1990, and 1994.
As a professor, Cope has been an active curriculum developer; he designed and taught GRCC’s Multicultural Literature class, the Shakespeare class, the Introduction to Women's Studies class, and with a friend, the college’s first LGBTQ Literature class. David has taught Shakespeare, drama, and creative writing, an introduction to Philosophy, Multicultural Literature, Writing for Publication, Introduction to Women's Studies as part of its first teaching team, and Great American Writers.
As a conference organizer, he was also involved in developing the 1994 Beats and Rebel Angels Conference at Naropa, which gathered all the remaining Beat poets together for a retrospective on their careers. He also served as program director for GRCC’s Pablo Neruda Conference, Women in the Arts Conference, and the Grand Rapids Poets’ Conference in 2012. Cope was the author of GRCC's first environmental policy and designed its first paper recycling system, was a presenter at the Hemingway 101 Conference, and led the Buddhism and Poetry panel at the Anne Waldman Archive Celebration at the University of Michigan Special Collections Library. Cope was selected as Poet Laureate of Grand Rapids for a three year term in 2011, and as his last gift to his college, designed and administered the first Grand Rapids Poets’ Conference, a four day gathering of poets, scholars and students to celebrate the city’s literary heritage. He has also edited Song of the Owashtanong: Grand Rapids Poetry in the 21st Century. David retired in June of 2013, and expects to devote his next years to publication of his poetry, editing and publishing, kayaking, biking, gardening, and following the careers of his three grown children. Cope remains in Grand Rapids, where he lives with his wife Suzanne.