Grand Rapids speaks in poetry anthology


"Song of the Owashtanong: Grand Rapids Poetry in the 21st Century" is an anthology by 16 Grand Rapids poets.

“Song of the Owashtanong: Grand Rapids Poetry in the 21st Century” is a new collection of poems that includes the work of 16 poets living and working in Grand Rapids.

Edited by Grand Rapids Poet Laureate David Cope, the anthology establishes a literary identity of Grand Rapids and introduces residents and visitors to the vibrant literary scene that has existed for decades in the city.

Cope pointed out that all the major cities have had and continue to create anthologies that help to establish the literary identity of the time and provide future generations with a historical record of the literary community.

“For a city to have a literary identity, it really needs to have an anthology, for starters,” Cope said. “It needs to have an understanding of these are the people that represent this place.”

Despite the talented pool of poets who have called Grand Rapids home, a literary anthology focused on the city has never been attempted.

“A lot of talent here, much more talent than most cities this size,” Cope said.

“I thought with the talent here, and I’m in the position, because they gave me the poet laureate, so I could get the money and people around me and decided I was going to do it.”

An official book launch party is taking place today in the Ryerson Auditorium at the Grand Rapids Public Library from 7-9 p.m. Copies of the book, published by Ridgeway Press of Michigan, are selling for $12.95, with all proceeds going to the Laureate Fund.

Finding Grand Rapids' voices

The 2012 Poets’ Conference, Cope’s first project as poet laureate, gave him the opportunity to reach out to the vast community of poets and assemble the lineup for the anthology.

Cope said he didn’t have a hard time identifying the poets who he wanted to include, having been involved in the Grand Rapids literary scene since the 1960s.

“I was in a position to do it, because I knew the history, and I knew the different people who had been here and that were still publishing and doing things. I just plugged them all in.”

The anthology includes works by Carmen Bugan, Patricia Clark, David Cope, Linda Nemec Foster, Eric Greinke, Azizi Jasper, W. Todd Kaneko, L.S. Klatt, G.F. Korreck, David W. Landrum, Mursalata Muhammad, Miriam Pederson, Barbara Saunier, Rodney Torrenson, Robert VanderMolen and Kim Wyngarden.

“I knew I wanted to include Robert VanderMolen, who is an older writer, a little bit older than me, who was at MSU when I was a freshman at GRJC, and Robert had a book published at that time,” Cope said. “He was already publishing when I was still learning how to do it, so I thought it was important to include him.”

Cope also knew Bugan, a former student, was a must for the collection.

“For one thing, with her poems you’ve got the sense of the immigrant experience,” Cope explained. “That business of fleeing from a tyrannical nation and finding a place where you can finally settle and know what freedom is. I watched her grow, and her writing has really taken off, and I wanted her writing in there, too.”

The writers included in the collection represent diverse backgrounds and experiences, as well as gender, ethnicity and age.

Cope said he was very sensitive to including a broad swath of identities in the collection and was disappointed he couldn't find a few of the voices for the collection that he had hoped — Native American, Latino and LGBT poets — but said that will be a job for the next generation.

Honoring history

The collection was named after the Grand River, and Cope chose it for its historical significance — Owashtanong means far waters and was the river’s original name given to it by the native people of the area.

“I wanted to catch the river in its almost natural state on the cover of the book — and the idea here was to get the sense of the long, long history and pre-history of this place and that we are just a transient people who are here now,” Cope said. “I wanted that original native name, and I wanted the beauty of the river without thousands of buildings rising up and the pollution and the rest of it. So that was trying to get that ancestral feeling of what this place is, the ground that we live on.”

Chronicling our time

The “Song of” part of the title is influenced by Walt Whitman’s many poems that start with those same words.

“Poetry is an art that does not simply think in terms of today,” he said. “It is an art that one creates with the notion of representing one’s age, and I know that sounds arrogant, but it’s fact. So the bottom line is Walt Whitman, when he was writing the poems about the Civil War, he knew this was an important thing. It was a cultural thing that had to be talked about and it was the sorrows and the horrors that people were going through in that war, and he witnessed it firsthand, so he told the story.

“If you take that as the extreme version of it, the ordinary version is a city has no identity until it identifies itself," he said. "That is part of what having an identity is. And when you’ve got the poets who all sit down and say this is the stuff we are writing right now — we are Grand Rapids poets — we are saying what our interests are, what we think is important, what fits our understanding of our culture and our place at this point and time. It’s an identifying thing.”

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