Professor Matthew Cooperman

Conducted by Randi DePriest, February 16, 2006

DESCRIBE YOUR RESEARCH/AREAS OF EXPERTISE?

My areas of research are contemporary poetry and poetics, the poetry of witness, ecopoetics, which was my doctoral work, and Literature of the West, which involves either critical research on settlement of the west, ethnography and things like that, but also creative non-fiction essays. I have a book of essays that I’m working on that is variously about the west. It’s called “Plumbing Center: Essays on Place, Relationship, and Community.” I’ve been working on it off and on for about eight years. Lately, I’m returning to the idea of sacred space, which I explored in an early draft of an essay on the Rocky Mountain Shambhala Center. There’s also an essay in the works on Rodin Crater, an archeoastronomy site in Arizona, constructed by the landscape artist James Tyrell. The idea of intentional landscapes is really interesting to me.

HOW DO YOU DEFINE COMMUNITY LITERACY?

That’s a hard question. There are a number of directions it implies. I think of it as literacy for the greatest population in the community, but also literacy across a range of subjects .economic, environmental, social, literary, etcl. I certainly think of it literally– the ability to read and and write, and the efforts in the community to develop resources for literacy, which obviously you are involved in. In our[Accidental Vestments] group, I think of it as an increased relationship between the university and Fort Collins, so situations of “town and gown,” and the efforts that people can make to develop literacy between parallel communities. It’s not like there is a lot of animosity, or tension between the university and the community, but there isn’t enough integration of the things that go on in campus with the community, and vice versa. That’s an ongoing challenge that we are trying to deal with also in the reading series, which I direct. It’s important to make literacy available to economically underprivileged constituency, so that literacy isn’t this Ivory Tower activity, which is easy for us to fall into.

WHICH GROUPS OR INDIVIDUALS HAVE YOU WORKED WITH IN OUR COMMUNITY?

Besides the reading series work, it’s focused on Accidental Vestments. Perhaps a little background. I started Accidental Vestments out of an interest in having dialogue in the university community between departments and populations that I intuitively sensed have things in common, but for disciplinary reasons, do not talk to each other. This is out of my own experience in grad school,l where I loved what was going on in the art world, or the theatre, dance, and music world, and was sad that there weren’t groups or situations that facilitated that conversation. My sense was that crossing disciplinary boundaries would also cross community boundaries, and so it could involve people outside of the academy. So initially it was generated between our MFA program in writing and the MFA program in art but it since has reached out to dance, anthropology, music, philosophy, and to people who often had some association with CSU but no longer were involved in it. It’s since reached out to people in the community who knew people who were involved on campus and then got on board. I would love it to be more open in that way. Professor Marius Lehene (Art) and I just wrote a big grant to try to develop the program and that is certainly one of the things we would like to see happen. One of the reasons that we had our show off campus at the Bean Cycle (May 6, 2005) was that we wanted to have it out in the community. People really seemed to enjoy that aspect of it. But it’s a real challenge. I started it hoping I would not be in charge. Then when Marius got interested very early on we tried to develop some strategies for non-hierarchical organizations. Anyone can propose anything. But partly because students like to be students and don’t necessarily like to take initiative on these things, and partly because everyone is really busy, we found that we were sort of generating whatever direction there was. That’s a little frustrating, but not surprising. If that’s what we do, if we become more solidified in that role, so be it. What I don’t want to have happen is the Cooperman Show, my little “lets do this because I want to.” I’m very aware of that possibility, and I hope that other people will be more involved. I think there is a long-range hope for this thing. The addition of Sasha Steensen and Gordon Hadfield, new poets on staff, has really energized things, so we’ll see. But it’s extracurricular, and on top of everyone’s busy life, so it’s a lot to ask.

HOW IS THE PROJECT STAFFED?

Marius Lehene, a drawing professor in the art department and I are doing the legwork. We call a meeting, look at both of our schedules, say this might work, and then hope that people will show up. We had some good activity in the fall with studio talks, and various “pairings.” The last thing we did was have a meeting in the Hatton Gallery. Writers shared various things they were working on, and that gave the artists, and the philosophy and anthropology people, a chance to ask them what they were up to. So that was nice. Our meetings are sporadic. The patterns seems to be that there’s a lot of energy for it in the fall and then people get busy. Come spring semester we have a fall of. By the time we get back together 2 or 3 months have gone by . We’re having a meeting this Friday to talk about the grant that Marius and I wrote, and what our plans or ideas are for next year, and then we’ll focus people for the show we want to have later this year. We have a gallery space in the First National Bank Gallery in the Morgan Library. We have that set up for a month in May, then we want to have the actual show at the Bean Cycle again and I think that is going to work. That was lots of fun, and I think we would love collaboration to be an everyday part of people’s activity. To a certain extent it is, but it needs an outcome for people to really continue with it, so having the show and focusing on that is a way to do that. Collaboration has the possibility of involving many people on a project, but most of the time it happens between two people. We have not really done too much where we have a full, say, 20 people collaborating on something, and I would love to do that. I think we will as it sort of gets more formalized, but, as I said, it’s in the midst of a lot of busy activity.

HOW ARE YOU ENCOURAGING PEOPLE TO GET INVOLVED WITH ACCIDENTAL VESTMENTS?

Well, the meetings are all open and we try to publicize it to as many people as we can. I would like to get a list serve up and running where people just post messages and interact. That’s on the “to do” list for the year. There’s also a lot of word of mouth. People find out about it, then Marius will pass a name on, then I have a master collaborative list, and then I’ll send stuff out. It’s generally just people finding out or hearing about it. There was an article in the paper last semester and we got some people interested it in that way. Katie Kelly, the woman who wrote the article in the Collegian, was really excited by it and did a great job and got the word out about that.

WHAT CASES STAND OUT IN YOUR MIND THAT EMPHASIZE THE IMPORTANCE OF COMMUNITY LITERACY PROGRAMS LIKE ACCIDENTAL VESTMENTS?

With Vestments, the show had a surprisingly vigorous turnout. You heard about what people were working on, but you don’t really know, and then all of the sudden they show up and you’re blown away. One project that really comes to mind was between Marty Moran and Tony Holmquist, a poet and a printer respectively. They essentially translated one of Marty’s long poems into visual images that mapped, as the poem maps, a journey across America. There were four panels to this if I remember correctly, and they were beautifully printed and gorgeously framed. It was really a “wow!, this is such an impressive project!” In general, I was really impressed with people reaching across boundaries. It started as a graduate student activity because those were the people closest to the conversation, but it really took off There were a number of people who collaborated with undergrad. One I am thinking of is Bonnie Emerick, who finished her MFA last yea. She collaborated with one of her E210 students who was a really lively person interested in music, poetry and visual arts. I can’t remember his name right now, but it was a great composition that was also performed. I would love that to happen again. I need to encourage undergrads, let them know this is available, because I think that people maybe have perceptions that it’s a closed group or something, but the more the merrier. There seemed to be a happy buzz about the project, and it got a lot of the New Belgium people out, which was reaching across communities. And there were some philosophy and dance professors at the show and they thought it was really cool. So it was pretty neat. I think such events can be springboards for greater success.

WHAT DO YOU FEEL ARE THE GREATEST OBSTACLES FOR BUILDING COMMUNITY LITERACY PROGRAMS LIKE ACCIDENTAL VESTMENTS?

Well, when you are dealing with people on campus, the fact that our group is extracurricular is a perceived impediment. I mean, sadly, community literacy isn’t seen as a primary activity.its extra. Getting people to recognize that they are really included and invited is a challenge; that this is available to anyone who wants to show up. I think there are some perceptions or assumptions about elitism perhaps. “Oh these MFAs or whatever.these are academic ivory tower activities.” Actually knowing who is in our community, and how to reach them is a perpetual problem. It would be great if there was more “crossing,” for instance, between the regional theater crowd, say Bas Bleu. I mean Fort Collins has a really vibrant cultural life. If there was a community cultural calendar or list serve that would be great. There’s a group called The Contemporary Fluid. A woman named Jenny Kiesling, who is the Assistant Curator of the Hatton Gallery, has tried to get that going. It’s a loose group of artists in the community and region from various “walks and places.” There’s also the artists’ co-op called MOCHA. Ultimately, it’s a question of getting people together, and then sustaining momentum on projects. Again, our busy lives intrude. I think the community message board would be a great start, so that there’d be a central place where all the activity in the Fort Collins region could be posted. Even within the university, we’re very balkanized. It would be great to know what’s going on from the artists’ point of view, and not just journalism. I don’t mean to slight, say the Fort Collins Weekly, or the now sadly departed Bullhorn, or even the Collegian, but it’s important for artists to share their work-and their thinking-with the community.

DO YOU HAVE ANY SUGGESTIONS ON HOW TO BUILD RELATIONSHIPS WITH COMMUNITY PARTNERS?

To find ways to develop the perception of inclusion. We are going to do another Writer’s Harvest this coming year and we involve Turning Point, Safehouse, and the Foodbank of Larimer Count. That’s a benefit reading, where proceeds go to support local hunger relief and/or “at risk” populations. Depending on our success, it would be great to have more projects involved. As I’ve said, it would be great to have more coordination between parallel activities and communities, for instance, the Community Literacy Center and Accidental Vestments. Tobi and I talked about how we could sort of do things together. Those types of things coordinating would be really, really helpful. And we’re finding ways to get outside money to develop our various programs. That’s crucial. So it’s an on-going thing-finding and cultivating new relationships, publisizing our events, building bridges. There’s ways of serving larger populations just by being more organized.

DID YOU DO ANYTHING TO EVALUATE THE PROGRAM?

No. It’s meant to be a loose organization. We haven’t asked for money yet. Marius and I just wrote a grant, and we would have to develop some quantitative method for that, and that’s something we talked about in our proposal. But right now we’re not there yet. We’d like to start an interdisciplinary visiting artist series and bring three reader/artists here a year to do brief residencies and presentations. Then we could measure attendance and things like that. We’d also like to develop some of the resources that are already here. The Center for Literacy Publishing now has a print shop, under the tutelage of Sasha Steensen and Gordon Hadfield, that has the possibility of reaching out in a number of directions. I’ve also talked to Linny Frickman over at the Hatton Gallery about trying to coordinate their visiting artist series with our visiting writer series. I think when there’s money involved we will have to develop some more quantitative methods, but that will come when we actually have a more formalized structure. We personally try to keep Vestments non-departmental, and non-hierarchical. Authority defeats the whole point of collaboration and artistic anarchy, because then we are just another power structure. So there’s a paradox that frankly we are not quite sure how to overcome. The fact that we end up by default in charge may force us to formalize it more. One of the other things we are trying to do is to create a permanent, cross-listed, graduate interdisciplinary arts course. We may use some of the money from the grant to develop and research this course and other disciplinary arts programs. That would also be in keeping with the vision that the University has for the Center for the Arts.

IS THERE ANYTHING YOU WOULD LIKE TO ADD?

I would really like to see more coordination between parallel activities and programs. For example, I would like to work with the Community Literacy Center on something in the future. We need to develop an inclusive culture for the arts. They’re really for everyone.