Pop Goes the Prof

updated 11/28/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/28/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

TALK ABOUT POETRY IN MOTION. IN 1987, when Wyn Cooper published his first (and only) collection of poems, The Country of Here Below, a mere 500 copies of the 40-page paperback were printed. Six years later, one was discovered in a Pasadena, Calif., bookstore by singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow's producer, Bill Bottrell. He took it to Crow, who used one of the poems, titled "Fun," for the lyrical base of her playfully raucous song "All I Wanna Do," released in July as the first single off her debut album, Tuesday Night Music Club. Deejays across the country clamored to play the song, and 12 weeks after its release, Crow and Cooper were in the Top 5 on the pop charts.

A visiting professor of literature and writing at Marlboro College in Marlboro, Vt., Cooper, 37, wrote "Fun" ("We are drinking beer at noon on Tuesday/ In a bar that faces a giant car wash") 10 years ago after a beer with a buddy. When Crow sought permission to use it, he says, "I was so happy someone had actually read my book that I instantly said yes. I didn't even think about the fact that they would pay me." With album sales topping a million, Cooper—one of five writers credited on the song—figures "All I Wanna Do" has already earned him twice his $25,000-a-year teaching salary. He has also earned something else: "My platinum album is supposedly on the way."

The disc will make a nice decorating touch in his newly rented log cabin near the Marlboro campus, a long way from suburban Rochester, Mich., where Cooper grew up. One of four kids born to a tool-and-dye specialist and a teacher's aide, he wrote his first verse in the fifth grade: "Arithmetic is a dirty trick/ to play on an innocent kid." Cooper studied literature at the University of Utah, Virginia's Hollins College and back at Utah, before dropping out of that university's creative-writing doctoral program in 1986. Stints as a bartender, proofreader and carpenter preceded his 1991 move to Vermont, where Cooper, who is single, now teaches three classes plus a James Joyce tutorial.

Cooper first met Crow last April at a Boston concert. "Sheryl and I seem to have a similar outlook on life," he says. "We're both on the outside looking in." Now, from his perch at the top of the charts, Cooper sees a chance to give bards everywhere a boost. "Pop music doesn't need my help to find an audience," he says, "but poetry does."

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