Colorado Poets Center E-Words Issue #2

An Interview with David Keplinger

(Bob King)

I caught up with David Keplinger, winner of the 2007 Colorado Book Award in Poetry for The

Prayers of Others (New Issues Press), by phone in his new job at American University in Washington, D. C. I first had to ask if – with that book in 2006, The Clearing in 2005, and a translation of Carsten Rene Nielsen’s The World Cut Out with Crooked Scissors appearing last October – if he considered himself “prolific”.

“You might think so,” he answered, but then pointed out that he had worked on the two books for six years and the Neilsen translations for ten years. It just happened that they all came out close together.

For those who haven’t read Prayers of Others yet, all the poems are single prose paragraphs, the first few words capitalized as a kind of title. They certainly look like prose-poems, but there seemed to be something else at work. Keplinger said they were an homage both to the sonnet and to prose poems – they began as truncated, 8-line sonnets.

I wasn’t sure what made an 8-line sonnet to begin with, although I knew many of them had more than an echo of iambic meter. There was that “iambic flavor,” Keplinger said, but he also was working for the progression, the “turn” of a sonnet. “I wanted to get three leaps of thought during the poem, he said, “to get the conflict and tension of a sonnet.”

I turned to the last poem in the book as an example: “I MADE THIS paper boat for her, who finds it difficult to sleep. She imagines she is floating on its little stern, here, under her sleeping mask, under the covers. All you’ll need is one plain sheet. It’s folded like the beak of some archaic birds. With your fingers pry the wide beak open. You are opening the beak. You are climbing inside.”

I could see that the poem starts out with a concrete situation, making a paper boat, then shifts to a description, on a different language level, of how to make it. Then in the last two lines the final leap occurs, again on a different imaginative level: “You are opening the beak. You are climbing inside.”

David had finished 120 of these 8-line sonnets and he credits Herb Scott, recently deceased editor at New Issues, for cutting 50 of them out and, for that matter, for turning them into prose.

I asked what effect he thought prose had in the pieces to make them different than lined poems. “I think they take themselves less seriously without the line breaks,” he said. ‘They seem less contrived.”

“Contrived?” I wondered. “Well, when you look at a poem broken into lines, it announces itself as a poem. Looking at a prose poem, you don’t know what it is. It sort of emerges from the shadows with something hidden under its jacket, a vague shadowy figure. It’s not this, it’s not that. I think they seem much sharper, much smarter when they don’t announce themselves as this or that.”

I mentioned the strong image component of the poems, and he agreed. “I love to think about images, turn them around in my head, discover things about myself by describing things with a lot of tension.”

I’d found two main types of subject matter, images from family life (grandfather, father, mother) and more or less literary pieces referring to famous writers or scientists (Keats, Yeats, Kepler, Freud, et. al.), and he agreed. “I may have gone a little overboard on the literary references,” he said, “but I wanted to tell my own history, my own influences.”

There’s even a detectable arc in the book, beginning with an inferno and moving on to purgatorio and finally a paradiso. As one small example, the first poem in the book announces the writer as a child being ‘eaten’ by a lion while the last poem, as above, shows the child entering an animal. Keplinger admits he’s a kind of a “puzzle maker” when it comes to designing books, each poem “like a cog in a bigger machine.” Although he hadn’t mentioned it to anyone yet, Keplinger says he was inspired by Anglo-Saxon riddles, the way an object becomes something else in the riddle’s transformation.

The ‘hat’ poem was one of the first he wrote, it was recently aired on Keillor’s “Writer’s Almanac” and I’ll end by quoting it:

“LIFE ON EARTH is pulled down hard on a man’s head. This life was made by hatters. A busy street is only coffee, bread, and hats. The smell of a man’s hat – an old man’s hat – is like the nostril of a horse. You are breathing in what something beautiful and ancient had breathed out. The heat and life contained in it, the silk interior. An old man’s hat is necessary: You see that when he takes it off, his hair and skin abruptly float away.”

We in Colorado are sorry to lose David Keplinger, but can keep in touch through his future work.