Another City: An Interview with David Keplinger
By Melody Tootoonchi
American University’s own David Keplinger is a man of words, through and through— from poetry to translation to song. He is the author of five collections of poetry, the most recent of which (Another City) is being published this month by Milkweed Editions. His other recent books include The Most Natural Thing (New Issues, 2013) and The Prayers of Others (New Issues, 2006), which won the Colorado Book Award. In 2011 he produced By and By, an album of eleven songs based on the poetry of his great-great-grandfather, a Civil War veteran. When he’s not working on his own creative endeavors, David spends his time collaborating with others. Most recently, he worked with German poet Jan Wagner on The Art of Topiary (Milkweed, 2017), a translated collection of Wagner’s poetry. (For more on Wagner and our Visiting Writers series, check out his interview.)
As a professor at AU, David shows his students both sides of the literary coin in his classes on poetry and translation—giving them new creative opportunities such as reading haiku at the Japanese Embassy. I had the opportunity to interview David about his work in light of the release of Another City, available March 13th.
Where did the inspiration for the city motif come from? Does it have anything to do with Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, which you’re known for using in your translation classes?
The city is such a rich metaphor for awareness, experience, and memory. In the city one can be surrounded by others but feel very alone. Or one might find his or her life has changed after an encounter with someone they may never see again. It’s the contemporary forest, where every story of every city has its own version of the Green Man, the hunter who comes out of the wild to tell us something. The title of my book is Another City because I wanted to emphasize the sense of distance (between the self and the other) and the sense of multiplicity–there comes another and another and another. Every separate, dappled thing is a kind of city. And each of those cities is constantly changing, falling into ruin, being rebuilt. I was speaking to Richard McCann about this recently. What makes my heart smile as a writer is the homing in on a moment of transformation, one thing becomes a wholly other thing, at that moment in which it is both and neither. What I discovered in writing these poems about cities and distances is that the closer you get to something, anything, an atom, another person, the farther away they tend to feel, the more empty space seems to open up between the two. So I began to write poems about that spaciousness that is the substance of life. Not so much difference, but spaciousness, and taking little photographs of one thing at the moment it begins to turn into another.
In addition to writing poetry you also do some translation work, and there are a few poems in Another City that are inspired by translation. Could you tell us about the relationship between translation and your original work? How do they speak to each other?
It’s a nice follow up to the previous question. If you think of a word as having the qualities I attribute to cities above—the spaciousness, the grand history, what Seamus Heaney calls “the far-flungness” of the word—and if you think of a poem in translation as “a sister city” related to but not the same in location and architecture as its sibling, then you see the relationship to translation. I have a few poems which are inspired by translations of original texts, which try to support that sense of distance and space between the English version and the original, as well as the space between my response and the translation.
In one of these poems, I use a line from Robert Bly, translated from Kabir: “an apartment in the city of death.” Bly is known for his loose translations, his connotative versions, so we can assume Kabir was not using the word “apartment” or even “city of death.” I like this effect because, knowing that it’s close, I am drawn more to think about the exact words of the original, the words I can’t know, the words below the words. Translations draw me closer to the invisible heart of the poetry. A translation is like an Italian piazza that, you are told, used to be a bustling market in Roman times. It’s not there, but in the invisible sense, its presence is deeply felt. A translation: a city built over another city, closely approximated to the one that has disappeared.
You use a variety of forms in your poetry. How do you go about matching form to content? Does it come as you write or do you apply a form in the revision process?
I write the poems, sometimes, forty or fifty times over, and sometimes I write them once. When I write them the one time and I know the poem is complete, if not ever finished, it’s because I’ve hit upon that lucky instance in which the appropriate form and content have arisen at the same time. If I have to write the poem forty or fifty times (there is a poem in this book which I published in POETRY in 2001 and never felt that I had gotten right), it’s because I’m still trying to find that conversation, the one in which the walls of the poem close in to frame—in some way, complimentary or contradictory—the speech. There are a few traditional forms in this book, but many fewer than in previous ones. Do you want a walled, spiraling medieval city or do you want sprawl? I am drawn toward the walled city, but not always.
Another City is filled with poems that present us with a sense of brokenness or loss, and that feeling can sometimes be seen not only in content but also in form. For instance, “Beatification” and “Every Angel is Terrifying” use caesura to make them appear fractured on the page, which is a technique that doesn’t appear much in your previous work. Could you tell us a more about this use of caesura and the fractured emotions of Another City?
Thank you for pointing that out. I have always loved this form, used widely, though most famously by James Dickey in his late works and by Craig Arnold in his exquisite books, Made Flesh and Shells. Arnold uses the form sometimes to investigate the interrelationships of nature and history—one constructed with a pervasive sense of narrative (many little narratives that comprise an expansive one) and the other a wholly lyrical affair caught eternally in the present. In both of these poems I tried to do the same, the encounter with nature being the moment one is confronted by life as it really is, eternally now, and the human observer’s relief and terror in the face of that. The form works nicely because it floats like a leaf, it doesn’t have a trajectory, it’s a beautiful lyric device.
The poem “A Young Man’s Copybook: 1861-1864” was written after the journal of your great-great-grandfather and is split into shorter poems, most of which are written in couplets. But one of these shorter poems, “When Walt Whitman Came to Stone General Hospital, April 1864,” breaks that form by using tercets. What was your thought process while writing “A Young Man’s Copybook,” from the change in form to getting in touch with your great-great-grandfather’s life?
It’s a good example of how, when the poem resists being shaped into the standard form, you should listen to it. I wrote those poems over a period of about four years. The earliest ones were indeed couplets, and when I hit the Walt Whitman piece, I tried–as most would–to arrange it in those long lines of authority, those incrementally longer statements, and to break it into couplets. But since this was a soldier speaking, not Whitman himself, I found myself wanting to make the lines sing, collapse on themselves, feel the humbleness and the being held that Isaac (the soldier, my great-great-grandfather) must have been feeling. He had been falsely accused of desertion, incarcerated by the government he’d fought to defend, and in this brief moment of compassion felt human again. I might add, this may have happened. Isaac P. Anderson was arrested in 1863, the charge being desertion. In fact he’d been cheated by a claims agent while processing his discharge from the Union Army. He was so ill (the reason for his discharge in the first place) he was kept in hospitals throughout Washington, D.C. for eight months, one of them being Stone General, out in what’s now Columbia Heights. Whitman was known to visit it on his rounds. By June of 1864 Anderson was released and sent home, but he never recovered, really. He died twenty years later from the same physical issues that began to manifest during the war.
If you could meet with one of the people who inspired some of the poems in Another City–be it Leon Fleischer, Rilke, Simone Weil, Lincoln, or even your great-great-grandfather–with whom would you choose to share this book, and how do you think your conversation would go?
I’ve already “met” – in an album of songs (where he wrote the lyrics in the 19th century and I wrote the music in the 21st) my great-great-grandfather. Others I carry very closely: Weil and Rilke, I mean. But they were mystics and their presence would not be at all what we’d expect. Already removed and suddenly-right-here at the same time. Quiet. I don’t imagine a long conversation happening. It would be Lincoln. It would be Lincoln so that I might witness the humanity there, all the parts that weren’t memorialized, all the edited imperfections, the sunken eyes and the uncombed hair, the crooked bowtie. The corporal qualities. The quickness of the mind in conversation, and the sense of humor.
What are you currently reading? Where are you finding your inspiration today?
I’m working on a novel-in-verse for middle graders. I started it on the day of the Trump inauguration as a kind of therapy. I’ve been through two passes and am now on the third, which I’m excited about. It’s 200 pages of poetry, but I want each poem to have the substance of any poem I’d publish in a book. I want it to be accessible and interesting to 11-year-olds, but I want it to be layered, too. So I find it’s taking me a long time to reach that meeting point. I’ve reread Brown Girl Dreaming (Jacqueline Woodson’s monumental collection) and some Kwame Alexander. I’m reading lots of manuscripts now, too. Lots of work by our graduating MFAs, which inspires me back to my own. And I’m rediscovering these poems from Another City in the readings I’m giving. This summer I’ll return to Denmark for a while and work on some collaborations with Carsten René Nielsen again. But with the publication of this book I feel the space to breathe a little, I’m able to sit back a little and examine the possibilities and read for leisure in a less artistically or professionally motivated way. And I treasure that.
Image: Bards Alley (Author photo: Czarina Divinagracia)
Melody Tootoonchi is a contributing writer at Café MFA and a second-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.