Conversations: Talking with David Keplinger
Café Americain is proud to introduce you to our new interview series, Conversations. This is our best attempt at getting to know the faculty who teach and serve the students of the MFA program because, unfortunately, some students don’t manage to take a workshop with every professor in the program. We are aiming to learn more about the professors and what influences them, plus grab a few book recommendations along the way. To kick off Café’s Conversations, columns editor Revital Aranbaev interviewed professor David Keplinger. Enjoy!
David Keplinger is a professor at American University and has taught undergraduate and graduate courses since 2007. In the MFA program, he teaches Advanced Poetry Workshop and Seminar on Translation. He is the author of four collections of poetry: The Most Natural Thing (2013), winner of the 2014 “Best Book Award” from Tacenda Literary Magazine and BleakHouse Publishing, The Prayers of Others (2006), winner of the 2007 Colorado Book Award, The Clearing (2005), and The Rose Inside (1999), chosen by Mary Oliver for the 1999 T.S. Eliot Prize. David has also co-translated Danish poet Carsten Rene Nielsen’s World Cut Out with Crooked Scissors and House Inspections, as well as German poet Jan Wagner’s The Art of Topiary.
CA: What are you drawn to write about?
DK: I’m interested in presence, sometimes realized through absence. There is an idea in Zen Buddhism that’s very attractive to me—if we peel away all that is impermanent, whatever is left, is real. Words, even though they can’t describe what’s real, can create an impression around the real, and give readers a palpable sense of that presence, which is with us everywhere.
CA: What experiences in your life have informed your writing the most?
DK: Loss. Travel. Familial bonds. Relationships. I think it basically comes down to our difference. Whatever awakens us to the fact that we are separate, those things excite my imagination, because I want to find out how to return to that unity before there was separation.
I lived abroad for two years, which was an important post-MFA experience for me. I received a fellowship to teach in an Eastern European country and was placed the Ostrava, in the Czech Republic. It was the hardest and most wonderful time of my life. While I was there, I learned Czech and maintained bonds with the people that I lived among and go back and see them constantly, so it helps me to hold on to the language.
Pribor was a Jewish city until around 1938 when people were deported to camps throughout Europe. This eventually emptied out the city. Today, it’s completely repopulated but the antique stores have all the possessions of the people who were sent away. In this absence there can be presence — an intense and horrible but wonderful presence. I really felt that when I was there. And being an outsider helped me to feel it more deeply than if I had grown up there.
CA: What is the best writing advice you were given when you started writing?
DK: In the last line of his poem, “The Impossible,” Bruce Weigl writes, “Say it clearly and you make it beautiful no matter what.” You would be surprised how often you can forget that very basic idea—that you just have to say what you’re feeling clearly. When you get to the blank page, it’s asking you to clearly say how you feel without any translation—just an absolute transcription of your thoughts, what you see, what you’re experiencing and how it feels. It’s so hard to just transcribe and not translate and to get to that source.
CA: You teach a mandatory class for all MFA students: Seminar on Translation. Why is it so important for people to take your translation class? What’s the significance in translating works from different languages?
DK: Translation serves a lot of ends: It makes you a better reader of poetry. There is no closer reader than a translator. It also teaches you to get out of the way and to lose your attachment to outcomes. A lot of younger translators try to fix the poem that they’re translating, but that’s not their job. Their job is to try to create the same effect for English readers that had been created for readers of that language, in the original. So it helps you to surrender your grasping for outcomes. It also teaches you to get out of the way and to help someone else. And, finally, it helps you to bring another poet into the conversation of poets writing in English.
So it’s not really about poetry as much as discovering what attracts you to other people’s writing, acknowledging that, articulating it, and then turning around and asking yourself important questions about the writing that you do.
CA: What craft books would you recommend to a student who hasn’t had the chance to take your class?
DK: Is That a Fish in Your Ear (2011) [by David Bellos] is a book on literary translation, which covers a lot of the same things that we cover in class. For poetry, I always recommend Mary Oliver’s Poetry Handbook
CA: What poets do you recommend students read?
DK: Aaron Anstett and Sam Taylor are both poets in their forties who deserve a lot more readers.
CA: If you weren’t a writer/professor what would you be doing? What would your other profession be?
DK: I would either be a writer for a comedy television series or a musician.
Revital Aranbaev is the columns editor for Café Américain and a first-year candidate in the American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.