Wednesday, April 15, 2009

In the Interstice: An Interview with David Keplinger

This Saturday, The Writer's Center is pleased to welcome poets Michael Collier (Wild Dark Night) and David Keplinger (The Prayers of Others). To get us all warmed up for that event, which is here at the Center at 7:30 p.m., I asked David Keplinger a few questions. You can view more about the Collier/Keplinger reading here.

The poems in your book The Clearing are influenced by poets throughout the ages--Blake, Keats, Frost, Donne, Lorca. Did you deliberately sit down to write a group of poems involving major poets?

I think the first poem in that series was Keats'. I had read a poem by Auden that used that form (a very loose iambic pentameter structure with five line stanzas, the rhymes varying from stanza to stanza) and the poem seemed to write itself. In the first section of The Clearing I was meditating on departures, departures from form, departures from ideology, and literal departures from the known into the unknown. Part one soon became an effort to simultaneously honor and clear away the influences who represented form, ideology, and the known. In part two I was focused more on honoring form and limitation; so certain other poets were evoked in that section. In part three, where the Lorca poem appears, I was thinking about the poets of the 20th century who could so beautifully embody tradition at the same time they were able to seem apart from it. Having that structure helped me to craft the manuscript and, of course, it got me to write all kinds of poems I otherwise would not have written.

Your poem "Pig Slaughter" in that same collection is absolutely stunning. Could you tell us a little about its genesis?

This is a strange story because it is one of those eerie examples of how a poem can sometimes lead the way without your (the writer) knowing it. I wrote "Pig Slaughter" in a few minutes. I rarely hold on to the first draft of a poem, but this one I did. It's based on a tradition called "zabijacka" in the Czech Republic. "Zabijacka" means "slaughter," but it's not simply that. There's a gathering of the community to kill, cook, and eat this pig together. When I witnessed one, I thought it had a kind of religious tone to it. After the collection came out, one interviewer noted that I had been using the Anglo-Saxon form -- three alliterations per every four or so beats, with the line breaks serving as the caesura. I looked at the poem and was amazed that he was right. But I hadn't intended that at all. Now I sense there is a part of every poet that moves the poem towards form without our knowing it - and form is always a product of the place and time out of which it came. The Anglo-saxon form is an evocation of the stoic search for dignity; how duty in that tradition supercedes what we desire for ourselves. The pig takes me as an unwilling but necessary martyr; he's killed, cooked, and his body and blood are taken in. In this country we eat plenty of pigs but we avoid confronting the messiness of their deaths. Having to look at it and participate in such a death, I sense the Czechs were honoring the pig, in the old way.

How did you get started translating Carsten Rene Nielsen from Danish?

When I worked in the Czech Republic in the mid-90s I spent one Christmas in Copenhagen with a friend. One afternoon we were sitting in his apartment trying to get the feeling back into our toes (we had just gone on a hike to the water and back), when he pulled a small book from his shelf and started to extemporaneously translate. I so fell in love with Nielsen's poems I contacted him later that year, and, with his help, starting translating him. We worked on email at first, and then Skype. Probably about fifty of the poems were published at different places before we started thinking about a book. In 2007 the book appeared; it was for me just like having my own book published. We had spent so many hours on it! This summer I'm returning to Aarhus to start working on his new collection.

How much has your translation work changed you--if at all--as a poet? Do you think your collaboration has changed Nielsen in any way?

I don't think it's changed him much as a poet, but I sense his English is much better. Sadly, my Danish is still practically non-existent. Without his literal translations in the first draft stage, none of this would be possible. But to answer the first part of your question, I do think that his poetry inspired my third book, The Prayers of Others. That's a collection of short-short prose poems (each about 80 words), which, I'm sure, would never have been written without Nielsen's playfulness and ingenuity to lead me.

Final question, why should young poets read or even translate poetry?

You should read poetry only if you feel drawn to poetry. If you're not, there are plenty of other media and literary genres that could delight, surprise, challenge old ideas, and inform. As for translation, I always say that being a translator means being an intensely close reader. You see that the levels of meaning exist in these untranslateable gaps, and your job as the advocate of this poet in the new language is to try to recreate a kind of environment in which the poem might live again. Charles Simic says, "The idiom is the lair of the tribal beast." I love that, because it suggests that in order to translate well you have to worry about the words, of course, but also the tone; that translating is like trying to create the perfect environment so the poem can be read in the new language without sounding translated. It's about as difficult as getting Pandas to mate in captivity. Young poets should translate poetry because they see their own work should be so rich in subtext; their own work should be breathing like that, in the interstice, the in between.

David Keplinger is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently The Prayers of Others (2006) , which won the Colorado Book Award, and The Clearing (2005). His first collection, The Rose Inside, won the 1999 T.S. Eliot Prize. David has received grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, The Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the SOROS Foundation, the Academy of American Poets, and the Katey Lehman Foundation. From 1995 until 1997 he taught at Gymnazium Petra Bezruc in Frydek-Mistek (Czech Republic) and creative writing at the University of Ostrava. His essays on creative writing pedagogy, now a book-in-progress, have appeared in The American Voice, Teacher & Writers, AGNI, Radical Pedagogy, Theory and Science, and in various anthologies. His co-translations with Danish poet Carsten Rene Nielsen, World Cut Out with Crooked Scissors, appeared in 2007.

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