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An Interview with David Keplinger

By Emma DiValentino

David Keplinger is the author of seven collections of poetry: The World to Come, Another City, The Long Answer: Selected and New Poems, The Most Natural Thing, The Prayers of Others, The Clearing and The Rose Inside. He has received numerous awards for his work including the Minds on Fire Open Book Prize, the 2019 UNT Rilke Prize, the Colorado Book Award, the 1999 T.S. Eliot Prize and the Cavafy Prize from Poetry International. In addition to his work as an author, he is a professor of literature at American University.


Q: How do you deal with writer’s block?


A: I don’t believe in writer’s block, because it’s never happened to me in the way it’s talked about—the writer staring at the blank page and empty of thoughts. What happens when you chase after it is that the work finds ways to elude you, to keep the chase alive. It’s when you’re looking in from the margins or distracted by something else like form or the chatter of voices at a cafe that poetry sneaks up on you.


Q: What is the book that you think everyone should read?


A: The Divine Comedy is pretty wonderful, and full of lasting truths.


Q: Who inspires you the most and why?


A: I’m inspired, very seriously I mean this, by my colleagues in the department of Lit at AU. Since we’re talking about CW, I’ll mention the MFA faculty, because otherwise the list would grow too long. They are Kyle Dargan, Rachel Louise Snyder, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Stephanie Grant, Patricia Park, Melissa Scholes Young, and Sandra Beasely. Not only are each of them distinguished writers but they are gifted teachers and mentors who have marked our department as one of the finest on campus.


Q: What would you say is your biggest accomplishment?


A: As you get older you tend to surprise even yourself when, after such a question is asked, you kind of don’t have an answer. Or, it’s an answer I never would have fathomed thirty years ago. Maybe my biggest accomplishment is some passing comment I made in class that stuck with a particular student who went on to touch the lives of thousands of people in some way; or maybe I just listened well one day to someone who needed to be heard. We can’t say really what that moment of accomplishment is. History might write it for us, but it’s rarely the real one. Like how the Buddha said, “Whatever you think it is, it’s not that.” But we all have one great moment. In that vein, my biggest accomplishment must be connected to my choice to become a teacher. Writing gave me a platform to speak and bear witness to a life; teaching gave me the opportunity to listen to and connect with many lives.


Q: Why did you become a professor? Why have you stayed in the role?


A: I think I answer that above. But also, it’s a job that keeps you emotionally and mentally fit, sands away your rough edges, helps you to grow patient with people and processes, to see individuals where they’re at, and it keeps you reading, keeps you engaging.


Q: If you could speak to your younger self, what advice would you give them?


A: Only to trust that you’re not to be judged by the last poem you wrote, or the last bad or excellent thing you did. That person was filled with ambition and self-doubt, an anxious-making combination. The best things that happened I couldn’t have planned on. Encounters and coincidences and long journeys away and home again. What would I say to him? You could do better, I think I would say to that person, but you’re on your way, you’re doing good.


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