David Keplinger likes to be lost.
Considering that the poet travels regularly to locales such as Italy, Denmark and the Czech Republic, he finds ample time to practice the craft. And then harness the experience.
"[Being lost] allows in more emotion amplitude," says Keplinger. "There [is] much greater range, and more danger. I write a lot of 'lost' poetry I spend a lot of time being lost."
With that poetry, Keplinger has found a medium to re-create and explore his blind wanderings, and to relive moments of intense dislocation. The courage has paid off: Keplinger's mix of gutsy, concise prose and intimate poems of self-instruction, The Prayers of Others, won him the 2007 Colorado Book Award.
He received the honor right after leaving Colorado State University-Pueblo to head the MFA program at American University in Washington, D.C.
Looking back, Keplinger says he didn't dabble in poetry until his guitar-playing, theater-major days at Pennsylvania State University, in the early 1990s. He left his home in Philadelphia to teach creative writing at CSU-Pueblo following the publication of his first book, The Rose Inside, in '99.
Two more books, numerous awards and nine years later, Keplinger's creative fire has been fueled by a close circle of peer critics and the frequent travel abroad.
"Those trips are invaluable to me," says Keplinger. "They give me the perspective of the place that I come from, and when I come back from them, I get this perspective of strangeness that is really important."
A single day in Palermo, Sicily, in 1997, produced more than 15 poems for him.
"Imagine if I had missed my bus: Half a book would be gone," he says. "I was lost, I couldn't communicate. I was helped by strangers and it was late at night ... When I look back on that day, I remember going black-and-white and slow-motion, like an old movie ... it helps me go to another world, another place in my mind."
Many of Keplinger's poems are poignant stills that set ablaze a single image through memory. Take, for example, this short selection:
I've been to this station, but will never go back. A beautiful woman in a green gown was clasping a shoe to her ankle. The stiletto on that shoe the length of my pointer finger. Her other foot was bare. The woman stood up, threw her purse on the crook of her shoulder. Tik-tump, Tik-tump, and away she went. The train pulled out. Tell me, what shall I do with that image? The woman's still there. She walks on the stilt of my finger.
Other Keplinger poems blend seemingly haphazard images; connecting them is often challenging and disorienting to the reader. The achieved effect is the poet's own perception of strangeness and otherness. This emanates particularly from a second-person poem in which he is speaking less to the reader and more to himself:
You may listen / To the gurgle of the small / Red chimneys / Filling up with dark. / Into that dark / That sleeves / The bare branches / Like a heavy sack, / A crow will disappear, children.
"The 'lost' motif comes back again and again," says Keplinger. "I'm often talking to myself at different stages of my life, and the reader gains access to that dialogue."