"A Strange Friendship": Associate Professor David Keplinger
Collaborates with Long-Dead Ancestor on New Album
By K. Tyler Christensen
David Keplinger, the director of the MFA program, is known mostly for his poetry—though occasionally MFA students and faculty will hear a little acoustic music coming from his office as we wander the halls. David initially went to school to study musical theatre. In the end he decided that he just didn’t have the actor chops. He went on to study poetry—his passion. Café Americain sat down with David to talk about his latest project, an album of music written by David with lyrics written by David’s great-great-grandfather, Isaac P. Anderson. With help from friends and fellow musicians, David wrote and arranged the eleven tracks on By & By. The album is a labor of love. David told CA it was the project of his life.
CA: Tell us the story of how all of this started.
DK: My aunt, who was like a second mother to me, received a box in the late nineties. It had been in an attic for a hundred and thirty years. Inside was a pair of glasses, two books, and some paperwork involving one individual’s life, Isaac P. Anderson. He lived in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania (infamous as the film location for The Blob). Isaac was a soldier in the civil war, and the son of a schoolmaster who owned a little school called “Greenwood Dale.”
One of the items in the box was a copybook that Isaac had gotten when he was twelve, in 1851. It still has the tag on it from the bookstore. It’s covered with drawings, homework (algebra), and poems that he had written over the span of his entire life from 1839 to the turn of the twentieth century. He went back to the book in the 1880’s and wrote down the lyrics of his favorite songs. In the 1850’s as a little boy he wrote little poems and he sketched faces and objects from around his home. There is a beautiful poem that he wrote in there about a grasshopper when he was twelve. It was such a gorgeous poem that I thought I could make it into a song. (On the album, it’s called: “A Little Boy’s Address To A Grasshopper in October”).
CA: How would you describe the music?
DK: I would describe it as a cross between bluegrass and more accessible alternate folk music.
CA: If Isaac were to hear it now, what would you like him to take away? What kind of conversation do you imagine having if you were both in the same room?
DK: Isaac was Episcopalian, he came from a religious family of teetotalers. So, I would want him to pick up the fact that I am trying to honor his point of view and in my attempt to make it accessible to contemporary listeners I didn’t want to play with his language at all. Although, I did do some slight patching of verses that weren’t songs themselves to make it more clean. I wanted him to know that I saw his life as a dignified and important one in its privateness.
I imagine that we’d tell puns. I imagine that he is very funny, and charming, quiet in an intense way, doesn’t like to talk about himself, and overall lovely.
CA: So, your aunt—what a gift I might add—gave you this box and it also had these glasses in it.
DK: In the copybook was a drawing of these glasses, which is reproduced here (David shows CA the CD that has a child’s drawing of a pair of glasses on it:
You see the drawing, and they’re the same as the glasses I had in the box. (DK is referring to the cover of the album. A set of wire frame glasses lies atop aging, lined paper with beautiful swirls of cursive written on it).
So, It’s almost like the two moments in time are talking to each other. Isaac’s bearing evidence that it was there (past), and I’m bearing evidence that it’s here. It seems as if it’s almost in two places at the same time- or two times, in the same place.
CA: Almost like the music, Isaac’s life, now runs parallel with your own.
DK: He’s in his world doing his writing, living his life and I’m in my world engaging with his writing and living mine. It’s another way of thinking about life and time. It got me so interested in his life that I started to transcribe these little poems and I started to write these songs in January of 2011. This whole thing unfolded over the span of a year.
CA: Do the lyrics come entirely from these poems or did you have to add here and there to make them complete?
DK: They’re pretty much a hundred percent from the poems. I would say about ninety percent. I added one verse to one song and I made another song rhyme that didn’t rhyme.
It was a very formal event to copy a poem into someone’s copybook. The pages were precious. He kept the copybook his entire life and then used the pages when he was in his forties and fifties to write the lyrics of songs. So, that was the first book and then in the second book it’s a veterinary book, which must have belonged to his father, and in the back of the book he wrote actual songs. I discovered a song called, “There’s Somebody Waiting for Me,” so I took out my guitar and started playing chords. It was strange to me at first to think about how, if ever it had ever been sung, it was now being sung a hundred and fifty years after it was written. He’d written it in 1869; he was very good at dating things.
CA: How does your career as a poet inform the writing of music? Was the creative process similar?
DK: The creative process was not similar at all. It has been hard for me to straddle those worlds, but satisfying because the musical aspect of it surprised me. I feel like I’ve got a lot to learn. The poetry, which I felt was my forte, was difficult to make accessible side by side with the music and to imagine it as a book is still difficult. How will people look at it, read it? It has the visual, aural, and spiritual elements all coming together, smashing up against each other and I want the experience to feel fluid, effortless.
CA: On the inside of the album jacket, you’ve inscribed, “The Strange Friendship of Isaac P. Anderson & David Keplinger. It is a friendship—it’s this beautiful collaboration…
DK: A collaboration with the dead.
CA: Yes. These things that were heartfelt and meaningful for him at the time have now taken on meaning for you.
DK: And, we’ve made it together. The both of us.
CA: In addition to the album, you’re also working on a new book of poetry inspired by Isaac P. Anderson’s drawings as a twelve-year-old. There is intent to the imagery. You showed one drawing of a man before the Civil War marching with his bayonet and mentioned how the “poems try to talk to the images.” A later image shows a soldier with a dark face, an arrow through his torso (maybe the same soldier) his arms flailing, as he’s dying.
The fact that you have done this album and then created these beautiful pieces of poetry is such a rare, self-actualizing experience. I don’t think that many people are so fortunate to connect to their heritage in such a rich way.
DK: I went with my aunt when I first got this box to the graveyard to find his grave, and we couldn’t find it. We were wandering around these thousands of graves for the longest time, until finally she was at the end of one row and I was at the end of another in this cemetery in Phoenixville. We were completely separated from each other, searching for this guy for over a half an hour and I said, “I can’t find him. I give up. He’s probably not even buried here.” And she said, “You’re probably right.” Then, as I was turning to meet her, I looked down and I was standing right on his grave. Isaac P. Anderson. His wife was buried next to him.