The Multi-Creatives: David Keplinger’s By and By: The Copybook Songs of Isaac P. Anderson

A lot of writers I know do multiple creative things: needlepoint, ceramics, jewelry making, theatre, art, dance, music. There’s a certain attractiveness to this. Because, always, creativity breeds creativity. Through experimentation people find what they want to say, and then, through even more creative exploration, discover the way to say it.

Every now and then, these various artistic bits merge, developing into something new and very interesting.

I have had the great opportunity to study with a poet by the name of David Keplinger (you guys may have heard me mention his name around here before). I’ve heard him read his poetry at many different venues.

But, I’ve probably heard him sing in bars, or around campfires, more. Cuz that’s just how we roll.

Now I’ve just learned that David has combined his poetical sense and his musical inspirations to cut an album based on his great-great-grandfather’s poems. I was so absolutely tickled by this that I had to let you guys know, so you can check it out. It’s a really moving tribute to his family, but I think the historical notes, the creative expression, and the folksy style are inspiring too.

The Road Trip Story: Kerouac is Not a Beginner

On the Road is a road trip story.

(Any objections?)

I’m sure the influence of this experimental novel, with its meandering structure, has been the bane of many a writing teacher’s existance. I’m basing this assumption on the fact that my writing teacher, David Keplinger, took the time during a class to discuss road trip stories and the dangers of them.

It boils down to this: very rarely do road trip stories have a point.

Keplinger talked about how the story often followed similar lines.
A.) troubled boy/girl begins adventure by leaving college/family/social structure behind
B.) troubled boy/girl has adventures with random people (promiscuous sex, drugs, car breaking down, some scene where people are stuck in the rain)
C.) troubled boy/girl has some epiphany that leads them to realize they’ve left their true love/future/hopes somewhere 
D.) troubled boy/girl manages to get to the home of true love/future/hopes and goes to knock at the door
E.) dramatic moment: troubled boy/girl knocks on door…and rest is left up to reader’s imagination

Keplinger’s argument was that the story started with the knock on the door. That’s where the conflict comes in. Sure, the story had some events and some really trying moments…but episodes and conflicts are not the same thing.

On the Road definitely is episodic. But Keplinger’s argument is intended for beginning writers who have all the subtlety of jackhammers. Beginning writers don’t understand what conflict is, don’t understand how to resolve it, and don’t know how to tell something in a scene.

Kerouac, when he wrote On the Road, was not a beginner. It’s clear in his prose alone and it becomes clearer when you see how he handles the novel as a whole. Episodic? Yes. But that is part of his point. The episodes, if you look at them, become the conflict itself.

Sal goes off on his own for trip. Sal and Dean go off on another trip. Sal and Dean go off on more trips. Trip, trip, trip. Episode, episode, episode. Readers get irritated; they go What Is The Point Of All This?

The point is just that: this is an exhausting lifestyle. This is an exhausting pace. Cars run out of gas. Wives get fed up. Eventually, Dean will go off on his own, leaving the lout, Sal, behind…which was Sal’s greatest fear in the opening of the book. In the scroll version of On the Road, Kerouac says that had he not been married, he would have gone with Dean again — but instead goes to a theatre show he doesn’t want to go to, with his wife. That shows a shift in Kerouac/Sal’s attitude…even if all he wants is to go with Neal/Dean and live that exhausting lifestyle.

Kerouac didn’t need a knock on the door to end the story. The road keeps going, but the story is done.

Stories like that are not for the faint of heart and they are not for beginners, like I was (and still am…) when Keplinger talked about what not to do.

Well, I say, if you want to write a road trip story — try it and see what happens. Just be aware that for a road trip story to work, the conflict, the real conflict has to be worked out on the road.

The Difference Between Poetry and Lyrics: A Crash Course in One Way to Read Poetry

I have had the opportunity to take several poetry classes (and even succeeded in earning passing grades). In every one of the workshops that I’ve had in this genre, there’s always a person or two who says something along the lines of : “Poetry today is music.” Meaning that music lyrics are today’s version of old-school poetry.

Well, sort of. As my teacher, David Keplinger (awesome instructor, check him out at American University in Washington D.C.–Director of Creative Writing: Careful girls, you’ll automatically have a crush), put it: music depends on on the music to get the emotional response. You can have pathetic lyrics and still have a great song–note the amount of Top 40 hits with Yeah, Yeah, Yeah in the lyrical layout.  You can have a moving experience with music that has no words.  Guitars, violins, kazoos…they all serve to fill in the spaces.

Poetry depends on the rhythm of the words (syllables, pauses, meter, etc.), the way the words are juxtaposed (rhyme, blank verse, line breaks, etc.). The closest thing that music has is, believe it or not, rap. Yep, Eminem probably has more in common with T.S. Eliot than Celine Dion.

To keep it easy, let’s just look at word juxtaposition (how words are placed near one another) and let’s look at P.G. Wodehouse–because he’s our mentor and he’s also written poetry and musical lyrics.

Check out the following stanza from “The Infant in Arms” (You can check out his other poetry at that site as well.)

“And when the days are dark and cold,
When it either snows or pours,
You’ll shift the scene of your daily toil,
And do your work indoors.
And toy with someone’s “Modern War,”
Or KIPLING’S martial verse,
Or while away the hours of rest
At Kriegspiel with your nurse.”

Now, without thinking too hard about it–what sticks out to you? For me, it was Kriegspiel. Why? Because it’s German and we already know about Wodehouse’s experience during WWII. Plus, Kriegspiel is a war game, like Risk or Chess. And if we look at the title, we see that Wodehouse is talking about an “Infant in Arms”–so now we have children who haven’t left the nursery (the word “nurse” gives that away, right?) who are playing German war games. Connect the dots. Now it’s a political commentary, yes?  

So that’s one way of getting into a poem: check out the key/odd words and see what they’re placed near. Compare the title to what’s presented in the text.

The other bit, if you take a peek, is there’s a rhyme scheme. Pours and Indoors. Verse and Nurse. (For those technical scanners, here ya go: ABCBDEFE.) This creates a sing-songy element–which is interesting because we’re talking about small children and sing-song is the whole purpose of nursery rhymes. But it’s just an echo, helping reinforce how the subjects (war and children) don’t fit together.

Rhyme shows up in musical lyrics too, no doubt about that. But generally (nowadays) it’s not in such a recognizable pattern as ABABCDCDEFEFGG–and ten points if you name the type of poem that rhyme scheme belongs to!

I’m not going to go into meter. (Mostly because I’m listening to music and listening to a different beat is not conducive to looking at meter….) Plus I’ve gone on at quite a length already!

So, let’s look at some lyrics by Wodehouse, from the show Show Boat, here’s “Bill”:

He can’t play golf or tennis or polo,
Or sing a solo, or row.
He isn’t half as handsome
As dozens of men that I know.
He isn’t tall or straight or slim
And he dresses far worse than Ted or Jim.
And I can’t explain why he should be
Just the one, one man in the world for me.
He’s just my Bill an ordinary man,
He hasn’t got a thing that I can brag about.

Okay, so there’s some rhyming. But, if you look at word juxtaposition, there’s nothing surprising or switch-it-up. It reads fairly plain on the page. The woman’s talking about Bill, and you can hear the sweetness when she talks about him. But if you’re looking for emotional impact–well, it’s kind of boring. That’s because lyrics depend almost entirely on the performer and the music to deliver.

Take those same words, and listen to Ava Gardner deliver the goods:

Works a little differently, doesn’t it?