Rich Keplar, Part-Time Poet

Rich Keplar is a picture framer by day and a poet on the side. Thanks to his vivid imagery, readers live vicariously through his experiences in Vietnam and beyond. Independent producer Larry Massett created a sound portrait of Keplar's work.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ALEX COHEN, host:

This is Day to Day from NPR News. I'm Alex Cohen.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand. Rich Keplar is your average neighbor. He is a picture framer, a good husband, two kids in college, a dog, he even has a lawn. One day, he mentioned to his neighbor, independent producer Larry Massett, that he also writes poetry. Larry didn't know what to expect, but here is some of what Rich Keplar read to him.

Mr. RICH KEPLAR (Poet): Oh, my God. What do I own? What do I do? What do I read? Vietnam, huh?

(Soundbite of pages turning)

Mr. KEPLAR: I'll read you Huey's(ph). (Reading) 1967, I was a Medevac Medic, First Infantry Division, and we flew on gunships, and those helicopters never really seemed right, you know.

(Soundbite of helicopter blades running)

Mr. KEPLAR: (Reading) I could understand great engines pushing forward and air bending the long wings, creating massive lift over clouds into thin air as we flew over oceans and continents with ease and assurance, Playboy magazines on our lap, but ruling blades over hostile jungle canopy in the middle of someone else's civil war, a single motor, open doors, a 21-year-old mortar(ph) officer driver(ph) stoned on hashish in a monsoon-blackened night and lost in Latin(ph) - well, it just seemed a little iffy to me.

(Soundbite of pages turning)

Mr. KEPLAR: (Reading) Free-fire zone, so terrified and alone, they were patrolling the free-fire zone. As the wind blew, they shot trees until they fell in a heap, a cow and a pig too, anything that moved. And so it was for the silhouette that carried a break in the hull.

I was sent to Germany. They put me in Medsurge and the burn unit and - my guys that are left were going to killed, and I always felt like either I cheated them or I cheated myself. I felt guilty for leaving them. Part of what I had to do was to process the dead bodies. And so I wrote a poem about this fellow. His name was Sgt. Graves(ph).

(Reading) I thought it was his actual name, Sgt. Graves. I sat and watched after you died in the army hospital. It was just you and I, Sgt. Graves and the resuscitation machine sloshing back and forth. It's still expanded and contracted your dead chest. I wondered a lot of things about you, Sgt. Graves, as I tagged you right toe. Mostly I wondered if you still had those three Clark bars in your top drawer. They were there, Sgt. Graves, they were there. And I was eating the last one as slid you into the dark refrigerator.

So when I got out of the service, I was doing too many drugs, and everything was bothering me. And I was a hospital technician because I had this medical training. And I got mononucleosis, and the doctors there, the nurses told me, you can't come to work. You're too sick. But that didn't stop me from going to the bars every night and drinking and coming home and smoking pot and whatever drug I could find. And one night, I fell in a hole coming home and I broke my ankle. So now I had a broken ankle, a cast up to my knee and I had mononucleosis. And I was drinking every night. I was hopping all over College Park, Maryland (laughing), closing the bars. So, one night I came home and I was - I was just so exhausted and fell down on my bed and about an hour or later, about four o'clock in the morning, I woke up with this searing pain going down my left arm. And your spleen gets enlarged when you have mononucleosis, and you could rupture your spleen. You have to take care of yourself. Maybe I was trying to kill myself, I don't know. So I felt this terrible, terrible, terrific, terrific pain going down my left arm. It dawned on me that maybe my spleen had ruptured. So as soon as I thought that, I fell to my bookcase and I knocked my bookcase over, and I was too dizzy, I couldn't stand up. So I started doing a little crawl and I started hallucinating about - that I was in the army, I was little crawling and...

(Soundbite of helicopter)

And I thought I was being chased - maybe the Viet Kong were chasing me. And some, I woke up in the morning around five o'clock, five-thirty and saw me in the hallway, and I was just white as sheet and I was barely conscious, and this friend of mine called an ambulance, and they came and they took me to my very emergency room where I worked.

(Soundbite of laughter)

I - the nurses and the doctors that I worked with saw me come in and you know, and they - say, oh my Lord. What has he done now? (laughing) Look at him. And they rushed me up to the O.R. I remember watching an art demonstration. I watched the fluorescent lights go - boom, boom, boom, boom. I was totally ambivalent about this living thing. This would just be fine for me if I could just get out of this whole thing. I really don't care.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

Boom, boom, boom, boom. And it's funny after you - something with that happens to you. You're almost set free. I knew then at that point, after I got well, took me about a year to be able to stand up straight. But I knew I didn't have to be a businessman then, I did knew I didn't have to be successful, I knew I didn't have to do anything I didn't want to do because I was - I was on my - I was on the sixth ball on the pinball game, you know, I got an extra ball.

(Soundbite of music)

But - remember how how angry I was for years after I got out of the Army, I was just - I was just mad. I was mad at everybody and when I got to be 50, on my birthday, I didn't feel angry anymore. Thank goodness, at least not angry like I used to. And so I wrote this poem, "Angry Young Men."

(Reading) Angry Young Men are not sure why they boil inside, grinding souls wanting to punch something. Maybe it's third down along with your father watching or the cult of violence on the screen, or the thankless wars we send them to. Perhaps it's simply the veil of tears that never really fall down their cheeks or something so simple as bad hormones mixed with too much cheap beer. But my advise if ever you feel an angry young man coming towards you, get out of his way. Like a cold wind, he will go right through you and not look back. I have hit people and I don't remember who they were or exactly why, but that was long ago, back when I couldn't cry. I'm 50 now and I cry all the time.

COHEN: Our story "Part-Time Poet" about Rich Keplar was produced by Larry Massett. It comes to us from the NPR series Hearing Voices.

COHEN: Stay with us. NPR's Day to Day continues.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: