I recently sat down with John and Peg Knoepfle at their residence in Hickory Glen to ask questions about their life experiences, both personal and literary. I quickly surmised that both are master storytellers. For more than 60 years now, their stories have been intertwined.
“We all have a story to tell, if you can get them to talk,” said John, in a measured pace.
One could not help but sense that they were covering familiar ground. Also, that they compliment one another well. Even at age 96, John’s eyes are warm and his laugh infectious. Peg is very intelligent, supportive, and remembers details well. They both give you their undivided attention – they are not distracted by cellphones or social media.
He succinctly described his military service, having enlisting in the U.S. Navy after Pearl Harbor and eventually serving aboard an attack transfer ship that transported supplies to the Fifth Marines on Iwo Jima and ferried the wounded back to the ships. On one run, the surf started to swamp the boat and the engine stalled. “We were drifting under Suribachi, heading out to sea. We had a boatswain, his name was Kelly, and he began to sing, ‘When Irish Eyes are Smiling’ and a patrol boat heard that and managed to tow us out of there. ...” Later Knoepfle was wounded by friendly fire. He still carries a scar, a Purple Heart and some black, volcanic sand that he gathered from the beach of Iwo Jima.
But most of our conversation was focused on his career and accomplishments as a writer. John described his early forays into poetry, encouraged by a priest in high school. That individual, Fr. Sweeney, had started a writing group called The Mermaid Tavern. Students wrote poems, shared them with their peers, learned how to critique and how to accept criticism. He then recited a few lines from memory, adding, “It’s terrible. But that was the beginning.”
When some people heard that he yearned to be a poet, they dismissed his ambition with a cryptic, “Get a job!” But he persisted.
John shared that he once took a poetry workshop taught by Robert Lowell. “I had just published a poem in the Yale Review, and I was very proud of that. And he said, ‘Well they don’t publish the best.’ Can you imagine that? So at that point I just stopped writing.” Fortunately, a later mentor – John Logan – encouraged him to return to the craft. He wrote and participated in recitals, sometimes at venues filled with men who scoffed at the idea of a poet. Occasionally in those public readings he included barbs directed at such people.
Perhaps the greatest break he ever enjoyed was meeting Peg. They first met in 1956 during a poetry workshop at the University of Cincinnati. Peg was a student and remembers that she had been admitted on the strength of a piece of prose. She admits that when John asked her out for a date, she had him confused with another young man and was surprised when he showed up at his door. “Anyway,” says John “we had a date and had a pretty good time, I guess.” Did they benefit from the class? Peg shared that she did not write any poetry but mostly went out with John Knoepfle. They both chuckled.
Two things that drew them together were their mutual interest in bird watching and the fact that John was then unemployed. In her mind, that meant that he was not part of an oppressive economic system. He courted her, he says, amongst the ruins of Indian mounds. They were married on Dec. 26, 1956. John’s eldest brother, Rudy, a Jesuit, officiated. To understand the full breadth of their shared story, one must add they have both been committed social justice activists for more than half a century, motivated by their Catholic faith. John was a Freedom Rider, taking a bus to Alabama in 1963. John recalls that when they arrived in Birmingham, their driver described the local African-Americans as “affluent,” and completely ignored the bombed-out shell of the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four young girls had been murdered. Throughout the 60s, they marched in protests against the Vietnam War. More recently, they have kept a constant vigil on Saturday mornings outside the Federal Building in Springfield, giving witness against more contemporary American wars.
In the decades since their marriage, John worked his way up from digging weeds for a Cincinnati landscaper, to serving as the television director of an educational program, to teaching English composition in East St. Louis and later Shakespeare at Saint Louis University, to eventually getting hired by Sangamon State University in Springfield. It was there that he met a visiting Chinese scholar named Wang Shouyi, who took one of John’s poetry workshops. They discovered a mutual passion for poetry and this in turn led to a remarkable 40-year collaboration to translate Chinese poems from several dynasties spanning centuries. Wang Shouyi rendered a preliminary transliteration of the poems and John’s task was to provide poetic flair and beauty. Several slender volumes were published in 1985 by the Spoon River Poetry Press. Soon, pirated copies of these works were in circulation in China and John became known as “Johan” to his Chinese admirers. John believes that the Chinese have a deeper respect for poetry and for poets than Americans. Perhaps, he muses, it’s because as an older civilization, the Chinese value memory more, and the role of the poet is to remember.
The current editions of the poems are entitled, Snow on the River: Poems from the Tang and Song Dynasties of China and Voyage Home: Poems from the Yuan and Ming and Qing Dynasties of China. Both are published by the Heilongjiang University Press. The former has a soft violet color and the latter’s cover is tan – these colors are associated with their respective dynasties. On one page is the Chinese script, on the other, John’s poetic translation and a delicate, pastoral illustration. John recited a few poems and noted that on the printed page, the Chinese follow different rules for punctuation and grammar than is customary in English.
One example of their collaboration is the poem “Wei City Song,” originally composed during the Tang Dynasty:
a dawn rain comes
and settles the dust in Wei City
hotels are soaked deep in dark wet colors
but the willows are a brighter green
why not one more drink for the road
although we have had a few already
once you go west of Yang Pass
old friends are hard to come by
On May 25, both John Knoepfle and Wang Shouyi will offer a free poetry reading and a presentation about their lengthy collaboration at a special reception 3-5 p.m. at the Abraham Lincoln Unitarian Universalist Congregation. Copies of both volumes will be available for purchase.
Martin Woulfe graduated from college having majored in creative writing with a specialization in poetry. When his family and friends insisted that he get a job, he dabbled in many fields until landing on his feet as a minister. He now serves the Abraham Lincoln UU Congregation in Springfield. His wife, Angela Aznarte, took the photograph that accompanies this article.