Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Interview 2012

Tracie Inman interviewed me for her class project in May 2012.

What draws you to writing more in collages and in an experimental fashion rather than in standard poetry structures?

Awesome question, as I often ask that myself. My overall answer is tied to my love for the unexpected, how poetry shifts into unknown places. Actually, I started writing in traditional forms—sonnets, rhythms, etc.—and examined confessional poetry. As time went by, I looked for ways to push my writing into other territories. I went back to school, to Washburn, to continue looking for ways of writing free verse and examining lyrical poetry. At Kansas State, my thesis was around the lyrical “I” and searching for an answer for post-confessional poetry that could be published. Eventually, at KU, I discovered the experimental mode would be the best in conveying my story—my mode—with hopes that I don’t have to write my memoir anymore. (This leads into your third question.)

Who or what influences your writing the most?

Li-Young Lee definitely was an important influence in the beginning. I went to two different writing conferences where he led the poetry workshop. I love his pacing, his voice, as well as his trying to figure out the role of poetry in the true scheme of life. He sees “poems as descendants of God,” and his ideas still blow me away.

Rachel Zucker was also a huge influence, as she is successful in the confessional mode, while using semi-experimental methods. She is also a doula, and her collaborative work with Arielle Greenberg in Home / Birth truly took my head off, in the Dickinsonian way. She’s also a wonderful person to meet, as well as Lyn Hejinian.

Lyn Hejinian’s book My Life, as well as all of her writing, showed me how a prose poem “works,” and the conceptualism behind it inspired me to write my latest project: My Secret Wars of 1984.

Joseph Harrington also played a big role in that as my mentor from KU. He introduced me to the ideas of collage, experimentation, flarf, etc. He also led a Ronald Johnson Reading Group, which sent me into thinking about the project.

You mentioned that you have an MA and a Graduate Certificate in Women and Gender Studies from Kansas State University as well as an MFA from The University of Kansas. Can you explain the reason for the choice to receive a degree/certificate in Women and Gender Studies?

It was incredible to learn that K-State offered the certificate, which required a number of classes flagged for women and gender studies, as well as the capstone which focused on the history of it. Women and Gender Studies is the only academic (if not societal, too?) subject examining and “trying to figure out” why there is violence, racism, sexism, “homophobia” (I don’t like that word), etc. in the contexts of a historically male-dominated society. My father was abusive towards my mother and me, I comforted friends who were girls on the playground, and, still today, am honored to have friends console in me about their past experiences with physical, verbal, and sexual assault.

Another aspect of my life that led to feminism is about my mother. A little while after her divorce, she said, “I don’t think I like men.” I said, “I don’t either.” She went further to say in a relationship way. Sondra moved in a couple more years later, and she became my second mother. In a way, I pursued the Certificate to honor my two moms.

Finally, I am also interested in how masculinity is constructs, as I’ve never felt “masculine.” Women and Gender Studies also examines masculinity. In short, all of these things look at how power, access to information, access to money, and history has shifted to one side of a binary system based on sex, race, etc. Likewise, men have an invested interest in becoming feminists if they believe women have the right to vote, have a bank account, choose to have children, choose any occupation and have the same pay men do. This also includes men fighting against the objectification of women, violence towards women, etc. When I look at ads for Dr. Pepper Ten and Hardee’s, aimed to promote stereotypical, misogynist ideals in order to sell their products, I know there is a true need for feminism.

However, it’s like my wife asked me when we first met, “How do you define feminism? How can you be feminist male?”

I could go on.

You will be introducing a brand new writing course in Fall 2012 at Washburn University where you and your students “will explore and write in a current hybrid approach of writing, combining memoir, poetry, image, fiction, non-fiction, appropriation, collaboration, the political, and Google/conceptual writing.” That’s an awesome mouthful! Can all of that be done effectively in one semester? What made you want to take on such an exciting but very full idea for a class?

Can this be done in a semester? Heck, no! *smile* I’ve designed the class into four different projects, I call them. These are the start to larger projects—which could become book-length collections. As time is limited, as well as the approaches could be new, I feel it is important for a student to discover what “mode” she or he feels most drawn to for whatever writing subject. However, I am requiring more from the Graduate students, asking them to think about their book and pursue it during the semester.

I wanted to take these ideas on because of how rich they have made my experience of writing. I’m so passionate about it all. Also, I love Washburn and want to see students successful in writing—in life. I thrive off of community, and I’m designing the class with that notion of community. Overall, I am teaching the class as if this is the class I ever wanted to teach. Of course, that is idealistic, and all of the creative writing courses should be a Gen Ed requirement in my view—alongside all of the different modes of Art.

With all that said, I want to make the best of the time we have during the semester.

You’re a husband, father, professor, writer, not to mention the magazines you work for—when do you find the time to write? Where do you go to find that personal writing space?

I pull a William Stafford by waking up at 5:30 on mornings I go into work. Since my first class begins at 9, I have time for creativity when the brain has that censor turned off—the part of us that says we can’t write this or shouldn’t write that.

Also, I carry around notecards to jot things down on. Things come to me in small doses. It’s important to get them all down ASAP.

My wife is an understanding woman! We take turns giving each other “free time,” because raising children is challenging. There is not time to write with children around, as the focus should be on them. However, I know Stephen King typed out Carrie while holding his child. I guess it can be done.

My favorite writing places involve coffeehouses. Even in my Washburn office, there is too much distraction. I like taking a stack of books, notecards, and a pen to Blue Planet Café. It’s easy for me to sit down with that mission, that goal to write, as I’ve already paid for coffee, I’m there in the moment, relaxed, and ready to write. Sometime I tell myself I will be able to write at a certain time—especially when I have two or three hours available.

How do you approach the blank page?

Maybe that last part answers the question. I tell the blank page I will visit at six in the morning, or at Blue Planet Café or Flying Monkey. For me, writing comes easiest without the anxiety, so I make my appointment. I show up. I put my ego aside, just as Li-Young Lee describes, knowing I am not going to write any kind of masterpiece. I approach it with fun.

You already explained the idea and thought process behind “My Secret Wars of 1984” but what about “Site Fidelity”?  It’s not written in the boxed way much of the writings from the previous project were written. From what I know of your writing, I would say that this is a bit more out of your comfort zone. Am I wrong? Do you find comfort in any style of writing you do?

Actually, I wrote “Site Fidelity” six years ago. It was part of my writing style then—a lyrical, eco-feminist style, I think. I’m trying to find new approaches to writing so the lyrical sense isn’t as obvious. I think I try to get out of my comfort zone whenever I write. It seems that the comfort in writing will just lead to writing the same poem in a different way. Or maybe that is what I’m doing? 

And finally, what would you want your epitaph to say?

He loved.

Flint Hills Review interview

The following is an interview Kevin Rabas led, which appeared in Flint Hills Review 2009.

An Interview with Dennis Etzel, Jr.
by Kevin Rabas

KR: Dennis, several of your poems meditate on Kansas terrain, especially your connection to the prairie. I found this theme works prominently in your poems “Along the prairie,” found in FHR 2007, and in “Site Fidelity,” in which the prairie is compared to the body of a woman. You have mentioned in the past how your connection with the prairie deepened after visits to the Kanza prairie preserve in Manhattan, Kansas. Talk a little about how a sense of place, especially the prairie, informs some of your work.

DE: For me, the idea of place is just as much as an internal one than an external one, so poetry and art seem like the best mediums to show that internal space.  I’m not a great painter—I’ve tried!  Luckily, poetry is where I found my first art.  My visits to the tallgrass prairie always return something deeper within me, so I just follow whatever whims I find. 

Also, my studies in ecolit, ecopoetry, and the idea of “deep ecology” helped me to think of the craft as something outside of “nature writing.”  Nature writing is wonderful, but I find the aesthetics of poetry writing are richer when an ecopoems context does outside of the “I” center.  In other words, can someone write a poem where the “I-thou” relationship between poet and environment (like the tallgrass prairie) becomes blurred, challenges boundaries, and changes perceptions in our postmodern, industrialized world in crisis?

KR: In some of your poems, such as in “And so,” you adopt modern techniques to shape new forms, such as in your flarfing-based poems. Talk a little about what flarfing is and how it works—and about how you use this technique to generate and shape some of your poems. Also, your flarfing-based poems seem to embrace randomness and chaos in an approach that seems somewhat similar to the technique of French surrealist poets, such as André Breton or Guillaume Apollinaire. Do you think that flarfing-based poetry might possibly be reviving or revisiting that approach, but using technology to tap new associative, randomizing territory?

DE: For your first question, flarf is an interesting topic to talk about.  It started as a prank between a group of poets who were friends—Gary Sullivan coined the phrase “flarf”—to see who could have the worst poem published on, that famous vanity press website.  However, flarf is now approached with a certain poetic aesthetic.  If you go to YouTube, you can see the mock flarf convention, where poets like K. Silem Mohammed (whose book Deer Head Nation started flarf publications), Jordan Davis, Katie Degentesh, Drew Gardner, Nada Gordon, Rodney Koeneke, Michael Magee, and Sharon Mesmer read their works.  Anne Boyer is another flarfist who lives in Kansas City! 

Each poet has an approach to flarf, but it starts with Google searches.  Flarfing is also known as Google-collage, where the poet works with the words returned on the screen.  Some poets, like Mohammed, continue placing words in until there are around 100 returns to work with.  Gardner is said to actually go into the websites to copy and paste for material.

I like to approach my flarf with choosing words I use often, like “prairie,” with other words for tension, like “visit” and “waste.”  If you notice in the Google results/returns there are fragments of sentences.  I use those fragments to fragment even more, and to fill in the spaces where the ellipses are.  The ellipses allow a place for the imagination to enter.

For your second question: yes!  I like your idea of the French surrealist poets being an influence.  I also think about flarf as  collage, maybe something Gertrude Stein would be doing, because you could include the repetition of words that come back as part of the Google search.  I also think of Lyn Hejinian’s ideas of experimentation and non-closure in a poem.  Having differently-themed websites come together by using one search may present its own kind of metaphor—one website is another website, is another.  The approaches for using Google technology for randomness, for “cut ups,” and for collage seem endless.

KR: Your poetry seems to embrace the lyric mode. Talk about how and why you are drawn to this mode and about how you see it operating in your poems. Also, what are some of your thoughts on the role of the lyric in contemporary American poetry.

Li-Young Lee, Amy Fleury, and Elizabeth Dodd truly helped me to discover my love for the lyric.  Each of these poets write lyrical poetry in different ways, and I’m happy to have learned from their classes and workshops. 

When we think of the lyric, we think of an idea of music in poetry.  However, Li-Young Lee has inspired me with his approach—how lyrical poetry contains layers of space and layers of time.  He is truly making a poetics that involves the universe!  The lyrical poem also uses silence, space, and the internal voice, things that are not often taught in your average poetry class.  The use of the external world is to convey the internal place.  Amy and Elizabeth work with the prairie in their poems, so they were also influences.

For me, the lyric helps build community, helps people realize the importance of our inner realities, helps to show the “I-thou” relationships, helps reconnect both the writer and the reader to that intangible “something,” and comforts us. 

One of my interests is the poem as a means of survival.  Each of us are trying to survive in this world.  I do not want to sound romantic, that poetry is going to save the world.  I don’t think it can, as Adrienne Rich also said in her latest essay Poetry and Commitment.  However, people writing and sharing their work can lead to healing and community.  The lyrical poem is the one form that is being used in all cultures around the world, so I’m not sure if I can express the power of it. 

KR: I notice that in terms of style and approach that some of your new prose poems, such as “And so,” seem similar to work in Ben Lerner’s Angle of Yaw. This may be coincidental, though. Who are some of your influences, especially in regard to your recent work?

Yes—there is no coincidence about Ben Lerner.  I love his work, and local Cyrus Console’s Brief Under Water.  They are both from Topeka, and I am still in Topeka, so I feel a psychic resonance from all of the Topeka poets: Amy Fleury, Kevin Young, Eric McHenry, Ed Skoog, Ben, and Cyrus.  Another influence is Anne Boyer, who was born in Topeka.  When I discovered flarf last year, I was hooked.  It certainly opened up my internal world to the possibilities of what poetry can be and how we, as writers, can challenge the boundaries between forms.  Other influences for the prose pieces are Harryette Mullen and Lyn Hejinian, but all of these poets have seemed to pave a way for me to enter my own work.

Thank you for interviewing me, and for including my work in Flint Hills Review.  It means a lot to me.  Also, I enjoyed the students I met at Emporia State, and I’m looking forward to seeing their names in the future!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Another project

I have a summer project in the works, which I wrote the first of tonight. It examines the "I" in poetry, in first-person shooter games, and in patriarchy.

Rachel Zucker:

    Perhaps poetry should not try to repair fragmentation but should move from the “I” to the self, which embraces and includes the “I” but which also includes the unconscious psyche and is an ideal greatness where everything is connected to everything else—is the “I” owned/invented by the patriarchy anyway?
There are issues about identity, the work of poetry, autonomy.

By the way, this summer looks fantastic:

  • A reading group in Lawrence, going over Zukofsky's "A."
  • Lots of good books to read.
  • A weekly meeting in June with four people from my Experimental Poetry class.
  • Catching up with friends.
  • Personal writing gatherings with friends. I think I despise the word "workshop."
  • Going to the Royals with Joe and MariaAna.
  • Maybe the Cardinals, too?
  • Trips to KC to see family.
  • Hanging with family here.
  • Getting lots of time with Carrie and our boys.
  • Hanging out with new friends from Attachment Parenting.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Calling on voices

Maybe I need to call out to those people I knew growing up? The superheroes, Jedi Knights, and paladins that protected me in middle school and on my walks home? Those fragmented identities that get buried as we each recover, then uncover, fall apart?

Getting old, I realize falling apart happens. The body-mind connection. A part.

Summer projects

So I haven't truly been blogging for a while. Well, that changes today.

First, I want to know how Heather Christle's The Trees The Trees works!

The Believer likes it too!

So that's it. The fragments we live with!

How can I take this to the level of my projects around Two Mothers?

I'm trying to plan a longer project this summer, like I did with My Secret Wars of 1984.  I'm thinking, which mother is the one calling me, and which is the one that knows I'm here?

I mean, I'm grading this week! Next week! Then I'm from free.

In July, a Cardinals game with Joe Harrington, Susan Schultz, et their significant others. Hopefully.

My baseball project has started.

Against Masculinity needs a lot of work--my non-fiction piece.

Plus, my coffee is cold. :(