An Interview with Dennis Etzel, Jr.
by Kevin Rabas
KR: Dennis, several of your poems meditate on
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 Kansas . Talk a little about how a sense of place, especially the prairie, informs some of your work. Manhattan, Kansas
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 poetry.com, 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!