DL: Please list the titles of your books and chapbooks (and where to get them).
DE: My Secret Wars of 1984 (BlazeVOX 2015); The Sum of Two Mothers (ELJ Publications 2013); My Graphic Novel (Kattywompus Press 2015). Available at The Raven, Prospero’s, and my website
I do like selling them from my website for people who can’t come to readings, as I sign them and include other fun memorabilia. For My Secret Wars of 1984, I include a pack of cards, buttons, Pop Rocks, or other things that are from 1984 or 1984-inspired.
DL: I notice your books have thematic unity. How do these book-length topics come to you?
the year 1984 (Lyn Hejinian, Ronald Johnson, bell hooks, Marvel Comics, Dungeons & Dragons, President Reagan, etc.) with sentences of my own—within the context of political and personal struggles of that time (my mother coming out in the midst of living in a conservative neighborhood, America in a recession, daily nuclear bomb threats, etc.).
My Secret Wars of 1984 developed from the Ronald Johnson Reading Group in Lawrence back in 2011. After thinking about how that was one rough year for me, I thought I could examine that time through documentary poetics strategies. i knew the sentences should have tension, play with words, etc. to describe my personal story. At the same time, I looked for texts from 1984—texts to reflect what I was reading (comic books, Dungeons & Dragons, Orwell, etc.), as well as what inspires me now (bell hooks, Hejinian). As it was an election year, Ronald Reagan had to work his way in, as he scared me! He truly scared me with his talk about nuclear war, as if he was ready to show those Russians!
Using different texts--the appropriation--along with my sentences to create a collage, I was worried how I could put a stop to my collecting. I figured, 1984 was a leap year, so I would collect 356 sentences. Also, if each sentence was a part of that year, a part of me, then no sentence should be lesser than any other. Based on a poem by Carolyn Forche called "Blue Hour," I realized I could alphabetize the whole thing and that would be that—to mimic what I used to do with my music, comic books, and such.
It took time to locate and read through the texts after I got home. I also included song titles, movies titles, etc. I placed each sentence in an Excel spreadsheet, along with where I found the sentence, if it was my own, etc. in different columns. This allowed me to alphabetize the sentences within moments, but could return back to the original sequence by source (alphabetizing the column of sources). When I started playing with the idea of stanzas, it truly worked as a book-length piece. What I love about the collection is that it was fun to write, to collect, to create. The surprise of going from one sentence to another sentence creates its own metaphor—placing two unlike things together to say they can be compared or are the same. Prose Poetry seems to work on that level, from sentence to sentence for enjambment.
Another thing I love about the collection is it does what I set out to accomplish--to pull off a memoir as text as representation, borderlining the confessional mode. It's hard for me to read confessional poetry anymore, but the experimental mode seems the best way to convey true emotions without pointing the finger or dropping a ton of lead onto someone's foot.
DL: What made you want to be a poet?DE: A young boy told me that people write poetry to say the things they normally wouldn’t say, to share feelings they wouldn’t normally feel. I wanted to do that. During my first years at Washburn University earning a degree in Computer Systems Analysis, Dr. Jorge Nobo from Washburn’s Philosophy Department gave me advice on how to improve my writing: carry a thesaurus and write in a journal daily. I did, and that journal became really personal. It was a way to get my deeper voice on paper, to examine my life and wish to connect with others. The journal held my first poems. I then went to an open-mic poetry night at the Classic Bean and realized poets were alive and well, not only being published around the country, but living in Topeka. I was dedicated from then on.
DL: You have an MFA and other degrees. What helped your writing from your education?DE: Each degree in English helped me further to realizing I wanted to write out of memoir, to play with what the “I” could do, and to write something past post-Confessionalism. Working with all of my mentors showed me different ways of exploring form based on each person’s preference in her or his own writing.
DL: What did you learn on your own?DE: I read everything I could—wishing to be as well-read as possible. My own studies of various writers taught me how form and context serves the poem’s intent in different ways.
DL: What do you want to accomplish in your writing?DE: I am still exploring those things from the past, as well as wanting to explore the Patriarchal, racist, sexist, anti-LGBT, classist culture we are a part of. They are intertwined—the public and the private. If I can write as a form of activism, I want it to be a part of the many other voices speaking now.
DL: What poetic form in your poetry is interesting to you and how/why?DE: I vary in forms. My chapbooks are lyrical, and I’ve began making those poems into a full-length collection. I also love how My Secret Wars turned out. I have also started experimenting with poems as footnotes to other poems—embedded like Matroyshka dolls.
DL: Please give a sample poem in that form.DE:
yearbook pages5 surveyed
but record as an anthropologist
as this was my world
sometimes as a clown
to put on a face
two outcasts hung out with me
one my best friend I knew
the first and last name
of every last student
the first thing I think about
when looking back
down the blocks of photos
names like house-markers
streets I ran to escape
after the final bell to Comics
& Fantasys [sic], I am sick
of being Orpheus
I look back every time see
your own middle school for details
Dennis Etzel Jr. lives with Carrie and the boys in Topeka, Kansas where he teaches English at Washburn University. He has an MFA from The University of Kansas, and an MA and Graduate Certificate in Women and Gender Studies from Kansas State University. He has two chapbooks, The Sum of Two Mothers (ELJ Publications 2013) and My Graphic Novel (Kattywompus Press 2015), and a full-length poetic memoir My Secret Wars of 1984 (BlazeVOX 2015). His work has appeared in Denver Quarterly, Indiana Review, BlazeVOX, Fact-Simile, 1913: a journal of poetic forms, 3:AM, Tarpaulin Sky, DIAGRAM, and others. He is a TALK Scholar for the Kansas Humanities Council and leads poetry workshops in various Kansas spaces. Please feel free to connect with him at dennisetzeljr.com.