Kevin Rabas’s poetry is remarkable for its unique narrative voice, sensuality, and imagery, but it is most striking in its musicality. Poet Elizabeth Dodd notes, “Rabas writes narrative as if it’s part of a jazz song, a sudden fillip of melody, while somewhere off in the margin the drums hold things together.”
In Sonny Kenner’s Red Guitar, Kevin Rabas explores relationships between people, land, and culture in poems that pulse with music on every page. Rabas’s skillfully crafted poems present intimate portraits of friends and lovers, as well as snapshots of musicians and places:
A romantic encounter on the prairie, witnessed only by grasses that move, “as an ear on a cat would/to listen” and by the stars, “like sequins on a black dress.”
A young poet who chooses to live homeless, “in a tent by the river,” so that she can write in freedom.
A side road in the Flint Hills, illuminated by “lemon rind light, hand hold light.”
Like the droning beat evoked in his poem “Background Jazz,” Kevin Rabas’s rhythmic work will “tow/ you quietly out to sea” and transport you beyond the “buzzing/ music of your own mind” into a world made vivid on the page.
Kevin Rabas has deep roots in Kansas, and he loves libraries! Read on for an original interview with Kevin Rabas to learn more about this talented Kansas voice.
Kansas is what I’m about. My aim is to write about ordinary and extraordinary Kansans. The connection between the land and its people is what I write about. I worked to find a teaching job and stay in Kansas, when many of my friends worked to find jobs in other, bigger places.I find beauty both in the plains and in our smaller cities. Although some might not look for it here, Kansas is a place of diverse and magical culture, from the birth place of Charlie “Bird” Parker (KCK) and William Stafford (Hutchinson) to the childhood home of Langston Hughes (Lawrence) to the home of sculptor S.P. Dinsmoor (Lucas) and William Allen White (Emporia).
You name Denise Low, William Stafford, Langston Hughes, and Jonathan Holden as poetic influences, among many other poets that you admire. Are there new voices who have inspired you in recent years? Can you name any under-appreciated or little know writers in Kansas that we should make an effort to seek out?
A few Kansas poets to watch: Ramona McCallum, Leah Sewell, Dennis Etzel Jr, Nedra Rogers, Megan Kaminski, Ruth Moritz, Ben Cartwright, Bryan Dietrich, and Israel Wasserstein. Many more have already risen (and often moved away), such as Amy Fleury, Gary Jackson, Ben Lerner…Others stayed here (or came here) and rose: Patricia Traxler, Harley Elliott, Steven Hind, and Albert Goldbarth.
As for writers, I’m a Thomas Fox Averill fan. Also, I’m a fan of the following living Kansas writers: Laura Moriarty, Elizabeth Dodd, Frank Higgins, Kevin Willmott, Tasha Haas, Dan Hoyt, and Cheryl Unruh.
In each case (each genre), I’m going to need to abbreviate my lists. Otherwise, we’re going to run out of room.
You have earned an MA in English, MFA in Creative Writing, and PhD in English. How did years of graduate level study impact your writing? What advice do you have for a writer or student considering a Master of Fine Arts program?
Working with writing mentors in school can be of great benefit to a writer at any age or level. The writer workshops are also very useful, as are classes in literature in one’s genre. Years of unfocused toil can be avoided through these time-honored methods and approaches. Just as a jazz musician goes to a jam session to try out new tunes and learn the repertoire, so too the writer goes to workshop and airs new poems. As for the writing teachers, a mentor is essentially a master craftsman. Learn from him or her. See how to approach your art. Learn how to “build,” brick by brick, word by word, from this person. Beyond all of this, the writer must also commit him or herself to learning and growing—both as a writer and as a person. Without personal growth, the writing, in turn, does not grow. For this reason, I think most writers have a level of self-realization that many others do not. We use our lives to write.
As for advice on entering an MFA program, try to find a program that fits you. Find the culture you want to join. Also, look for writers on the faculty list that seem like a good fit for you—not only writers who write like you, but those who write in a way you want to reach. Browse the books by the faculty. Read in-print interviews the faculty have done. Go to their readings. Go visit and meet them, if you can. Then, turn these MFA years into your apprenticeship. Work hard. Take risks in your writing. Find out who you can be, as a writer. Then, once done, continue to grow. And, overall, write as much as you can. Now is the time to get it down on paper.
You told an interviewer that your mother was an avid reader and journalist who encouraged you to read and learn as much as you could from an early age. I love the image of the tall stack of library books that she always had at hand. Have you depended on libraries in the course of your life and education? Do you have a favorite library, or a library story to share?
I’m at a library now. I read tonight (7-15-14) at the Johnson County Central Resource Library, about 100 miles from Emporia, but 15 minutes from where I grew up. I’ve been here since about 3 pm today, grading papers and browsing books in between sets of papers. I love libraries, and I think that if any one thing might stand as an anchor for education and intelligence, beyond school, that’s the library–the place where you can create your own education, find what you want and need (within books), and begin and launch new dreams.
My parents live about 500 yards from the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library. That library went up when I was about 15, and the path between my parents’ house and that library is well worn. My mother is an avid reader, with a stack or basket full of books beside her bed. My father also reads, mainly to learn about projects he’s working on. Right now, bee keeping.
I’ve never come away from a trip to the library disappointed, and I particularly enjoy the fact that at a library you can still browse. You can look for one thing, and find another. Your current interest may lead you to a new, related interest. And it’s all there on the shelves or on the screen.
For a musician, the real education (beyond school) comes from the music archive, the band stand, and attending (and studying) someone else’s live performance. For the writer, it’s the hours at the library, the time spent with pen and paper (and computer), and the night out at the (live literary) reading. When I lived in the KC area, I went to every reading I could. (So, I spent more than one night a week at The Writers Place, eventually becoming a volunteer.) Now, in Emporia, we bring as many writers as we can to our own vibrant, local reading series.
You co-direct the creative writing program at Emporia State. Does your work with writing students fuel your own creativity? What do you enjoy most about the job?
It’s a joy and privilege to be teaching young people. Not only am I afforded the opportunity to introduce these folks to current and contemporary trends in poetry and inspire them, but I’m expected to just that. Also, I often write along with my students in class. We groove off of each other’s enthusiasm and energy. I am there among them, learning and relearning, growing as a poet as we read and write. Furthermore, as a mentor figure, I can also talk about ways to avoid common writing traps, and I can demonstrate, analyze, and explain those traps, when we all write freely together in class or when we study polished, set writing.
There are books I return to and teach from regularly, and in essence I have the opportunity to reread certain lessons again each time, and in this way I learn their nuances and intricacies, and those lessons fully become a part of my writing and me.
One thing I enjoy about being a university poet is that I do not have to feel covert about reading and writing poetry. It’s part of my job, my scholarship. Not many jobs ask you to read and write poetry. This one does. And they’re serious about it.
You are the editor for the literary journal FLINT HILLS REVIEW, and you have also edited several collections written by fellow poets. Has working as an editor changed the way that you write, or given you any insight on submitting your own work for publication?
It’s useful to know what editors look for, what they expect. You learn that from the inside, when you edit a journal or work for a press. Also, if you read hundreds of submissions a season, you begin to see where your work fits into the bigger picture. You learn what to send and what just to keep to yourself. You also learn how to revise towards the stream, towards the populace, towards publication. Also, reading this way helps fine tune your revision skills. You spot an error of aesthetics in stanza one, when reading for a magazine, and you notice that you begin to turn off, as a reader. You develop that eye or sense, as a staffer or editor of a small press literary magazine.
Tell us about your current writing projects. What are your writing plans for the next few years?
I have a new chapbook manuscript called ELIOT’S VIOLIN that I am beginning to shop. For the spring 2015 semester, I have a sabbatical to write and revise a feature-length screenplay, ELIZABETH’S CITY, a love story about poets in love in Kansas City, trying to break into the spoken word poetry scene, and one of the lovers has HIV/AIDS. It’s set in the early ‘90s. I’ve written about this group of characters in poems, stories, and plays. This is the next step for that tale.
I’m revising a one-act play, “SIDEWALK DRUM,” which recently saw a concert reading performance through EMU Theatre, Lawrence. It’s also an artists-in-love story, about a group of bohemians who run into the law during a sidewalk hand drum jam session. It’s set in Lawrence.
I have a lot of new poetic sketches and poems that are looking for revision and, eventually, looking for homes.
Also, a group novel I wrote with Emporians Mike Graves and Tracy Million Simmons should come out in late August or early September. So, soon. It’s called GREEN BIKE, and will be available on Amazon.com. The novel follows three intertwining tales of couples who borrow and steal this classic green Schwinn bike, a McGuffin. On its simplest levels, it’s kind of a campus romp.
As a poet and writer, I’m beginning to be at the place in my writing life where I can work towards longer works, such as full-length plays and feature-length screenplays. That is a joy, and it’s a new challenge, working to structure longer works. There’s a lot of architecture involved.
Eventually, I’d like to write a memoir and a solo novel.
How can readers find out more about you and follow your work?
Folks can follow me at kevinjamesrabas.com or write me a postcard or letter. I love paper mail. I’m at Kevin Rabas, PO Box 274, Emporia, KS 66801. Also, keep an eye out for my work on Amazon.com. Or friend me on Facebook. Or come to a reading and say hi.
Miranda Ericsson interviewed Kevin Rabas via email in August, 2014.
About the Poet
Associate Professor Dr. Kevin Rabas (MFA, Goddard College; PhD, KU) co-directs the creative writing program at Emporia State and edits Flint Hills Review. Rabas writes poetry, plays, flash fiction, and creative nonfiction. He has four books: Bird’s Horn, Lisa’s Flying Electric Piano, a Kansas Notable Book and Nelson Poetry Book Award winner, Sonny Kenner’s Red Guitar, and Spider Face: stories. He writes regularly for Jazz Ambassador Magazine (JAM). Rabas’s plays have been produced across Kansas and in San Diego. His work has been nominated for four Pushcart Prizes, and Rabas is the winner of the Langston Hughes Award for Poetry, the Victor Contoski Poetry Award, the Jerome Johanning Playwriting Award, and the Salina New Voice Award.
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