In The Sum of Two Mothers, Topeka poet Dennis Etzel speaks out as “a reliable witness to/an unreliable society.” The short, intertwined poems in this debut collection span the poet’s life from childhood through fatherhood, and share his story of growing up in Topeka as the son of two women.
Etzel aims to start a conversation about equality, gender roles, and acceptance that will strengthen and enlighten readers. Etzel writes: “I do like the idea of the book serving as an entry to discussion—a way to bring families closer together. There is still a lot of damage to families because of our heteronormative, oppressive culture-at-large. I was aware of this when I was writing the poems, that each poem could be a site of survival and resistance.”
Click here to link to The Sum of Two Mothers in your library catalog. Check this book out from your library, and join the conversation in your community.
Read on for an original interview with Dennis Etzel Jr., and the full text of three poems from The Sum of Two Mothers.
Growing up in Topeka, I was a daydreamer, comic book reader, Dungeons and Dragons player, and loner. Comics & Fantasys [sic] had everything I needed to survive my early teen years. I was coping with the things teens usually do, plus: coping with a post-domestic-violence life, surviving being bullied and pursued in middle school, being labelled and attacked as “a fag” because I only had one good friend who was a male, helping raise my sister while my mother went to school and worked.
I wish I had the Kansas I know now, the one that inspires me now. However, I bring up those dark times because, to quote overquoted Brecht: “In the dark times, will there also be singing? Yes, there will be singing. Songs about dark times.” Although I do my best to steer clear of the confessional mode, I do my best to use those dark times for sites of social awareness, resistance, and activism. My writing and being an artist comes out of those times of silence, silencing.
I continue to grow up in Kansas, as the attention I needed to draw out as a poet led to the attention of the larger sphere in which we live. I like taking the small roads over the highway, except during April’s burning of the fields when those fires glow at night. Being an artist in Kansas leads to those connections and experiences one could miss, not recognize, take for granted—like the Tall Grass Prairie or 18th and Vine. The attention runs both inward and outward. I want to note, an artist can also include anything that involves a kind of aesthetic, like raising children, knitting, being pro-active in a community, playing sports, and anything which seems to involves creating, connecting, inspiring, and community.
When did you start writing poetry? What authors and poets have influenced your work?
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 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. Sometimes it feels like a poem I am about to write is my first poem. Sometimes I feel the pressure of the tens of thousands of poems I could write instead of the one I write, or the ten thousand poems I’ve read.
Authors and poets as an influence? I consider them mentors, even if I never meet them. However, the real mentors I have had influenced me in their works, too, so I’ll just include a short list of contemporary writers, poets, and mentors. First, mentors: Tom Averill, Amy Fleury, Elizabeth Dodd, Donna Potts, Susan Jackson-Rogers, Joe Harrington, Billie Joe Harris, Laura Moriarty, Kevin Rabas, Ben Cartwright, and Li-Young Lee. Others: Susan M. Schultz, Leah Sewell, CA Conrad, Amy King, John D’Agata, Sandra Simmonds, Travis Macdonald, Claudia Rankine, Lisa Robertson, David Shields, Aby Kaupang, and Katie Degentesh.
Tell us a little about your writing process. Do you draft by hand or on the computer? Do your poems go through many revisions?
I do what I can to write, but I love how visceral writing by hand is. I carry a Moleskine everywhere I go for notes, observations, etc. These usually become my lyric poems. For conceptual work, I copy-and-paste from the internet right into my MS Word Document.
About the process: I come up with projects I want to work on. It’s easier for me to think about poems with these ideas first—to create a holistic collection of work. It’s the exact opposite of what Ted Kooser recommends.
I have had poems go through many revisions, and poems with only one or two. It really is tough for me to decide, which is why having close friends as feedback contributors helps.
How did the MFA program at the University of Kansas strengthen your writing? What advice would you share with a writer who is considering an MFA?
Ah! It’s the MFA dilemma! Poets & Writers dedicates an issue yearly to MFA programs, along with a section of why an MFA isn’t necessary to be an excellent writer. I agree with the latter. Really, reading, writing, and finding a support group are, to me, the key elements of becoming a stronger writer. An MFA really provides an opportunity to teach creative writing at the university level. With all of this said, I did grow as a writer in my MFA experience. It gave me that environment for reading, writing, and having a support group and mentor. My advice is: Avoid debt! If you do apply for an MFA, do your research, ask people about programs, consult the Poets & Writers issue, but ask yourself if the time and money involved is really worth the effort. I don’t mean to sound pessimistic, but honest. Just know: people run successful businesses without business degrees, as writers can be successful (whatever that means) without writing degrees.
You are the Managing Editor for Topeka publisher Woodley Press. Has working as an editor changed the way that you write, or given you any insight on submitting your work for publication?
Oh, yes! Actually, I worked on a lit mag as a K-State grad student—one year as Poetry Editor, the second as Managing Editor. As far as individual poems, my work for Touchstone confirmed what I overall know: 1) poetry is the most popular form to be submitted to literary magazines, and 2) rejection does not mean the poem isn’t wonderful, but was either one of one thousand other wonderful poems submitted, or isn’t what the editor(s) were looking for because of [fill in numerous reasons]. Reflecting on this last point, one should examine and ask if the poem she or he is about to send out fits the aesthetic of the chosen literary magazine. For Woodley, even though we deal with manuscripts, the same things still apply. If I am sending out a poetry manuscript, I want to make sure it is not to a press that publishes only fiction. Likewise, Woodley has received YA genre fiction from California, when we exclusively consider poetry or fiction from Kansas, or with a Kansas connection. I love books, especially by small presses, so I often submit to those presses. (Note: Check out Small Press Distribution’s website to see what I mean.)
The Sum of Two Mothers is both a tribute to the women who raised you and a criticism of a legal system that fails to recognize the legitimacy of their relationship. How have readers reacted to this collection? Are there any memorable compliments or criticisms that you would like to share?
I am thankful that the collection has resonated with so many readers. Someone who has a sister who is lesbian said, “I usually don’t understand poetry, but each page was powerful and had something to say.” That really means a lot to me. It also has made an impact outside of the page, as someone who is raising children with her partner said at an open-mic poetry night: “This is why we should come out to our children. It doesn’t mess them up. Look at how successful Dennis is.” Now, I don’t say this to somehow claim I am some kind of big deal, but I do like the idea of the book serving as an entry to discussion—a way to bring families closer together. There is still a lot of damage to families because of our heteronormative, oppressive culture-at-large. I was aware of this when I was writing the poems, that each poem could be a site of survival and resistance.
You write a lot of poetry that would be considered experimental. What advice do you have for poets who are crafting work that does not seem to fit into mainstream published poetry?
To people who want to explore experimental poetry, I think that is awesome. I personally wished to, to explore all of the different forms of poetry, to find what approach is the best for what the poem wants to be. My advice is: Don’t share it with anyone but close friends and experimental lit mags you are submitting to. I was recently watching Ken Burns’ Jazz series again, where he covers how commercial Jazz was popular in New York, while pushing out Dizzy Gillespe and Charlie Parker for being too experimental. What they were doing was creating Bebop, which eventually changed Jazz overall. Punk was countercultural at one time, too, but now it’s mainstream. Flarf and Conceptual poetry were experimental even five years ago, but now it is in Poetry. Okay, my overall advice is to write in traditional, established, and experimental ways, but explore the reasons why you choose one mode over the other. At least, that is what I do.
Tell us about your current writing projects. What are your writing plans for the next few years?
There are actually seven projects in the works. My current three projects are poems and hybrid writing around Gage Park, my mothers’ Christianity, and Kansas. I am excited about the Kansas one, as it is a hybrid of poetry, image, non-fiction, memoir, and politics. With the research I have so far, there is a lot of potential. As a writer, I love how research can inform a work, to move it in ways I wouldn’t consider otherwise.
How can readers find out more about you and follow your work?
*Miranda Ericsson interviewed Dennis Etzel Jr. via email in April, 2014.
from The Sum of Two Mothers
my mother comes out in 1983
Sondra moves in in 1985
her bookshelves hold gardens of philosophers
hold healers, mystics, prophets, poets
with a turntable and speakers
her albums hold orchestras
tragic clowns and a ring of gods
female warriors on flying horses
sweep down to claim my dead soldiers
as I am among them
in the breeze
on two wide lines—
at the neighbors
who spy no sign
of any man—no
boxers, no briefs
across the street
yell at me
you live with “dikes”
they do not mean
how my mothers
hold back flood
Learn more about Kansas authors on the Map of Kansas Literature, a growing database of Kansas authors built by Washburn University and the Center for Kansas Studies.