Twenty Minutes with Dennis Etzel Jr.


Props to Dr. Kevin Rabas for snapping this candid photo.

Tittynope: What hardships have you endured in your life? Are there any trials and tribulations that you have had to overcome, that not only shaped you but helped to hone your craft?

Etzel: Wow! … Yeah.

Tittynope: Maybe not an overview, but instances where something happened. You know what I mean?

Etzel: Okay.

Tittynope: Okay?

Etzel: Hardships…

Tittynope: Hardship.

Etzel: Uhm… uh. The public education system.

Tittynope: Okay?

Etzel: [laughs] That was the hardship.

Tittynope: [laughs]

Etzel: Oh, you want more details? Okay.

Tittynope: Yeah. That was more of a blanket statement.

Etzel: It is true. I was put in the back of the class in fifth grade…

Tittynope: Okay.

Etzel: …When I should have been up front, where I could pay attention. Instead I was in the back, where I was just bored.

Tittynope: Was this like in…

Etzel: This was in elementary school

Tittynope: Okay, was this a charter school? Or was this…

Etzel: No.

Tittynope: Regular school?

Etzel: Elementary school. USD 501. I was bored out of my mind, so I was labeled a trouble maker. My teacher would kick me out of the class to copy the dictionary by hand. Now, this was wrong. I feel like this is how the public education is the same as the fast food restaurant industry, in that public humiliation is part of keeping the status quo. You can publicly humiliate people, like students. A student gets in trouble, and instead of calling that student by themselves to talk to them personally, they are instead made an example in class. And, then put in trouble. There is both embarrassment, and shame. Then, I am kicked out and given the task of something that would normally be thrown away. Handwritten work.

Tittynope: Like, trash.

Etzel: Where now, my handwritten work is one of the most precious things to me. I know this is the stuff my boys are going to find some day, and I hope they’ll see the importance of it. I actually write them letters in my books, in my journals. I’ll write them little letters to find later. So, my hand-written work is really important to me. It’s something that I have reclaimed, versus just “A” and then I had to write the phonics.

Tittynope: Did you almost feel like you were the trash that was being thrown away?

Etzel: Oh wow. That’s a good one.

Tittynope: Because I notice now, you are using your written work and your paper as more of an analogy of you and yourself.

Etzel: Yeah.

Tittynope: So, the teacher was putting you in the back, pushing you away, and throwing your work in the garbage. Did you feel that you were being thrown away, that you were trash, and that you were less than adequate?

Etzel: Yeah, maybe. Again, I was the trouble maker, and of course, I didn’t share this with my mother. Especially the embarrassing things, or the tough things because of that shame. And then, you also don’t want to worry anyone who cares about you. I think that this is still something that many people have to handle. They are children, they are made to feel ashamed by grownups, and on top of it, they don’t want to tell their parents about it. We also see now an increase of people, young girls especially, taking their lives. We have a problem with bullying. For me, I was running away from bullies in middle school. I would try to write stories or poems or whatever. We know that it is happening on all levels. The problem is that we don’t see adults as being bullies too. We have Donald Trump, an ultimate bullier. Yet, people admire that. It’s really scary, and that’s where I think poems can come in place. Speaking about experiences can be painful, but when you write it on the page, you show that you survived that experience. At the same time, you can also reach out to other survivors. You don’t even need to be in front of those survivors because you have a poem that can reach that person. That’s it, getting the poems out and that can be tough. I guess that’s why I love online literary magazines. They used to be what is called “vanity.” “Hey, we’ll publish you if you give us fifty dollars.” Right? Or, “We’ll publish you,” but you’ll get your book. This eighty dollar anthology, or whatever and your poem is small on a page with thirty other poems. But, now there’s very much legitimate websites, literary magazine online. Wow, I just switched the topic from…

Tittynope: You have just segwayed right into what I’m… [laughs] you’re just kind of running this interview.

Etzel: [laughs] okay, fantastic.

Tittynope: What is your process when you feel inspiration, and when you are putting together a poem how do you convey those ideas?

Etzel: Good question. So definitely, there is that thing when you get hit by inspiration. I always have my notebook with me. I write on a piece of paper “writing project” and put it in bold letters so that I know that it is a writing project. I also keep an index in the front of the book, with page numbers. I number the pages, so I know where to look. This way I can look for my projects. That is also kind of processing too. Then, I start thinking about the concept behind how I will write these poems. What are the different poems that would appear, and I start brainstorming. I just start writing down, and thinking again, how will I approach these poems when I start writing? In other words, there is a lot of prewriting, and there is a lot of brainstorming. You know the stuff that, in the Comp class that I teach I also show brainstorming too. Instead of getting to the page by itself, there is brainstorming, there’s thinking, there’s interacting with whatever text you are going to talk about, and then you do it. It’s the same with my poems, I guess. Eventually, I only have so much time to write [laughs], and when I get there on Fridays at ten o’clock, I know exactly what I am going to write.

Tittynope: That’s awesome.

Etzel: That’s my process. So, I’ll write longhand, and then when I go to the typewriter, it’s just revising.

Tittynope: Okay.

Etzel: If I’ve written something that I don’t like, I will start the next day writing the same poem. Only this time with different words. That’s another process I have done too. If I am doing the lyrical stuff, not, you know My Secret Wars was its own process, figuring out how to do it to get those poems.

Tittynope: It’s a big process.

Etzel: Yeah, a big process.

Tittynope: Rather than just one singular poem.

Etzel: Appropriation. But, a single poem, if it is like a list, for example, the poem about my sons. I’ll write a Wystan poem today, and then I will think of something he said or something he does. Then, I’ll try to attach it to comic books or movies. I have been doing a lot of movies. Bringing in movie tropes. One great line is about seeing him ride his bike like he is in technicolor. Like, going across the screen in technicolor.

Tittynope: That’s awesome.

Etzel: And it was like “yeah” it really hit me. So, then I’ll just write or rewrite. That is another strategy that people can do for a poem. Just get the material, because each time you start again you are going to write something different. And, if you do it over five days, then you have a lot of material to shrink down, to “Emily Dickenson” it down to one poem.

Tittynope: So you keep going at it, and you save those. You don’t throw them…

Etzel: Oh no! They are handwritten.

Tittynope: Those are yours.

Etzel: Right. And, I’m saving those things. Kevin (Rabas) sends me the poems that he has done too. We do this letter thing, and sometimes I will send him my work. But, I know he sends me all of his work, and sometimes rough drafts. So, actually I have his collection, I have his archives. I have about four boxes now. Four big boxes.

Rabas: Right, so whoever is first dead, the other one. Winner takes all.

Etzel: That’s RIGHT!

Tittynope: [laughs]

Etzel: Whoever becomes famous, real famous, first.

Rabas: So, I have the letters of Dennis Etzel in my possession. Papers and letters.

Tittynope: Awesome. Wow, wow.

Etzel: That is really like journaling. We are just writing about our day, what we have been up to, what our families are doing, what our teachings like, or what we are working on. Or sharing poems. It’s a really great thing.

Tittynope: So, there is a process. Because it looks like Kevin just sits down and [snaps] boom he’s got a poem.

Etzel: Yeah, yeah.

Rabas: Yeahhh… I don’t know about that.

Tittynope: [laughs] I’ve heard you talk about how you have scraps of things, and then you’ll come back to them later.

Rabas: Yeah.

Tittynope: He came up to me one day and was like “I liked your story, Cajun Angel,” and then three days later he’s got a story written that’s even better. It’s about him losing his wallet, and he picks up some drum sticks. I think he’s overseas, and he ends up busking with, um broken sticks.

Etzel: Oh yes! I’ve read that one.

Tittynope: And, the ending was just… I love the ending; change just flies everywhere. There are so many literal metaphors on what happened there. It looked like he produced that in… I don’t know how he got it out so quick.

Rabas: It was the morning, I got interrupted five times.

Etzel: [laughs]

Tittynope: Here is another question; did you use comic books to escape reality when you were a child?

Etzel: Yes.

Tittynope: What other materials and things did you use to escape, like baseball? The Royals?

Etzel: Yes. I used comic books and D&D. Now, the tricky thing about the Royals is this, I was a big Royals fan until I was about nine or ten, and then there was a rejection of all things masculine. I did not want anything to do with anything that my father was basically involved in. So, I didn’t want to look at cars; I didn’t want to talk about cars. And sadly, that included baseball. Now, what’s strange is that I was still a fan, and I was watching with my grandmother, who also liked baseball. I would see the games with her. I was still connected, but I didn’t fully want to immerse myself until I was really connected with my father. And, then that’s when I was really like “oh wow” I loved it.

Tittynope: So you didn’t want to connect with masculinity until you had fixed this connection with your father?

Etzel: Yeah, ironically. When I was in grad school at K-state, I really didn’t want anything to do with anything masculine. If I were to be read as a man or something, it would be for… I wouldn’t want to act as what would be seen as “masculine.” I read this article that was called “Masculinity is Homophobia,” and the argument is that men act masculine because they don’t want to be labeled a “sissy” or labeled as gay because they will be beaten up. Men are in fear of other men, and that’s why they need to keep this macho façade up. When really, they are not allowed to share feelings then because that’s too much of a woman thing. And all these things are really rooted in homophobia. Right, like “gay men do that,” “Gay men do those things,” This shortchanges men from having authentic experiences with other people then.

Tittynope: That was the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s.

Etzel: Yep. What was the question? I don’t remember… oh! [laughs]

Tittynope: [laughs] No-no, it’s okay! We were talking about comic books.

Etzel: Comic books! Oh… here’s a poem. I think I wrote about it. One time my father had thrown away my comic books as a punishment. I opened up the trash can to find them. You know, I thought “Oh, I think he threw those away.” I opened it up, and the top comic book was a Star Wars comic. The cover had R2D2 and 3CPO, and the name of the story was “Escape from Droid World.” There was no escape from Droid World, there was no escape from Droid World, and I felt like that about my world.

Tittynope: Wow.

Etzel: There was no escape, and that was really profound for me. There you go, the universe talking to you.

Tittynope: Awesome. Is there one comic in particular that you found, I look at artwork that I feel that they are staring at me. That is a picture of me. So, is there a comic book that you saw that mirrored your life?

Etzel: Bill Sienkiewicz. I even have a poem in My Graphic Novel, and it starts with, “every Friday Bill Sienkiewicz’s artwork saved my life.” He really experimented with going outside of the traditional norms. This was in 1984. He started New Mutants; you can also see it in Moon Knight where he starts experimenting with ink style and doing a kind of gritty work. Comic books before were very much alike in that they were drawn in the same way. Bill Sienkiewicz went further in New Mutants; you can look in issue number seventeen where he is doing real paintings, actual paintings. That’s what really broke through for me, was seeing how art and abstraction can show emotion. The abstraction of art shows intensity, or emotion. Very much that artwork, and then another artist who worked for New Defenders, his name was Frank Cirocco and he did paintings for the covers. There is one of the Valkyrie. The Valkyrie is a character, and you see her in a close up, and then you also see her on a horse in the background. That was the cover I really wanted for The Sum of Two Mothers, because with both in front and in the background you can see two women, two mothers. Marvel said that would be 25,000 dollars just to use the cover [laughs] 25,000 for the rights to use that cover which no one cares about anymore.

Tittynope: So, Stan Lee said…

Etzel: No, he didn’t, it was the lawyer. They have very much a gate-keeper.

Tittynope: Okay. Earlier, you were talking about how you sent the manuscript to the artist to make the cover, and you gave her an idea of what you wanted. Have you ever just collaborated, and given an artist something purely open-ended?

Etzel: I have worked with an artist in Lawrence, Kansas about the climate crisis. But, she does such slow work, because she actually etches. She etches her artwork, and so we have done some collaborative work where she shows me some of her artwork, and I wrote poems from it. Then, I gave her a poem, and she did some artwork for it. Our common theme is birds. That is still an undergoing project.

Tittynope: The artwork that your friend does, is it an intaglio, on metal or tile?

Etzel: She does both, really. She uses metal, and she does wood.

Tittynope: There is a long history of that being used as illustrations for books, or being put in dictionaries.

Etzel: Huh, That’s very cool.

Tittynope: Could you give us, your readers, a poem on the spot.

Etzel: No. I can’t [laughs] okay, you ready?

Tittynope: Yeah.

Etzel: “On the Spot.”

Tittynope: On the spot, just…

Etzel: No that’s the poem, “On the Spot.” That’s my poem [laughs]

Tittynope: [laughs] Dennis, this has been one of the most entertaining interviews I have ever been a part of.

Etzel: If you think of any more questions, feel free to email them to me.

Tittynope: We will keep that in mind, and thank you for your time.

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