chapbook poetry reading

the chapbook interview: Dennis Etzel Jr. on spending less than a dollar to put work out into the world

You’re the author of the chapbook The Sum of Two Mothers (2013) and a forthcoming book from BlazeVOX Books. What did you learn in MFA school about the chapbook as a genre?

Long story short, I started sending off for sample chapbooks in 1995, using the Poets Market as a guide. From that, I started making my own, as well as chapbooks featuring open-mic poets from a weekly Topeka series at a coffeehouse. If I learned anything about the genre, it was from my own study of the aesthetic of figuring out what poems should go in a collection, what order should they be in, etc. I guess that comes from close readings, figuring out if subject, emotion, theme, etc. is the determining factor for what and how poems are placed together.

Part of my background is being a computer programmer/analyst. I worked from 1998-2004 at two different corporate jobs as a programmer/analyst, while taking night courses between 2002-04 for my second degree in English–and the leap out of that world into grad school.

The most education about chapbooks during my MFA came from visiting writers, sharing chapbooks with other MFA students, holding and reading hand-pressed chapbooks (which I love), and studying the all-around aesthetic of book-making; for example, noticing how McSweeney’s strive for quality and uniqueness in their books. However, I value how any chapbook is made, especially as someone can spend less than a dollar to put her or his work out into the world. That is awesome to me!


Given the recent Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality and your chapbook The Sum of Two Moms, talk about your interests in poetry of resistance, poetry of witness, and disobedient poetry.

As a survivor of abuse (at home and at school), my first poems were geared for poetry of witness, and Sharon Olds was the first poet I read. Definitely, the confessional/post-confessional poets drew my interest, and it still feels like I find ways to write out of experience without being “too confessional”–the rejection slip mantra of those first submissions.

I lean now towards finding ways to write poetry of resistance, and admire disobedient poetry too–like kari edwards. As far as Modernists, I love H.D. and Gertrude Stein, what they were doing to not line up with “the poetess” of the times. Stein especially, with Tender Buttons. I also love her “Patriarchal Poetry” poem. I love Quo-Li Driskill’s work, on and off the page. Adrienne Rich is always a go-to, and I admire her Poetry and Commitment speech. I carry around that small book often.

I love how small presses are publishing these kinds of works–to other audiences interested in writing for change. When I think of a new project, it can’t not be about how the poems will revolve around social change or ways of looking at constructions (like mask-ulinity).

Now that there is marriage equality, I am at work on new poems, developing Sum into a larger work.

I adore The Sum of Two Moms. I recently visited Topeka and had the opportunity to visit the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site. Place, cultural norms, and the laws that govern inform the stories told in The Sum of Two Moms. I know you have a book forthcoming from BlazeVOX Books. How does place feature in your new collection?

I know “poetry of place” is one of those hookline tropes, but for poets who were born, raised, or ever lived in Topeka, it is a truth. In fact, I compiled a “Welcome to Topeka Cento” poem, made up of lines from such poets, where the line contained or referred to Topeka or Kansas. See attachment.

It seems everyone who has been a part of Topeka writes about Topeka. In fact, CA Conrad is giving a reading and doing a PACE project here July 17 and 18. CA was born in Topeka.

Also, I am keeping a list:

Cyrus Console confirmed the advice often given for writing about “where you come from,” that it is important to leave. I haven’t been handed that opportunity. I try to find ways to reexamine Topeka:

I’m also a fifth-generation Topekan, so maybe this “home” is home for future Etzels?

I am currently working on other Topeka projects, like Kaia-Sandesque drifts and such. Also, my John Brown project will be finished next week–which leads to answering your second question soon.

How do you define chapbook? Twenty to thirty pages

What makes a good chapbook? Good poems (or writing).

What chapbooks are inspiring you these days?  I love what Kristy Bowen does with Dancing Girl–many of the chapbooks are inspirational themselves, as well as how she is getting wonderful poetry out there in an affordable form.

What chapbooks or chapbook poets have impacted your writing the most? Anne Boyer’s Good Apocalypse (Effing Press, 2006) amazed me. I had put my own chapbooks together with “random art” alongside poems, but Anne’s chap really was a work of art. Her flarflike poems about struggling with poverty, as well as her clippings-meet-texts art stunned me. It still is one of my favorites.

What do you look for when you put together a chapbook? A common theme–something that arches.

How are you trying to get better as a chapbook poet? When I assemble my poems together, I still consider cutting that “best poem” to make the collection feel more cohesive. It is keeping in mind that, even if a chapbook competition says “no longer than 36 pages,” the selected chapbook might have only 26 pages–and those 26 pages are wonderful.

What’s next for you? My next chap is based on a psychogeographic drift I did around the middle school I went to. It is inspired by Kaia Sand’s Remember to Wave.

Current chapbook reading list:
Southern Cryptozoology by Allie Marini Batts

Doll Studies: Forensics by Carol Guess

Number of chapbooks you own: over 100

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: 50ish

Talk about your commitment to the chapbook writing community. Really, I feel the chapbook is the best way one can get her or his words out to others. It only takes five-seven full-size pages to make copies of, fold-over, staple, and carry around to hand out. I encourage people to do that, as well as send their work to chapbook presses they might enjoy being a part of.

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: I also post links on my facebook page. I like taking pictures of the cover’s of books, with my eyes peering over.

Your chapbook credo: Trade ’em, buy ’em, read ’em.

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: On others’ chapbooks

Your chapbook wish: To get a shelf full of chapbooks.

Residence: Topeka, Kansas

Job: Lecturer of English at Washburn University

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