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Meet David Van Etten

Updated: Feb 20, 2020

By Elizabeth Gracen:

The most rewarding aspect of creating content for Flapper Press is getting to know new writers. When Gillian Kessler pointed me in the direction of David Van Etten as a potential poetry contributor, I had no idea that he would quickly become such an important addition to our site.

David does, indeed, contribute his exciting poetry, but he also shares a powerful series of posts about his journey battling and healing from colorectal cancer. These fiercely brave posts inspire and inform, and I appreciate his honest, soulful outpouring.

The icing on the cake is Dave's Poetry Workshop—our newest series devoted to supporting both fledgling and experienced writers. David's writing exercises and prompts are challenging, creative, and practical, and I'm thrilled to have his expertise here at Flapper Press.

Please meet the very talented David Van Etten!


EG: David, I have the luxury of getting to start from scratch when it comes to asking you questions about you and your life. Can you tell me a bit about yourself?

DVE: I’m a reborn poet currently waging a vigorous fight against cancer. My wife, Susy, and my three-year-old daughter, Daisy Joy, and I live in El Cerrito, CA, tucked in a hillside neighborhood between Berkeley and Richmond. I work as a compliance officer at a bank. While I didn’t dream of this vocation as a boy, I enjoy being an internal cop who keeps my salespeople and traders from getting in trouble with the regulators. Plus, I get home every day by 4 p.m. to pick Daisy up from daycare, and I keep the mortgage paid. Oh, the life of adulthood.

I wrote a great deal of poetry in college and a modest volume of poems since, culminating in a dramatic upturn two years ago when my baby was a baby. I wrote nightly for weeks and accumulated fifty poems, from which I culled twelve that comprise my first book, which will soon be available here on the Flapper Press site.

EG: Tell me about your love of poetry and why its form is something you are drawn to as a writer. What is it about poetry that does it for you?

DVE: I’ve tinkered around with novels and short stories, but poetry is where I find my fit. Poetry is what drew me to an English major to begin with, nearly 25 years ago, along with a couple high school teachers: Mr. Rasmussen for training us in symbol and metaphor and Mr. Sheehy for igniting the fire of curiosity and hard work in my young soul. I was drawn to the Romantics and Victorians in early college and joined the London study abroad group mostly comprised of students from my alma mater, Santa Clara University. My best buddy, Sam, got a girlfriend, but I was almost under vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience in devotion to visiting by foot as many “pilgrimage” spots as I could, staring at the death masks at Keats' house in Hampstead, strolling the Sandymount Strand in Dublin where Stephen Daedalus strolled, standing in the rain at an old church in Whitby where Bram Stoker derived his inspiration for Dracula. I was your classic, standard, enthusiastic English major in the making.

My junior year I joined Edward Kleinschmidt Mayes in my first poetry workshop. It was very comfortable, as we were all beginners, and there wasn’t a great deal of fronting and swagger. Ed instructed us to “cleanse our palates with the cracker of poetry.” The next quarter, I entered a more advanced workshop with Ed and felt my first stirrings of terror and competition. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. Ed focused a great deal on free forms: couplets, triplets, block poems that fill the page, line breaks, the surprise of consistently undercutting reader expectations, and wordplay. Oh, the wordplay. I had found my tribe and my calling. There were multiple guys in the class who had written poems about my college girlfriend, Christine. One was a future rapper who described her “knee socks” so well that I felt doomed. I had to try and write a love poem, if only to assert myself. It was good, even though it included a couple lines like “as honeydew/ does what honey does” that subsequently made me cringe. My line breaks felt good to me, lots of wordplay delights that drew the reader along with the underlying narrative. Back then, I adhered closer to a narrative thread rather than disrupting the backbone setting for the reader. I seemed to win several second place awards, while my closest writer companions, Joe and Marci, seemed to win the firsts and thirds, alternatively. We read for an award ceremony in Berkeley, and I chose a poem that was “an exercise in exorcism” about the rave experience—this was, remember, the mid-90s. It was a hit, and I became a different person performing before audiences at readings as a result of that experience.

During my 20s and 30s, I became primarily a wedding poet. I would be asked to stand either during the ceremony or at the reception and deliver some crackle. I loved this role. The pragmatic yet malleable form of wedding address suited me so well. I collaborated with my dad to patch together favorite bits from different wedding poems and arrived at a hybrid masterpiece that may be used for weddings and other reunion celebrations. It begins with “Let’s rejoice” and has the feel of a surreal but not weird homily. It has been shared with so many for their special days, much like the card my mom created to celebrate one’s life at their passing. It’s one of our family’s two signature blessings. My dad recited it to me and my seven-month-pregnant wife during our Halloween wedding ceremony in Mendocino, CA. We called it Weddingween and, candidly, we had already gone through the legal ceremony at San Francisco City Hall the previous July. On Weddingween in Mendocino, my dad was surrounded by children sitting on the floor in costume. I wept to hear his voice return my words to me and my beloved.

The love of poetry never seems to abate. It lasts and lasts and never comes to rest, to quote my buddy Joe. It was fated to reignite into a spilling pen again someday. Two years ago, that someday became today for me.

EG: We’ve just launched the Poetry section on the website—mainly because I love poetry so much—but our goal is to make this category as interactive as possible. Not only do we want professional poets to submit their work, we want to tempt novice writers to express themselves through poetry and share it on the site. What do you think the benefits are for anyone who might want to toy with writing their own personal poetry?

DVE: My primary advice to novices is to seek and fully enjoy formal straight jackets. By formal straight jacket, I mean finding or creating exercises that give you random rules to guide your inspiration. Truly free form is terrifying to me. I’m not saying write sonnets and odes, although it’s very worthwhile to play with those traditional forms. I’m saying find random rules, like each line must include a body part, a lie, and the word “tricycle.” Now that won’t necessarily create a great poem, but the straight jacket effectively opens you to the unconscious. You aren’t directing the poem; the poem is directing you. Try a sestina, and try largely enjambed couplets to practice surprising line breaks, and try to handwrite a poem knowing that you needed to fill every millimeter of that page’s space with verse. Then do each again.

Further, seek out fellow poetry enthusiasts and organize you’re own workshop. It’s important to develop a cohort you trust to give honest feedback. Moreover, it’s important to share your work regularly and to consider a poem a draft until you can’t tinker any longer. You’ll know when it’s perfect.

EG: Some basics: who are your favorite poets? Writers? What are your influences?

DVE: I have my favorite historical poets. I’m looking at the section in my library where I keep these dear friends so that I can share them with my three-year-old. They include early W. B. Yeats, Philip Larkin, Wallace Stevens, e.e. cummings, W. H. Auden, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Christina Rossetti, Theodore Roethke, Elizabeth Bishop, and Richard Wilbur. Then of course there’s my Keats and Wordsworth and Shakespeare. Oh, Shakespeare’s sonnets.

Other poetic influences, counter-intuitively, include Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Aggie March. Novels have a way of cracking you open as a writer, perhaps because you inhabit a different consciousness, a different life energy, when fully enthralled by beautiful phrasing for several weeks at a time. A one-page poem won’t do that.

My direct influences are largely members or devotees of the early Cold-War-era “New York School,” most specifically John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara. Ashbery is evasive and coy and flirts with meaning and pulls away to pastiche and bric-a-brac. There is never, or rarely, any direct statement of feeling or meaning. O’Hara is all directness: “if there is a/ place further from me/ I beg you do not go” (“Morning”).

My favorite poet is Dean Young, who currently teaches at the Michener Center in Austin, TX, and who, in my reading, gracefully synthesizes Ashbery and O’Hara. The lion’s share of each of his poems is disruptive surrealism, with phrases that logic must work and stretch to join. Stark images combine with familiar turns of phrases containing unfamiliar content. He has a flirtation with meaning reminiscent of Ashbery. But then, peppered lightly throughout the poem and often in the penultimate lines, he makes direct emotional statements reminiscent of O’Hara: “You fall upon the thorns of life/ and bleed and people think you’re a fool” (“We Through Mists Descry,” a title which is also a great Alexander Pope line). All of his books are gems, but I might start with First Course in Turbulence and Skid, which my mind compares adoringly to the band Built to Spill’s Perfect from Now On and Keep It Like a Secret—hungry, early-ish career masterpieces that were preceded by good earlier works through which the creator cut their teeth and earned maturity. My two closest writing collaborators, Joe and Marci, delivered Susy and me a wedding poem that referenced Dean Young and his words seven times in a nine-section, poet-alternating collaboration that was all O’Hara, an emotional directness focused at Susy and Daisy and me. I was in tears; it was so beautiful. I will discuss more of Dean Young below when discussing my favorite poem.

EG: You mentioned to me earlier that you were happy to be a part of Flapper Press because it brought you back to the table, the paper, and the pen. Do you have a particular discipline when it comes to the work you create? Do you have to be motivated by something in particular or do ideas and concepts just present themselves to you . . . and then you write?

DVE: As a threshold issue, I’m either in a writing phase or I’m not. It comes in several-month bursts. If I find myself compelled to write, then my mind starts marinating, and I may text myself little phrases and idioms. But when it comes to actually drafting a new poem, my writing process is somewhat simple and pragmatic. I use a writing exercise that I was introduced to by Edward Kleinschmidt Mayes in my first beginners workshop. It comes from a text called The Practice of Poetry, and the exercise is called “Twenty Little Poetry Projects.” The exercise asks that you fulfill each project within your poem, but I simply use the different projects to prompt me back to the unconscious and away from my own will and my own intention.

EG: If you could pick a favorite poem, what would it be?

DVE: My favorite poem is called “Bender” by Dean Young. Some background is helpful, for context. After earlier good books seasoned him, John Ashbery wrote his hungry masterpiece Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. The career-catapulting book won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In my historical imagination, it was an epochal event. Contained within and anchoring the book was a long poem also called “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” which timelessly begins with the lines, “As Parmigianino did it, the right hand/ Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer/ And swerving easily away, as though to protect/ What it advertises.” Even today, I marvel at the beautiful line breaks of this treasure.

The opening lines of Dean Young’s “Bender” are as follows:

Ever since I lost consciousness,

I keep finding it in the oddest places:

in the barn after dancers turned to chaff

in bits of chintz, corn husk, phosphenes of dreams

that bob up like newts taking drinks of air.

This brand of surreality is pure pleasure to me. One let’s go of logic and drifts with a seasoned master of the craft (reminiscent of Ashbery’s compelling elusiveness).

The poem ends with the direct emotional expression that the reader has been yearning for all poem long (much like O’Hara’s bleeding-heart-on-sleeve). He often gives the haymaker blow in the lines that precede the true ending of the poem, in which he might return to one or two disparate surreal statements, to temper his openness. But here, the ending is far too great to be followed by another word. I love the poem so much I hand-printed it in Sharpie on the inside of my garage door (a garage that serves as our rumpus room and/or my man cave, where the TV lives), making the garage door appear like four pages of a book.

I’ll end this interview with the final lines of “Bender.”

Come back!

Come back! But nothing comes back, not

the star in the center of the chest, not the river

of bees that was our honeyed bequest, not

the blizzard that was once the mind,

its blaring verifications that life’s

a flare, a farce, a kiss from someone in the dark

who thinks she’s kissing someone else

you gladly become

Enjoy exploring and creating, dear Readers. Reach out to me anytime at Twitter handle @davidvanetten.

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