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.