This is Dennis Etzel Jr. Dennis is a Washburn University English professor, a poet with multiple books and awards to his name, as well as a husband and father. He got a degree as a Computer Programmer Analyst, before finding his passion for teaching and writing, which led him to earning an MFA from the University of Kansas and a Graduate Certificate in women and gender studies from Kansas State University. He frequently advises students in the Black Student Union and Hispanic American Leadership Organization (HALO) on how to move forward with their education. He grew up with two mothers, something he wrote about a few years ago in a chapbook titled “The Sum of Two Mothers.” Sadly, his mother Sondra passed away recently. I’m really thankful for his time and friendship.
“My mothers both have nursing background. My biological mother Susan was an RN who worked for the state and at Saint Francis and Sondra worked as a psych nurse at Menninger’s, so I felt like I had the best of both worlds growing up, the mind and the body. When Sondra moved in she moved in with her books and music. I feel like I owe a lot to her. I was her son. This was the 80s, so having two moms wasn’t something people did. The neighbors thought she was an aunt, or whatever assumptions they had. I didn’t tell anybody growing up.
The one thing that made me really proud of the book ‘The Sum of Two Mothers’ was the feedback from the community. Poetry for me is like a high form of ethics. You can’t just write anything you want. If poetry is a reflection of our world and our experiences and those all have ethics, then we need to write ethically too. So, for example, I didn’t want to write a persona poem. I can’t write what it is to be a lesbian, but I can write what it is to be the son of one. So that’s what the writing is out of, it’s out of the observations and the experiences.
The great thing is that when I read poetry from that book at an open mic night, I had people come up to me who were either two mothers or two fathers raising kids that saw me as a success, that seeing me up there was a relief to them. I would have never even thought of that but it was great. Any of the poetry I write has to have some sort of activism in it. There’s always something I want to tackle, there’s always something I want to voice.
For example, one of the most heartbreaking moments was during the time of the Michael Brown shooting.The AME church had a vigil and we took our kids and Asmund at the time was five or six. He was on my shoulders and he said, ‘Is this about the boy who died?’ and I told him that yes, it was. It was really cold outside and then he said, ‘Can you feel my breath?’ It was heartbreaking, my own son breathing on the back of my neck while all of this was going on; it really brought home what had happened. Those moments are hard to put into words. Poetry allows us to express them. Metaphors try to find those words.”