Dennis Etzel is no stranger to poetry.
Etzel, faculty advisor and English lecturer, first forayed into poetry when he was an undergraduate student at Washburn. His philosophy professor suggested keeping a journal; out of that journal, Etzel’s poetry and his voice as a writer were born.
It was his work with poetry that won him this year’s Troy Scroggins award Sept. 12. The award is presented to anyone who has made significant contributions to promote diversity and combat discrimination in Topeka. He received the award with his collaborator, Annette Billings.
“I am not even aware of who nominated us,” Etzel said. “But it has inspired us to go further.”
Etzel and Billings have been using poetry as a means of sparking conversations about issues like racism, sexism and inclusivity. They often work with ARTSConnect, an organization that directs projects that tie in social justice with art, by using their poetry to raise funds. They have performed poetic duets, and have conducted poetry workshops and open-mics with the organization.
Etzel has also worked with the Kansas League of Women Voters, encouraging everyone to vote and to make their voices heard. He actively encourages people outside the margins to speak up. He has also led poetry workshops with YWCA.
For Etzel, poetry is a venue for taking about inclusiveness and social justice.
“Poetry serves as a voice on the page,” Etzel said. “It is a political choice in the sense that it can talk about various power struggles.”
According to Etzel, since poetry has been relegated to the lower rungs of the literary ladder, it has an easier time touching on sensitive social issues.
His poetry is based on his personal life experiences. His first poetry collection, The Sum of Two Mothers, for example, talks about his experiences growing up with two mothers. It touches upon the stigma that surrounded and still surrounds same-sex parenting and unpacks Etzel’s belief in marriage equality.
Poems like Etzel’s are aimed to bring awareness to social issues. Awareness, after all, is a big part of causing social change.
“I always think of how I can use my privilege to inform people about people that don’t have privilege,” Etzel said. “People need to realize that. People need to realize that they are privileged and that there are certain problems due to that.”
Dialogue is key to combating discrimination. If nothing else, people can find solace by relating to the poems.