Sunday, May 19, 2013

Author Interview: Kevin Rabas

Kevin Rabas is a writer and a poet. He co-directs the creative writing program at Emporia State University and I have been honored to get to know him through Emporia Writers, an informal, independent meeting group of the Kansas Authors Club.

As Kevin has been a great inspiration to me, both for getting me to step outside my comfort zone and try new things with my writing, and as someone whose words and encouragement really helped me to get focused on getting my first novel published, I was very pleased when he agreed to participate in an author interview for my website.

Your book, Spider Face, is a collection of short-shorts that often read as much like poetry as prose. Like much of your poetry, the pieces feel very intimate, like stories some might share only with a close friend. As a reader, I feel as if I have been allowed to look through a book of snapshots of your past.

Spider Face is filled with works that follow the path the confessional poets (Lowell, Plath, Sexton) carved out. The first section is a series of shorts that culminate in an HIV test. I wouldn't casually talk about that, but it's been on my mind since the early '90s as a story I wanted to tell. Writing that series of interlocking stories provided me a way to say it, and a way to tell it with both humor and darkness, with a kind of narrative pull beyond what a quick anecdote holds. That section of the book talks frankly about sex and romance, about initiation into the world of adult knowledge. Much of the book touches upon that subject or theme. My aim is to do that with frankness and delicacy at once, without ever being gratuitous.

In terms of reading like poetry, sound is very important to me. I'm not for sound OVER sense, but very close. The line between these two is thin. If it doesn't sound good, I edit it until it does. Or I abandon that line, that paragraph, even that entire work.

How autobiographical are the stories in Spider Face? Would you classify them as memories conjured and captured at a later date or fodder mined from your personal archives. Are you writing your life all the time, or writing the memories that stick with you?

Although I take liberties to make the story sound, much of the work in this collection started with an "event" in my life. I'm not writing creative nonfiction here, but sometimes it's close. I'd say two-thirds of each story is true. I had to invent what I didn't remember. Other times, a change made the story better, more compelling, more poignant, more archetypal. One of the stories "Three AM" is taken from Japanese myth. So, that is not rooted in my life. The others are, for the most part. Some are stories others told me, such as "Spider Face." I wrote and rewrote the title story, off and on, for about five years.

What made you decide to present these as prose rather than poetry?

Dialog and action seem to function better in stories. In my own poetry, there are only about so many lines of dialog I can get away with before I begin to think: This would work better as a story or a play. Also, figuratively, there's more room to move around in a story. A poem, for me, usually has a smaller court, a smaller room. I know there are lots of good long poems. At that time, I preferred to turn longer stories or narratives into short shorts. Plus, I admire short short stories, and I wanted to try my hand at them, with some seriousness. I had written a handful. I wanted to write enough to fill out a collection. Furthermore, the "Elizabeth and KC" section called for interlocking short short stories. I wanted to explore how that would work.

How does your work with students influence your writing? Is there an added pressure to write/publish, beyond the expectations of any other university professor?

As Co-Director of the Emporia State University Creative Writing Program, and as a teacher within that program, daily I am called upon to lead and mentor a group of creative writers, a group of individuals who have just started on their path towards craftsmanship and towards eventual publication. I see it as part of my role to write well and publish so that I can guide my students more securely along that path. If I fall behind and don't know the market, how can I show my students the way? I can't know all of the market, but I can know a good deal of it.

As professors, we are expected to publish. Creative writers publish stories and poems and such, and literature professors publish scholarly articles. Sometimes professors do both. I think the expectations are reasonable, and those expectations keep teachers current in the field. It is not easy for a creative writer to publish, though, in that most small press journals publish less than one percent of what they receive. Odds are better for scholars. However, every kind of publication has its advantages. Anyone can enjoy a short story.

You are a multi-faceted artist, and I think I have heard you perform on drums as often as I have heard you read poetry. I am struck by the very rhythmic quality of your poetry. Which came first for you, music or poetry?

My mother worked as a reporter and editor for a small town paper. Sometimes she would take my sister and me along on the job. I'd hold her tape recorder when she went to chase a fire. I'd play with the waxer in the production room, pasting abandoned copy on the wall, on my arms. So, writing came first. My mother encouraged it.

I started music in fifth grade, like many. I wanted to play sax because Huey Lewis and the News had a saxophonist who soloed. I had a bad overbite, though, and my dentist said the saxophone reed would only make it worse. So, it was trumpet or trombone or drums. I chose drums.

In terms of combining poetry and music, the 1958 MGM LP *Weary Blues*, a collaboration between Poet Langston Hughes and Bassist/Composer Charles Mingus, was where it started for me. I listened to that recording at the MARR Sound Archive at UMKC in 1994. I admired it greatly. I shelved records, while that LP spun. I wanted something like that, I thought. Around 2000, I started something like it, reading poetry while KC jazz saxophonist Josh Sclar played. We played monthly at The Cup & Saucer in the KC Rivermarket area (4/Delaware). I drummed, too.

What do you do in your “spare” time… when you are not writing or teaching writing?

I like photography. So, I take a lot of pictures. I read a lot. I grade. I watch movies with my wife, Lisa. She loves movies. I play games with my son. He likes D&D. I drum.

Kevin Rabas co-directs the Creative Writing Program at Emporia State University and edits Flint Hills Review. He has four books: Bird's Horn & Other Poems; Lisa's Flying Electric Piano, a Kansas Notable Book and Nelson Poetry Book Award winner; Spider Face: Stories; and Sonny Kenner's Red Guitar.


Kevin's books on Amazon.

Spider Face at

Additional note from Kevin: I love to sign books and write messages. So, if you order a book directly from me, I'm happy to write in it. I'm on Facebook. Feel free to friend me. Also, local and regional bookstores often carry my books, such as the Emporia Town Crier, the ESU Memorial Union Bookstore, The Raven in Lawrence, etc.

Local bookstores are a great place to hang out--and to buy books.

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