A CHAT WITH KEVIN
Kevin Drzakowski is chair of the Department of English and Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, where he teaches composition and creative writing. He has an M.A. in Creative Writing from Missouri State University and a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from Western Michigan University. His plays have been performed around the Midwest and in New York City, while his poetry and prose have appeared in such venues as The Wisconsin Review, The Offbeat, Spectrum, and Verse Wisconsin.
ALM: Tell us about yourself and your professional background.
I had a vague idea that I wanted to be a writer when I was in high school, but I didn’t know how to make a career out of it. I just liked to write, and I knew I could major in English in college and spend four years doing something I loved. I figured I would know exactly what I wanted to do with my life by the time I graduated. That didn’t happen. I still liked writing, a lot, but I also wanted a steady day job. As much as I love art and writing, I wasn’t willing to starve for it. I applied to some graduate programs in creative writing, mostly as a way to give myself a few more years to figure out what I really wanted to do. As a master’s student at Missouri State University, I got to teach a couple of composition classes a semester. I was twenty-two years old, not much older than most of the students (many of them were older than me), and I was extremely nervous about getting up in front of a classroom. I thought I would make a fool out of myself. I did, but it turned out I liked doing that, so I’ve been teaching ever since. I was one of the lucky few English PhDs to get a tenure track job, and every day I feel like I’ve won the lottery. Mostly I teach composition, but I also get to teach creative writing once in a while, which I love. I have the luxury of a steady job with some writing built into it; that’s a nice position to be in.
ALM: Why do you write / what motivates you to write / and what do you write?
I like attention, but I’m also kind of an introvert. Writing is a good way to balance those two seemingly contradictory traits. I can make a joke or say something off the wall, but I don’t have to be there to deliver the message in person.
I mostly write stage plays, but I also write fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. I don’t think anyone should confine themselves to one genre, unless they have some strong desire to do that. I think part of the joy of writing is experimentation, and writing in every genre gives a writer more ways to experiment.
ALM: Plays. Poetry. Prose. Do you have a favorite form of “literary expression” and how do you decide if something will be a play or a prose?
The reason I mostly write plays, I think, is that I love acting. It’s another way for an introvert who loves attention to find a creative outlet. I’ve spent a lot of time acting in plays and occasionally directing them. Theatre is just something that makes me comfortable, so it’s what I’ve gravitated toward in my writing. I also like the collaborative aspect of it. When you write a poem or a story, it’s done after you finish it. If you write a dramatic work, someone else might pick it up and take it a step further, layering their own interpretation on top of it. I think it’s exciting to see what someone else does with your work.
ALM: How many plays did you write; what is the title of your latest play and what inspired it?
If I’m counting correctly, I’ve written seven full length plays and ten to fifteen one act plays. The last play I wrote is called To Be And Not To Be. I wrote and directed it at the university where I teach as part of a sabbatical project. I had been doing some reading about quantum physics, and I was thinking a lot about how some of these physicists see quantum theory as a useful model for the world that doesn’t actually reflect reality. Quantum physics allows scientists to make predictions—very accurate ones at that—about subatomic phenomena, but a lot of the scientists think that what’s actually going on with the material world at that level can’t even be described by mathematics, language, or any other model we use to make sense of experience. I thought that would be a fun idea to play around with, so I wrote a play about a man who does the famous Schrodinger’s Cat thought experiment on himself and ends up existing in Infinity.
ALM: How long did it take you to write your latest play and how fast do you write?
I think it took me about three months to hammer out the first draft, but I had been thinking about the play for at least a year before I actually started writing. I consider myself a slow writer. I was able to work through that draft more quickly than I usually do because I had a sabbatical from my job to focus on the project. Normally, I consider myself pretty lucky if I put out two or three pages of useful material in a day.
ALM: Do you have any unusual writing habits?
I like to toss a baseball up and down when I write. I don’t know why I do that. It’s just something I got used to when I was a teenager. Obviously, I’m not tossing it up in the air when I’m typing, but I flip it and catch it between sentences, when I’m trying to come up with the next line. Maybe it makes me feel like I’m achieving something and making progress even when I’m not physically typing, because my hands are still doing something.
ALM: What authors, or books have influenced you?
My favorite playwright is Tom Stoppard. Two of his early plays, The Real Inspector Hound and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, have had a great deal of influence on me. Both of those plays are unapologetically silly, but each has its own logic and shows how powerful farce can be when it’s combined with philosophy. David Sedaris has been influential, too, especially for my prose. I remember the first time I read a David Sedaris book, Me Talk Pretty One Day. I kept thinking, wow, I didn’t know we were allowed to write like this. A lot of his humor comes from how direct he is. I think I had grown up thinking that good writers obscure their meaning or couch everything in layers of subtext and imagery. There are other ways to write, I learned, ways that worked better for me.
ALM: What is your best method when it comes to promoting your writings?
Accepting that I’m probably not going to ever be famous, or even a writer who supports himself solely through his writing, has helped tremendously. Once you stop worrying about succeeding, you can focus on your work and just have fun with it.
That’s not to say I don’t try to plug my work when I can. For instance, this is a good place to mention that my full length play Friendlyville is available through Heartland Plays and can be previewed at http://heartlandplays.com.
ALM: Do you have any advice for new authors?
Here’s some advice that I’m sure a lot of people would disagree with: as soon as have a draft of something you’re halfway happy with, go ahead and send it out. I think a lot of writers and editors suggest that a writer’s work has to be absolutely perfect before they starting sending it out to publishers and journals. It’s never going to be perfect, though. You want to keep revising it and polishing, of course, but, contrary to popular belief, no journal is going to blacklist you if you send them something they don’t think is up to their standards. At worst, you won’t get the “We hope you submit again” form letter, winding up with the dreaded “Best of luck placing your work elsewhere” letter instead. But who cares? You can still submit something else to that journal. Unless I’m mistaken, these journals get far too many submissions to worry about coming up with a list of writers to filter out of their slush pile.
ALM: What is the best advice you have ever heard?
I got to see Vaclav Havel speak when I was in Prague, which was a real thrill. He said, “If you want people to take your writing seriously, become President.” Seems like solid advice to me.
ALM: What are you reading now?
Two books: The Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukav, which looks at some of the intersections between theoretical physics and Eastern religions. It’s from 1979, so some of the physics is a little outdated, but it’s still a fascinating read for anyone interested in using quantum physics as inspiration for art. I’m also reading Wintering by Peter Geye, a friend of mine from grad school who’s written some phenomenal novels in recent years.
ALM: What are working on now?
I’m revising To Be And Not To Be, trying to cut it down and make it a little less dense, and I’m working on a memoir that I’ve been continually revising for years. I like to amuse myself by pretending anyone would actually be interested in my life.
ALM: Who are your favorite poets and what are your favorite poems ever?
Is it cheating to say Shakespeare? It probably is, but I’m going to say Shakespeare anyway. I’m also a big fan of Billy Collins. There’s a poet named Mike Dockins that I’d encourage anyone who likes zany poetry to check out. My favorite poem has remained the same for years: “The Idea of Order at Key West” by Wallace Stevens. There’s also a poem about pitching in baseball by Robert Francis, simply called “Pitcher,” that I’ve always loved. I was never much of a baseball player, but at least I’m pretty good at appreciating baseball poetry.
ALM: Thank you Kevin.