Kevin J. Rabas
ESU's Poet in Residence
There you go, man, making poetry and music sing together in perfect harmony, like that blind cat Homer with his lyre.
That man is Associate English Professor Kevin J. Rabas, who teaches poetry and playwriting as well as co-directing ESU's creative writing program. If you visit several of his websites (www.kevinrabas.com or www.myspace.com/thepetroglyphs), you see him playing music and reading poetry or reading poetry to music, like that other cat, Langston Hughes, who read his poems of experienceto the music of great jazz bassist and piano player Charles Mingus. It's ideal that Rabas won the Langston Hughes Award for his poetry. He's like some post-modern Beat poet howling at the angst and joy of life.
And this brings up several questions. Which is it, man? Does the music influence your poetry or does poetry influence your music? It's a "chicken or egg" argument to Rabas. After all, he is askilled jazz musician who trained as a percussionist. Mix well with poetry, and you have a chorus.
This is the way poetry was meant to be. Its ancient roots prove that. Rabas practices what he teaches. He has a gig in Lawrence once a month where he sings his poetry to an abstract tune. Sometimes, you'll find him in Emporia at the Inner Bean or Java Cat 5 doing the same thing. He moves easily between jazz and poetry and funk and poetry. Maybe this new experimental, experiential technique should be called "jazzy poetry" or "funky poetry." In this way, according to Rabas, poetry becomes a visual and performance art.
Rabas believes it's also a way to get today's poetry out of academe and into the Average Joe and Josephine's living room—or at least in the coffee house. But he's not a fighter for lost causes. He's just a kind soul who also happens to be an excellent lyric poet and jazz musician.
Emporia State is a perfect fit for him too because "ESU is a teaching institution," Rabas declares, "and I like not being stuck with one thing." He writes in a host of genres. The topics in his short stories, plays and poetry float and stretch across Kansas and into the greater Midwest, picking up characters along the way.
Our conversation is a disjointed one that jumps from one topic to another, like a stream-of-consciousness poem. He talks about the technical stuff of his poetry, and then it's onto his youth. His passion for words began as a 10 year oldwhen he would carry a heavy tape recorder strapped around his neck for his mother as she, a newspaper reporter, ran to fires that lit up the night sky. She inspired him to become a writer, and while growing up in Manhattan, KS, he kept journals of his experiences. Today, he still has several volumes of those journals on the top bookshelf in his office.
Rabas teaches poetry writing with flair. Take this writing game he calls"Echo":
Write one line. Write the opposite of the line that precedes it.
Red ants climbed from the anthill on fire.
Water fell from the third story window.
Oxygen came from the tubes and spent. A door closed.
Life is a flock of birds, vibrant and true. The earth opened to rain.
Death is always slow as snails, redundant and recalcitrant, the universe a sieve.
He's won other awards for his work. His book of poetry, Lisa's Flying Electric Piano, was named one of Kansas' most notable books by the Kansas Library Association. His first book, Bird's Horn and Other Poems, has won similar recognition.
What sets Rabas apart from other writers is that he's multi-dimensional in the arts. His poetry recordings include Last Road Trip, a jazz poetry CD featuring Rabas reading original poetry and drumming, with Josh Schlar on saxophone, which was produced in 2002.He also co-edits The Flint Hills Review, a creative writing journal.
His poetry comes from the blues, having survived a serious head injury and a broken marriage. These subjects show upin his work:
Divorce came. Divorce went. She said,
"Take care of yourself," after the divorce trial,
and I said I would. Listening to the band
we spent time loving, Waterdeep, I listen
for the cracklings, and the silence between us
From "Goodbye: A Head Injury Poem"
I thought back
to how it all had ended, starting
with a pick up basketball game,
my head hitting the blonde wood
of the floor.
From "How It Happened"
I was knocked down
in a pick up basketball game.
the doctors said my brain bounced
against my skull, causing bleeding
of the brain.
His work tells it like it is and in plain English. No flowery, sugary words here, but words stripped to their core.
They seem more powerful that way, don't they, man.