Readorama: What was Topeka life like in 1984? Dennis Etzel recorded it in phrases

By Brian Burnes

January 16, 2016 3:00 PM

Nasty winter. Cruel summer.

Nervous year.

That’s how Dennis Etzel Jr. of Topeka remembers 1984.

A March ice storm interrupted Topeka electricity service for about a week. The Bananarama hit (“Cruel Summer”) later proved a pleasant earworm.

And election-year rhetoric from President Ronald Reagan, some of which referenced the looming Armageddon of nuclear exchange and the Central Intelligence Agency’s agenda in Central America, rattled the teenager who started high school that year.

All of it is referenced in “My Secret Wars of 1984,” a “collage of texts” compiled by Etzel, today a lecturer in English at Washburn University in Topeka.

As 1984 was a leap year, Etzel found or wrote 366 sentences, and then listed them on a spreadsheet.

They included lines from several of that year’s radio hits, references to the Marvel comic superhero universe and Dungeons and Dragons, as well as Etzel’s descriptions of pivotal personal moments.

He then listed the sentences in alphabetical order and assembled them into individual stanzas.

The result on the reader’s eye and ear is something close to a late-night, static-filled browse up and down the AM dial: quick moments of music interrupted by weather forecasts followed by remembered remarks from Etzel’s teachers.

But because it is the grown Etzel who is working the dial, and not his 1984 self, he includes statements from authors he admires today, such as poets Lyn Hejinian and Ronald Johnson, as well as examples — given the year in question — of Orwellian Newspeak.

An appendix of author’s notes provides a detailed reader’s guide to the material. This reveals the sentences have been taken not only from those poets but also from National Weather Service descriptions of the March storm, a January speech given by then-Kansas governor John Carlin, and remarks made in Kansas City by then-president Reagan during an October debate with Democratic Party presidential nominee Walter Mondale.

“I love that I might know where each sentence is mine or comes from a certain text,” said Etzel, “but without knowing unless one looks at the notes section, maybe the overall concept is that, as readers, we live with a collage of texts — call it data — while our minds sort through them as information.”

For him, Etzel said, 1984 was “definitely a nervous time, anxiety-ridden, oppressive. This project is my attempt to create a poetic alchemy, to create gold out of lead.

“Writing poetry isn’t simply catharsis, but can lead to healing out of the search for understanding, which is my guiding aesthetic.”

Etzel will read from the book beginning at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Oak Park Library, 9500 Bluejacket St. in Overland Park. The event, which also will include author Roderick Townley of Leawood, is part of the Thomas Zvi Wilson Reading Series, co-sponsored by The Johnson County Central Library and The Writers Place.

Brian Burnes: 816-234-4120, @BPBthree

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