The Na/GloPoWriMo Interview with Kyle Dargan
Kyle Dargan’s newest book of poetry, Anagnorisis, is forthcoming from Northwestern University Press. He is the author of four prior collections of poetry: Honest Engine, Logorrhea Dementia, Bouquet of Hungers, and The Listening, all published by the University of Georgia Press. He is an associate professor of literature and assistant director of creative writing at American University.
1. Why did you start writing poetry? Why do you still?
The start was a mix of things, so I am sure of the hundreds of times I have answered this question, my answer is likely always different. Infatuation helped me get more serious—in terms of my awareness as an artist. I say infatuation because I don’t trust whatever I could have called love at age sixteen, but I was very taken with someone (who is still a friend), and the desire to move that person with words was a generative charge for me.
“Why still do it?” That is a question I ask myself often. I used to hold the belief that poets had no more than three “good” books of poetry in them—the idea being that if you took all of a poet’s most realized poems, it would only amount to three collection’s worth of poems. So going into my fifth book now, what does that mean for me? Likely that I was less effective and efficient when I was a young poet and—hopefully—I have improved on that. But the desire to “improve” . . . the return on investment there diminishes over time. It isn’t enough to keep me going. I have also grown to understand that poetry doesn’t quite have the social impact that we often like to think or hope it does. So at this point, I really have to want to write a poem—be really invested in the concept and challenge of it—before I actually draft something. That means I write less, and the poems that do make it to paper at first live on the proving ground of my mind for a very long time.
2. What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve gotten? The worst?
The worst would be the idea that we should be trying to write timeless poems. Depending on from which direction you are approaching that, it’s either really arrogant (in its attitude towards the dominant “timeless” art) or really dismissive of the appeal or necessity of marginalized or niche culture. Nothing’s popping until it’s popping. So it would seem to me that a better (though not compulsory) goal would be to make what you are writing about pop. Or that we are writing to capture, in some sincere and engaging way, what it was like for us to be alive at a time that will never come again.
Best bit of writing advice is quite simple: carry the writing notebook at all times, as you never know when the spark of something with amazing potential will strike you.
3. How did your new book come into being?
It’s “funny.” I was writing these poems that take a surreal and darkly comical look at the role “white” liberal and neoliberal sensitivity, indifference, meritocracy, etc. plays in maintaining a lot of the attitudes that buoy the institution that kill and defraud blk Americans. (I had given up on treating the people who consciously understand themselves as racist or “white” supremacist as a worthwhile audience). And this was before Donald Trump was even in the 2016 presidential race. It was a safe assumption at that time that Hillary Clinton would win, and I was thinking that no one is really going to care about police violence and various other forms of dehumanizing and disenfranchising blkness once Hillary Clinton is president. (Democrats tend to metabolize blk votes and voters into forgetfulness.) So I was writing all these poems that I was confident would not find a sincere audience. Then Trump started happening (although the GOP had been priming their base for the arrival of a “white” nationalist populist for years), and suddenly a lot of the covert and subconscious opinions and attitudes that those poems were speaking to were becoming, through Trump, very overt and normalized. And I guess that I believed there were always enough “good white people” to resist the worst of the racist American agenda, but after watching the “good white people”—and women in particular—allow this man and his strategists to take the White House, I realized that I couldn’t allow myself to hold out hope in the support or comradery of “good white people” anymore. The moment of revelation is why the book is titled “Anagnorisis”—i.e. that moment in a tragedy when the hero comes to recognize the nature of his predicament and the depth of his vulnerability. So the book covers that period of recognition—not just for myself but for the country—between the mobilized resentment of Barack Obama and the sycophantic embrace of Trump. And between those two, I took my second trip to China and while abroad was forced to process my American privilege at the same time that I was feeling particularly vulnerable as blk person in America. It’s a somewhat impatient book—impatient with the sensibilities of Caucasian people we’ve been waiting to play their part in the antiracist cause—but out of that impatience comes a necessary directness (I think, I hope) and frankness.
4. Is there a generative prompt, practice or ritual that you find particularly helpful, or that you would recommend to students, friends, or other poets?
Well, one thing I like to do with new workshops is what I call an internal identity forum. So I know I just talked a lot about my own vulnerability as a blk American, but I also have to recognize that I possess a lot of relative privilege too (as a cis male, as a heterosexual, as an able-bodied person, a college graduate, etc.)
So the way it works as a writing exercise is that you make a fairly exhaustive list of the different layers of your identity throughout your life. (So mine might look like: College Professor, Blk Male, Poorer Kid, Middle-Class Adult, Artist, Newark-Born, D.C. Resident, Catholic-Educated, AME-Raised, etc.) Once you do that, you separate the identities into two categories—ones in which you feel most powerful or secure and ones in which you feel most vulnerable. Lastly, you choose one from each list and then put them into conversation. (And if you want to make it really challenging, you put the one in which you feel most powerful in conversation with the one in which you feel most vulnerable.) What would they say to one another, or what would one say to the other in the form of an address or letter?
It may not turn into a proper poem, but it may illuminate something that will turn into a poem.