DOGBYTES Interview: Kyle Dargan
Kyle Dargan is the author of four collections of poetry, Honest Engine (2015), Logorrhea Dementia (2010), Bouquet of Hungers (2007) and The Listening (2003), all published by the University of Georgia Press. For his work, he has received the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and grants from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. His books have also been finalists for the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and the Eric Hoffer Awards Grand Prize. He is currently an Associate Professor of literature and director of creative writing at American University and is the founder and editor of POST NO ILLS magazine. Originally from Newark, New Jersey, Dargan is a graduate of Saint Benedict’s Prep, The University of Virginia and Indiana University.
What was the most challenging aspect of finishing your most recent book, Honest Engine?
With Honest Engine—unlike my other three books in which I was still figuring out what I wanted to achieve as a poet, a communicator—I knew well before the book was published that I had hit the sweet spot, I knew I was actually executing at my optimum capacity at that time. Refining that—when you are already exceeding what you assumed your abilities to be—was challenging. I was afraid of doing too much and ruining the recipe, or that I was delusional and the manuscript was not as strong as I thought it to be. It helps to have poet colleagues and editors you trust, and, luckily, I did. Their honesty—and confidence—kept me from rendering the book overwrought.
On Twitter, you often encourage poets to “push for the book.” Why is it so important to complete this step?
Well, I mostly say (or tweet) this to people who I know have manuscripts on hard drives or under their beds. It’s not something that generally validates or completes a poet—no one should feel that way—but I do want people who have ventured the audacity to produce and present a book to the world to follow through. I always say that whenever you send out a manuscript, it should be stronger by the time you get a response. Releasing it should free you (and encourage you) to allow it to grow, and I want people to believe they can stay engaged in that process or cycle of release and growth until their manuscripts find a home.
How might social media enhance our collective effort towards social justice?
When it comes to social justice, I am more interested in hacking than social media. To me, social media amplifies and, on occasion, clarifies narratives, but hacking actually grants access to change the narrative. It gets people access to the information that those who—tacitly or explicitly—want to maintain inequalities and disenfranchisement need to keep out of the public record. Politically, I would say hacking tends to be thought of as a tool of The State—espionage—but the people who really need hackers and hacktivists are the ones whom The State denies rights and resources and access. The world needs to be able to see how a web is being woven behind firewalls.
What does the phrase “do the work” mean to you as a poet?
“Do the work” means many things. It means be serious about your craft as a poet—as in not more serious than you are about networking and promoting yourself. It also means the work one does to or with the self to grow. Growing as a human being and growing as an artist, those two phenomena are impossibly connected. I like to be active about moving back and forth between the two. It’s almost like pistons—pushing hard in one direction acts as the compression before ignition and the push back in the other direction.
Name one of your influences outside of literature or art.
Outside of literature or art—does Japanese anime count as non-literature or non-art? If so, then I would claim that first. At this phase of my life, many of the ideas that push me (as in challenge or stimulate) creatively come from anime. Visual narratives that do not begin with the limitations of what can or cannot be done with film just tend to be more inventive in the way they can and do probe the human psyche. Of the serious and dramatic stuff, loved Durarara! Loved Ghost in a Shell. Loved Full Metal Alchemist. Loved Death Note. Attack on Titan. Parasyte. Evangelion. The Gundam series. Yu Yu Hakusho. Akira.
One of the things I appreciate about anime is that the settings are often imagined spaces within real environments. (Think of One Punch Man taking place in Japan but all the cities are “City A,” “City B” etc., or Akira’s “Neo-Tokyo”—a city built in a crater following a third world war.) I’ve given myself a little moratorium on writing about America after my next book, Anagnorisis, is published, but whenever I get back to that, I want to write about America using imagined spaces nestled within our history but not beholden to its rules. I’m excited to see what aspects of my imagination that might allow me to access.
When you’re not reading, writing, or teaching, how do you spend your time, energy, and money?
I actually spend a lot of time responding to and communicating with people who write me—former students, other writers, complete (and I say this lovingly, or jokingly) randos. If my writing is doing the work of actually communicating and connecting with people—who then reach out to me—I feel an obligation to respond. (Luckily, though, I’m not that popular of a poet.)
Aside from that, I play basketball and lift weights a lot. Those things don’t really make it into my writing, but they inform—as philosophies—a lot of my life. I’m always thinking in terms of basketball-to-life, or weightlifting-to-life. Darry Strickland—another CC fellow—he thinks a lot like that. He’s like a sage. (He played Division I college ball and has coached a lot.) Conversations with him that blend all these worlds are a blessing.
What are three pieces of advice you would give to emerging poets?
The key piece I would suggest is to always think of yourself as an emerging poet. That language of “emerging poet” has always been empty to me. I had my first book, the Cave Canem prize, at twenty-three and my third by thirty. By the industry’s standards, I was out of the emerging “phase” by my late twenties, but that was ridiculous. Number of books has nothing to do with degree of development. Finding a space for my process and continued growth was difficult, and I have people coming to me for mentorship when I’m thinking “yo, I’ve been in this game just as long, if not less time, than you.” Rather than fit a category, I just embraced being an emerging writer all the time—always emerging into my next iteration. So try that. Try being a, to steal Oliver de le Paz’s term, poet citizen—to the country but also to the field of poetry. What are the “civic duties” of poetry we need to attend to? And this last bit, it may not be great advice for everyone, but have a bit of a chip on your shoulder about your work. I’ve only felt wholly inadequate reading next to one other poet—Lucille Clifton. (A privilege but, to this day, I think, “what the hell was twenty-something-year-old me doing on stage with her?”) But anybody else, I want to feel like I earned my space next to her or him because—(recall)—I did the work and I’ll keep doing the work.
What’s something that as a child, you assumed would have changed by now, yet hasn’t; what’s something you assumed wouldn’t have changed, yet has?
Over time, I began to believe that my birth city, Newark, New Jersey, would never change from being a majority blk, majority lower-income city. The September 11th attacks changed Newark’s post-riots trajectory. New York companies and workers felt safer in New Jersey. Downtown Newark is practically becoming a college town. The old Bamberger’s (Macy’s) where my grandmother worked as a girl once, that’s going to be a Whole Foods soon, but that kind of change has been forty years in the making. D.C. is very different in terms of development. You’ll feel whiplash watching neighborhoods gentrify in D.C.
What life experience has most shaped you as a writer?
Being negro. Negotiating and managing “whiteness” almost constantly—which is exhausting. Living as both one of the nation’s greatest fears and one of its clearest examples of disenfranchisement, you’re constantly distinguishing people’s reaction to you. It sharpens your eye, as long as you don’t let that racial animus consume you. As a cis-het blk man, occasionally I need to remind myself that life is so much bigger than the struggle against “white” supremacy. Being a being—not just a human but a sentient entity in the universe—is bigger than that.
What year(s) were you at the Cave Canem retreat? What’s a favorite memory from those times?
I attended in ’02 and ’03 I believe. Never “graduated.” I’ve popped back in for readings and things a few times. I remember, my second year, as a joke, some of us advertised a party, The Denmark Vesey Club, that really did not go over well with some of the faculty (though some of the faculty were at the party)—particularly Nikky Finney, who went in on us the next day. For someone like her, who would have died to have a space like Cave Canem when she was a younger writer, it was just unfathomable that we wouldn’t treat the time and space with supreme reverence. I still remember that “talking to.” It still hurts, but I am ever grateful to her for doing that as an elder, for modeling how we need to see to the integrity of our spaces, especially since we have so few and they are not guaranteed. And, sure, I was twenty-four and less mature then. But after that, the stakes, the urgency, of life as a poet became very clear to me, and Nikky Finney still serves as a model in that regard.