Conversations with Contributors: Kyle Dargan

Kyle Dargan is the author of five collections of poetry. His most recent being Anagnorisis (TriQuarterly/Northwestern UP, 2018). His four previous collections, Honest Engine (2015), Logorrhea Dementia (2010), Bouquet of Hungers (2007) and The Listening (2003)—were all published by the University of Georgia Press. He is the recipient of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. His books have also been finalists for the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and the Eric Hoffer Awards Grand Prize. His poems and non-fiction have appeared in newspapers such as the Newark Star-Ledger, and journals such as Callaloo, Denver Quarterly, and Ploughshares, among others. Former managing editor of Callaloo, Dargan is also the founding editor of the magazine Post no Ills. He earned his BA from the University of Virginia and MFA from Indiana University, where he was a Yusef Komunyakaa fellow and poetry editor of the Indiana Review. He is currently an Associate Professor of literature and the Asst. Director of creative writing at American University.

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Dolapo Demuren: This may be too large of a question to ask, but why do you think Anagnorisis is your 5th collection? When asking this question, I think about the following quote from your online journal: “I’ve never happened upon a new book project. My books have always been planned out. (In fact, my next two collections of poems […] are planned out).” Additionally, it looks like you were even planning on putting out a New and Selected Poems before this collection—again what made you settle on Anagnorisis?

Kyle Dargan: First off, thank you for this interview, these questions. And this one is a large one, so a large answer. When I was a young writer at the University of Virginia (and I’d transferred from Rutgers-Newark because, even in the Honors College, you couldn’t take a writing workshop until senior year at RU), writing one book was something I hoped to do by age thirty-five if I was lucky. For better—and now, I question, possibly for worse—I had brilliant and laureled mentors who pushed and enabled me. So at twenty-two, what was essentially my undergraduate thesis as part of Lisa Russ Spaar’s new Area Program in Poetry Writing won the Cave Canem Prize. That was The Listening.

Not rehashing any of that to bask in any old glory but to contextualize how my path to book five has been more of a blind stumble than a lot of people may think. At twenty-three, I was asking myself, “Hell, what now?” Same after Bouquet of Hungers, same after Logorrhea Dementia, and same after Honest Engine—each a book written before the age by which I ever thought I would publish one book. The “what now” was different, though, after the fourth book. Honest Engine was the first book in which I felt that I’d accomplished something significant, even at the manuscript stage. I never, until that point, approached the publication of a book already thinking “this should register” or “this should make a mark.” Naïve of me—particularly of the publishing world’s inner workings. So when it did not register the way I thought (or hoped) it would, I was broken. I am still processing it, honestly. Part of my response to that was to say, “Alright, it’s time to drop a new and selected,”it is time to really frame and showcase the body of work I’d put together over fifteen years.

And I never saw myself leaving the University of Georgia Press. They put a good deal of faith in me over four books, and we’d learned a lot from each other. I never wanted to make the “grown up” move to a New York press or an indie giant like Graywolf. I’m a dance with the one that brung ya kind of cat. I wanted a publishing run like Yusef Komunyakaa had with Wesleyan—a string of books with the small press who rode with you, and then the book that pops (Neon Vernacular for him) is also with that press. You both share the glow up. When I took my new and selected proposal to UGA, the press director—with whom I maintain a great relationship—let me know they didn’t have the editorial bandwidth for it at the time. Thus my big project and I did not have a home.

Over the past recent years, I’d been running into and keeping track of what Parneshia Jones had been doing at Northwestern, building an outstanding list of writers I respected. When I sent her the manuscript—just the new material—she was convinced that writing was the book, that what I had was a worthy new volume and not a component of a new and selected. So four books in—being somehow both far ahead of where I planned to be and far from satisfied with where I was as a publishing poet—I decided to trust Parneshia and her enthusiasm and eye. I wrote the book, but really Anagnorisis is her plan and project. However it pans out, I think It will prove to be something I needed to do and learn from.

DD: I am curious about the title: Anagnorisis. How did you settle on it for the collection?

KD: All of my other books have had serious contenders for the title other than what the books were eventually published as. That was not the case with Anagnorisis. That was always it, and I knew I was going to have to put some work in contextualizing the idea and getting the reader invested in the concept. I think that is, in part, why so many of the poems are very tactile and grounded—the word itself probably does not offer any grips or footholds to the average reader, so the poems have to make them want to understand.

I needed something big to capture all this book does, all the places it goes. In a play, that moment of anagnorisis, of major recognition, often happens just before the climax—the last bit of rising action before the play tips. And that is how I was feeling about everything at the close of the Obama administration and leading into Donald Trump’s. Trump is not in the book because this is about the lead-up, the how of coming into our now. I find that as important as writing about this current political comedy, if not more so. We are not currently learning anything about Trump that we did not learn, or that we should have learned, when the majority of European-descended American voters rallied behind his candidacy. And that moment of realization for me is what functions as the nucleus of this book. Thus the title.

DD: In light of this, is the book’s intention to speak from an anagnorisis of the self or that of another? Perhaps the American “you” that is confronted in “In 2016, The African-American Poet Kyle Dargan is Asked to Consider Writing More Like the African-American Poet Ross Gay.”

KD: Hmm. Surely of the self—this is definitely a book that was lived into writing. As far as that “you,” though, there is a phrase in that poem: “functional disillusionment.” It is an idea I have been developing for some time. As far as the plight of various marginalized and victimized populations in America, I think—and President Obama suggested as much—much of the older American population that understands itself as “white” has possibly reached the limits of their current capacity for empathy. Appealing to that is not a successful path these days for convincing those in power to, as Justice Ginsburg has said, take their feet off your neck. And, of course, there are some “white” people who will be offended by the idea of challenging or critiquing their empathy, and those are exactly the people I want in the “you” I am addressing, and I am telling them that I no longer can afford to have faith in them—that their underdeveloped sense of justice renders them irrelevant to me. Oddly, or maybe not so odd, people unable to feel your pain will be responsive to their own pain of you assessing them as morally useless. Pride may be stronger than compassion. I am also not a believer that poems really change entrenched hearts and minds—that’s not really what I am seeking to do. It is a selfish thing, honestly. It is me saying that dancing around their feelings in the hope that they will help me has not advanced much lately ( … or ever, really), so I might as well sincerely and clearly, so that they know, communicate to them what I am truly made to feel.

DD: We must talk more about “In 2016, The African-American Poet Kyle Dargan is Asked to Consider Writing More Like the African-American Poet Ross Gay,” especially the final metaphor of the poem:

Friends, I know you’ve come
for my private light,
to nestle in the shade
my grateful body casts.
But for you—if it is
only for you—I’ll grant
my joy’s flickering
no exposure. That’s how close
I’ll hug my candles. My joy
a refuge from a country
at times so cold
my hands don’t feel the flame’s
searing . You, friends—
you peckish for a peek
at my cloistered, incandescent
revelry—were you as earnest
about my frostbite, my burns,
I would have opened
these hands, sated you all.

The whole conceit isn’t excerpted here, but I was awestruck by this one. How did you do that?! I’m fanboy-ing on this one for life. There is a way that the poem lowers the temperature around the reader—giving him or her insight into the “cold” described in this excerpt. What was the process like of putting this metaphor together and when did it originate in the process of making this poem?

KD: To that idea—which I like—of dropping the temperature, it really starts with that pivot: “But for you—if it is / only for you—I’ll grant / my joy’s flickering / no exposure.” I don’t think I’d ever written anything with that much indignation before, but it fit because so much of this book is asserting the sincerity and necessity of blk indignation when it comes to not only the physical and legislative violence we, like others, have faced but also the ways in which we are asked or incentivized to perform a measured or uncomplicated response to that aggression. (For me, constantly asking for, even expecting, blk people to be expressing gratitude falls under that latter classification.) So the best way to express that indignation was almost spite—to say, “woke” saviors and neoliberals, I’d rather sear myself than share my light for the primary purpose of catering to your sensibilities. To hell with that. Again, where has that gotten us in regard to simple redress, let alone any radical change? As a poem, it is a line in the sand. I don’t like to think about poems that way. I always like to think of poems as me extending myself to a reader, any reader. But given, as the title attests to, that this poem started in response to being asked to disingenuously temper my tongue, I felt like that was a line that needed drawing. That if that is what you need from me as a poet (which also proves that you don’t know what Ross Gay is about), you can finish this poem and cease reading me right here.

DD: There is a tenderness in the speaker of this poem. The speaker provides a disarmed admission, “I would have opened / these hands, sated you all.” When considering the whole poem, it sounds to me like the speaker, in an ideal world—and even in this fallen world, “wants” to open these hands, “wants” to share. This tenderness (not dissimilar to what I feel is present in “Distances”), provided a learning moment for me as a writer: wounds cannot hide the need for intimacy and wholeness—and perhaps cannot truly overcome those desires. I hope my reading is legitimate. If so, why show this in this poem?

KD: I think this poem needed to end that way because, regardless of whether or not the indignation is valid, as it is an art project, the question must be asked, “To what end?” Why this utterance? (And I am not speaking against art for art’s sake, for even within “art’s sake” there is strategy of execution that the artist has, or should have, considered.) In the case of “In 2016 […],” I am saying this because I would like to be whole, humanly whole, in the way that vulnerability would allow me, but I just don’t have the faith that the American “you,” the self-identified “white” “you,” who would demand my gratitude would also be capable of recognizing the range of emotion that makes me human. It is a way of saying, “If you were different, I could be different, but I can’t always be the one offering to change first.” I cannot personally extend that credit to “white” America after 2016.

DD: The third section “China Cycle” opens with “I. Economy Class.” Imagery-wise, the poem begins with a woman beside the speaker with an upset stomach (which she was trying to temper for hours) throwing up. This gestured to me, especially after the ruminations present in the preceding section “Distances,” how the inner conflicts of the speaker, and human beings for that matter, are not domestic-bound, but earth-bound. This cynicism is also present in the collection’s final poem “Dear Echo.” Is this a kind of anagnorisis displayed within the book? I’m also curious to hear more about how you organized the collection.

KD: So, as some people reading the book have picked up on, I don’t think there is only one moment of anagnorisis in the book. This is the way in which real life is different than a play in which you have key or exclusive moments of recognition and climax and reversal of fate plotted out with Aristotelian unity of action in mind. The “Distances” section, where I am thinking openly about the realities and stereotypes of urban violence—in Ferguson, Missouri, or Washington, D.C.—ends with a moment of anagnorisis (recognition) regarding how I personally feel as a blk American caught in all the middle of this, and the result is my “escaping” to China. Then, as the following “China Cycle” section begins, I am, in a way, like the woman in “Economy Class.” Like so many indigenous and blk and brown people in America, I internalize—literally and figuratively swallow—so much social and civic violence directed towards us. Your body or your mind breaks at some point. You “purge” in some way to stabilize and heal.

Honestly, the book is organized to recreate for the reader the emotional and psychological process I experienced over those years. 1) The seemingly endless cycle of violence whose relentlessness (coupled with the incredulity of your fellow “countrymen”) begins to make you question your own eyes. 2) The reconciliation of the national and the local narratives surrounding racism and violence. 3) The purge or escape to China (meant to relieve the domestic psychic pressure) only to reveal the international antiblackness and the privilege afforded Americaness. 4) The return “home” with perspective that makes the domestic pains feel smaller because the entire world feels smaller. That is the four sections right there. It is a journey of a book. If I wasn’t committed to representing that, it would be organized much differently. That’s why it opens with “Failed Sonnet After the Verdict” (that verdict being the George Zimmerman verdict specifically, but there are many others one could substitute). The journey starts in this place of thinking President Obama gets elected twice despite racism, and blk and native and Latinx people keep getting killed by armed “officers” who never go to jail because of racism, so this all must be some sick dream or joke. It must be me. I must be delusional, yeah?

DD: I’m interested in the road you’ve had us traverse in this book. The final poem, “Dear Echo” ends with a statement not directed to city, to country, or to a particular foreign land, but to the world. Can you discuss the intentionality of this move? Especially since the book begins with a poem focusing on matters “at home” so to speak.

KD: Yeah, “Dear Echo” (and here, sadly, I have to ask we keep Mac Miller’s departed soul in our hearts since his lyrics as epigraph initiate the poem) comes from a sobering place. It is true, right—or at least extremely likely—that when our sun comes to its expiration, it will expand and consume, eradicate, what we now know as Earth. You think about all the strife in human history and you think of all this land we’ve inhabited as either sites of warring or the spoils of it—all of that literally undone through cosmic incineration. So, at that time, should humanity persist, it will be a post-Earth existence—there will have to be something about us that is bigger or beyond what we have been on Earth. Our time here might be a great resumé in terms of industrial and technological savvy, but—to date—we have failed at maximizing the compassion potential of humanity. So, to bring it back to the book specifically, Anagnorsis starts in a place, or moment, of significant human failing of other human beings. It moves from national violence to local D.C. violence and then to China. My leaving America, on a smaller scale, is like humanity leaving a seemingly doomed Earth behind. And I think about America differently once travel has rendered it psychically “gone.” So when I come back to America in that final section, I am thinking about all that darkness but also believing, or maybe trying to convince myself, that we are—or will be—more than that darkness. Emotionally, that feeling is the root of that poem and its being sequenced in the book as the final gesture.

DD: And why end the book on the em dash? In light of the collection, it implies for me both hope and despair. It leaves us in a meditation on the possibility that—things, once reborn, can be righted and people can reach their compassion potential.

KD: Despair, or hopelessness, for me is to be completely devoid of chances. That type of despair is real for a lot of people—sometimes it is a manufactured lack of chances (thinking about the laws we erect between others and living freely) and sometimes it is a sincere material or psychological reality. But what is true on Earth for humanity need not be true for the post-terrestrial humanity of the future. I think of it like the moment when both of one’s parents become deceased. Yes, it is painful, but there is also the reality that the portal through which you entered the universe is no more—literally no returning to that place or turning back. The em dash there captures that for me. It suggests, grammatically, an idea being developed or further complicated. So an em dash anticipates evolution. That is what lies in the white space that follows, but, yes, there could be something tragic about an em dash that remains eternally uncoupled on its far end. In that poem, at the end of the book, that open space is not despair. Humanity is not out of chances yet.

DD: I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the speaker of Anagnorisis. Of course, Kyle Dargan the poet is behind all of the poems. Even though I am attempting not to work under the assumption that the speaker is only an extension of yourself, the speaker in these poems, concerned with varying topics and situations, generally appears to be the same individual or vehicle. Despite this “individuality” there is diversity. The speaker recollects personal history in “Another Poem Beginning with a Bullet,” goes out for dinner in “XXI: Meal at Pyongyang,” runs in some vibrant Nikes in “V. A Progressive Mile,” and broods over mortality in “Thirty-Four.” What does the full-length collection do to or prove in a singular speaker?

KD: I think anyone consciously writing a full poetry collection should fear that endeavor a little bit because giving your voice to a reader repeatedly for fifty-plus pages is a very vulnerable presentation. If you read a fair amount of poetry collections, even the good ones, you occasionally arrive at the point of turning the page and thinking, “Ugh…this voice again.” (I often question what the current appeal of literary journals is, and I think compared to collections they provide a tasting menu of voices—assuming the editors are doing their jobs.) Maybe the book is too long or not conceptually ambitious enough, but it is a challenge to maintain that interest.

I am trying to be less and less in love with the sound of my own voice, which means the viability of the poems have to be found in something else. I ask myself this before and during my drafting process these days: Why would someone who is not me really want to read these poems? The craft and the concept have to make that argument, at which point the voice mostly becomes, yes, a vehicle or a transmitter for ideas and language and music. And the transmitter, of course, shapes those elements—distortions, amplifications and all. So what I think you are keying in on at the end of your question is that there is a very active speaker in Anagnorisis in terms of what the voice is willing to engage and from what perspective. I want the reader moving from poem to poem thinking not about the voice but how the prior poem as an event happened to them. And I want them unable to easily anticipate what will happen next. The voice orchestrates all of that, but if you go to the orchestra and the most interesting aspect is the conductor, likely not a very good orchestra.

DD: I want to pivot here to perhaps another difficult question: What do you want to contribute to American poetry? Do you think about legacy when you are planning books in advance or when you are teaching and influencing poets coming through the American University program etc.?

KD: I think about this much more when I am teaching than when I am writing or publishing. I feel like who and what I am teaching or recommending as a mentor does have an immediate impact on a rising generation of poets. Constructing reading lists for classes is agonizing—balancing the practical time constraints of students working and studying with the desire to keep students aware of both contemporary writing and the proven craftwork of the past. I was talking with David Tomas Martinez recently about craft—the intentional and, most importantly, clear manipulation of craft—having potentially fallen out of vogue. (So hard to even speak that sentence because I can feel Carl Phillips and other craft-beholden writers chiding me.) David and I both agreed that it may in fact be, but that does not mean that you as an individual artist have to bend to that trend. I want to convince my students that attention to technique is important, but I think a lot of what you see published today suggests otherwise. (That is a subjective assessment, not a judgement.)

So what is my duty? I teach at an institution, and I am aware that—for better or for worse—institutions uphold norms. Am I norming my students’ poetry if I ask them to understand traditional technique? At the Hurston/Wright Writers Week last year, I gave a craft talk about the creative process. And when asked why any of that mindfulness and revision is important, I suggested that if you are studying creative writing, you are aspiring towards fine dining as opposed to home cooking. There is nothing wrong or inherently lesser about home cooking. I’d take my mother’s fried chicken over chef Michel Richard’s sous vide fried chicken from Central in D.C. most days. But one is an intimate experience and one is a public experience. Publishing, I’d argue, is a public experience that comes with additional care, mindful of those unknown who will partake. In the same way, I wouldn’t risk getting my face slapped off by critiquing my mother’s plating if she made me her chicken, but if she and I were presenting at a culinary exhibition…You see? So at this point, I might say that I want to advocate for and encourage sincere personal relationship to craft among writers and readers of poetry. But I do not teach craft for craft’s sake. It is, for me, something one studies after—or even while—exploring and refining the raw material of who we are. (There’s this whole lesson I have that incorporates Miyamoto Musashi’s martial and sword art and Bruce Lee’s sense of formlessness and thinking about craft through the lens of the martial arts, but I don’t have the desire to summarize it here.)

DD: Can you give younger poets some foreknowledge? What are some thoughts that are beneficial for us to keep in mind as we are putting a first, even second, collection together? Is there anything that you are willing to share towards the area of ambition, discipline, or something else entirely?

KD: Rather than thinking about one’s self as an older or younger poet, I’d suggest thinking about being a writer creating during the times in which you live. In that way, we are all “emerging” into the zeitgeist as it changes around us. To be a bit more plain, that which would have been sound advice when I was a younger poet would not be as useful to your generation, aside from, say, the suggestion to read. And even there you have to ask, “Read what?” or ”Read who?” It frightens me, I have to say, now seeing contemporary writers who I thought would be indispensable for all my life—people like Li-Young Lee or Harryette Mullen or Charles Wright—not being read by today’s young writers, but that’s just the way audience evolves.

I’d say “younger” writers today need to appreciate and be aware of all the different ways in which you can use publishing to build your audience and future opportunities. It used to be the case that one published in journals and magazines to promote or build interest in their books. I don’t think that is true anymore. Social media has extended agency (in terms of the outreach portion of poebiz) to individuals. You can build your platform your own way. In fact, I’d say writers are doing more to promote publications now than the inverse is true. (There is an arms race between editors to have certain names associated with their journals—and, yes, I mean names and not poems.)

One used to have to be patient because there were so many gatekeepers (with so little diversity among them) and so few “gates.” In the current age—in this “content culture” we live in—I think younger writers need to be patient to make sure you aren’t publishing things (individual pieces or collections) because someone will take it as the next piece of content to pump out. I hear so much stress in young writers’ voices nowadays as they discuss watching certain peers checking off professional artist boxes that they are not. Trust me, though—in a few years, a lot of those people won’t be relevant as poets beyond the relevance they vainly create from themselves. You are going to cease to exist in your physical form some day. What is the path that keeps you moving towards producing the kind of work that—based on its quality and not its timeliness—will connect with readers beyond your time on Earth? Stay true to that (once you have first thought sincerely about what it looks like).

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Dolapo Demuren
Dolapo Demuren

Dolapo Demuren is a Nigerian-American poet from the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. He received his B.A. in Writing Seminars from Johns Hopkins University and M.F.A from Columbia University. His poems are featured in Frogpond Journal, Prelude Magazine, Small Orange, Zeniada and Stylus. He is the recipient of a scholarship from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He currently lives in New York City where he is an English and Poetry teacher at St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn.

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