Kyle Dargan on Viewing the World through Poetry

Martin Luther King’s eloquent truth-telling and the sad reality of today, the dream of
economic justice, a dream deferred, the gap between rich and poor worse than ever led
me to a young man who lives in Washington, DC, where he teaches literature and writing
at American University. His name is Kyle Dargan, and he wrote this poem, “A House Divided,”
It begins, “On a railroad car in your America…” KYLE DARGAN:
In your America, blood pulses within the fields, slow-poaching a mill saw’s
buried flesh. In my America, my father awakens again thankful that my face
is not the face returning his glare from above eleven o’clock news
murder headlines. In his imagination, the odds are just as convincing
that I would be posted on a corner pushing powder instead of poems—
no reflection of him as a father nor me as a son. We were merely born
in a city where the rues beyond our doors were the streets that shanghaied souls.
To you, my America appears distant, if even real at all. While you are
barely visible to me. Yet we continue stealing glances at each other
from across the tattered hallways of this overgrown house we call
a nation KYLE DARGAN:
I mean in Washington, DC, where I live, you know, I wake up in southeast DC where the
unemployment rate, it’s around 22 percent. And I go across the city to AU… BILL MOYERS:
American University? KYLE DARGAN:
Right, where, you know, unemployment is 3 percent, population’s very affluent. So you
know, every day, I’m forced to deal with those realities and reconcile them in my head. And
I think, you know, that commute that I have to deal with, every week, comes out in my
poetry, because I feel like often I’m trying to reconcile or make sense of these conflicting
worlds that geographically aren’t that very far from each other. BILL MOYERS:
Kyle Dargan grew up in Newark New Jersey with working parents determined he would escape
a deteriorating city and make something of himself. But echoes of the inner city still
resonate when Dargan walks through his new neighborhood in Southeast DC. BILL MOYERS:
Isn’t your neighborhood more or less in the shadows of the capital? KYLE DARGAN:
I think realtors want people to think that, but actually, we’re on the other side of the
Anacostia River. Actually, my neighborhood now, I saw it listed somewhere on a real estate
website as Capitol Hill East. And I’m like, “That’s a bit of a stretch,” you know, if
Benning Heights was on the other side of the city, it would be Palisades. You know, it
would be Georgetown. I mean, beautiful houses, beautiful view, but you know, you’re on
the other side of the Anacostia. It’s not perceived the same way. You know, people live
one way on one side of the Anacostia River and another way on the other side. BILL MOYERS:
There’s a line in the poem that says “…where the rues beyond our doors were the streets
that Shanghaied souls?” Is that your community now? The rues beyond the door? Or the streets
that Shanghaied souls? KYLE DARGAN:
Sure, because cause I mean, lots of, lots of good kids just get caught up in trouble.
And that’s that line, when I’m talking about my father, this is true. You know, my dad,
to this day sometimes we talk. And he’s like, you know, “I’m just really happy you’re not
one of those knuckleheads out in a corner.” And as my father, as my father, I can see
where he has that concern, but to me, I’m like that was never really an option. Like
I never really considered that you or my mother would accept that. That’s where I come from, but what he says
is, like, “No, you don’t understand. Like whatever we wanted, there’s the environment
to be contended with. And sometimes you lose to the environment.” And that’s what you
see with a lot of kids. Like there are lots of good kids that just lose to the environment,
you know, not because they want to. You know, you don’t want to be in that situation.
You don’t want to be dead at 17. You don’t necessarily want to have multiple kids, you
know, at 16, 18. But sometimes the environment leads you down that path. And you know, as
a parent and this, I guess, the big thing for me, because I don’t have any children.
And the question is, if I have kids, well, I stay in southeast DC, because, like, do
I want to contend with the environment. I want to be there, you know. I want to be a
presence but am I willing to risk my kids for that. I don’t know. BILL MOYERS:
I’m not sure that I understand why you chose to live like that when you could have gotten
out and did. Your parents worked hard. You worked hard. You got out. You go to Washington.
You have a fine teaching position at an important institution and you choose, in a sense, to
go home again, although it’s only a couple of miles away. KYLE DARGAN:
When I first got to AU, I lived in Glover Park, which some people call upper Georgetown
which is right around AU, very quiet, but none of my neighbors really talked to me.
The police would follow me around sometimes, which is fine by me, because I felt like I
had a police escort all the time. I knew I wasn’t going to do anything. It’s that idea of community, like why would
I want to live somewhere where none of my neighbors talked to me, most likely, because
I’m young and my skin is brown. That’s not, that’s not home to me. When I lived in northwest,
if anything, I was constantly reminded of how I was an outsider. When I’m in southeast,
you know, no one, I mean, no one even asks me what I do. I’m just there in the community.
If I told them I was a professor, you know, given my age they probably wouldn’t even believe
How old are you? KYLE DARGAN:
They would find that incredulous, right? KYLE DARGAN:
Yeah, the reality for many of these kids, like, and I know this is, you know, maybe
strange for us, but many of them, like, don’t expect to live past 19, 18. So they even think
that you’re an African-American young adult with a profession, like even that for many
of them is something that they just don’t see, I mean, when you have access to many
different identities in your community, it gives you something to choose from. You know,
you have something else to look at, to aspire towards. So my thing is, like, I just want
to be another influence in my community, there are others. BILL MOYERS:
You said they don’t expect to live beyond 18 or 19. KYLE DARGAN:
Yeah. Like I hear them, because I ride the bus. And you know, and on a Saturday morning,
you listen to teenagers talk about which of their friends got shot the night before, who
died, who’s still walking around with a coat that has blood from one of their friends on
them. And it’s a casual conversation to them. And I’m going crazy inside, listening to this,
because you know, it’s not normal. It shouldn’t be normal. But it is for them.
And I think that’s where you need, you know, that generational exchange, so that someone
can come in and say, “Hey, you know, I know you’re living this right lifestyle right now,
but this is not normal for you. It shouldn’t be normal for you.” BILL MOYERS:
Does politics make sense in your neighborhood? KYLE DARGAN:
Well aside from some people I know having jobs, working for the government, I don’t
think most people in southeast DC see what happens at the federal level in terms of,
like, having an immediate impact on their lives. You know, one thing that I heard bouncing
around the time that Barack Obama got elected. And it’s like, oh, this is going to be such
a symbol for kids, you know, to look up to. You’re going to have an African-American president. But you know, having an African-American president
doesn’t deal with the drug issues, doesn’t deal with the teen pregnancy issues. It doesn’t
deal with the lack of parenting issues. You know, all those things that maintain the reality,
the negative realities. It’s not all negative, but the negative realities of southeast DC.
So I think, you know, people see the Capitol from the other side of the river. But in some
ways, these it’s very much a different world. BILL MOYERS:
Read for us one of those poems you wrote about those kids where you live. It’s called, “We
“We Die Soon.” This jazz. Once you learn it as your own,
you will listen to the brassy chatter of old brown men riffing on recent murders The boy who was killing folks
One who had a claw hammer No, in Virginia The boy slashing women’s behinds
No, sir, this boy was stabbing people, cold –seated on concave milk crates
or their sweat- and engine- oil anointed limbs drooping
off a station wagon’s trunk door, muscles slack save for fingers clutching cold
beer. Through appreciation, you will learn
to distinguish the hollers of youngins that end in sweet jabs and hand slaps
from the hollers that summon lights and sirens up the hill. Electricity
drowns the nights. The restless birds sing back to the evening
gunshots–a magnum’s baritone pow. With age, you’ll come to lament June’s
music— its melodies of bleeding boys, another
uneven tempo of jackings, strong-arm thefts omitted from newspapers. They want
to get white folks moving over here. No transcribed tunes. These notes puncture, lodge in vertebrae,
make jukeboxes of our spines. This living is to be erect with song,
and then be bent by it. The poem, “We Die Soon,” it takes its title
from the final lines of Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “We Real Cool.” And in the poem,
Brooks was looking at these truant kids in a pool hall. And she decided, rather than judging them,
you know, for being children in the pool hall, she’s going to try to explore, “Well, I wonder
what they’re thinking about right now?” She’s going to try to capture, like, “I wonder what
they feel,” without judgment. And so I think for me, I guess I wanted to take a similar
approach to writing about southeast DC. BILL MOYERS:
Do you read that to your students at American University? KYLE DARGAN:
No. Poems like that I tend to share with the kids from those communities and you know,
I never see myself as speaking for them, because I’m not living their experience, but every
once in a while, you know, one of them will ask me, like, are you from here? And I say,
“No.” And it’s like, “Well, you sound like you understand it.” And I said, “Well, I’m
from, I’m from Newark. It’s somewhat similar.” But again, you know, I don’t live their experiences.
So I try to get them to write, because the world needs to see southeast DC as they see
You attempted to have them last year read at the White House. Tell me about that. KYLE DARGAN:
I guess someone from the President’s committee on the arts and humanities was looking for
a poet in the Washington, DC area to, you know, run a program that would bring, you
know, poetry to kids. And some of the children got to read in front of Michelle Obama at
the White House. And it was it was funny, because I think the entire time we were working
on this project, they didn’t really believe that they were going to go to the White House. BILL MOYERS:
The kids? Your kids? KYLE DARGAN:
Yeah. Like we tell them and they and they would say, “Yeah, yeah, White House, whatever.
You know, yeah. We see it all the time on the bus, we ride past it.” But then when they
actually got there and they actually got to meet some of the members on the president’s
committee their faces, like Kerry Washington, their faces, like lit up and they got nervous. And I said, “You know, don’t act nervous now.
You were all cool before, when you didn’t think you were going to come. So now you’re
here. Just relax and do what you have to do.” And they did a great job. They did a really
great job. I’m proud of them. BILL MOYERS:
Do you remember the first poem you ever heard in school? KYLE DARGAN:
You know, I like to think of hip-hop as one of my first advanced English teachers. I was
lucky enough. I had some teachers, Mr. Finley was one, he played Nas has a song. You know,”
Whose world is this? The world is yours.” And that’s sort of, like, the refrain of the
song. And that was a really big moment for me as
a young African-American kid to hear this rapper tell me that, to ask me this question,
you know, whose world is this? And to say the world is yours. And giving me the space
to think about that. You know, thinking about what does that mean? What does that mean I
have access too? What does it mean I can do? And you know, I saw lots of rappers I’d
see A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, artists that were using language to make the world
theirs. And even today, because a lot of those my favorite hip-hop albums, they came out
when I was 11, when I was 10. So I’m still going back and listening to them as a man
and saying, picking out different metaphors, picking out different allusions, saying, “Oh,
that’s what that meant.” So I mean, in many ways, I’m still learning from hip-hop. BILL MOYERS:
Give me an example of an allusion or a metaphor that still resonates and informs your take
on the world today. KYLE DARGAN:
A Tribe Called Quest has a song called “Check the Rhime.” And in it Q-Tip, Abstract, the
rapper, he says, you know, you know, “If knowledge is the key, then just show me the lock.” And
as a kid, you understand, like, oh yes, I go to school, because school’s important.
But as an adult, you realize it’s like, you know, no, perspective is important. And you know, critical thinking is important.
And the ability to know what you don’t know which is on the other side of the door, you
know. You unlock one door and there’s another door, but then that door opens to what you
don’t know. You have to learn all that before to get to the next door. So seeing an image
played out over and over through my life you know, whenever I hear that line, I smile a
little bit, because I’m like, “Yeah, I live that. I’ve been living that, you know, for
the past 20 years.” BILL MOYERS:
Tell me about this one and then read it. KYLE DARGAN:
When I ride the bus, you see a lot of the neighborhood tags, kids write their different
neighborhood crew gang tags on bus seats, on stop signs. And one day, I saw on the telephone
pole, there was a sign advertising rest in peace T-shirts. And I realized, like, you know, the kids writing
these tags on the busses are probably kids that are going to have their faces and names
on these, you know, rest in peace T-shirts. They’re not gangsters. They’re not hoodlums.
They’re just boys. And so I wrote this poem, “Crews.” Those Clay Terrace
boys. Those Benning Park boys.
Those Simple City boys.
Those River Terrace boys. After hours
those boys. Those shoot-and-dash boys.
Siren-fed boys. Fatherless boys
siring boys. Noise them. Urban
reservation— hunt-
and-gather boys. Keep the blood
on the reservation. Hunt those boys.
Solve for X: how many whys and zombies
equal those boys. Give me dap
those boys. My boy. My cousin. No taller than tree
trunks chopped. Those boys sundown colorful,
watch those boys. Southeast hocus pocus—
you see / don’t see those boys. Then you read those
boys: police blotter those boys. Then they’re ink
those boys–RIP graffiti on white tees:
those boys. Those Clay Terrace boys. Those
Benning Park boys. Those River Terrace boys. Those
Drama City boys. BILL MOYERS:
I’m wondering can poetry really make a difference when kids are going hungry or their friends
are being shot at with guns or their parents are losing their homes? Does poetry hold anything
out to them? KYLE DARGAN:
I think there’s solace. I mean, I think some are moved to action, but I think there’s unfair
pressure put on poetry. Like I’m glad that people expect so much of it, but you look
at, I mean, honestly, like you look at Congress right now, I mean, legislation isn’t fixing
those things. So why would you expect poetry to? I mean, maybe poetry can inspire people
to get on their legislators to do something, to fix something in their lives. But I mean,
that’s the place where poetry operates. It doesn’t operate at the infrastructure level.
It operates at the motivation level it gets people. And that’s why I say it’s important,
you know, if poetry isn’t speaking to people, if you can read a poem and it just washes
over you, goes over your head, you don’t feel any human connection. Then I feel like that’s
a waste of the art form, because it could be making that connection with someone, possibly
urging them to look at the world differently, to do something differently. That may or may
not leave them to taking actions, but you know, if you don’t try. BILL MOYERS:
Kyle Dargan, thank you very much for being with me. KYLE DARGAN:
Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

2 thoughts on “Kyle Dargan on Viewing the World through Poetry

  1. Kyle Dargan is a good man! Congrats to you my man on the professorship at American University! You deserve it and you are yourself. I feel proud of you. I'm a Cave Canem workshop poet. You probably don't know me. My name is Ayesha and I'm 35 about to turn 36 in January 2017. We're both 35 or 36 years old and are African American poets. I have a BA in English and I just went back to school to major in Early Childhood Education.

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