Features editor Jewel Edwards recently interviewed Professor Kyle Dargan, Director of American University’s writing program and teacher of poetry. Dargan is the author of four poetry collections: The Listening (2004), winner of the Cave Canem Prize, Bouquet of Hungers (2007), awarded the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in poetry, Logorrhea Dementia (2010), and Honest Engine (2015). Dargan is also the founding editor of the magazine Post no Ills.
CA: What are you drawn to write about?
KD: America as an idea, though I’ve been trying to do that less and less. Also, deconstructing my own masculinity. If we’re really going to engage and destruct the way that patriarchy shapes our lives, more men have to do the work of deconstructing, destabilizing and mining what we embody. I’ve been investigating how much of my masculinity I’ve inherited from the men in my life; friends, family; and how much of it I’ve developed on my own. I’m still questioning that, even at this point in my life, middle age, and exploring how much of it is necessary or productive. I’m working on a new and selected project now, with poems from my prior books as well as new poems. After that is this masculinity project.
CA: What life experiences have informed your writing?
KD: Living in cities, that’s a big part of it. Particularly living in poor African American neighborhoods. When I decided I was going to settle in DC and I had to think about where I was going to live, I had a choice between living close to AU or moving out in Southeast where I am now. In an odd way, even with all the challenges on this side of town; lack of resources, that sort of thing,I feel more comfortable here and connected to the people than I did on the other side. A lot of that drives my writing because I feel like I’m charged trying to communicate trying to live this separate existence in the capitol, or in America. African Americans tend to live separate existences within society. And not just talking about that, but talking about it in ways that allow people to see what are the causes of this discrepancy, how does this shape the way that people grow and why it’s important to understand it and how we view society.
CA: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received or given?
KD: Received? Don’t write for other writers, which is difficult because other writers often make decisions about people’s’ careers, but you have to trust that you’ll have a readership that is beyond writers. Not that all writers are bad people, or narrow-minded people or have narrow aesthetics, but I’m trying to communicate with a large population that I don’t know. I know a lot of writers, I know a lot of poets and what may or may not please them. But they’re not necessarily that broad audience that I’m trying to communicate to. So, I try to write not just for people like me but for those who are like me that I may not even know.
CA: What would you say to a nonfiction or fiction writer who is apprehensive about, or not convinced that they should take, a poetry workshop?
KD: Writers learn from writers, regardless of genre. I myself tend to read more fiction than books of poetry. And poetry gives you a focus on language that can always be useful. When you go back to your primary genre, you’ll be crisper in your imagery, and have a better sense of the musicality of your phrasing if you’ve taken a poetry workshop. Lyricism does not exist solely in the realm of poetry. Toni Morrison is extremely lyrical, she’s more lyrical than some poets. So, that’s what I’d want that person to focus on.
CA: This one is a two-pronged question: What are some craft books that you recommend for someone unfortunate enough to not be able to take your class, and what are a couple of novels that are exemplary of the poetry genre?
KD: Personally I think the best craft books are the actual text. If you’re curious enough, you will learn from what people are doing, rather than having it presented it to you as, “here’s how you do this.” You will see what someone has done and reverse engineer it for yourself. So I’d say read Lucille Clifton, the Collected Works of Audre Lorde, Yusef Komunyakaa’s Neon Vernacular. Charles Simic writes prose poems and he’s a favorite of both Professor Keplinger and myself. There’s so much out there, you should constantly be reading. I think the problem is people get to a point where they are writing mentors or teachers and they lose interest or the the will to read new work and find themselves recommending the same thing they would have recommended years ago. Keep reading and keep searching for the next great thing that will evolve your understanding of the art form.
CA: If you weren’t a writer of fiction, what would you be doing?
KD: I used to be a landscaper in college, like landscape design, not just weed whacking and cutting grass, but actually designing things. I appreciate it; it’s good work, getting your hands in the soil and crafting. It’s the same thing, poetry and landscaping, you’re just designing in different materials. It’s not the best to work for someone else — when you work for yourself it’s good work. I could also be happy being a personal trainer. A lot of it is about motivation. As a writing teacher, I don’t necessarily feel the need to pump you full of motivation; if you don’t have the motivation, you shouldn’t be here. But as a personal trainer, you understand that, sure, there are some people who want 6-pack abs but they don’t have the motivation for it and it’s your job to create that in them. I could also be happy doing that for a while.
Jewel Edwards is the features editor atCafé Américain and a third-year candidate in the American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.