As a child, Kyle Dargan began writing rhymes largely as a matter of convenience.
“If you wanted to make music, especially back in the ’90s, you needed somebody with a studio and recording equipment,” he says. “But you could write [hip-hop lyrics] at home, on the bus, in a notebook, and share with people and workshop and take their feedback and try to get better at it.”
Now a highly awarded poet and writing teacher at American University, Dargan became interested in poetry just shy of high school. “One of the things I really push back against as a teacher at the college level is that by the time I get my students, most of them have probably experienced some poetry trauma,” he says. Whereas children are born with a basic element of creative freedom, he says he must “deprogram [his students] from the feeling that unless you are able to interpret a poem a certain way, you’re wrong or you’re wasting your time in reading it.”
Growing up in Newark, New Jersey, Dargan went to Saint Benedict’s Prep and then to the University of Virginia, where he was a graduate of the first-ever area program in poetry writing. He went on to Indiana University, where he received his MFA in creative writing, and then moved to Washington, D.C., to study art management and teach at American.
“I couldn’t have ever imagined it, but being here during the Obama administration I got to do some great work with the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities and [produce poetry programming] at the White House,” he says. “As much as D.C. is maligned, I really try to appreciate all the unusually marvelous things that can only happen here.”
Given Dargan’s penchant for exploring themes like contemporary masculinity and “America as a concept—not so much a place but an idea,” it’s easy to understand the relevance of his poems.
“As much as D.C. is maligned, I really try to appreciate all the unusually marvelous things that can only happen here.”
In his forthcoming collection, Anagnorisis, he explores the moment he understood his American fate in the same way a Greek tragic hero experiences crystalline self-awareness. “With all of the police shootings of citizens…I felt like, you know, ‘I have a feeling the country’s kinda going in a direction that I’m not quite sure of yet,’” he says. “And then the 2016 election happened. I was like, ‘Ah, okay, this is it. And I know what side of it I am on.’”
Still, he says, “when I think about America now, I’m one of the few who still believes America is heading in a post-racial direction. But I say that with a caveat that the hours, the years right before the change becomes real are often the most violent.”
After traveling to China twice in the last 10 years and examining why it continues to buy American debt, Dargan says he’s realized America’s biggest export is promise.
“I don’t want to look at it as hope,” he adds, “because I don’t think those ideologies are going to roll away easily. But I do think that America, more than anything, is a place of reckoning. It’s a difficult reckoning, and we are gradually becoming mature enough to handle that reckoning, but we’re not there yet.”
By helping heal the trauma inflicted on students’ creative self-expression, Dargan hopes to support that maturation process. “A big part of what makes creative communication work is being able to be present as yourself on the page, right? If you’re not open and vulnerable and honestly dealing with who you are and how you write, you’re limiting the potential of whatever communication you’re making with someone else,” he says. “I believe that the ability to communicate, first and foremost with yourself and then transferring that to others, definitely saves us all.”