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…”
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
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…
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.
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.
Isn't your neighborhood more or less in the shadows of the capital?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 me.
How old are you?
They would find that incredulous, right?
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.
You said they don't expect to live beyond 18 or 19.
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.”
Does politics make sense in your neighborhood?
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.
Read for us one of those poems you wrote about those kids where you live. It's called, "We Die Soon."
"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.
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.
Do you read that to your students at American University?
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 it.
You attempted to have them last year read at the White House. Tell me about that.
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.
The kids? Your kids?
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.
Do you remember the first poem you ever heard in school?
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.
Give me an example of an allusion or a metaphor that still resonates and informs your take on the world today.
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."
Tell me about this one and then read it.
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
Benning Park boys.
Those River Terrace
boys. After hours
those boys. Those
siring boys. Noise
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
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
graffiti on white tees:
those boys. Those Clay
Terrace boys. Those
Benning Park boys. Those
River Terrace boys. Those
Drama City boys.
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?
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.
Kyle Dargan, thank you very much for being with me.
Thank you very much. I appreciate it.