Last modified: Wednesday, February 9, 2005
IU Feature: The Listening
Creative writing graduate student makes noise with first collection of poems
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Kyle Dargan is listening. To hip hop. Sonnets. Muddy Waters. Professors philosophizing. Basketball players trash-talking. Barbershop chatter. Coltrane. Cell phone conversations. Cowboy karaoke. Johnny Cash.
The third-year graduate student in Indiana University Bloomington's Creative Writing Program has absorbed all of these sounds throughout his young life in order to make some major noise of his own. Now, others are listening. His first collection of poems, aptly titled The Listening: Poems (University of Georgia Press, 2004), received a favorable review last month in the New York Times Book Review. It also has won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, which is awarded to the best first collection of poetry written by an African American writer. "The Listening is right; Dargan has a marvelous ear," wrote the Times reviewer.
Dargan, a native of Newark, N.J., and a former recipient of IU's Yusef Komunyakaa Fellowship in Poetry, is remarkably soft-spoken and philosophical for someone whose poems speak so loudly. When another writer might shout from the rooftops about having his first book of poems appear in the New York Times, Dargan is low-key about the "OK review" and mentions a "much harsher" critique that one of his associates posted on a Web blog. When another writer might pat himself on the back for getting it "right" the first time, Dargan prefers to think about what he's going to try next. The thought of getting comfortable clearly makes him uncomfortable.
The Listening reflects the efforts of a restless young writer eager to try different techniques, play with language and highlight his many influences -- from jazz to hip hop, Shakespeare to the slam poetry of African American poet/actor/musician Saul Williams. Dargan admits that the book is "all over the place. It's an honest description of how my writing has been all types of things. For me, the whole thing about poetry is to keep it from being locked down and lazy with language. I write poetry to challenge people and use language in a less obvious way than it was intended," he says.
"My tone is really confusing," adds Dargan, who laughed when one writing journal that considered publishing his poems wished him luck getting back to Ireland. "It's hard to put a finger on, which is good. It means you have to think about it. I tend to have a philosophical tone. It's what I like to read, and I'm happy when I achieve it."
He credits his teachers and mentors, including Pulitzer Prize-winning poets Rita Dove and Charles Wright, and Kevin Young, the Ruth Lilly Professor of poetry at IUB and a finalist for the 2003 National Book Award, with encouraging him to follow his muse and not worry about finding a singular voice. They pressed him to try different voices. In the hip hop world, this is known as "sampling."
That's not to say Dargan didn't already have a clear sense of how he wanted his poetry to look and sound. Having listened to hip hop while he was growing up, he hoped to blend this powerful language of the street with his maturing sensibilities. "The interlacing of sounds and consonants is definitely not something you'd expect of a Shakespearean sonnet," he says of the hip hop language. "It's unique in the same way jazz is unique. The language of hip hop and how it's structured is very much like jazz. It sees patterns that aren't necessarily obvious."
Dargan says he has always been aware of the sounds around him. His poetry is influenced by what he heard growing up in East Orange, N.J.; in Virginia, where he reconnected with his grandfather's Southern heritage; in his creative writing classes at the University of Virginia, where he was the only black student and often struggled to get people to understand what he was saying; and in faraway Bloomington, Ind.
Using hip hop language, Dargan sounds off on events both momentous and mundane -- from the legendary Ali-Frazier fight in Manila to a boyhood brawl on a basketball court and a trip to the local barbershop. His language has been described as "the language people speak." While Dargan channels the speech of family and friends he grew up with, he believes the words he chooses for his poems go beyond just people talking. Rather, the sounds of those words echo "what's actually going on," he says, adding that his goal is to engage his readers in honest conversation.
"I want to try to get people to not be so afraid of hip hop and its sensibilities," he says. "With this channel of writing, I won't stray away from this. This is how people do speak where I live."
Only a good listener can truly know what's going on, and Dargan is clearly tuned in to his surroundings. It's all "the listening" that promises to make him worth hearing whenever he decides to sing again.
Karaoke -- The Office Lounge
by Kyle Dargan
Here's to backriffs, the Japanese, naval
baseball caps, pack-a-day rasp, thanking god
for being a boy, a country, tonight (no liquor
sold on Sundays), cracking the fire
exit, the Beethoven cellular opus
stubborn as a canker sore, Tom (going once,
going twice...), contagious slow dancing
in the kitchen entrance, yellow spilling through
the white lyrics, 80s catalogues, hands colliding
a beat too late, contemplating Lou Rawls,
forearm hair, STIHL patches, stars
and bars pulsing on pick-up windows
in the dirt lot, Indiana, Johnny
Cash and believing
that the lord was on their side, sunset
drawl, three-drink-makeovers, (instrumental
break), men in each other's blank
embrace, cigarette burns
and no pain, Bette Midler
and chorus mentality, stripes
really making you feel thinner,
playing the air guitar like a penis
and redmen singing western, the last pair
of Levi's stitched in the states,
America the plaid, saliva forgotten and the soldiers
coming home. Maybe next Wednesday
To listen to Dargan reading from his collection of poems, go to the following Web links. The links require RealPlayer, which is available for free at http://www.real.com.
Rememory (Parts 2 & 3) http://video.indiana.edu:8080/ramgen/ip/iucast/news/rememory.rm
To speak to Dargan or obtain a list of awards won by current students and recent graduates of IUB's Creative Writing Program, contact Ryan Piurek, IU Media Relations, at 812-855-5393 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Indiana University offered courses in creative writing throughout most of the 20th century. Marguerite Young, Robert P.T. Coffin, Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom and Robert Frost all taught courses in poetry and fiction-writing at IU as early as 1941. The graduate creative writing program is one of the nation's oldest and most distinguished, having been founded in 1948 by short-story writer Peter Taylor.
- More than one-third of IUB's graduate students in creative writing are students of color, making the program the most successfully diversified creative writing program in the nation.
- Kyle Dargan won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize in 2003. Other current students who have won or been finalists for significant awards in the past two years include: Emily Doak, Misty Harper, Robin Kish, Esther Lee, Micah Ling, Mia Noffsinger, Alison Powell, Mary Austin Speaker, Sara Jane Stoner and Robin Vogelzang.
- For more news and information about the IU Creative Writing Program, go to http://www.indiana.edu/~mfawrite/programnews.html.