Khalil Murrell, Program Associate, Poetry
In light of America’s evolving narrative on race, how do today’s writers of color, specifically those of the so-called Hip-Hop Generation, add to one of the nation’s most difficult conversations? How do they embrace a legacy, but also speak authentically about race and ethnicity today without regurgitating the voices of, say, Amiri Baraka, Jayne Cortez, Nikki Giovanni, and Langston Hughes?
Certainly all of these questions cannot be answered here, if at all or through any medium in one sitting. Still, many writers of color including Thomas Sayers Ellis, Suheir Hammad, Kevin Young, and Willie Perdomo have been deeply entrenched in this on-going conversation through their work. These are just some of countless contemporary writers who have added fresh perspectives to race dialogue in poetry.
Newark native Kyle Dargan also adds to this rich conversation, through verse, in his first collection, The Listening. Dargan carries with him an immense reverence for tradition as well as his cultural and artistic heritage —black poets who have come before him—especially evident in poems such as “Search for Robert Hayden,” and “This Knight” written to Etheridge Knight. You can see why heritage is important to Dargan as you watch him interview his grandmother, Ruth Dargan — the first black police detective on the Newark police force – about their generational differences in how they view Newark and the President. (He also wrote an article about it here). His work most often tries to make sense of history and the post-Civil Rights world by bridging gaps between two generations. He seems to find ways to pay homage and yet move forward…to accept and renounce observations in the world. (Listen here to “Karaoke” and “Quagmire”).
But it’s limiting to see Dargan exclusively through this lense. To read his work is to be present with a writer whose senses are acutely aware of the people and spaces around him. Even his profile picture above seems reminiscent of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? album cover. Dargan is, in fact, watching and listening to everything in the present world: the Ali-Frazier fight (Listen to “1975”); his grandparents’ stories; Gnarls Barkley’s St. Elsewhere album; squirrels in East Orange (Read “Redefinition”); his stepfather shaving (Listen to “On Men”); the priests at St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark; and even his friend, Dwayne, getting knocked out at the basketball court in Montclair.
A self-described child of hip-hop, Dargan is also as clever with the word as he is reverential. Read “Of the Sun,” where the first word of each left-aligned line reads downward: “a dark body with yellow skin.” His subjects and references are often musical – Rock N Roll by Mos Def, the Jacksons, a letter from Muddy Waters to Michael Harper. Dargan says Bouquet of Hungers, his second book, was arranged like some of his favorite albums – De La Soul is Dead, Mama’s Gun, Songs in the Key of Life, Electric Circus, etc. – because “they expanded the boundaries and weakened the perceived limitations of their genres.” His work, both hip and academic, attempts the same. Dargan is not just a poet who simply observes the world, he is actively engaged in it.
A recipient of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, Kyle Dargan is the author of three poetry collections, most recently Logorrhea Dementia, and editor of POST NO ILLS magazine. He is the former managing editor of Callaloo and currently a professor at American University in Washington, D.C. where he also lives.
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