The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Kyle Dargan about his most recent collection Anagnorisis, middle class comforts, exploited labor, and the value of doing the work of poetry.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: So I don’t want you to think this is a habit with me, given that I began last month’s chat with José Olivarez talking about food in a poem, but I would like to talk about your poem “Separating” to start off.
Kyle Dargan: Uh, sure it isn’t a habit… but fine.
Brian S: It marries these thoughts about food and economic class and capitalism and labor so well, in ways I think don’t get talked about enough in the larger discourse. Can you talk some about what motivated this poem?
Kyle Dargan: Right. Thank you. I will answer in pieces.
So I have been telling myself of late that I don’t want to write poems that are comfortably middle class—that seem to subconsciously relish in a comfort that fewer and fewer people can manage.
Brian S: I know the kinds of poems you mean.
Kyle Dargan: In part, the poem is me thinking out loud about the ways in which my current life (i.e. shopping at organic markets) doesn’t match my earliest upbringing sleeping on the floor of an apartment in Newark New Jersey.
Brian S: Right. I grew up working class to parents who’d been working class or in poverty, so I really felt that moment early in the poem where you describe your mother, “her mouth full of pennies,” and I remember my parents taking us through the grocery store with a pocket calculator, or my dad adding up numbers as we shopped. And when generic items first hit the supermarket? We filled our house with that plain black and white label.
Kyle Dargan: (And let me confess that by my teenage years, my mother had managed to shepherd us up to the middle-class.)
Brian S: Something similar happened to me, though my parents traded it in for the chance to be full-time preachers, so it didn’t last long.
Kyle Dargan: Right. But the thing is, for me, thinking about the wider net is so important because if I am not, it is easy to constantly think of yourself as the “victim” or the put-upon in a system where you clearly enjoy more privileges than others.
For millennials—and I am a grandpa millennial—we were sold the promise of middle-class comfort if we walked the path, but so many of us walked the path and now have no chance at that or have managed some of it put pay for it hugely in terms of quality of life (stress, etc.). So I am trying to own my “bougie” place in the class system while also acknowledging that I’m still suffering—still trapped—within it. And that walking this path has to be about something bigger than just me and personal security.
Brian S: I see that, yes. Those lines near the end:
What of my own thin shell or my own yoke unbroken within me
(both functions of money, time, deficits)?
That yoke (and I really like the play on yolk/yoke there by the way) as in burden, as in the thing that keeps you trapped in labor which stays unbroken because we want that middle class comfort even while recognizing how unfair the whole thing is to everyone.
Kyle Dargan: Yeah. It is a precious kind of pain since we still attach so much of our human worth to productivity.
Brian S: Right. There was a period earlier this year where I wasn’t working outside the home—I was a stay-at-home-dad and homemaker, basically—and it took a lot for me to be comfortable with that, because I’ve basically been working since I was fourteen, and I’ll be fifty soon. It felt wrong to not be going to a job, even though my financial worth at the time, to my family, was larger by being at home. That’s the power of capitalism, with a little dash of sexism thrown in—you’re not worth anything unless you’re getting a paycheck, and housework doesn’t pay.
Kyle Dargan: Yeah, and it is definitely true for art, too—and the current constant push for “content.” Of late, I don’t really feel like producing—especially not for producing’s sake. So everything I do, I’m questioning: “Why are we writing this?” Not even whether or not it is interesting or worthwhile, but merely why.
Brian S: There really does seem to be a push to produce a lot these days, doesn’t there? Or is it just more noticeable now because of social media?
Kyle Dargan: Poets need to be careful right now. It’s open season on content producers, and many content publishers look at us as an inexhaustible resource.
Brian S: The number of books I get from publishers as review copies in any given week is mind-boggling. For a genre that supposedly doesn’t sell, publishers sure do put out a lot of poetry.
Kyle Dargan: Terrance Hayes use to tell me about the “struggle” of reaching the point where people will solicit (and publish) you just because you are you and not particularly because of the work. I am very sensitive to being “overexposed.” I know my interest are different than publishers.
When you’ve seen enough “hot poets” chewed up and spit out by the publishing industry, staying in the fight becomes much more valuable. That is why I increasingly revere the poets who intently and steadily stay at the task of growth. At this phase of my writing life, they are my models.
Brian S: I have worried in the past if people I’ve approached for work have thought I was just asking because of who they are. It’s a legitimate concern.
People like the poet you call sensei, Rita Dove, right?
Kyle Dargan: No. Sensei Rita is a different regal being. Not to suggest that she isn’t committed to her craft, but she achieved significant victory (which she has maintained) at such a young (for that time) age. It’s actually hard of me to take Rita Dove or Charles Wright or other teachers as models because their pace and stature is dizzying.
It’s more like a Nikky Finney or a Catherine Barnett. Those writers. Ada Limón.
Brian S: Oh, I see what you mean. You’re talking more about the poets who just keep plugging away, book after book, each one a little better than the last. And then when you look at the whole body of work, you realize just how potent it is.
Kyle Dargan: Exactly. And every once and a while they might get a little shine, but for the most part it’s just head down and pen moving.
Brian S: I think I can say, without blowing smoke up your ass, that you belong in that conversation. I mean, you’ve done some impressive work as well.
And I want to get back to the poems a little here because they’re worth talking about. The poem “It’s Possible I’m Too Bougie To Be Free” hits some of the same notes as “Separating,” but in a much broader and funnier way.
Kyle Dargan: That poem starts in real-life oddity—people inviting me to pig roasts (and I don’t eat pork).
Brian S: I gathered that by the end of the poem!
Kyle Dargan: The frequency was so odd that I just figured there had to be something there, so I just fought that poem to the finish like a batter down in the count, swing fouls into the stands.
Brian S: It’s hard for me to eat pork now, because of what you describe in the poem near the end—the farming aspect of it. Iowa is the US’s largest pork producer, I think, and conditions for pigs are beyond cruel.
Kyle Dargan: Yeah. I fear the poems give off the sense that I’m a PETA/Meatrix guy, and I am not. I’m still learning and figuring out what I believe. My hope is that that poem and “Separating” don’t come off as self-righteous.
Brian S: The real turn in that poem to me are the lines “I have tasted constriction. / I know the spirit may be liberated / through fire.” It’s the point where the poem asks us to relate, again, to the labor of someone else and what it means for us to exploit it.
And I think that’s the real theme—we’re all exploited laborers in a way, but that doesn’t mean we have to exploit each other.
Kyle Dargan: All of my non-meat habits (all red meat for now) come from religion (Lent) and not research into industrial farming. Yeah, that point where we think of all of us as Earth inhabitants as beings. And that in being there is some simpatico.
Brian S: Like the poem from the China section, “Meal at Pyongyang,” where you won’t watch the waitress who’s singing because she’s been forced into it.
Kyle Dargan: Man, that was the worst night in China.
Brian S: The discomfort just radiated off the page in that poem
Kyle Dargan: The farther I’m away from it—of all the experiences captured in the book—that is the one that feels all the more surreal. I remember reading after about one of those waitress—not at that Pyongyang restaurant—who tried to escape and they caught her.
Brian S: I feel like I can only get a sense of what it must have been like to be there, that there are layers I will never be able to really understand but that I know are there all the same, because of my position as a white man. But the poem got me closer than I think I would have otherwise.
What poems from the book have you been reading the most at readings so far?
Kyle Dargan: It’s been a mix, but I have yet to read from the nonfiction section. (And yes, people, it is nonfiction and not prose poetry.) Since it is such a geographically diverse book, where I am has shaped what I have read.
Brian S: How often do people who know you already call you Ross [Gay] at a reading? And how annoying is it?
Kyle Dargan: Never, really, but I think there are too many people who think of our work as interchangeable. I used to just say it is what it is, but with this book I decided I needed to smack people around a bit.
Brian S: That’s interesting because I don’t think your work and his work is similar at all. I appreciate both, but I don’t think I’d ever mix them up.
Who are you reading these days? What should we be looking out for?
Brian S: Both of those are on my teetering, massive stack
Kyle Dargan: Well, good luck to us all with this flood of important work being published.
Brian S: Thanks for staying up late with us tonight, and for this oh so excellent book.