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Poetry for the White House

By Abbey Becker

Kyle Dargan

Professor Kyle Dargan (front, center) at the Library of Congress symposium. Photo courtesy of Kyle Dargan.

When literature professor Kyle Dargan first tried to organize a poetry program at the White House at the request of the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities, he didn’t succeed. That didn’t stop him from running poetry workshops with DC high school students in conjunction with 826DC, though. “When you’re working with the White House, the schedule is always up in the air and there are no guarantees,” says Dargan. “We said we’ll do this program, and if we do eventually get the opportunity to coordinate something on the White House grounds, we’ll do it.”

Last spring, Dargan and 15 students from Duke Ellington, Ballou, Wilson, and Bell high schools finally got that opportunity. Students got to read their poems at a workshop at the Library of Congress with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and later at the White House event attended by the likes of former poet laureates Billy Collins and Rita Dove and songwriter Aimee Mann. “I think the students thought the President’s Committee was a bunch of bureaucrats,” says Dargan. “When we got to the White House and they saw who was there to engage with them, that’s when they turned star struck.”

Dargan and the students spent one day per week for four months in poetry workshops held at the Museum of Unnatural History, 826DC’s home base in Columbia Heights. 826DC is a chapter of 826 National, a nonprofit organization that runs programs to help improve the writing skills of under-resourced students between the ages of 6 and 18. Workshops would often start with warm-up exercises that would get the students comfortable playing with language. One of Dargan’s goals was to show the students that, “poetry isn’t this staid thing, that you don’t have to fulfill all these criterion steps in order for it to be a poem. A poem is what you make it.”

Dargan used hip hop songs that are place-specific to show students how others successfully rendered their cities. “One of the things that I really wanted them to do was to have them make D.C. their own,” Dargan explains. “To some, it’s a tourist attraction or the seat of political power. I said to them, you guys actually live in the city. Do your best to present your own unique image of the city, so someone could really see what it’s like to be a teenager right now in the District of Columbia.”

Some wrote about familiar teenage topics like first relationships, but others talked about how they come across to other parts of the city. “There were lots of poems, especially by the kids that live in Southeast, about how they’re perceived and who they really are,” says Dargan. “They asserted their humanity and said, we’re not these downtrodden gremlins that we’re made out to be sometimes.”

Sharing these kinds of experiences was sometimes the hardest part of the workshops. Dargan and other volunteers did their best to assure students that the workshops were a supportive space. “I think more of their surprise came from just knowing that they could share this work and that it wasn’t the end of the world or that people weren’t going to judge them,” Dargan says. “That they, in fact, might realize that some people were happy that they said what they did because others might have wanted to say it themselves or have had someone say it to them when they were their age.”

At American, Dargan teaches undergraduate and graduate literature and creative writing classes, and he always spends a day breaking down the barriers that students have because of the way they were taught about poetry in high school. “I think so many students enter college and young adulthood with an adversarial relationship with poetry as a result of how it was imposed on them in high school,” he explains. “I really want people to understand that poetry isn’t algebra. It’s not something with a set of rules where you get it or you don’t, and if you don’t get it, it’s your fault. Poetry is an exchange, it’s a dialogue, and you have to be open to it.”

With the students in his workshops at 826DC, he took a gentler approach than some high school curriculums in the hopes that they might see poetry differently. “You don’t want to push kids too much. It takes so long to figure out who you are as a writer and what your voice is,” he says. “I didn’t say to them, you’re going to go on and be poets for the rest of your lives. The important thing, if you really like writing, is to keep it a part of your life. Going on to try to publish books or win prizes, that’s not everybody. It’s more about what kind of relationship you will have with writing.”

The American University Visiting Writers Series will be hosting the spring MFA faculty reading at 826DC as a fundraiser on January 25 at 7:00 p.m.