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Poet Michael Kleber-Diggs: ‘I want to be understood by as many people as possible’

The St. Paul poet is the latest winner of the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize. His book, “Worldly Things,” will have its virtual launch on Tuesday, June 8.

Michael Kleber-Diggs
Michael Kleber-Diggs: “When I start a poem, I’m fascinated by this particular moment or this particular object, and part of it is just trying to figure out why I’m so fascinated. I feel like the poem is done when I find that answer.”
Milkweed Editions

In “Every Mourning,” the poem that follows this interview, Michael Kleber-Diggs writes, “Dear friends, I am the nicest man on earth.” The poem is about Kleber-Diggs, a Black man, encountering a white woman in his middle-class St. Paul neighborhood who crosses the street to avoid him. The poem is also about a little black ant, a blue-and-white checkered button-down shirt and racism.

By juxtaposing the everyday with the profound, Kleber-Diggs throws the door to his poems wide open. “I want to be very, very clear in what I’m saying,” he said in conversation last week. “I want to be understood by as many people as possible.”

Kleber-Diggs, who is also an essayist, literary critic and teacher of poetry and creative nonfiction through the Minnesota Prison Writers Workshop, is the latest winner of the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize, which awards $10,000 and publication by Milkweed Editions to the author of a debut collection of poems. His book, “Worldly Things,” will have its virtual launch on Tuesday, June 8, when he’ll speak with Tracy K. Smith, a Pulitzer Prize winner and former U.S. poet laureate. If you’d like to attend, register here. It’s free.

Kleber-Diggs thought the publication of his first book would be “more austere.” Even before it came out, he was getting national attention. One of his essays was published in the new book “There’s a Revolution Outside, My Love: Letters From a Crisis,” edited by Smith and John Freeman. In it, Kleber-Diggs wrote: “Being Black in an anti-Black country is like being handed a stone at birth, a thing you have to carry and can never throw.” The latest episode of “On Being” with Krista Tippett is a talk between Smith and Kleber-Diggs.

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His “worldly things,” to borrow from his title, include the death of his father (who was killed when Kleber-Diggs was 8 years old) and the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Freddie Gray and Michael Brown, who all find their way into his poems. He juxtaposes tragedy, loss and grief with the love of his wife and daughter, a pair of golden doodles and a sense of hope.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

MinnPost: What was your path to becoming a poet?

Michael Kleber-Diggs: The first time I wrote a poem and thought “I think this might be on its way somewhere” was probably in the summer of 1999. It was called “Harvest,” and I did not send it out. I still have it. As I’m starting to work on the second book, I think it might have a home there.

The first poem I got published is called “Erratum.” It’s a retelling of the cow-jumps-over-the-moon story. A comedic piece. It was published in a magazine called Ache that is no longer publishing. That was sometime in 1999-2000.

From 2001 to 2007, I wrote very few poems. My daughter was born in 2001. She was born early. Working and parenting were what I needed to focus on. And I was of a mind that when time allowed, I would write again. I never doubted that.

Sometime in 2007, I ran into my mentor, Juliet Patterson, at the Walker Art Center. I had taken a class from her at the Loft in 2000. And she said, “Why did you stop writing?” My mom was there with me and her mom was there with her. And my mom’s like, “Stopped writing?” I said, “I think I’m probably about to get back to it.”

My mom is tireless in her love. She believes in me and my brother 100%. The entire time we were growing up, I had a sense that I could do stuff I can’t do because my mom was so unwavering in her support.

I started meeting with Juliet once a month as part of a small group she was leading. I continued in earnest until about 2017. Studying, learning, workshopping poems with her, reading poets who had published accomplished things.

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In 2015, I started to think, “OK, I’ve been at this for a while and I really love it. It’s time to start sending things out, applying for residencies and programs.” The first poem I got published [after that] was called “Songs for the Source.” It was published in Water-Stone Review, and I still remember being in my office in Eagan, where I worked at a logistics company, getting an email and reading it and crying real tears of joy.

[I was a winner in] the Loft Mentor Series for Poetry that year, and a fellow with the Givens Foundation for African American Literature. The friendships I made in those cohorts, and the progress I was making in my writing – it all started to gather momentum.

A couple of years ago, Juliet asked me to print the poems I had written in the last three to five years. I thought she was doing it to say, “Look, you’re writing! You’re producing work!” But there’s something about a stack of pages. You start sorting and writing into gaps.

MP: Take us back to 2020. What was that year like for you?

[Note: AWP is a huge writers’ conference that takes place each year in a different city, typically drawing more than 12,000 attendees. In 2020, AWP was in San Antonio, Texas, from March 4-7, just as COVID was rolling in.]

MKD: In March of 2020, I had a job at a logistics company in Eagan. My daughter was off to college. Completing the book was a goal for the year – getting the order right, making a few line edits and getting serious about sending it around.

I went to AWP. I really wanted to go and hadn’t been before. As I was getting on the plane, I was like, “This probably is not a good idea.” Something like ¼ of the people attended. All of our interactions were awkward, like “Can I hug you? Do we bump elbows?” At night, we were running around the city unmasked.

At AWP, I was in the lobby talking with Su Hwang and Sun Yung Shin, and they’re like “Where’s the book, Michael?” And I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, it’s gonna happen.” And Su said, “Is it on your phone?” And I said, “Yeah.” And she said, “Send it to me right now!” Su and I are very good friends, and she bosses me around better than anyone I’ve ever met. So I sent it to her then and there.

I returned from AWP with a heightened awareness of the pandemic, but also really focused on completing the book. It was hard to do in the course of my day-to-day life because I was at work all the time.

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On the first Tuesday in May, I got laid off. When they called to let me know, I was working at home. It was a day when 70 people got that call. Honestly, I was not unhappy about it. I had reached a point where managing my life at work and opportunities in freelance writing was getting really difficult.

On that Wednesday or Thursday, Su Hwang sent me a very thoughtful read of my book, with very thoughtful notes. I don’t have a job; I do have severance; I’ve got her notes; I’ve got plenty of daylight in May. Two dogs to manage and that’s about it. I went head down for about 10 days. The timing seems charmed, when I think back on it.

[Note: The submission deadline for Milkweed’s Max Ritvo Poetry Contest was May 30. The winner is notified in September and officially announced in October.]

MP: What was it like to finish your first book, then win a big poetry prize?

MKD: When I start a poem, I’m fascinated by this particular moment or this particular object, and part of it is just trying to figure out why I’m so fascinated. I feel like the poem is done when I find that answer.

When I finished the manuscript, I felt like I finally had a sense for how the poems are in conversation with each other. I wanted to talk about where I’m from, my family, where I live, mostly America, but also a little bit of Minnesota and Como Park and St. Paul. And how I see the world, which is where my humanist ideals come forward. We need to be together. We have all the things we need for heaven on earth. This is our mission, to figure out how to love each other and take care of each other.

When I saw that thread and started putting things together and read through it a few times, I felt like the collection had answered that question. I felt like it was done, it was ready, and I sent it around.

I got the call from Milkweed in September. I was stunned, and that’s not false modesty. I was standing in my front yard with my dogs. I almost died. I had to keep it under wraps. I told my wife, of course. I told my mom. I told my daughter. I felt grateful as well. And just very lucky.

I had a sense that things would be pretty different for me in my writing. And I undershot that by quite a lot.

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MP: You wrote a poem about George Floyd.

MKD: Last summer, I wrote mostly essays. I wanted to spend time examining my feelings about institutional violence, about being a Black man in this country, reflecting a bit on my own life with policing, and making an effort to explain to people why riots are needed.

Mary [Moore Easter] invited me to submit a poem for a Rain Taxi chapbook [“Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: Poems in the wake of racial injustice”]. I spent a lot of time working on the poem that was initially called “Apnea and Bruxism” [later retitled “Grinding Down to Prayer”].

On the one hand, I really wanted to talk about what happened. When George Floyd was killed, that affected me in so many ways, and I know that I’m not alone in that. And the way that I respond to things that affect me is writing. That’s how I make sense of the world. When I find myself wanting to rage against ugliness, writing is what I have. I don’t feel like I can be angry in the streets. But I do feel like I can write about it. That poem was hard to write, but I really wanted to be a part of that conversation.

I had a hard time navigating the right way to do it. I don’t want to make art out of anybody’s pain. Not the George Floyd family, not Breonna Taylor’s family, not Freddie Gray’s family. I don’t want to profit from that. I want to hold these conversations.

MP: Would “Worldly Things” be a different book if you had finished it this year instead of last year?

MKD: Yeah. I still would want to have the same three conversations: This is where I’m from, where I live, how I see the world. I would have gone deeper into each one.

I would love to tell a little bit more about my family, a little less centered around my father’s death, the tragedy that is the point of focus in “Worldly Things.”

I would spend a little more time on America. I can’t be persuaded away from the idea that America is an anti-Black country. An anti-Indigenous country. An anti-Latinx country. I can continue on with that.

Conversation around the killing of George Floyd has helped me think about it in this particular way. Minnesota has been considered nationally through the prism of this appalling event. There are many truths about that presentation that Minnesota would do well to confront. There are a lot of things in Minnesota that we need to think about and do differently.

But we also live in a Minnesota that’s pretty amazing. I would have spent a little more time on the America and the Minnesota and the Twin Cities that I live in. We can talk about bubbles and all that stuff. But the point is, my friends are loving and earnest and imperfect, just like me, but interested in being better and trying.

In a lot of the writing that I’m doing right now, I’m finding myself wanting to spend time with what we can be hopeful about. In addition to imagining a better world, I want to talk about the people I see who are already working toward that. It manifests in so many different ways. Some of it is policy wonks laboring in the night to get the language right. Some of it is the woman on the train reading “White Fragility.” I think I would have made a little more space for that.

But you know what? This is one book. It doesn’t have to be the last one.

MP: What is the role of the poet in 2021?

MKD: I feel tempted to talk about noticing, which is always foundational, I feel tempted to talk about documenting. I feel tempted to talk about recording and capturing the details that we’ll want to remember later. I want to talk about imagining as well, continuing to do that work of twisting the object around and really rendering it but also contemplating possibilities in our writing.

What I feel most called to right now is activism. And I hesitate, because I have this argument that I make. Let me try it out. That when the world is going to shit, the best thing that a landscape painter can do is continue to paint landscapes. Don’t switch over to political painting. Continue to make the art you’re called to make.

We absolutely need people who are making paintings that rage against the machine. And we also need people who are captivated by flowers. We need all of those perspectives.

I think my ultimate answer is to keep going. Keep writing the poems that you were born to write. We need the ones that remind us and challenge us and make us angry. We need to be inspired. We need to imagine better. We need a place to put our anger and our despair and our sadness. But the only way that we can manage it is if every poet, every artist, continues to make the art they feel called to make.

Look, it has to be authentic anyway, or else people are going to see right through it. When you try to do something that you’re not meant to do or cut out to do, it will be obvious. Authenticity is, to me, the highest value in art.

So that’s what I’m gonna say. The role of the poet is to keep writing the poems they feel called to make.

Michael Kleber-Diggs speaking at a Story Club Minneapolis event.
Photo by Amy Salloway
Michael Kleber-Diggs speaking at a Story Club Minneapolis event.
MP: What will you write next?

MKD: I am thinking a little bit about a collection of essays. I also thought I’d love to do another book of poems. And then I realized, well, I don’t have to choose.

So here’s what I’m going to do. I’m just going to keep writing, My preferred way of working in poetry is to write in reaction to what moves me. For me, anyway, it’s a harder way to do it. I would love it if I were someone who’s like, “I’m going to write a collection of poems responding to Spike Lee films, and I’m going to watch a bunch of those movies and write poems.” I would love to be a project-based poet, but I’m not.

I was out with my dogs toward the tail end of winter, one of those last snowstorms, and we had a light snow. We were walking and all of a sudden they both stopped and looked in the same direction. Then I saw a little fissure, a little ridge of snow, and oh, there’s something under there! And I wrote a poem about that. It’s not done. I’ll keep tinkering with it.

Themes that are coming up a lot in my writing are fatherhood, men, masculinity, imagining a more expansive masculinity. Lately I’m called to writing that’s taking me in that direction. And then, over here, I’ve got this small-dog-critter-under-the-snow poem. But my poetry practice is more “This is the thing that I was captivated by, I’m going to write a poem about that.” Which means that in my future, at some point, there’s me printing the poems that I’ve written in the last few years and trying to find out what the thread is.

For my essay project, I think about my dad. I was captivated by Natasha Trethewey’s “Memorial Drive,” about the death of her mother, about her mother being killed by her stepfather. And I feel inspired to find out more about how my father was killed and why and get into the details and write about that.

I’m interested in memory, and the nature of memory. And I have a twin brother, and his memory is more specific than mine is. I think that he retained a lot more from that time than I have. I also doubt myself when I say that I didn’t retain things. I think I locked them away. And that what I’ve developed is a great skill at avoiding things that are difficult to contemplate. I want to explore that, and I feel like essay is a great way to do that.

So I’m gonna do both.

MP: What poets should the rest of us be reading?

MKD: Danez Smith. Their candor is a gift. And Hieu Minh Nguyen. Jude Nutter has a new book out; I love Jude Nutter. And [going back] a bit, Jane Kenyon. Her work affected me a great deal.

There’s a poet in Michigan, Laura Kasischke, that people should be reading. And Reginald Dwayne Betts. So much complexity, such a vivid and imaginative use of phrasing and language. I’m a huge Reginald Dwayne Betts fan.

***

EVERY MOURNING

Morning: walking my neighborhood, I come upon a colony
of ants busy at work. I take care not to step on any and miss

them all, then encounter up a ways a fellow traveler greeting
the day. I am frightening her. No. She is afraid of me.

Is she an introvert? Is she a neighbor? Is she just in from the ’burbs,
from the country? Is she scared of the inner city? Am I the inner city?

Is she racist? Shouldn’t I be the wary one? Or is she a survivor
like me?
It can’t be what I’m wearing: khakis, a blue and white

checkered button-down shirt, and the nylon sandals I favor
because they’re comfortable, my feet can breathe in them.

Dear friends, I am the nicest man on earth.

And I want to shout, Morning! But just then a weaver or
carpenter, just then a pharaoh or fire or pavement, just

then a little black ant struggles by alone, alone. And
in that moment, I want us to give ourselves over

to industry, carry the weight of the day together, lighten
it. I want to be a part of a colony where I feel easy

walking around. Cool as the goddamn breeze. Where
I can breathe, build structures sturdier and grander

than this—but the woman crosses to the other side
of the street, and I do what I usually do: retreat into

myself as far as I can, then send out whatever’s left.

From Worldly Things by Michael Kleber-Diggs (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2021). Copyright © 2021 by Michael Kleber-Diggs. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions. milkweed.org