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Master bread baker and poet Klecko: ‘Nobody’s imagination is as interesting as my life’

On Wednesday, Sept. 15, at the University Club in St. Paul, the award-winning author of “Hitman-Baker-Casketmaker” will read from his latest, “Lincolnland,” and drop a brand-new book with his former mug shot on the cover.

In January 2018, St. Agnes Bakery, a 30-year-old wholesale bakery in St. Paul, was looking at its best year ever. Not only did St. Agnes supply restaurants and groceries in the Twin Cities, it also made buns for vendors at U.S. Bank Stadium, which was about to host Super Bowl LII.

Klecko
Courtesy of Klecko
Klecko
Then an ICE audit found that half of St. Agnes’ employees weren’t authorized to work in the United States. Game over. St. Agnes closed permanently, the equipment was sold and the employees, mostly Mexican, went their separate ways.

Master Bread Baker Dan McGleno, known as Klecko, was St. Agnes’ CEO. In March 2019, his first book of poetry, “Hitman-Baker-Casketmaker,” came out from Paris Morning Publications in St. Paul. Like most poetry collections, it’s about a lot of things: family, relationships, growing up, baseball. At its heart are 16 poems about St. Agnes, ICE and what happened after the audit. It drew national attention and won the 2020 Midwest Book Award for poetry from Midwest Independent Publishers Association.

Klecko’s second book of poetry, “Lincolnland,” was published in April of this year. Its heart is Klecko’s search for Abraham Lincoln, which was sparked by a dream and took place during a pandemic, mostly on weekends. During the weeks, he worked at Grandma’s Bakery in White Bear Lake.

Klecko’s poems capture scenes, tell stories and relate conversations or correspondence. He writes with sincerity, playfulness, honesty and economy. The language is clear and direct. He doesn’t bother with punctuation, figures of speech or forms. The poems have their own internal cadence.

On Wednesday, Sept. 15, Klecko will host a “Lincolnland All-Star Review” at the University Club of St. Paul. Guests will include New York Times bestselling author Leif Enger (“Virgil Wander,” “Peace Like a River”), with whom Klecko flies kites in Duluth. The program includes a surprise for Enger that Klecko is tickled about.

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We spoke by phone earlier this week. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

MinnPost: How did a baker become a poet, and why?

Klecko: I’ve spent over 40 years locked away from the world. The majority has been odd shifts. A lot of it was me in front of an oven, baking loaves of bread. I would write poems and songs and jot them down in notebooks, with no intention to take them anywhere.

I started doing events in the bakery. I would invite people in and we’d make pizza in our house ovens, and I would bring in different poets to read poems. That’s kind of how the whole thing started.

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MP: Was there a particular poet you read who made you think “I want to do that”?

K: Early on, I discovered Robert Bly. I still strive to be him. One of the biggest thrills of my life was for Thomas R. Smith to close “Lincolnland.” Thomas has been Bly’s private secretary for over 30 years. During the making of “Lincolnland,” I’ve gotten to be very intimate with Thomas, and I’m just so fortunate for that.

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MP: You once said “The advantage I have over most MFA writers is I work in a kitchen.” Talk more about that.

K: An MFA author has an education. I have a baking education. I left high school, and then I went and got a GED. After I got my GED, I went to Dunwoody to their baking program.

Oftentimes, if you’re a writer, you wake up and go into an office and sit down and write things. I have a different approach. In addition to working in bakeries, I’ve literally been in 95% of the kitchens in the Twin Cities, stadiums, event centers, whatever. I’ve been involved in conversations with people from every group that lives in Minnesota.

If you’re observant and you keep your mouth shut and you take notice, that’s kind of my writing style. When things strike me, I make mental bullet points, and when I get in my car, I’ll write down the bullet points. A day or two later, I’ll tie them together.

If you want to write something that moves, you can’t sit between four walls and produce it. Nobody’s imagination is as interesting as my life, I guarantee it.

The MFAs often link arms and squeeze out the blue-collar poets. I get it. But it’s all the more reason I’ve busted my ass for the last 10 years putting together shows. I’ve put together probably as many shows if not more than anybody in the Twin Cities. I’ve done them everywhere from the University Club to the Turf Club. I’m doing my best to bring people in and give them opportunity.

MP: Do all of your poems begin as bullet points?

K: Everything I do starts off as bullet points. I am very much a minimalist. [Another] difference between me and other educated writers, respectfully, is you’ll never hear me call myself a writer. I’m a baker who writes, and there’s a huge difference.

My life has been hospitality. My life has not been giving people what Klecko wants. Klecko gives people what people want. Nobody in this current age wants an 800-page book. Nobody wants lengthy dialogue or over-wordy narrative. They want it to be short, tight and quick. That’s why I tried to make sure every page has a beginning and an ending, and I probably put half the words on a page that most writers do. But at the same time, it’s very important to me that those limited words say quite a bit.

MP: Why Lincoln?

K: I go against every rule in writing which says you should never write about or discuss your dreams, but I did have a dream. And it seemed so real. When I woke up, I just kind of laughed and said, “Shit, I’m doing it!”

It’s easier to understand with the background. I lost everything [when St. Agnes closed]. I lost my business. I lost my crew. I lost my pipeline to financial success. All that was wiped out, and I was pretty pissed.

When I had that dream, I thought, “Why not? I got nothing else to lose.” Lincoln is one of my favorite people in terms of making change in the world, so I went with it. It gave me something to focus on. I think the book shows how interesting your life can be if you follow some sort of vision. But let the vision guide you instead of trying to manipulate it.

[Note: In Klecko’s dream, described very early in “Lincolnland,” Abraham Lincoln hops in Klecko’s car and says “I followed your story … Come out to D.C., I’m easy to find.”]

MP: In writing “Lincolnland,” you turned for advice to George Saunders, Leif Enger, Jonathan Franzen and the Icelandic poet Sjón. Who gave you the best advice?

K: George Saunders, without a doubt. Without Saunders, “Lincolnland” isn’t nearly as tight. I bet I threw away 150 pages just from the things he told me.

At one point, I said to him “You are arguably the #1 writer in America. How do I make my Lincoln book better than yours?” We were on the phone. I wasn’t even trying to be a smartass. I was dead serious. When you meet people who are great at what they do, nobody steals more than I do. I will take every bit. I will glean them for greatness as fast as I can. And so I said that to him.

At first, he laughed. You know, like a joke. And then he said, “The best book about Lincoln is the book that very seldom has Lincoln in it. This has to be a book about you. Once you understand that, you’ll have to handle it with the same intuition as someone who climbs mountains or knows how to hit the curveball.”

That changed the whole direction of the book.

After speaking with Saunders, it occurred to me that I wasn’t writing poems, I was writing microstories. So I had that word in my head — microstories.

[Note: Saunders is the author of “Lincoln in the Bardo,” which won the 2017 Man Booker Prize.]

MP: You lost two close friends during the pandemic, the poet Mike Finley and Carol Connolly, the poet laureate of St. Paul. How did those losses affect you?

K: Oh, they devastated me. I’m pretty much an isolated person in the first place. I’m a man of 10,000 acquaintances and very, very few friends. Mike Finley I talked to on the phone every day for 30 years, so when he died, I had no one to bounce my ideas off of. The guy created me and carried me.

Only 100 copies of “3 a.m. Austin Texas” will be available on Wednesday at the University Club.
Only 100 copies of “3 a.m. Austin Texas” will be available on Wednesday at the University Club.
Finley taught me through encouragement. He showed me all the things I was doing right. Carol very seldom gave compliments. She showed me everything I was doing wrong. It’s so important to have both of those.

As much as Finley was my best friend I’ve ever had in my life, Connolly loved me more than anyone, from the first day she met me. It’s really hard to describe, but we had a closeness I’ve never had with anyone. I always referred to her as the Duchess.

I sold my house because the Duchess told me that I would never make it. My writing would never be as popular as my baking until I moved to Summit Avenue. I said “Qualify that remark.” She said “Think about Fitzgerald, Keillor and Sinclair Lewis. They all lived on Summit.”

She was basically saying there’s nothing magic about Summit Avenue, but you have to be in a place of visibility, in the nexus of where it happens. So I moved into the mansion catty-corner from [where Fitzgerald wrote his first novel]. Right now, I can look out my window and see his place. I committed myself to writing, and within a year after making the move I won a Midwest Book Award. Is it coincidence? I dunno, but at the same time, if you want something, there’s prices that have to be paid and you really have to bust your ass.

MP: You’ll be releasing a new book on Wednesday at the University Club. Can you give us a few words about that?

K: The cover is a mug shot from when I was a young man. I got involved in some things I probably shouldn’t have. I was advised to pack a duffel and hit the road. I spent an entire winter traveling between Minnesota and Corpus Christi. The book is very Kerouac, very Beat, but a little fresher, a little cleaner.

MP: You’re working on a book now about F. Scott Fitzgerald.

K: I’ve become obsessed with Fitzgerald. I’m doing for Fitzgerald what I did for Lincoln. The title is “The Dead Fitzgeralds.” It’s a book about a baker and a duchess.

I’m also setting up a program called “Fitzgerald in the New Millennium,” because Fitzgerald is the greatest writer, in my opinion, and I can see how he’s going to fade away, how his work is going to fade away [unless] we bring his narrative into this new millennium. Right now there’s Queer Gatsby, Black Gatsby, all these different versions. Some people think it’s blasphemy. I think it’s beautiful. All things will be Fitzgerald in the next few years.

Did you know that Montgomery, Alabama, has an F. Scott Fitzgerald Museum, and we have nothing like that in Minnesota? It’s embarrassing. Don’t you think we should have a museum? I would like it. This is his birthplace. This is his home.

***

Along with Leif Enger, guests at Wednesday’s “Lincolnland All-Star Review” will include John “Caveman” Knowles and “a banjo full of Beatles”; Tim Nolan, poet, lawyer and host of the Readings by Writers at the University Club series, which will return on Tuesday, Sept. 21; Mary Ann Grossmann, books critic for the Pioneer Press; Clarence White, poet, associate director of the Eastside Freedom Library and writer at the Saint Paul Almanac; guitarist Scott Denno; and Thomas R. Smith, poet, essayist and amanuensis to the poet Robert Bly. The event starts at 7 p.m. and it’s free.