Michael Kleber-Diggs is a poet, essayist, and literary critic. His debut poetry collection, Worldly Things, won the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize and is available through Milkweed Editions. Among other places, Michael’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Great River Review, Water~Stone Review, Poem-a-Day, Poetry Daily, Poetry Northwest, Potomac Review, Hunger Mountain, Memorious, and a few anthologies.
Lisa Higgs: To begin, I’ll just ask about how you have been doing over the past year, and then some. How have you navigated these unsettling times? Have you noticed changes to your writing and the way you approach and make your work?
Michael Kleber-Diggs: It was a difficult year for so many people, and the Twin Cities, where I live, had a difficult year as a community. The pandemic, the murders of George Floyd and Daunte Wright, a lot of people here fighting for environmental justice against an oil pipeline disproportionately impacting tribal nations. Even as I was affected emotionally and physically by all those things, I felt fortunate in many ways. No one I love died in the pandemic. As a family, we avoided financial difficulty. We supported each other and got ourselves through it. I have this tendency to not realize how huge things affect me until I start getting past them. I had a surprising and good cleansing cry after I got my first vaccine shot, right there in the 15-minute waiting area.
Over the past year I’ve written more. I’ve written about nature more. I’ve emphasized play and wandering at my writing desk. I’ve tried to write without thinking about a particular outcome like a finished poem or publication.
LH: Worldly Things is your debut collection, and winner of the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize from Milkweed Press. The collection is imbued with a deep sense of familial love alongside familial and community loss, where your father and grandfather, mother and grandmother have hints of the mythic about them. How did you approach writing your family for this collection, and to what end? Do any of these figures serve as touchstones, as symbols, to you within or without Worldly Things?
MKD: With one exception, there wasn’t a point where I thought ‘I’m going to write about my family or people in my family.’ The poems were inspired by memories, and those memories led to poems about the people in my family. The one exception I can think of is “Ode to My Mother’s Face,” which resulted from an intentional effort to write about my mother instead of writing about my father.
Your question about touchstones and symbols is a difficult one. First, in the book, I’d allow that’s possible for readers. In the poem “In Convenience,” my grandmother can symbolize lots of things—industry, resourcefulness, economy, love. As experienced by readers, all of my family members can be touchstones. For me, the answer is no. I have this idea that people don’t exist to teach me a lesson. People don’t go through particular challenges or situations for my benefit—even though it’s possible for me to learn from my parents and grandparents. For me, they’re all people, and my connection to them is based in experiences and emotions. That in-real-life engagement is so big for me it obscures everything else. What they’re doing makes me think of other things, but they don’t. Even after the writing and the reading, I still see them only as people I love.
LH: Worldly Things is broken into three sections, in which you explore many different iterations of mortality and immortality. The loss of your father, a dentist who was shot and killed in his office while you were still young, morphs into the loss of Black men and women shot and killed by police officers in America. That violence morphs into a type of loss that settles over everything else, as you describe in “Structural Fatigue”:
Here’s the deal: structural fatigue
eventually causes breakdowns. I am 50
and chaos. My whole body groans.
Yet despite all, Worldly Things sees ways that better worlds might be built. What provides you with enough light to keep reaching for hope and connection?
MKD: Thank you for seeing the book in this way and making those connections. I have come to believe that over time, primarily in response to my father’s sudden death, I’ve cultivated this ability to be hopeful. I feel I’ve needed that as a survival skill. I don’t recall ever being overwhelmed by despair, but I have a kind of medicinal relationship to things that are beautiful or grand. Beautiful things humans make and do are one way I access the divine. They also exist for me as a counterargument to things that are ugly or violent. People can be amazing; people can be awful. I want to be candid about both. In both cases I’m describing what we’re capable of doing. One way advances suffering; the other advances community.
LH: Moments where your poems express love and hope provide handholds for readers as they navigate the central section of your book, which includes searing poems that address the violent deaths of Freddie Gray, George Floyd, and other people of color through police action in America. This section opens with “Coniferous Fathers,” which feels like a prayer, or maybe a plea:
Let’s fashion gentle fathers, expressive—holding us
how we wanted to be held before we could ask
fathers raising us in their shade, fathers soft enough
to bend—fathers who love us like their fathers
It ends with “America is Loving Me to Death,” a golden shovel poem using the pledge of allegiance to address both god and a female America:
…I hear the enduring republic,
Erect and proud, asking through ravenous teeth, Who do you riot for?
Tamir? Sandra? Medgar? George? Breonna? Elijah? Philando? Eric? Which
One? Like it can’t be all of them.
Poets have long served as witnesses to and recorders of humanity’s inhumanity. How important is it for you to pick up this mantle? Do you retain a sense that poetry can reach humanity’s promise?
MKD: This is also organic. By way of explanation, most of the poems in “Worldly Things” were written before I gave a moment’s thought to a poetry book. I have these issues and ideas that I care about a great deal. Not once did I arrive at my writing desk thinking of anything other than the image or idea that called me there. Over time, I’ve noticed I tend to gravitate toward two themes: community and intimacy. Only later, as I thought about how the individual poems could work together toward a book that might be published, did I think of myself as a witness or recorder. Even now, I mainly feel called toward the captivating thing—it might be state violence or it might be a bird I saw while walking around. As for poetry as a way to reach humanity’s promise, mark me down for ‘yes and.’ Poetry has the capacity to present moments and images in new and revealing ways. In poetry we can imagine different and better. I see poetry as one way and not the way. To have a just world, we need poetry and art in general, protesters, policy advocates, organizers, lobbyists, elected officials, and lots of other workers and skills.
LH: Worldly Things is generational in knowledge and experience, where grandparents’ daily lives contain small violences—killing and dressing a chicken for dinner in “In Convenience” and electrocuting caught catfish to take home in “Prestidigitation”—while another generation becomes used to bodegas and mini-marts, freezers and recycling bins, and your daughter’s middle school showcased how:
Americans are here, first generation and seventh generation and Indigenous. Black and white, Asian—every race and ethnicity—they are all here…Each of them and all of them. Here with their dreams and desires, their dramas and disturbances. Some flowers blossoming in radiant display, some seeds wanting water and fertile soil. But here.
What, if anything, do you want your daughter, and others now in high school or college, to glean from the generational knowledge detailed in your poems?
MKD: My daughter is 19, and she’s reading the book, which means a lot to me. I think I hoped that she would read it someday, even as I suspected that day would be relatively soon. As I was preparing the book, I spent some time reflecting on my motivation for having a book published. My obsessions at the time were all connected to mid-life and mortality. I realized I wanted some proof that I existed—evidence of my time here, that kind of thing. I always hope readers of any age will take from the poems things that are useful to them. I recognize there’s value in acquired wisdom—the things I’ve come to understand in my 53 years. I also believe and maybe even hope that high school and college readers will bring their wisdom forward too. Take any ideas I have further than I could take them by myself.
LH: I always ask poets who write narratively in the first person about how closely the “I” of their poems is tied to themselves as poets. Now seems a good time to ask for such clarification. Is your first-person narrator close to you personally, or have you created distance between the “I” of the poem and the “I” of you, the poet?
MKD: Oh, it’s me. I’m narrative and confessional, and my poems are semi-autobiographical. That said, one of the things I like about poetry is that a collection of poems can engage fiction and nonfiction in pursuit of truth. So, in this book, my father was killed. My grandfather took my brother and me fishing, but I did not water my neighbor’s flowers in the middle of night. I would not do something like that. I don’t shout things at strangers who are walking down the street, and I completely made up the scene with the therapist. What’s real in those poems are the feelings I hope to evoke.
LH: I’m also thinking about how Worldly Things expresses common indignities that you have experienced as a Black man, and how that, too, is generational. For instance, in “Superman and My Brother, Spiderman and Me,” you feel compelled to tell your readers you don’t want them to think your dad “had it coming.” Or how, in “Fixtures,” you run a red light on your way to work every morning, despite knowing that act could be dangerous for a person of color. Or how, in your heart-rending final poem, “Every Mourning,” you watch a woman cross to the other side of the street as you walk around your neighborhood and “retreat into / myself as far as I can, then send out whatever’s left.” And yet the tone of many poems in this collection remains gentle and outward-looking, at times with a sly humor. How were you able to balance the tone of Worldly Things between the heartbreaking and the heart-affirming?
MKD: As I see it, the world is both. This, too, is a cultivated skill. The acquisition of this skill was also organic. As I look back on it, seeing the world in this way took me a long time. I need humor and gentleness. I try to be empathetic and practice grace, even as this country and this world often leave me feeling impatient and exhausted. To the extent I can avoid it, I’m not going to let other people’s struggles call me away from who I want to be. I fall short plenty, but that’s the effort for me—to practice grace and empathy. I also want to be honest. I want to point right at the broken thing and the affirming thing. I want to write about both.
LH: This gentleness also comes out in poems written to or about the women in your family, from the tender “Ode to My Mother’s Face,” to poems featuring your wife, including “Confluence” and “Embouchure,” and of course the times when you are in conversation with your daughter or reflecting on how she navigates the world. What do you think these women’s presence brings to your collection, or what would be missing if these women were not a part of your collection?
MKD: There would be no book without the women to whom the book is dedicated. There wouldn’t even be a poet. Worldly Things is dedicated to my mother, my wife, my daughter, my mentor, Juliet Patterson, and my brother, Martin. I was mostly raised by my mother, Lequetta Diggs. I did not appreciate her strength and wisdom, love and care until much later in life. I deeply admire and try to emulate what I’ve learned mostly from the women in my life, my grandmother Grace Glass among them. I don’t want to define their strength, wisdom, and love as maternal or feminine or suggest it’s based in biology. I do want to acknowledge that I see this strength and wisdom and the kind of love, patience, and gentleness I want to practice more often from women than men.
LH: You employ a number of different forms in Worldly Things, including couplets, a golden shovel, an ode, an erasure, ars poetica, and more. What draws you to write across so many forms—from free verse to prose poem? Do you have a favorite form, even if you don’t tend to write in that form much yourself?
MKD: Perhaps it originates from occasional shyness about my fondness for narrative. I see form as a way to add energy and complexity. Early on I wrote in form thinking it would help make my stories seem like poems. Like many writers, I think my creativity blossoms in the kinds of constraints form presents. I love a well-made villanelle, although I’ve yet to write one well myself. I also love contrapuntals like the ones I have in Worldly Things—“Seismic Activities” and “Dormancy.”
LH: As you are writing, do you choose a poem’s form mostly in your first drafting, or does the form come out more in revision? Did you find the form of any poems changing to better meet a need in your collection?
MKD: It’s both. The idea to write in form usually comes before I begin writing. Especially with contrapuntals, how the story is told is so connected to the story itself—‘I’m going to play these two ideas off each other.’ I can’t think of a poem in Worldly Things where the idea to set it in a form came later. “Here All Alone” is a bop, and I knew before I started writing that it would be a bop. At the moment, I’m working on a poem about our family farm. It’s a long prose poem about how my Black ancestors ended up owning land that belonged to the Cheyenne nation—the white violence that led to us getting our farm. The poem returns to the same words over and over. An early reader suggested it could be a sestina, and that’s the effort now.
LH: You have an education in political science and law, and you spent some time working in corporate America—not, perhaps, the typical background for the many poets with MFAs and PhDs. What brought you to poetry, and do you have any advice or encouragement for others who are writing without immediate access to professors who can offer advice on grants, publication, and other opportunities?
MKD: I’ve been a writer since fourth grade. I’ve pretty much always been working on some unassigned writing project. For years and years, I wrote short stories. I came to poetry late, and once I fell in love with it, it was what I wanted to do when I had time. Over time, I started wanting my career to be spent doing the thing I love most. Getting an MFA is difficult and expensive. Writing full time for a living is not easy at all. Making a living as a writer is not easy. So many people aren’t able to do things—largely because of the investment required up front—the money and time. For many years, that was true for me as well. To others who are in the same situation—writing outside the academy, working a full-time job not connected to writing, being involved in family life and writing in the margins of the day, I have three pieces of advice: keep writing, attend workshops and other learning opportunities when you can (like being part of a writing group), and carry a journal with you everywhere you go. A little bit of time can allow a lot.
LH: Currently, you are an instructor for the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. What drew you to this work? Have you made any discoveries about the craft of poetry by working with students who may not have had much of an introduction to the form before? What discoveries have you made about people who have no experience with incarceration?
MKD: I wanted to be helpful. I heard about the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, and I wanted to be part of it. I have learned so many things from our students. I’ll share two of them. First, it’s okay to go into the difficult room and dwell in and confront difficult memories. You can survive this. Being ready to do that work is critical, but once you are, you can do it. Second, time on task promotes growth. A lot of our students write a lot—they write more than I do. Over the years, I’ve seen how that effort helps writers inhabit their voice and make the kind of work they want to make.
LH: You are also an essayist. In “Field Note: Those Aren’t Pine Siskins They’re House Sparrows,” a recently published essay in Poetry Northwest, you note that you missed, or hadn’t noticed, many things while going about life before the pandemic. You especially seem interested in the connection between humans and nature, something that also comes out in recurring images of birds and trees in Worldly Things. What, if anything, goes wrong when humans miss these connections? Do you think people will, in general, be happy and ready to go back to “normal” life and forget how much more they’ve seen when the world slowed down?
MKD: I’ll speak for myself here. I want to keep what was good in the before-times and keep what I learned during the pandemic. Before COVID-19 slowed me down, I was so busy. I had entire months of the year when I left my house in the dark of morning and returned in the dark of evening. Last March, my neighborhood became almost my entire world. We have two dogs, and I walked them several times a day. On those walks, I came to know my neighborhood more profoundly in a few months than I knew it in the preceding decade. For me, shifting my focus shifted my perspective. There are a million poems in my small city yard. I think I’ll always write about my family and a just world and things like that, and I think I’ll also write about the birds and squirrels and flowers in my yard too—probably as metaphors for community and intimacy but maybe as the things themselves.