Michael Kleber-Diggs Q&A

June 21, 2021
MIchael Kleber-Diggs writes poetry with clarity and humanity.

“In my writing, I tend to look to form, structure, and subtle gestures toward sound and, within that meter, to add layers of interest. I always hope the decisions I’ve made in making the poem, the subtler elements of the poem, will become evident to readers later. But if I’m writing in praise of ecumenicism or lamenting a life lost to state violence, I want what I’m saying to be abundantly clear.”

Your poetry has a clarity that reminds me of Claudia Rankine. Neither one of you seem interested in opacity. Has that always been your style?

That’s high praise. I admire Claudia Rankine a great deal. For the most part, I’ve favored clarity over opacity. I’m writing often with a mission to promote a particular idea or way of seeing a familiar thing in a new way. As a poetry reader, I read widely. I admire more lyrical poets and poets who advance complexity and opacity. Sometimes I wish that were my more natural orientation. As I see it, the themes I gravitate toward so far — race, community, intimacy — call for clarity. In my writing, I tend to look to form, structure, and subtle gestures toward sound and, within that meter, to add layers of interest. I always hope the decisions I’ve made in making the poem, the subtler elements of the poem,  will become evident to readers later. But if I’m writing in praise of ecumenicism or lamenting a life lost to state violence, I want what I’m saying to be abundantly clear.

You deal with tragedy in “Worldly Things,” including the murder of your father and the death of George Floyd, yet your work is infused with hope. How did you learn to value both in your writing?

I think both are in my nature. Losing my father suddenly when I was eight affected me in a lot of ways — some positive, some negative. Both inform my writing. Intimacy is one of the things I work on in my personal life. I’m a real work in progress on that. For many years, I held people close enough to allow us to be in a relationship — as friends or lovers — but not so close that their sudden disappearance would devastate me. Real closeness, real vulnerability were elusive for me. I work against those impulses and try to be as close to my friends and loved ones as I can be. That desire for intimacy, candor, and closeness informs my honest examinations of life and my lived experiences in my writing. The optimism is a blessing that I believe arose from the same tragedy. When my father died, I think I cultivated the ability to be hopeful and to do things like appreciate beauty and awe. Those skills became essential for my well-being. I need them in the same way all the time today. Last summer, during the pandemic, with the killing of George Floyd and the uprising that followed, I grieved a lot. I also stopped to witness beautiful things. I remained captivated by loveliness. That stopping, that captivation, I needed those things to make my grief bearable.

You’re also a prominent essayist. When you start a piece of writing, do you know if it’s destined to be an essay or poem? 

Prominent is kind, maybe even a little aspirational. Thank you. Instinct is a huge part of it for me. It’s kind of like the decision to set a poem in couplets or tercets. I often have a reason for whatever stanza scheme I embrace, but it can be difficult to articulate sometimes. Often the answer is something like it just felt right. With poem versus essay, it often gets down to size. I tend to resort to essay for things that are general or larger — topics I want to spend more time with and elaborate on. I favor poems for things that are specific and don’t necessarily require prose elaboration. I like to suggest in poetry and encourage the reader to take it from there.

You spent many years as a practicing attorney. How has your legal education influenced your poetry? 

I think so, yes. For a few years I worked with contracts, and in contracts, specificity is critical, syntax is critical. These same tools are foundational in poetry. Control around the precise thing you’re trying to convey is crucial. So much of what I share with students is about what I call poetic efficiency and about syntax — “you can get there faster” or “you’re not saying what you’re trying to say.” Law school and many aspects of legal practice helped me hone these skills. One other thing. One poem in my book, “Man Dies After Coma,” was inspired by my work negotiating contracts. In that poem, as in contract negotiations, plain text represents the original or proposed contract, strikethroughs represent terms that are not acceptable, and bold type represents proposed alternative language. That’s very much a lawyer/law school poem.

You have said that at the moment what propels your writing is activism, yet you also encourage artists to make the art that they are called to do. Is it hard to not judge your first instinct? 

It is hard. Absolutely. I also think many of us start writing by emulating writers we admire. Often that’s about language, but it’s also about ideas. Over time, those writers, myself among them, begin to find their own voice and, perhaps, their own prominent or primary themes. Behind my argument is a case I make for authenticity. Whatever we’re making we have to be passionate about it, or it does not work. As for outcomes. Also yes. It’s difficult not to think about outcomes. I have a poem called “Grinding Down to Prayer” about the killing of George Floyd. I was invited to contribute a poem to an anthology of Black Minnesota poets responding to that extra-judicial killing. I hadn’t planned to write a poem. I have poems about George Floyd, and Freddie Gray, and one poem, “America Is Loving Me to Death” where I list several victims of state violence. The ultimate goal of such work is to end the violence. I don’t think poems alone can do that. They are part of many kinds of efforts to achieve the desired end. If I thought of the poem as the only thing, I would soon turn away from poetry and consider more direct action. Here’s what motivates me: I find real value in the power of the written word to remind us of our humanity, and writing is not the only thing I do to promote the world I want. It’s one of the things. It might even be my main thing, but it isn’t the only thing.

You teach with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. How do you work with inmates on accessing memories?

When I first started teaching in prisons, I told myself I would not have any assignments that would remind my students they’re in prison. It took me no time at all to realize that was absurd, just shy of impossible. My students write about what they want to write about, and my job is to encourage their exploration. Now, when I think of where my students are, I tend to think of it in terms of what it prevents us from doing – going outside, making photocopies, sending emails, things like that. I tend to base lessons and exercises around concepts we’re working on but also with consideration for the limitations we’ll face in the classroom. Beyond that, if we’re working on meter, the lesson will promote meter. When it comes to what my students write about, I feel my role is to create a classroom and a level of trust where they feel able to explore whatever topics arise for them in the course of working on the exercise. In my experience, students often write about difficult moments and traumatic experiences. They also write about flowers, or their first kiss, a beloved pet, or their favorite car. When it comes to the difficult thing, they often are prepared to do that work. I have had a few students talk with me about the challenges of writing about difficult moments. I tend to share the same ideas others shared with me. It’s OK to wait until you’re ready. I share that I wrote for years without writing about my father then reached a point where that loss appeared in a poem I thought was about something else. At that point, not writing about my father seemed impossible. I was able to follow the pen where it led me, and that ended up being how I knew I was ready to write about my biggest tragedy.

Were you familiar with Max Ritvo’s work before you won the prize named for him?

I was familiar with Max Ritvo’s “The Four Reincarnations” before I’d even heard of the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize. I thought it was vibrant and provocative and exceptional. I still return to it from time to time. Since winning the prize, I’ve been able to share a few conversations with Max’s mother, Ari Ritvo Slifka. Winning the prize and getting to know Ms. Ritvo Slifka helps me feel closer to Max and his work.

You once had dinner with Maya Angelou when you were 14. What was that like?

I don’t remember a great deal about it, but I do remember her voice. I remember that she was extremely down to earth and gregarious. She was witty and funny. I did not have an appreciation for who she was when we went to meet with her. I was a 14-year-old punk. I knew she’d written a book. I knew it was a book that we owned and that my mom loved and that was about all. She left an impression, however. She was tall and commanded a room even as she made space for others and conveyed a genuine interest in what everyone was doing and saying. I remember thinking she was very, very cool.

What’s next for you?

After I sent in the final edits for Worldly Things, I found myself thinking “this project is done, what’s our next project?” I wondered about that for a while, then it occurred to me that I don’t have to think about it that way. If a project arises organically, I’ll embrace it. For now, my plan is to keep writing poems based on things that captivate me as I experience my days. I’ll keep writing essays when I find myself wanting to explore a topic. I’ve been thinking about an essay on lap swimming — being Black in what is, where I live, an almost exclusively white space, being big in a place where people are often smaller than I am, sharing a lane — real closeness — with people who might not want to be in that space with me, pushing past all that to keep on swimming.

Photo by Ayanna Muata