Lit Chat: Meet Michael Kleber-Diggs
Michael Kleber-Diggs is a poet and essayist. He is a past Fellow with the Givens Foundation for African American Literature and a 2015-2016 Loft Mentor Series Fellow. His poems have appeared in or on Water~Stone Review, Paper Darts, coffee sleeves in local independent coffee shops, and Twin Cities light rail trains and buses. He writes literary criticism for the Star Tribune and is a contributor for the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He is a teacher for the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop and authors a blog on his website covering a wide range of topics from parenting to politics: https://michaelkleberdiggs.com/
Sun Yung Shin: Michael, what do you love about writing and being a writer? Also, what don’t you like so much about it, or what about writing or contemporary literary culture/s makes you uncomfortable or conflicted, if anything?
Michael Kleber-Diggs: The writing act itself is compelling to me. Something happens in my amygdala when I work to express an idea on paper. This reaction is most vivid for me in poetry. Poetry requires so much from me, but I feel it also in essays and during the occasional dalliance with fiction. I love sending ideas out into the world unaware of who they’ll reach or how. I’m fascinated by awareness of how unaware we are of how we impact other people. Writing allows knowledge of that lack of awareness. Recently, a shy neighbor, with whom I share no social media connection at all, stopped me to say he loved a poem I’d written that was part of an art installation in Bloomington. I could not have imagined myself in conversation with him, and I was—twice. Writing did that.
To the extent I’m unhappy with writing, my unhappiness it not unique to writing and exists in all of art. That unhappiness stems from art’s tendency to accept corrupting human weaknesses like they’re a given. I go on hoping art will embrace its rebel nature and reject the shortcomings inherent to all human institutions—things like bias, competitiveness, selfishness, the corrupting influence of money, hierarchy, exclusiveness, elitism, and scarcity-thinking.
SYS: You are a poet and an essayist. Is fiction a secret love or future venture? Why or why not?
MKD: I have this recurring dream wherein I write a Gone-Girl type book, sell the movie rights, bank the cash in some kind of income-producing investment, and live out the rest of my days as a super-serious poet making only the keenest art. I’d do it, but, for some reason, I can’t shake the idea that it’s not that easy.
I read fiction more than anything else. Most of what I write is based in story. I’m obsessed with narrative and story structure. This can make me a shy poet at times. I sometimes wish I were more lyrical than I am. I started writing short stories when I was in fourth grade. When I was in college, I wrote short stories for fun and sent them to friends in the actual U.S. mail using stamps and fossil fuels and whatnot. Today, when I think of a story I want to tell, it almost always first appears as a poem. I like essay as a way to have a dialogue or as a form of argumentation. I write at least one short story a year. Ultimately, I hope to imagine myself as a writer, a generalist, if not equally adept in all the forms, at least equally likely to deploy them in service to a particular idea.
SYS: How did you get involved in the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop as a teacher? How has that journey and work affected your own writing or sense of literature/s, if at all?
MKD: The short answer is I applied at a time when the organization was making a conscious effort to recruit people of color. I’m glad I encountered them when I did.
As answer to your second question, to me, an essential component of self-actualization is surviving trauma. The fortunate among us have only a little to manage, some of us have a lot. My own life has not been without adversity. I have been injured; I have injured. All of my students are surviving trauma too.
I learn a lot from my students. I admire them as writers and in general. Among the things I observed when I first started teaching creative writing in correctional facilities was how courageous my students are—how willing they are to go right at their difficult things. Reading their work and being in their presence has affected me profoundly as a writer and as a person. With their example, I feel better able to accost my own adversity—to go right at it.
I’ve learned a lot about writing for the sake of writing.
I also want to see myself as an advocate for expansiveness in creativity. All created things should move forward. Here’s what I mean. First, more voices should have a platform. But also this—at the heart of creation is labor, effort. Even artists who are extraordinarily gifted, people we might argue are born great, even they work to attain their voice. In my first class for each course, I like to tear down notions of good or bad and invite my students to think in terms of where we are in our individual development as writers. Some of us have been on task for a long time and are well on our way, and some of us are just getting started. In this way, thinking in these terms, being among writers who are further along than I am and writers who are just beginning, all of these things expand my sense of literature and its transformative power. I feel better able to love the creator for their industry and for what their effort allows or promises for them and for art overall.
SYS: What have you read lately that you’ve really liked? What’s on your writing shelf that you’re excited to read? Any recommendations to share?
MKD: Oh goodness. I’m about to reveal a guilty pleasure here. I’m in the early stages of a pretty intense fascination with the Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø. Earlier, when I talked about my fascination with story structure, I was thinking about him.
In my own writing I’m obsessed with structure and idea. I don’t often dazzle on the level of language. In part, for this reason, I’ve been blown away by Jorie Graham’s gigantic Fast and its ability to maintain spectacular altitude line after line, poem after poem, throughout the collection.
I’m working on a book of poems about my father’s death. As part of my preparation for that effort, I’ve revisited Natasha Tretheway’s Thrall, Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars, and Matt Rassmussen’s Black Aperture. Deeper readings of all three have revealed more of their magic to me, and I loved them so much on my initial readings that I hardly thought that was possible. All three are enduring favorites.
I’m excited to read Heid Erdrich’s Creator of Ephemera at the New Museum of Archaic Media. Whenever I encounter her work, I’m enchanted by its creativity and musicality. I’m also starting Masha Gessen’s The Future Is History.
SYS: How do you balance having a job and being a parent? How did becoming a father impact your path as a writer? What struggles do you have in terms of your roles and responsibilities? (No one ever asks men writers these questions, so I am.)
MKD: Well, my sweet angel is 16 now, and my answer to that question would be different at various points in her life. When she was very young, I pretty much stopped writing. Between full-time work and being with her, there wasn’t much time for anything else. As she grew older and pursued her own interests, I found myself writing a bit more. Today, she’s pretty self-sufficient, but here’s what challenges me—I really want to be present for her, especially as she prepares to leave the nest. I want to be an active and engaged part of her life. I have a full-time job I enjoy. I teach on top of that, and I consider my own writing projects part vocation, part avocation—so it can seem like I have three jobs sometimes. I also want to be a good husband, present and attentive—I don’t succeed there as often as I’d like. Doing all those things—and trying not to be an inattentive son or lazy friend—can often feel like I do too many things, none of them as well as I might with fewer things to do. I require and have a lot of help managing my life. I benefit from generous support and encouragement. I’m fortunate; people extend me a lot of grace.
One other thing. My daughter is an artist too. She is, in fact, a more natural artist than I am. My brain is 63% logic and reason—I did the math. Being her father has impacted my path as a writer and artist through osmosis. I often find myself learning from her example. Through her I’ve learned an openness that allows me to love my artistic obsessions and my particular aesthetic more than I might otherwise.
SYS: Is there something you’d love to see in the Twin Cities literary community that hasn’t happened or manifested yet? Is there something you need or would want people to know about you as a writer, or what you consider your writing community/genres, that are misunderstood or not understood?
MKD: Last winter I participated in a Twin Cities VONA (Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundations) weekend, a subset of their national summer workshop. It was an empowering gathering of writers of color. Especially as organizations that existed to provide space for marginalized artists have encountered difficulties and are in transition, I’d really like to see the Twin Cities provide ways for marginalized writers to gather in community.
SYS: You’re a funny person. Have you always been funny? Where does your sense of humor come from, and how does it intersect, if at all, with your writing?
MKD: Just last night I got a note from a high-school friend I hadn’t heard from in many years. She said ‘you were always so funny.’ I scolded her. Hers is a common misperception. Actually, I’m not funny at all; I’m a serious person who should be taken seriously at all times.
SYS: What’s your favorite terrible movie and what’s your favorite recipe?
MKD: My favorite terrible movie is I’m Gonna Git You Sucka. Is it really terrible? It might actually be spectacular. My wife says I’m difficult to entertain—wow, did I dislike Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri! I just sat there screaming inside wishing an editor would have come forward to assist the script at the line level. This is all my long way of saying I have exceptional taste, and I’m not sure I can like anything that’s terrible.
Recipe. I have this vegetarian chili that I like to make in fall and winter, sometimes in springtime, never in summer. It has fancy mushrooms and cheap frozen corn, texturized vegetable protein, four kinds of beans, real tomatoes, peppers of whatever color enchants me on that day, two cans of Ro-tel, garlic, 11 herbs and spices, and so many onions, just keep going with the onions. Now, add one more onion then put it all in a crockpot on low while you go to work. Come home to deliciousness.
SYS: If you could have a drink with any writer, living or dead, who would it be and why and what would you talk to them about?
MKD: Zora Neale Hurston. Final answer. Serious dinner at Joan’s in the Park or Tongue in Cheek, someplace very Saint Paul—fight me. Then we’d go to Prohibition and just talk really loudly until we got thrown out. Then we’d Lyft to that bar in the lobby of the Hewing Hotel to holler at North-Loop hipsters until we got thrown out, bar tab unpaid. I’m sure we’d land at Tracy’s at some point, then maybe have second dinner at Hard Times Cafe. I imagine she’d call me away from my innate tendency toward rule-following, and maybe that would be good for me as a person and as a writer. I could ask her a million questions or at least two. I’m sure the hangover would be unpleasant, but maybe an essay would come from it? Something for The New Yorker maybe?
SYS: Thank you so much for your time and talent!
MKD: Thank you so much for asking me to do this.
Sun Yung Shin is the author or editor of six books including two books in 2016: Unbearable Splendor (poetry/prose), which won a Minnesota Literary Award, and the best-selling A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota (an anthology of essays). She co-founded the Native Women Artist and Women of Color Artist Collective with filmmaker and writer Xiaolu Wang, as well as Poetry Asylum with poet Su Hwang. She lives in Minneapolis and can be found on Facebook, twitter, sunyungshin.com, and agoodtimeforthetruth.com.