St. Paul poet Michael Kleber-Diggs often writes about moments that start out mundane — such as picking up his daughter from school — but soon reflect something far more complex. For example, outside her junior high, he saw a Black boy, handcuffed, in the back of a cop car, which led to a poignant contemplation of the boy's future — and his own "targeted skin."
In his debut poetry collection, "Worldly Things," released this week by Milkweed Editions, Kleber-Diggs takes his lived experience as a Black man in America, and with his pen, unpacks it.
Fueled by social media "Instapoets," and Amanda Gorman's star turn at the presidential inauguration, poetry's popularity is on the rise. After two decades of steady decline, the percentage of Americans reading poetry has doubled since its historical low, in 2012, of 7%, according to the National Endowment for the Arts.
Kleber-Diggs is among the poets making the form more accessible and inclusive, dispelling the common notion that poetry is some sort of riddle you may not be smart enough to figure out. Writing about everything from fishing with his grandfather to police killings, Kleber-Diggs says he hopes his poems spur conversations about "the truth of our lives" and increase the sense of empathy and community that infuse his work.
For years, the attorney-by-day would get anxious when friends introduced him as "a poet."
"It would take everything in my power not to say, 'Whoa, whoa, let's not get carried away.' It took a long time to embrace that identity," said Kleber-Diggs, 53.
But literary luminaries are saying his book has been well worth the wait.
Former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith called the collection "oracular," "full of an age-old knowing," "new and eternal at once." Poet Henri Cole, who selected "Worldly Things" for the 2021 Max Ritvo Poetry Prize, said its poems "quietly put pressure on us to live up to our nation's ideals."
The path to poetry
Kleber-Diggs grew up in Kansas and moved to Minnesota in 1990 for law school. He then worked as a litigator and corporate lawyer, all the while nurturing his talent in creative writing.
It remained a side gig because Kleber-Diggs' family had always encouraged him to find a practical profession. (Both of his parents had graduate degrees.) After his father died when Kleber-Diggs was 8, being raised by a Black single mother heightened the pressure.
But in the late '90s, Kleber-Diggs became fascinated by poetry, which stimulated both his analytical and creative sides.
He met his wife, Karen Kleber-Diggs, who, one Christmas, gave him a poetry class at the Loft as a gift. Soon after, he started meeting with a group of local poets.
After taking several years off from poetry when his college-age daughter was young, Kleber-Diggs eventually began sending out work. He was selected for mentorship programs at the Loft and the Givens Foundation. A poem was chosen for display on Metro Transit trains and buses.
After Kleber-Diggs was laid off from his job last spring, he focused on creative writing. He's continued to teach at the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop as well as local universities, in addition to producing his own work.
The confessional poet
Kleber-Diggs' approach to his poetry shifted when he decided to write about a memory of playing with superhero-shaped water squirters with his twin brother. In the process, the loss of their father — a subject that Kleber-Diggs tended to avoid — kept coming up. When Kleber-Diggs brought the poem to workshop, the tight-knit group was surprised to learn that his father had been the victim of a random crime, shot and killed at his dental practice.
The poem, Kleber-Diggs said, allowed him to make an essential breakthrough: that it was OK to talk about the truth of his life and his experience. "And the more difficult it is, the more important it is," he said. "Poetry allows us a lot of ways to say difficult things."
And so there are poems in the collection about Kleber-Diggs' father's death; his wife's miscarriage; about race and racism. Because these are the sorts of subjects he feels compelled to discuss, he said, in ways that are candid, open-minded and openhearted. Through these hard conversations, he feels our most profound connections are made.
"It's impossible to reach the age of adulthood without having a significant loss, without having made the mistake, without having regret," he said. "And so those experiences are universal. And talking about them is, therefore, essential."
Although his subjects are often serious, Kleber-Diggs' warm, extroverted manner defies the poet stereotype of a shy wallflower sequestered in a garret. ("I sometimes joke that if the world of poetry had a mascot, it would be the porcupine, like: Don't touch us, stay back.")
The speaker of his poems (a stand-in for Kleber-Diggs) is compelled to tend to others. He sneaks out at night to water his neighbors' plants; he shouts at passersby from his car window, admonishing them to wear a helmet or button up a coat. He leaves these instructions for his funeral: "I give you permission / to be late, even without good cause. / If my day arrives when you had other plans, please // proceed with them instead."
His friend, poet Su Hwang, describes him as "one of the most generous, authentic human souls I know."
Poetry for healing
Kleber-Diggs says that the loss of his father, which led to a closer relationship with his beloved grandparents, showed him that life is simultaneously difficult and beautiful — individually and collectively.
"My family history includes adversity and trauma and personal shortcomings and personal triumphs," he explained. "The country where I live may be considered in a similar way."
Hwang said that "Worldly Things," with its frankness and generosity of spirit, prompts readers to interrogate their own experience and biases and can help heal the country's divisions. "I think it's a way for us to learn how to exist together and learn from each other," she said.
The collection closes with the speaker walking through his neighborhood. He comes across a colony of ants and then, down the block, sees a woman coming toward him. He senses her discomfort: "I am frightening her. No. She is afraid of me." Then he wonders why. Is it his gender? His race? It can't be the dad khakis and button-down he's wearing. As he's about to shout, "Morning," he notices a lone ant struggling by, strangely separate from its community. Then the woman crosses the street.
Why was such a simple opportunity — for both parties to feel comfortable in that moment — missed? "I can't know what was behind her decision to cross the street," Kleber-Diggs said. "But I knew immediately that I was going to write about it."
Rachel Hutton • 612-673-4569
AFTER YOU LEFT
the weight of your absence
became a black hole revolving
around my memory of you—itself
a black hole. Wavelets wrinkled
the sheer sheet of space and time.
Father, the loss of you is a planet
orbiting what might have been.
I cannot say if the emptiness is
a grand celestial body or a vacuum
so complete nothing can escape. I know
these forces have mass and motion
that bends, calls in, ripples fabric—
distorts the pace of light
for a billion years.
From "Worldly Things," ©2021 by Michael Kleber-Diggs. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions