In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors–Michael Kleber-Diggs
Your poem “EGGSHELLS” in Volume 23 has an interesting origin story. Can you tell us about that?
I have been working from home and spending a lot of time with our two dogs (miniature GoldenDoodles Jasper and Ziggy) who enjoy going outside 5 or 6 times a day. When “EGGSHELLS” arrived as an idea, I was out with them feeling grateful that they forced me to leave my desk and walk around our neighborhood. I was in the posture of converting what I could see as the annoyance of responding to their imperatives as a blessing of time with them, outside, in fresh air. I was reflecting on the effort to stay positive and to see the good in things that are not ideal, a mindset I felt would be beneficial during the pandemic, when I happened upon a blue egg shattered on the sidewalk.
I also wanted to do something positive for people I love. I wanted to reach out to them as part of what I call my Pandemic Resiliency Project. So, I printed “EGGSHELLS” on postcards and mailed them to family and friends.
One of my favorite craft techniques of this poem is its distinct visual form. I’m curious, how did you come up with the dimension of two layers of text? Did you envision “EGGSHELLS” to look like this when you began drafting it?
I’ve taken to calling this visual form a “mantra,” and I’ve written a few more.
I don’t have a daily discipline around actual mantras or daily affirmations, but, as I was thinking about the poem – what’s positive in negative things and how bad things or difficulties can call us away from our efforts to stay positive – I thought of how to present that in a poem. I might have also been thinking about integrating the repetition of a compelling or calming or positive idea into my efforts to stay sane in these maddening times.
Separately and not, I was thinking of ways to do more with the page and the idea of the page. The overwhelming majority of my poems have a hard left margin and shy away from fractured lines, distributed presentation on the page, or atypical spacing. The pandemic has allowed me more time to play at my writing desk. While playing with ideas, I wondered what would happen if the page could go in or if text could exist underneath or behind text.
So, yes. I envisioned it would look like this when I started drafting it. I even drafted it in Excel.
This issue was birthed during this pandemic and the political and social unrest that’s been spilling over on the streets in cities nationwide. It feels like day after day we witness more violence and division, and we felt that the title “hunger for tiny things” took on a multi-faceted poignance for this issue. I’m curious—what tiny things do you hunger for these days?
Tiny moments the most – typically involving people. I’ve met a lot more neighbors because I’m home more and out and about with our dogs more. There’s a neighbor along our most popular morning route who we’ve lived about eight houses away from for 11 years. We first met in April. He works from home at his front window, and as we go by every morning, I make a point to wave hello to him. He always waves back. Once every two months or so, he’ll come out to speak, but we usually just wave to each other. It’s so small. We’re separated by his window. He is white, and I am Black. We almost never speak, but moments like that mean a tremendous amount to me within the challenges of this time and the physical and social limitations the pandemic requires.
Writers tend to write what haunts or obsesses them. What are some themes/topics that are important to your writing, or tend to show up a lot in your work?
I am obsessed with community and promoting humanity. Lately, I’m particularly interested in intimacy as expressed by men as a way to disrupt antiquated notions of masculinity. One of the things I wanted to do in “EGGSHELLS” was be candid and intentional and bold about telling people I love that my body yearns for their body. I wanted to avoid qualifying that or explaining that.
What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work? Do–or have–you had any mentors in your writing life?
I would not be a poet at all without the poet Juliet Patterson who was my official mentor for many years and taught me so much about art, craft, theory and practice in poetry. She will always be the most important poet to me as a poet.
I gravitate toward poets who are narrative and confessional – poets who tell stories based on their lived experience. To varying degrees, I’ve consulted Natasha Trethewey, Sharon Olds, Hieu Minh Nguyen and Laura Kasischke. But I read widely in poetry, and admire so many writers who are lyrical or language poets or who represent different traditions. In general, I spend a lot of time with the American greats – Gwendolyn Brooks, Audre Lorde, Lucille Clifton…
Outside of poetry, I’ve been listening to lots and lots of Vladimir Horowitz. I’ve had Horowitz in heavy rotation for a few months now. He appeared in a recent poem.
Also, owing to his recent appearance on SNL, I’ve been listening to lots of Jack White too – there’s something about his song “Sixteen Saltines” that inspires me to be bold and take chances.
Do you practice any other art forms? If so, how do these influence your writing and/or creative process?
I play the cello every once in a while. I am not good at it, but I really enjoy it. When I was younger, I was better but didn’t enjoy it as much. When I tune it up to play, I can lose an hour just having a blast missing notes and bowing poorly and trying to keep the tempo steady while dragging and rushing, dragging and rushing, typically based on how hard or easy a passage is for me.
What craft element challenges you the most in your writing? How do you approach it? What is your quirk as a writer?
I have a hard time seeing visual possibilities for the poem on the page. When I try to use the page differently, it feels and looks fake to me. I’m also shy sometimes about my devotion to plain language and commonplace ideas.
My quirk: I am way too focused on poetic lines that are balanced for length. Most of my poems are visual rectangles, and I sometimes get frustrated with myself for my reluctance to let the occasional line run longer or shorter than the average line because that’s what the line requires sometimes!
What projects are you working on right now?
I’m writing more mantras and contemplating a chapbook of mantra poems. I’ve been exploring ideas for the background text. For example, what if it isn’t a line or two that repeats? I hope to collaborate with a print maker and visual artist I admire a great deal and have worked with a few times. Ideally she’ll use her skill to play even more with what’s possible when text engages with text and when text exists behind or underneath the poem.
Michael Kleber-Diggs is a poet and essayist. He is the recent recipient of the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize. His manuscript Worldly Things is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions in 2021. His writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Poetry City, North Dakota Quarterly, Pollen Midwest, Paper Darts, Water~Stone Review, The Midway Review, and a few anthologies. Kleber-Diggs is husband to Karen Kleber-Diggs. They live in St. Paul, Minnesota, and have a daughter who is pursuing a BFA in dance performance at State University of New York at Purchase. You can learn more about Kleber-Diggs at his website.