Michael Kleber-Diggs, one of the four authors visiting Ball State for the In Print Festival of First Books in March, published his debut poetry book Worldly Things in 2021 that received the 2022 Balcones Poetry Award. When Kleber-Diggs isn’t writing or reading he enjoys golf, bicycling, playing board games with friends and traveling.
If you didn’t write, what would you do for work?
Before I became a writer, I was an attorney. Perhaps I would go back to that. But if I could choose anything besides writing today, I’d either be a Behavioral Economist or a Medical Ethicist.
What is your favorite book? Do you have a favorite author?
My favorite book is Moby Dick. Hands down. I’m in awe of it. My favorite author is Toni Morrison. I also really love Gwendolyn Brooks and Jane Kenyon.
What/who inspired you to become an author?
In some ways, I cannot answer this. In the ways that author means writer and in the ways that writing is something I’m drawn to and is foundational to who I am, I can’t really explain that.
I’ve enjoyed writing (fiction mostly) since I was very young—eight years old or so. For many years, starting late in life when I was about 30, I wrote poetry because I loved it. I had no plans to do anything except enjoy it and learn more about it. I worked with a wonderful, brilliant, generous mentor, a poet and memoirist named Juliet Patterson. Even when I was working with her, I was content to write poems and learn about poetry. But I think of “author” as meaning something different—a person who publishes work or a person who writes for a living.
Along those lines, I would mention two people who inspired me. First, my mentor, Juliet Patterson. She helped me find the confidence to send things out for publication consideration. Second, my daughter. My daughter is an artist, and our conversations about art and the artist’s life helped me realize I am an artist too. In talking with her about how important it is to pursue your dreams, I realized I should pursue mine.
How did publishing your debut poetry book, Worldly Things, change your process of writing?
First, I have to say, this is one of the best questions I’ve been asked since Worldly Things came out. I’ve spent quite a while thinking of my answer.
I’m trying really hard to keep my process the same as it was or to allow it to evolve organically, like it did before I had a book published. Back then, I usually wrote in response to captivation or provocation, something I saw, a memory, or something that happened in my life or in the world. I like to walk around with an idea for a few days before writing. I like to start with a pen, draft, edit, edit, edit, then set it aside for a few weeks. I benefit from feedback from friends. I’m in a poetry group with three poets I admire a lot. I love external feedback.
I’m not sure I’ve been successful at only having my process evolve organically though. I feel more self-conscious. I feel like my work has to be about a particular thing or pointed toward a second book. I’m working on a prose project at the moment, not to distract me from poetry or even to allow me time to feel more organic in my process (an idea I did not think about until you asked this question).
I still write poems in response to captivation and provocation. I think I’m mainly trying to keep the external world out of my writing room, to think about the poem and to imagine an audience beyond journal editors and book publishers.
In what ways has your identity played a role in your writing?
Okay, please forgive me. Lately, I’m not entirely sure what identity is. I could say that I identify as a Black man, as a man, as an American, as a father, as a Midwesterner, as a writer and so on, or I could say I am a Black man, a man, an American and so on.
Meeting the question on its terms, I would say that identity is central to my writing. My perspective, my voice, the themes I explore in my writing, the way I see the world, often my audience—all of these things are informed by my perspective, by where I am from and where I live, and my perspective is informed by who I am, by my experiences, and, I suppose, by how others see me, the identities they might assign to me or assume of me.
What are some common traps for aspiring writers? What advice do you have for them?
Sometimes I encounter advice from experienced writers who seem to convey a certainty I hope I never acquire. I admire the ideas and energy aspiring writers are bringing to literary art. I’d rather listen to them. That said, here are two ideas that inform my approach to writing.
First, authenticity—being my authentic self on the page, inhabiting my voice, my approach, my process, my aesthetic, my themes, my art— is paramount to me. This isn’t always easy. Sometimes I want to do what other people are doing to great success.
Second, it has been helpful to me to be careful about audience in my writing. I try to be very clear on who I am writing to, and who I am writing for. I alluded to it earlier, and my audience can vary from poem to poem, but I’m not writing to poets, writers, editors, or publishers. I care about craft and writing effective poems. I care about those things a lot. There are times when I feel I might be more widely published if I were more strategic about it, but I try really hard to think of audience in ways that are more emotional or personal than literary or intellectual.
What was the earliest experience where you learned that language had power?
Very young, in grade school, seeing how words could inspire or harm. Speaking about literary language, I’d have to say the first time I encountered Charlotte’s Web.
If you could tell your younger self anything, what would it be?
To my junior high school self, I would say “switch to the bass.” To my high school self, I would say “work 5% harder.” To my college self, I would say “finish strong.” To my young adult self, I would say “be more honest; be just as kind but be more honest.”
I’d also say ‘let people in.” To all of my selves along the way, I would say what I try to keep in mind when not much is happening at my writing desk, when the work isn’t as I’d have it and I feel lost, “keep going, all of this is on its way to somewhere kind of fantastic.”