From the murals at the site of George Floyd’s murder to music inspired by his death and the uprising that followed, artists have played a crucial role in helping us process what happened and where to go from here.
That includes Michael Kleber-Diggs, whose new collection of poetry, “Worldly Things,” comes out June 8. It includes a poem about George Floyd called “Grinding Down to Prayer.”
“I woke to the news you were dead.
The what arrived before daylight;
the how was agony unfolding as I
dreaded my way to dusk. Unfolding
against my want not to know
(but I already knew, have known
since I could know): officers, arrest
Black, man, twenty, video, knee,
sir, back, dollar, 8:, counterfeit,
hands, sorry, 46, mama, please,
breathe, please! Were you tired
George? I feel tired sometimes.
America on my neck—my
lungs compressed so much
they can’t expand/contract—
take in/send out—oxygen/words.
My dentist says I grind my teeth.
My molars are wearing smooth.
The next night, I jolted awake
to find my fists clenched tight
(some fight), my heart pounding fast,
my mouth hanging open, slack,
not tight that time, just me
on my own gasping for air
6 times a minute—a raspy sound.
The world was darkness; my room was
darkness. I lay in a state of
in between and thought of you
but also God. I wanted the sun
but did not ask. I hoped instead
for a quiet dawn and peace for us,
real peace for us. I hoped so hard
it almost made a prayer.”
You can hear Kleber-Diggs read his poem in the audio player above. The poet also sat down for an interview with All Things Considered host Tom Crann. An excerpt of their conversation is transcribed below.
How soon after Floyd's death did you write this poem, and what were you thinking about in terms of meeting the moment?
I think I finished it in August, so a couple of months after George Floyd had died. And I was asked by Minnesota poet Mary Moore Easter to contribute a poem to a collection that she was putting together, and I really kind of spent some time thinking about what I wanted to talk about. And I kept returning to the morning that I woke up and found out that George Floyd had been killed.
It's an attempt, I imagine, to process what we all have been going through this past year, but you make it very personal — almost a prayer, as you say, and a dialogue with George Floyd. You asked if he was tired. What made you decide to make it such a personal and almost direct dialogue?
In the entire collection, for me personally, the most difficult line is that one. I felt so much discomfort speculating about George. I had some concern that I would be misunderstood there. But I really wanted to express the fatigue I feel, like, the bone-deep fatigue I feel sometimes as a Black man in America.
It can feel so nonstop, and you can feel challenged in every direction. The poem suggests a troubled sleep even when we're supposed to be at rest. There can be no break from the challenges of living in an anti-Black country.
What can you do in a poem like that one that we can't or don't get to in our discussions or in a news report?
I'd argue all of art slows things down and challenges us to view them in a different way.
I always hope that some portion of people who read a poem that I've written will be captivated by it to the point that they carry it around with them for a little while, in a way that the news can't always manage.
I think that the goal of reporting is to get to the facts of, you know, who, when, where, why and how. I think the goal of art, this type of art, is to remind us of our humanity and to bring forward our imagination to either contextualize an experience that we've had or to encourage us to imagine better.
Is poetry activism? In other words, does it react or does it lead?
A large portion of what I'm doing, I think, when I sit at my writing desk is trying to slow people down to consider the issues of the day differently. I feel invested in those conversations. I have a personal stake in those outcomes — for me, for my family, for my daughter, for lots of people who I love. And I try to bring that earnestness, that emotion, that investment forward in the work that I'm making. I do think art often is activism.