Danny Klecko: Tattooed baker, rebel poet


One of the first things you notice are the tats: 42 of them in all – and more to come for, as Danny Klecko explains, “Being Polish, I don’t always share my feelings and I guess that’s my way of doing it.”

“As my wife will tell you – when I’m pissed off, I head to the parlor.”

Polish or no, these days Klecko, the CEO of St. Agnes Bakery in St. Paul, has found a whole new avenue of personal expression: poetry and literary publishing. He still maintains his other careers: celebrity baker — among other gigs, he’s appeared on Martha Stewart’s radio program — social entrepreneur and founder of the St. Paul Bread Club, and author (his most distinctive tattoo is the ISBN of his book of dog biscuit recipes, K-9 Nation Biscuit Book: Baking for Your Best Friend, published by the Minnesota Historical Society.)

Conversation in Silence
by Danny Klecko

I took you to the playground at night
So you could have the swing set to yourself
You said – Push me higher
Push, me higher
And I did
The chains began to creak
Your body became a blur
Silhouetted against the stars
A tiny frame whooshing like a comet
There’s going to be hell to pay
When Grandma discovers our adventure
Explanations will be pointless
You said – Push me higher
Push, me higher
And I did
Because nothing is more beautiful
Than the glowing face
Of a granddaughter
Who smiles back
At the moon

“I like to tease him that he embodies both humility and self-reflective qualities with being a megalomaniac,” says Alison Aten at the MHS, who met Klecko when she publicized his book and went on to become personal friends with him. “Somehow he balances both of those – I’m not sure how, but he does.”

His coming out as a poet follows a long gestation period – some 25 years – but in the past year alone he’s given several public readings and launched Leif, an online literary magazine, with his long-time friend, St. Paul writer and poet Mike Finley. In 2010, he also inaugurated a new annual poetry award whose recipients he chooses himself. (FULL DISCLOSURE: Rich Broderick has published contributions in Leif.)

“For first 25 years of my career, I was socially retarded, locked away, doing my craft while other people slept,” he explains. “To keep myself interested I’d write poems.” Over time, he began meeting with other people in the food industry at coffee shops to exchange poems then branched out to share work with friends in other fields.

Then about three years ago, this group, the Kitchen Vault Poets, hatched the idea of a new kind of poetry award – what he calls “a blue collar award.” Thus the annual Kerouac Award was born. Conferred at an afternoon ceremony of readings and potluck in the production area of St. Agnes Bakery, the first Kerouac was awarded to Mike Finley, who, in addition to co-editing Leif, is the author of dozens of books of poems and the recipient of several Pushcart Prizes for his work.

“This award is basically meant for people who work for a living and do poetry for fun,” Klecko explains. “The Kerouac award would honor the Rebel Poet — the poet who actually lived his or her life as a poet rather than just act like a poet.”

“He does these things with disarming confidence,” observes fellow-poet Kim Ode, a staff writer for the Star Tribune and frequent contributor to the paper’s Taste Section, who met Klecko when she attended one of his bread club meetings 10 years ago. “I’m sure there is a contingent out there [in the literary community] who feel that his behavior is entirely presumptuous, but I think the whole award program has been a ball.”

“What I’ve done in my life didn’t come naturally,” says Klecko. He began his food career at 12 bagging groceries at a SuperValu in Golden Valley before being transferred to the store’s bakery. Then he went on to Dunwoody, which used to have a baking program. “”You obtain confidence by acting confident,” he said. “If people believe you believe in yourself then eventually you will.”

“I never met anyone like Klecko before,” says Finley. “He’s big as a house, but his heart is even bigger. He volunteered once to do a job with me that no sensible person would offer to do — help me empty my daughter’s apartment after her suicide. So he’s seen me at my highest and absolute lowest.

“Who do you know that would do that for you?”


CORRECTION: Klecko’s book is K-9 Nation Biscuit Book: Baking for Your Best Friend.