Just a Few Thoughts Away from Poetry: An Interview with Adrian Matejka

by Emily Bonner

I’m going to be honest here. After reading his book Mixology, I was afraid I was going to be intimidated meeting Adrian Matejka. I’m about as far from “the streets” as one can get and felt that someone as gritty and honest as Matejka could make me feel two feet tall. This, of course, is absolutely not the case. You couldn’t find a nicer guy than Matejka, or someone who is as passionate about poetry as he is about his subject matter. His current book, Mixology, is just that: a swirl of expression that utilizes conversational language and slang, creating a style that is all his own. Matejka’s love for music is front-and-center in his work, making his poems seem almost songlike themselves. This fall Old Dominion University was lucky enough to have Matejka read at the Literary Festival where he not only shared poems from his previous collections, but also read from a new working collection. The new collection, a book of poems written in the persona of boxer Jack Johnson, is going in a different direction than Mixology, but Matejka’s unmistakable style shines through as something totally unique to him. I was fortunate enough to talk him about his writing process and what goes on in this award-winning poet’s head when he’s crafting his own work.

EB: To start off, who are some of your influences, past and present, and how did they inspire you to write the way that you do? How do your favorite poets/writers impact the way that you craft your own work?

AM: That’s a great question. Sometimes I think I’m not much more than a collage of my influences. I owe so much to the artists whose work has inspired me. You know, there are the constant inspirations like my friends and family, Pablo Neruda, Portishead, and Richard Pryor. Then there are other, more deciduous influences that catalyze according to the project I’m working on.

Mixology is a pastiche of inspirations ranging from Madvillain to Egon Schiele to Erza Pound, and the governing logic of the collection is that all of the influences can coexist in one text. Looking at the poems now, it sometimes seems as if they’re about to bust a zipper trying to contain the allusions. But at the time I was writing the poems, the allusions made sense and fit together organically.

When I was writing the Jack Johnson monologues that ended up inThe Big Smoke (Matejka’s forthcoming book, EB), I spent a lot of time with A. Van Jordan’s book, MacNolia, Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s Apocalyptic Swing, and Marilyn Nelson’s poem, “A Wreath for Emmett Till.” At the same time, I was studying photos and video of Johnson and listening to Arcade Fire, Sidney Bechet, and Thom Yorke’s “Cymbal Rush.” The connective tissue for these disparate influences became Johnson himself.

Somehow, all of the texts—from Gaby’s powerful lyrics to Régine Chassagne’s voicing—worked into the fabric of Jack Johnson’s monologues. So rather than compartmentalizing, I try to find inspiration in whatever causes that “lump in the throat” Robert Frost talked about. It doesn’t matter where it comes from.

EB: What is your writing process? Do you have to do anything that puts you in the mood to write or does it come spontaneously?

AM: I don’t have much of a writing routine because I spend most of my time just a few thoughts away from poetry. I might be washing dishes or watching a basketball game, but I’m really thinking about poems. I write in bursts: images, melodies, motifs in notebooks, envelopes, on the back of a workout sheet at the gym. My desk is covered with scraps of paper and sticky notes with phrases or words that might become part of a poem later.

Since I hover around the edges of poems like a kid at a middle school dance, the act of writing poems for me relies on improvisation in the moment. It’s like Yusef Komunyakaa said, “Getting down the urgent energy of the piece is improvisation, then comes the shaping and revising.”

This method has served me well in the past, but there’s something about research-based poetry that required a fundamental shift in the writing strategy. Since there is history involved, the poems required a kind of cautiousness. You know, history and poetry have different agendas that don’t always coincide. I ended up researching Jack Johnson’s biography for about 2 years before I wrote a poem. I wanted to have some authority beyond poetic license to write in his voice.

At first, it felt like the research diminished the spontaneity of the poems. But really, the research put spontaneity on layaway for a minute. I needed to address the historical and cultural absolutes around Johnson as a historical figure before I was able to get into the true moments of the poems.

EB: You’ve lived in a lot of different locations, including California, Illinois, and overseas in Germany to name a few; how have these places affected your writing style or where you’ve taken your poetry? Is there one place in particular that has impacted your work the most?

AM: I grew up in a military family, so I had the good fortune of living near Army bases all over Europe and the U.S. My mother told me I lived in Germany and in 10 states before the age of 7. That’s healthy, I’m sure. If anything, I think my nomadic lifestyle allowed me to de-emphasize geography in my work. Place becomes less important than the images or narrative driving the poem.

I’m not sure that it’s a good thing to sidestep place in poetry. I’m envious of poets that have regional undertones in their work, where the geography works like an allusion of its own. “Southern” poets like my wife, Stacey Lynn Brown, or Rodney Jones, or Yusef Komunyakaa can write poems that exist in a space that both catalogues and interrogates geography. Or poets from Chicago like Carl Sandburg,Quraysh Ali Lansana, and Patricia Smith, for whom place can be emblematic of some larger social or cultural understanding.

For excellent poets like these, geography can be a real asset to a poem because it creates a key for how to understand the images and allusions in a poem. I mean, the image of a leafless tree in Mississippi is read completely differently in sense and substance from the same leafless tree in Chicago.

The downplaying of place is part of the coping mechanisms most Army brats develop. Why get comfortable in a town or city when you know you’re going to leave in 6 months? So, lacking permanent geography, I consciously try to create a world for the poems to exist in outside of the physical, or one that is kind of generic and regionless.

EB: In your book Mixology, there’s a definite tie between you and the hip-hop community; what is it about hip-hop that drew you to it in the first place? Is that where you developed an interest in poetry?

AM: No question, rap music was and is a big influence on my sense of language. I’ve been listening to rap since the early 1980s. It was the first music that felt like it was mine. Back then, emcees rhymed about things I related to in a way I couldn’t relate to the musicians on the radio. In fact, when I was in 7th grade, my friend Ché and I formed a rap group: The 2 Furious MCs. At least that’s what we called ourselves in the living room where we worked on our rhymes after basketball practice. We didn’t get any further than the living room because we were pretty terrible. All heart and no talent.

Rap music wasn’t the way I got into poetry, though. I discovered poetry through Langston Hughes, Etheridge Knight, and later, Yusef Komunyakaa. I saw Yusef read in a coffee shop when I was an undergraduate at Indiana University and was stunned by what he did with language. He was like an emcee—or maybe more appropriately, a jazz soloist. When I heard him read, I knew I wanted to write poems.

It wasn’t until much later that I started exploring the direct connections between rap music and poetry. Mixology actually started as a response to De La Soul’s phenomenal album, The Grind Date. I stumbled on a track called “Verbal Clap” where Dave (Supa Dave West) says:

  • See that gun powder rap’ll tip hats like gentlemen do
  • smash tenements and skyscrapers
  • bow-tie papers stacked high
  • pay the resident tax or get your street sweeped

There is something in the associative leaps Dave makes that reminds me of the moves good poems make. His lyrics also reinforce the reliance emcees have on metaphor, simile, and allusion. The thing is, emcees don’t use simile like poets. Poets generally adhere to a pattern of simile construction that involves the concrete juxtaposed with some other concrete, because most poets heed Pound’s warning about mixing the abstract with the concrete.

Emcees don’t care about Pound. They step outside of his paradigm and use actions, allusion, other simile, abstraction—whatever they want to complete the motion of the simile. So I tried to imagine what kind of simile an emcee would use if he or she understood the conventions of poetry and wrote the poems accordingly. That’s where the linguistic strategy in Mixology came from.

EB: There are a lot of young people just discovering the bridge between hip-hop and poetry, but still hesitant to try something that may seem too “academic”. What is your advice to young writers looking to mesh their love of music with poetry?

AM: As a preventative measure, the first thing I would tell them is poetry and song lyrics aren’t the same thing at all. Song lyrics can be made better by using the tropes and strategies of poetry, but poetry doesn’t get anything but a bad rap from song lyrics. There’s a great book by the scholar Adam Bradley about rap music and poetry calledBook of Rhymes that dissects rap lyrics using the conventions of poetry. He gets into the craft connections between poetry and rap lyrics incisively and shows how much poetic craft is involved in writing lyrics.

As far as actual advice about meshing music and poetry: hear the beat, avoid the rhyme, and remember, as Ben Okri says, “We are born from stories.”

EB: I know you’re putting together a new book featuring poems in the voice of Jack Johnson in the near future. Do you write in persona often? What sort of new world does writing in the voice of another open up for you?

AM: Yes, The Big Smoke will be out in 2013. Honestly, I think all of my poems are in a kind of persona. I don’t have the confidence or linguistic swing to enunciate the way I’d like to, so to create a poem, I have to create a persona with the appropriate command of language and swagger to pull it off. It’s almost like a writing alter ego. That’s what I think “voice” is: a writer’s persona on the page.

Approaching persona as the “speaker in a poem completely disconnected from the poet” is something that I didn’t do very often before The Big Smoke. I always wanted to, though. I’m a big fan of Tim Seibles’ persona poems. His persona poems like “Commercial Break: Road Runner Uneasy” and “Blade, Historical” are perfect examples of how a poet can create a portrait of a character through monologue.

Ai, too. She set the standard for contemporary persona in her early books like Cruelty and Killing Floor. There’s a forcefulness and a need in her persona that seems to go beyond what a poet might be capable of in his or her own voice. She wears the mask the word “persona” connotes, whether it be the mask of a neglected housewife or a tenant farmer with authority and grace.

What drew me to Jack Johnson initially was his inability to speak for himself historically. Partially because of his race and his accomplishments in the ring, Johnson was one of the most infamous figures of his time. The post-Reconstruction institutions—the newspapers and other media in particular—were in opposition to his success and did what they could to subvert him. In newspapers, Johnson’s speech was rendered in this busted vernacular – kind of like Buckwheat or something – that wasn’t true to the way the man actually spoke. His public image was crafted by racists and he couldn’t do anything to refute it.

I saw writing these monologues as an opportunity for Johnson to tell his story in language that would be closer to the kind he would actually use. That’s what historic persona offers: the ability to synthesize voice and reclaim lost bits of language and culture. As those lost bits might be imagined, at least. I mean, no amount of research and creativity can revive everything that was stricken from the historic record. Too much has been erased.

EB: Now that you have a grasp on what the new book is going to focus on, have you put any thought into what your next project might be?

AM: Right now, I’m working on a project about astronomy. I’m not sure where it’s going to go because I just started writing the poems in May. I spent some time in Texas this summer and had the opportunity to visit the McDonald Observatory in Ft. Davis. While I was there, I saw Saturn through a telescope in real time. I could see the Cassini Divisions in the rings and the whole deal. It was humbling, to say the least.

When I was a kid, I wanted to work for NASA when I grew up. My NASA dream got subverted fairly early by my mathematic ineptitude and I’d pretty much forgotten about it until I squinted through that telescope. Seeing that planet took me back to a summer when I scrounged cans to order a solar system model from the back of a comic. I sent the money, but I never got the model. That memory became the hinge for the first poem in the project.

I’m not alone on this astronomy trip. There have been some really great collections “about” outer space recently—Terrance Hayes’sLighthead and Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon’s ]Open Interval[ come to mind first. They are both fantastic poets and the poems reflect the kind of complexity necessary to tackle the cosmos in verse. It’s such a broad and malleable canvas and really, I think every poet is a failed astronomer in one way or another.

Click here to read two poems from Adrian Matejka.

Click here to go to Adrian Matejka’s website.

Emily Bonner is in her third year of the MFA program at Old Dominion University. When she isn’t busily working on her thesis she is writing, reading, baking cookies for no reason, holding down screaming children as a dental assistant, or hanging out with people’s pets at parties.