Adrian Matejka is a musical storyteller. As a Pulitzer Prize finalist, he sings his stories on paper, creating a world for others to see through poetry.He does not require a band or backup vocals to support his tune, but a pen or pencil or computer will do. Before his reading at Krannert as part of Pygmalion’s Lit Fest, we caught up with Matejka to ask a few questions about the tales of his written tunes.
»buzz: How would you say you are inspired when brainstorming different topics to possibly write about?
AM: My inspiration comes from all over the place, but lately my poems have been set into motion by a memory or fragment I can’t get past. Sometimes the fragments are emotionally-neutral like seeing the Indianapolis skyline from a particular angle. Other times, the fragments are more personal like the letdown of opening our empty refrigerator when I was a kid.
Once I have that emotional or lyric fragment, I wander from idea to idea, sound to sound, looking for linguistic combinations that surprise me and build on that original hook. The key for me is finding some kind of magnetic connection in the words that’s worth twisting up. When I’m lucky, those connections come together as a poem.
»buzz: When it’s time to sit down and write, what do you do to mentally prepare yourself for the task? Do you have a routine?
AM: I don’t know if it’s a routine or a lifestyle, but I always listen to music before and during my writing time. The music depends on what my writing agenda is. Right now, I’m listening to Miles Davis’s In a Silent Way because I’m on an airplane and your questions are thoughtful. Last night, I was editing my graphic novel script and I listened to Sidney Bechet the whole time.
I’m making this question more about music than writing, but I think it’s important to acknowledge the natural relationship between poetry and music. Each art form helps the other because poems are meant to be spoken and to be heard in the same way music is.
»buzz: The Devil’s Garden, Mixology and The Big Smoke all range in such diverse topics, but seem to have an underlying theme of race. Is the former a topic you feel strongly about including in your work? If so, why?
AM: Race has always been a gravitational center in my work. Not because I make a conscious choice to write about it, necessarily, but because race lenses the world for me and lenses me for the rest of the world. But as I was finishing my new book, I realized masculinity is another source of gravity in my work.
A big hunk of my childhood was spent in a single parent household without a father. My mother—my white mother to make it even more complicated—was the one who tried to teach me how to navigate America as a black man. I think I’m still trying to understand the variations of black masculinity in my poems through Miles Davis’s horn, Basquiat’s paintings, DOOM’s mask, and Jack Johnson’s life and times.
»buzz: Why is poetry an outlet you find best for expressing yourself and important issues?
AM: I love poetry because it’s the most concise and musical of all of the arts (other than music itself). If I could make an equation for it, it would be something like music + emotion ÷ need = poetry. Poetry is the most urgent and primal of the arts somehow, too, because it relies on words exclusively to communicate the most complex and unrepentant moments of our lives.
»buzz: Do you feel your style of writing or expressing yourself has changed since The Devil’s Garden? What do you think is responsible for that change?
AM: The Devil’s Garden came out when I was 32 and I wrote most of those poems while in graduate school at The Southern Illinois University in Carbondale (Salukis represent!). The poems reflect what I was reading, my creative neurosis, and general uncertainty inside of that late 1990s pre-millennium tension (as Tricky called it).
13 years later and I have some of the same neurosis and obsessions, but now they are filtered through all of the evolutions, failures, migrations, and capitulations that have happened since my time in Carbondale. I’ve changed as a human being (I hope) and I think the poems have naturally changed with me.
Poetry needs us to change. Poetry needs us to grow. It demands it, really. The world is a gorgeous, dynamic, and often disappointing place. Writing one kind of poem doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the world’s dynamism. We either have to be open to revising our verse and changing our poetic angles or we need to get comfortable becoming antiques.
»buzz: The Big Smoke was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. What was your response to that and do you feel that it has shaped you differently as a writer?
AM: The attention The Big Smoke received is amazing, overwhelming, and all ways around humbling. There are stacks of wonderful collections published each year, so to be one of the three identified by the 2014 Pulitzer committee was very special.
I believe the attention The Big Smoke garnered has less to do with the work I did as a writer and more to do with the subject of the book, Jack Johnson. It is his mythology, his charisma, his successes and failures that drive the book. Those accolades were for him, not me.
So I haven’t really changed my approach to the page in response to the attention the book got. I have changed because of the things I learned about story telling and book construction while writing the book. But in the end, I’m still mainly focused on writing a poem that sounds good and that resonates enough for someone to want to read it.
»buzz: Each collection of poems seem emotionally involved, but is there one collection out of the three that you feel you connect with more?
AM: The poem I feel most connected with is usually the poem I’m working on in the moment. Maybe because the poem is the freshest and I haven’t started looking for flaws yet. I don’t know. So right now, I connect most with my new collection, Collectable Blacks, because I’m still learning about it.
»buzz: Which poem do you specifically enjoy reading aloud?
AM: It depends on the crowd and the circumstance, but I always enjoy reading “Maggot Brain” and “This Be the Verse” from Mixology. They are fun to read because they rely on sound and allusion to do most of the work. “Tyndall Armory” from that book, too, because anything about Public Enemy is good and I give my main man from childhood, Richard, a shout out.
»buzz: What do you hope listeners who hear your work for the first time at Pygmalion Fest will leave thinking or feeling?
AM: I’m planning on reading some new work, then mostly reading from The Big Smoke. I hope that they will leave the reading wanting to hear more from Collectable Blacks and with enough interest in Jack Johnson to learn more about him, either through The Big Smoke or through one of the biographies about him like Unforgivable Blackness.
»buzz: Any last words or remarks?
AM: I’m looking forward to the Pygmalion Festival! I love that it brings in performers in music, literature, and technology. I’m trying to figure out how to be at 3 places at once in order to check out all of the things on my list.
Check out a reading by Matejka at Krannert this Friday, Sept. 24, at 6:30 p.m. as part of Pygmalion’s Lit Fest.