The Questions Carry Us Forward: A Conversation with Adrian Matejka

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Adrian Matejka’s most recent poetry collection is Somebody Else Sold the World,  published by Penguin Random House in 2021. His previous books include The Devil’s Garden (Alice James Books, 2003), which won the New York/New England Award, Mixology (Penguin, 2009), which was selected as a winner of the National Poetry Series, The Big Smoke (Penguin, 2013), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, the National Book Award, and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and Map to the Stars (Penguin, 2017). Praised for his “blazing virtuosity,” “laser-wrought wordcraft,” and “masterful ear,” Matejka has received numerous honors for his work, including the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the Julia Peterkin Award, and the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Award. He has been awarded fellowships through the Guggenheim Foundation, the Lannan Foundation, the Academy of American Poets, and the Rockefeller Foundation, among others, and he held the post of Poet Laureate of Indiana in 2018-2019. He currently lives in Chicago and serves as Editor of Poetry magazine.  I corresponded with Matejka about the widely varied musical influences in his work, the pandemic’s impact on the shaping of his most recent poetry collection, his experience taking over as Editor of Poetry Magazine, his views on the dangers of writing from a universal place, and more.

CD: While your five books of poetry possess a range of recurring subjects, each collection takes a distinct approach in terms of the relationship between its individual poems and its larger structure. For example, in your 2009 book Mixology, you employ a structural motif at both the micro level and macro level that evokes mix-tapes and musical mash-ups. In your 2013 book The Big Smoke, you adapt the voice of legendary African American prize fighter Jack Johnson in poems that both stand alone and speak in chorus. Your 2017 collection Map to the Stars uses outer space as a lens through which to examine the interplay between skin color and poverty. What are some differences and continuities that you observe, as far as the relationship between individual poems and overall manuscript construction, when you compare your most recent poetry collection Somebody Else Sold the World to your earlier books?

AM: Thanks for spending time with my work and for your thoughtful observations. My sense is that everything I write is part of the same long project, one that I hope is about evolving aesthetics as much as it is about the subject matter that I choose to explore. For years, I’ve felt as though I’m trying to write a poem of which I can’t yet fully conceive, and each new poem, each new book, is part of figuring out how to bring that future poem into being.

The work in my first book gave me the narrative foundation to say what I wanted to say in Mixology. The wordplay and percussion in Mixology helped me try to perform loudly enough to inhabit Jack Johnson for The Big Smoke. Being vulnerable in persona showed me how to become more autobiographically open in Map to the Stars. One thing begets the next, but hopefully not in a predictable way.

All the things that I learned while writing those books coalesced into something different in Somebody Else Sold the World. The book is an anomaly for me because I wrote the poems quickly during the pandemic, without the usual self-consciousness deliberation of my earlier poems. Because of that, I feel emotionally exposed in them in a way that isn’t entirely comfortable. I still get nervous when I read some of the poems aloud.

During COVID, I was able—for the first time since graduate school, probably—to write every day. Athletes talk about the need to stack days of training to level up. Maybe the version of that for poets is stacking poems Monday through Sunday until we are finally trained up enough to write the poem we’re here to write. Life doesn’t usually allow that kind of indulgence, but maybe it’s something to which we should aspire.

CD: Expanding on the question above, how would you describe your process in putting together a book of poetry? Do you tend to start with a central thematic thread, motif, or other shaping factor, and then craft the book’s poems around that unifying element? Or do you generate a scattering of poems and then figure out a way to make them work within a manuscript’s structure? When you sit down to start working on a fresh manuscript, do you consciously try to move your work in novel directions, in terms of style and content, or do you trust that your poetry will take on new nuances in an organic manner?

AM: I’m glad that you asked this because I’m very concerned about continuing to grow as a poet while also remaining legible. When I first started reading poetry in the 1990s, there was an expectation that the majority of books would be “collections” of poems, united by the poet’s fascinations but not necessarily unified around a central theme or idea. There were, of course, a few thematically unified collections that offered a different kind of reading experience, like Rita Dove’s brilliant Thomas and Beulah and Marilyn Nelson’s elegant The Homeplace, but the majority of books were, to borrow your language, a scattering of poems.

Somewhere in the early 2000s, a full-on shift to unified poetry collections took place in the literary world. I think this happened because book contests became the primary way for poets to get their manuscripts into print. Collections that orbit a unifying theme are sometimes easier to recognize and absorb, which can be helpful for marketers and readers. It makes sense, right? If you can explain a poetry collection in an elevator pitch, it might make the book more accessible and inviting to readers, partly because it allows them to engage with a book of poems in the same way that they might with a novel or short story.

I wouldn’t have considered writing a longform poem in Jack Johnson’s voice without the other historical, thematically-centered books that I admire from the early 2000s, such as Tyehimba Jess’s Leadbelly, A. Van Jordan’s MacNolia, and Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler. While the trend toward unified books has ended up narrowing the scope of some collections, those three books exemplify how writing poems around a unifying theme can expand a poet’s work in unexpected directions. What I learned from Leadbelly, MacNolia, and Blood Dazzler is that crafting a unified poetry collection can create rich opportunities for questions and curiosity, which are almost more important to a poem that its subject matter.

That said, my approach to generation and organization has differed for every book, mainly because my life has been different during the crafting of each collection. When I was younger, I had time to languish in poetry and write for hours. That practice led to a particular kind of narrative poem. Stories sometimes take time, and I was able to linger in the storytelling process. I think about narrative poems as lazy Saturdays when there’s nowhere in particular that I need to be, but I’ll get there eventually.

After my daughter was born, I had less time. Kids don’t care about poetry or deadlines. They have the luxury of living on kid time, which is more about seconds and minutes than hours. When she was a baby and woke up every thirty minutes, I had to forgo narrative mediations in service of quicker, more fragmented lyrics, which I could write during her naps.

The rapper DOOM used to keep a rhyme-book full of verses that made him laugh. He called them “that’s-a-good-ones.” Once he had enough “that’s-a-good-ones,” he would stitch them together into verses that made some kind of sense. When you listen to his lyrics, they are full of non sequiturs as a result of his writing process. I used a similar approach in Mixology and Somebody Else Sold the World, both in writing the individual poems and organizing the books as a whole.

The pastiche approach has allowed me to think about writing as creating an organic puzzle that’s guided by questions. The questions carry us forward, both in poetry and life. Because the answers to the questions are never the same, the poems are never the same. There are poets who have written variations of the same poem for years, and I imagine they’re still looking for the answer to their original question.

CD: Before we dive into a detailed discussion of your most recent book Somebody Else Sold the World, it would be fascinating for readers of Literary Matters to hear about your experience as the new editor of Poetry magazine, a position you’ve held since May 2022. What has it been like thus far to helm the longest-running monthly poetry magazine in the English-speaking world? What are some central elements of your vision as the editor of the magazine, and in what ways do you see your editorial approach as differing from that of previous Poetry magazine editors? Drawing from your background as a teacher, as the former Poet Laureate of Indiana, and as the editor of other literary magazines, in what ways do you feel that you joined the Poetry staff fully prepared for the editorship, and in what ways have you been surprised or challenged by what you’ve encountered?

AM: It’s been a real pleasure and a challenge to be lead editor of Poetry. As you said, the magazine has a long and austere history. So many of my favorite poets, from Gwendolyn Brooks and Robert Hayden to Yusef Komunyakaa and Terrance Hayes, have appeared in the magazine. At the same time, the magazine hasn’t always been inviting to poets from marginalized communities or poets who write in non-Western traditions.

When I was first published in Poetry back in 2012, I was the only poet of color in the issue. I’m not pointing this out as an indictment of the editor at that time. He was supportive of me then and now. I mention it because Poetry reflected the landscape of literary journals and prizes at the time. When I think about how diverse the pages are now, the magazine has undergone an incredible transformation. I’m a small part of it, but the transformation was happening before I moved to Chicago in 2022.

In a more personal sense, it has been a bit of a challenge to move from submitting to Poetry and engaging with the Poetry Foundation as a poet to being a staff member at the magazine, mainly for this reason: I’m required to think from an editorial perspective about the work of poets I love and admire, rather than from the perspective of a friend or all-day advocate. I’m still trying to navigate that part of the position, the question of how to see and support poets with whom I’ve been friends for decades, while also avoiding anything approximating nepotism. I lean on the other members of my editorial team constantly because of this. We want to do all of our work in the most ethical and outward-facing way possible.

CD: Moving to Somebody Else Sold the World, I’d love to start by discussing a specific cycle of poems that appears in the collection. Each of the poems in this cycle has been titled with a different variation on the book’s titular phrase. Examples include “Somebody Else Sold the World [& Before I Knew It…],” “Somebody Else Sold the World [Everything Goes Better],” and “Somebody Else Sold the World [Outside, the Antagonists].” Given that at least one of these poems appears in all five sections of Somebody Else Sold the World, would you describe for us the impetus behind your decision to weave them throughout the collection? Also, you note in the book that the “Somebody Else Sold the World” cycle was inspired by David Bowie’s song “The Man Who Sold the World” from his album of the same name, so would you elaborate for us on how you view the cycle in relation to the song that sparked it?

AM: I was a radio DJ for a while, and music has been a big part of my life and writing practice. During the pandemic, I got out my DJ set and played music as a way of calming myself in that uncertain time. The music—David Bowie, but also Portishead, Funkadelic, Frank Ocean, and others—became both a way to cope with the anxiety of the pandemic and a wellspring of inspiration for new poems. There’s a playlist in the back of the book that includes the songs that inspired the poems. Most of the work in Somebody Else Sold the World was written between March and October 2020.

Before that, I’d been sketching out a book of love poems. By “sketching” I mean writing questions about love in my notebooks. I wanted to challenge myself to be honest about the erotic. The love poems I’d written previously weren’t successful, I felt, because they were overly performative. Then COVID happened, and it kind of took over the project. Some of the love poems still made it into the book, but the “Somebody Else Sold the World” cycle was the first thing I wrote, and it became the center of the collection.

I had “The Man Who Sold the World” on repeat during quarantine because there was something prescient in the lyrics. The title connection was obvious to me, watching our elected officials at that time sell us all out for their own benefit. Then I found out that David Bowie was inspired to write the song by a poem called “Antigonish” by Hugh Mearns. In the poem, the speaker encounters an apparition on the stairs, and he is understandably freaked out by it. Bowie took this conceit and flipped it, so the ghost is the commercialized pop star version of Bowie himself, and he doesn’t like it at all. It’s a fascinating self-interrogation. I wanted to do a similar reflection, but the ghost (if there is one) is COVID.

CD: An especially intriguing element of the poems mentioned above is the frequent mention of a group known as “the antagonists.” In some instances, we’re invited to see “the antagonists” as people that occupy the wealthiest strata of society. At other moments, the phrase “the antagonists” refers to various people that the poem’s speaker views as exhibiting questionable behavior, as in the following lines about those who ignore COVID-19 public health protocols: “Antagonists all over, mostly maskless / as underprepared burglars. // They cough without / covering their tracks.” It would be fascinating to hear you reflect on the many possible implications of “the antagonists” in Somebody Else Sold the World. Related to that, one of the poems in the collection starts with an epigraph by the novelist Ben Okri: “Hunger is an antagonist.” How do you see this epigraph as informing our understanding of “the antagonists” that we encounter throughout the book?

AM: I’m a big fan of Ben Okri’s work. Most people know his novels, but he’s also an exceptional poet. The epigraph is from one of his essays about poetry, “While the World Sleeps.” In the essay he argues “the antagonists of poetry cannot win,” and I hang onto that sentiment while I’m trying to move through the world as a poet.

The pandemic was brutal and frightening, and it showed the gaps in health and wealth in the United States. The inequity was spotlighted in ways we hadn’t previously seen. The federal government wasn’t doing anything, the state governments couldn’t afford to do anything, and the local governments were overwhelmed. It became incumbent on the citizenry to take care of each other, and a lot of people didn’t want to do that. Our friends and neighbors were making moral and ethical choices every day. Some chose not to help, while others approached the crisis more selflessly.

I had a neighbor in Indianapolis who kept a huge confederate flag flying in front of his house and a Trump flag draped over his porch. He would sit on his front step with a gun in his lap, glaring at people for no apparent reason other than general bitterness. All the houses around him had Pride flags and Black Lives Matter signs, and he would sit there day after day in his little oasis of hate. “Antagonist” felt like the perfect word to describe him, so he became the first antagonist I wrote about. The former president and his cronies were some of the others. I included myself with the antagonists at times, particularly when I wasn’t being the best version of myself out of fear, anxiety, or exhaustion.

CD: Continuing our discussion of “the antagonists” in Somebody Else Sold the World, you sometimes present them in counterpoint to a collective “we” that includes the poet, the reader, and by implication, the majority of Americans. Yet you’re also careful in the book to eschew overly simplistic “us” and “them” binaries that paint certain members of society as entirely good and others as entirely evil, and you do this partly through your choice to keep the identity of “the antagonists” ambiguous and ever-shifting. When it comes to writing poetry about various forms of inequality and injustice, what are the challenges involved in avoiding an approach that either veers toward didacticism or lacks sufficient moral complexity? Related to that, are there any poets that you view as particularly strong models in this regard?

AM: Writing from a universal place is dangerous because we can never truly know another person’s lived experience. Poetry helps demystify things, but even poems can’t show us the full interior, which reminds me of something Miles Davis said: “If you understood everything I say, then you’d be me.” I love that.

In this book, it felt important to use the collective because the pandemic was one of the few events in my lifetime that affected nearly everyone the same way. Rich people were able to experience their usual privileges, but they were still susceptible to the virus. For those of us on the street level, the fear was ever-present, and we shared similar frustrations.

For all my talk about the political, I don’t imagine myself to be a directly political writer. It can be so challenging to make anger or righteousness available in a poem without having those feelings overwhelm the verse. I’m simply not good at it. I’m thinking about Etheridge Knight’s “Feeling Fucked Up” as an example of a poem that manages to balance many kinds of politics while remaining distinctly human. I would love to be able to write with that kind of heat.

CD: The poems in Somebody Else Sold the World often contain aural echoes created by various kinds of rhyme, most commonly internal rhyme and slant rhyme. The following lines from “It Was Over Way Back Then” exemplify how sound frequently operates, not just in this particular collection but also in your larger oeuvre: “…Earphones on // so your eardrums don’t get / punched out near the exit. // Tom Fords on, too, just / for the flex of it.”

What do you see as some of the effects achieved in poems that use this intermittent approach to rhyme, anchored by a rough rhythmic symmetry across the lines, in comparison to poems that possess other kinds of soundscapes? How do you go about finding the right aural atmosphere for each individual poem as you shape it, and what are some of your central influences, literary and musical, when it comes to crafting the sonic elements of your work?

AM: I’m glad you quoted those lines because that poem has the saddest music (in my head, anyway), but I hope that it still swings. I was raised on musical poets. I wanted to write jazz poetry exclusively when I was younger. If a poem doesn’t swing I have a hard time investing in it. Now I’m thinking about Etheridge Knight again, this time his poem “Haiku:”

Making jazz swing in
Seventeen syllables AIN’T
No square poet’s job.

He’s right. When I was a professor, I created a class called “The Poetics of Rap” in which we studied rap lyrics through the lens of poetic device. We used Adam Bradley’s Book of Rhymes as one of the texts. It’s a fantastic craft book. Anyone interested in musicality should read it. Rap music is founded on assonance, consonance, anaphora, and rhyme. There are something like fourteen different kinds of rhyme used in rap.

That’s a long way of saying that most of the music in my work is intentional, though not willfully so. I have music playing constantly when I write. For every book I’ve written, I have a playlist of the songs to which I listened while writing. That said, I was surprised by some of the rhymes and rhythms in Somebody Else Sold the World. Once I found them, I tried to turn the volume up by chaining the rhymes or otherwise amplifying the sonics of the poems. Sound is one of the major things I work on in the revision process. It’s both foundational and decorative for me.

CD: Somebody Else Sold the World includes a series centered on guns. Titled “Bullet Parts,” the series contains five sections, each of which reflects on one of the specific structural elements out of which a bullet is made. As a common motif in these sections, you imagine various versions of what a bullet’s raw material might have become if put to other uses. In “Primer (Brass & Lead),” you describe the “bullet base” as “made from the kind of brass that otherwise would have been a classroom doorknob.” Similarly, in “Case (Brass & Steel),” you describe the brass that makes up a bullet’s casing as “wishing to be a lost key,” while characterizing the steel used in that same casing as material “taken from the sides of ships or the skeletons of skyscrapers.” How did you arrive at the idea for your “Bullet Parts” series, and would you talk further about your strategy in focusing on the minute structural elements of a bullet as a way to explore the larger issue of gun violence?

AM: This series began in response to the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and at the time it was just a single poem. I thought that was all I had to share. But I kept coming back to the idea of manufactured violence. Humans are so good at destroying things. Imagining that something we once believed to be medicine has become the baseline agent for murder, genocide, and conquest is exhausting. We perfected harm before we even understood all the forms that harm might take.

I remember President Obama saying that he knew we were lost as a nation after the Sandy Hook murders. Then it somehow got even worse, with school shootings happening multiple times nearly every year. Generations of our children have to undergo active shooter training in elementary school and it barely helps. The series was my attempt to find language for that anxiety and sadness. I expanded it to address all of the bullet parts after Philando Castile was murdered in Minneapolis. There is so much more that needs to be said and done about gun violence in the US.

CD: Two poems in Somebody Else Sold the World, “Later Isn’t a Time” and “Darling,” make a particularly striking counterpoint to each other. In “Later Isn’t a Time,” you describe several societal changes for which “we can’t wait,” and you present police reform as one of those urgently needed changes. In “Darling,” we encounter two lovers who decide to stay inside and spend the night together instead of joining the protests that are happening on the streets around them. The poem ends with the following lines:

Yes: We’ve been at it
since back before
the virus’s crescent,
but it’s still a selfish
stunt, skipping tonight’s
protest. Yes: it’s blunt
as sea salt in the sweet
dust where we still
end up undressed
& and unrushed no matter
how many sirens holler
at us from out there.

The lovers’ insistence on carving out a space for private joy at least briefly, amidst the struggles and inequities that surround us, exists in contrast to the urgency expressed in “Later Isn’t a Time,” which depicts a reality in which we no longer have time to do anything but devote ourselves to remedying society’s ills. The push-and-pull between these two poems mirrors a larger tension in Somebody Else Sold the World. At times, the poems in the collection warn us that we can’t look away from the world’s problems, and at other times the poems prompt us to look away just long enough to find the glimmers of hope and connection that exist despite those problems. Would you share your thoughts on the experience of navigating that tension, both on and off the page?

AM: I’m so grateful for this question because it directs me to think about something I’ve never been able to reconcile: How can we be significant stewards of the world—whether as caregivers, agitators, protesters, or advocates—while also being three-dimensional human beings? As I mentioned, I’m a troublesome political writer. What I mean is that my work can’t help but be political because I have eyes and a heart. But sophisticated political critiques of the kind found in Gwendolyn Brooks’s In the Mecca, Mari Evans’s I Am a Black Woman, or Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic are beyond my skill set. I know this and accept my limitations.

But when I was stuck at home in Indianapolis during COVID, watching Black women and men being murdered, I could barely contain myself. I spent long periods protesting in the streets of downtown Indianapolis with my wife and some of my neighbors, all of us yelling at the racist systems we have passively fostered for so long. Action, maybe more than poetry, is where my protests manifest.

Then there’s another part that involves being a human, not a slogan. Nobody can be a fulltime chant. We’re people with needs, hopes, and frustrations.

At some point, if you’re socially aware and willing to put your whole body in front of the tank, you understand that you’re giving up the carnal for the philosophical. This makes me think of something the great jazz saxophone player Cannonball Adderley said: “Hipness isn’t a state of mind; it’s a fact of life.” You step up or you don’t. You take water and wellness breaks during life as necessary.

CD: I’m sure that readers of Literary Matters would welcome the chance to hear about what you’re working on at present. Would you share a bit about some of the projects you’re currently developing, both as a poet and an editor? What writers and musical artists are obsessing you these days? Are there any particular subjects, themes, or stylistic approaches that you’re especially drawn to exploring in your work right now? What are some of your thoughts about what readers might expect to see from you going forward?

AM: I’m currently working on a new and selected volume, which has been a trip. I think it’s going to be called Alternate Set List: New & Selected Poems.  The “new” part is what’s slowing me down. The poems are competent, but still don’t quite have enough heat. I’m seeing some new themes (for me, anyway) in them—physical and psychological safety, escape, and migration seem to be reoccurring themes. The poems are about where I’m not as much as they are about where I am. I’m never sure when a poem is finished, but I do know when I’ve reached my emotional limit with a poem, that point in a piece’s development when there’s nothing else I can do to enhance it. I’m not at that point with the new poems, so I’ve still got work to do.

The selected part was so much more psychically complicated than I’d expected. Imagine sifting through a poetic scrapbook of the past twenty-five years. I still occasionally read from Mixology and Map to the Stars, so the poems remain familiar. But I was reading through The Devil’s Garden thinking, “I don’t even recognize this dude,” not because of my amateur craft or suspect line breaks but because of the book’s point of view. Reading The Devil’s Garden was like cracking open a diary riddled with anxiety and uncertainty. I hardly remember who I was last year, let alone in 1998.

CD: Thank you for conversing with us, Adrian. We are delighted to hear that you’re putting together a new and selected volume, and we look forward to seeing where your work, both as a poet and as the Editor of Poetry magazine, will take us in the coming years.