The Power of Voice in Poetry: A Conversation with Adrian Matejka

Adrian Matejka's author photo: standing in a black suit against a window backdrop.

In this interview conducted by Nour Al Ghraowi, Adrian Matejka discusses the struggle of emerging as a young writer of color, emphasizing the importance of telling our stories because no one else can. As the first African American to serve as Indiana State Poet Laureate since 1985, Matejka feels a deep responsibility to represent his people and promises to open as many doors as he can for poets of color to enter the literary world.

Adrian Matejka was the poet laureate of Indiana from 2018-2019. His collection, The Big Smoke, was awarded the 2014 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and was also a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award, the 2014 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. His most recent book, Map to the Stars, was published by Penguin in 2017. His first graphic novel, Last on His Feet, is forthcoming from Liveright in 2021.

Nour Al Ghraowi: At the beginning of your book, you quoted Sun Ra and Gwendolyn Brooks—what’s your relationship to them as a writer?

Adrian Matejka: Gwendolyn Brooks is one of my touchstone writers. Gwendylon Brooks, Lucille Clifton, and Yusef Komunyakaa are the writers I always go back to. We all have those people, the writers that when you get jammed up, you go back and remind yourself of what it is you want to be as a writer, and Brooks is one of those poets. Also, Gwendolyn Brooks was a poet of place; she wrote about Chicago in a way only someone from Chicago could. I wanted to write about Indianapolis with the same consideration she showed to Chicago. She was a natural poetic model for that kind of homeplace interrogation.

Sun Ra is a whole other thing because he intersects with music and geography. He used to say he was from Saturn, and so he was afrofuturistic before that was a term people used. Also, the idea of escape and interstellar voyaging was just something I wished as a kid but didn’t understand or have a name for it.

Al Ghraowi: What were some of the struggles you went through as a poet/writer of color? Did you feel that you had to take an extra step for your work to be seen? Did you feel that as a published poet you have responsibilities towards other people of color? And what’s your advice for young and upcoming writers of color?

Matejka: Yes. I’m going to start with advice, because I wish somebody would have given it to me, and the truth of it is no one values our stories except for us. It’s of the utmost importance that we write our stories truthfully and write them directly. I had a very difficult time as a writer coming up because there were no writers of color in my workshops. I never studied with a poet of color—no professors or peers—until graduate school.

I was fortunate enough to study with Martin Espada for a week in 1994, and that was transformative. But I never had a semester-long workshop or anything like that.

I tried to write about things that mattered to me in workshop, you know simple things and it would be so complicated . I wrote about having a Jheri curl, and nobody in class knew what Jheri curl was. Nobody understood these minor parts of my upbringing, and I had to explain them away until they didn’t have any power. I felt like they had no value.

The only way to supercede that feeling of valuelessness is to write through it, but I didn’t have models for it. So things are much better now for poets of color. I mean, they are still difficult, and literary spaces and the academy are still homogeneous, but the availability of books by writers of color is so [laughs] much more robust now than it was in the 90s when I was coming up. So attending to the stories and songs from marginalized communities is maybe the only advice anybody needs.

Al Ghraowi: So by having to explain to other writers about your upbringing and your culture, was that exhausting or exciting or frustrating?

Matejka: I think explaining things is an emotional burden that writers of color are often saddled with. We’re so often asked to explain an entire community, an entire history or culture, in a Q&A or in a reading, and that is simply not possible. It’s also not our job. It’s the job of the audience to catch up— it’s not our job to slow down or to rearrange our lives in a way that’s easier or more fastidious.

All of this is one of the reasons I love Terrance Hayes’s book American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. He’s writing in a form that creates a space for a dialogue across expectations but is not slowing his capacious imagination down. Illya Kaminsky’s beautiful book Deaf Republic works in a similar way. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, too. There are many books that refuse to dilute themselves in service of an audience that may or may not value their culture and community.

Al Ghraowi: Toni Morrison in her documentary The Pieces I Am said, “I write to my people and not about my people.” Who does Adrian Matejka write for, or to?

Matejka: [laughs] You know, I want to cosign Ms. Morrison. What a wonderful way to frame the complications of writing with melanin. You know, we started out talking about Gwendolyn Brooks, and Ms. Brooks made the choice after being the first black poet to win the Pulitzer Prize to write to and for a black audience.

She surveyed the landscape, interacted with the Black Arts Movement poets, and decided her community needed her poems more than anyone else. And other people enjoyed her poems and valued them because she was a beautiful poet. But her agenda was to write to her folks, the people who needed her the most. That’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do. Who I’m trying to write for changes sometimes, but I was absolutely thinking about people who grew up in Indianapolis when I wrote Map to the Stars. I was thinking about my community. Specifically black people, but people of color and poor people in general. That was my audience for Map.

The Big Smoke had a different audience. It had a different community of people, and mainly I wondered who needed to see Jack Johnson directly and clearly. I had a big list of people I imagined would pick this book up in my head. The black community absolutely, but also historians and scholars of black art and boxing.

But all of this is secondary, honestly. The first person I’m writing to and for is me, and if I can’t figure it out and if I don’t find it interesting, and if I don’t feel like its illuminating some kind of thing for me, then I can’t imagine it would illuminate anything for anyone else. If it’s not surprising to me, there’s no way it will surprise someone else.

Al Ghraowi: You said you were the first African American poet laureate in Indiana, could you talk a little bit about your experience as a poet laureate?

Matejka: I’m the first black to be the “official” Indiana Poet Laureate, but it was an unofficial position for a long time. There was one other black poet, Wendell Parker, who held the position in 1985. The laureate position started in 1929, and as far as I can tell, there wasn’t a laureate of color until Wendell Parker. Then there wasn’t another laureate of color until me. In almost a century of laureates there were only two of us.

It is an intense kind of responsibility to be the first of anything, or the second of anything, to be seen as a representative in a way maybe writers and artists don’t necessarily want to be representatives. We mostly want to make our own work and our own art. But somebody opened enough doors so I could become poet Laureate, and I tried to open up as many doors as I could for everybody while I was there. I tried to invite the performance community, and people who write outside of the university, and people who just wrote on the weekends. I tried to bring them into the blank space that used to be cordoned off for academic poets.

Al Ghraowi: In an earlier reading, you said, “History is whatever you want it to be.” Which part of history would Adrian Matejka like to carry on to his future?

Matejka: You know [pauses] I gave up a long time ago trying to change anything I’ve done, so all I can do is try to reframe with positivity. I’m excited about what’s going to happen later—that’s where the poems are, right? Like, the past is immutable, the future is unexplainable, and the present is impossible. All we have is the moment we are writing in and trying to figure out how to make that moment exist alongside and inside all of those other moments is something only poets can do.

Al Ghraowi: In your book “The Big Smoke ” you spoke in the voice of Jack Johnson—what are some of the responsibilities that you felt you took on while speaking in the voice of someone very important like him?

Matejka: I felt a deep responsibility. It was a different version of the responsibility I felt being poet laureate, though. I felt as if I was being trusted with someone’s story, and that incredible story has been mishandled before. So I was committed to finding a way to tell the story ethically and with a moral sensitivity that begins with the fact that this man lived this life.

You know, I might be writing about Jack Johnson and his life a hundred years later, but he actually lived this. He experienced the degradation and threats every single day. Every day somebody could have murdered him and nobody would have cared. He experienced the brutality of Jim Crow and the full weight of the United States government trying to take him down. Heavy business. You know what I mean? The kind of trauma that this man experienced and dealt with is something that needed to be told directly. To imagine or fictionalize it felt disingenuous, and it felt disrespectful.

I spent two years trying to learn as much as I could about Mr. Johnson’s life and times before I wrote anything. I tried to stay as close as I could to the facts in every instance, so in The Big Smoke, everything—with the exception of poems in the voice of the Shadow—actually happened, and everything happened as it is in the book. If it’s a fight in 1909 in Crown Point, Indiana, then that happened. I wanted the book to be almost a biography only in poems.

Al Ghraowi: You said, “Poetry comes from the body.” Could you talk more about that?

Matejka: I think there’s some kind of weird complication from the Reformation, where people think the body and the mind have to be separated, but the fact is, the body is the brain’s engine and the heart is the engine for the body. So of course poetry is going to come from that body place, you know. If your heart isn’t behind the poem, pushing it further than you know how to push in line breaks [laughs], then you made some other kind of thing.

But for me, writing poetry is a very physical act. Using a pen to inscribe a page with a poem that comes from wherever poems comes from requires stamina. It requires focus, and it requires all the different things that only come out of the active body. When a poem works, you feel it. You don’t feel it in your brain. You feel it in your shoulder blades and in your chest. Sometimes you feel along your arms because there are goosebumps. That’s where the poem settles itself—entirely in the body. It’s going back home. The poem is coming from the body and going back to it.

Al Ghraowi: What is music to you?

Matejka: [laughs] Music is the system through which I understand the world. It may be the only thing other than poetry that works that way—patterns of sound make a different kind of sense to me and help me to reframe things.

I’m always thinking about music when I write poems because these two arts are so intimately intertwined to me. A poem is music and words, music is a poem with backup notes and rhythms. Two things that feel they are almost the same entity but they are not. Putting the two together can be overwhelming in a wonderful way. [pauses] Like rap music, or like great lyricists: Bob Marley or Leonard Cohen or Joni Mitchell.

Al Ghraowi: Absolutely. So when not writing poetry, what do you like to do?

Matejka: [laughs] You know, one of the things that I had to come to terms with is that I am always thinking about poems. Even when I’m not writing poetry, I’m always thinking about it in one way or another. When I’m going to get some shots up at the gym, I’m thinking about line breaks and rhythm. When I take a walk I think about rhyme, when I’m DJing I think about cadences and simile. Each act informs poetry directly. Like the action of free throws. Shooting free throws somehow informs the rhythm in a poem. In the end, I think I’m always looking for poetry around me.