The author being interviewed was Adrian Matejka, born in Nuremberg, Germany, who’s spent half his life in the Hoosier state. Matejka was being interviewed because he’s the Regional Author winner of the 2015 Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Author Award. A graduate of Indiana University Bloomington, he’s now the Lilly Professor / Poet-in-Residence at his alma mater. In that capacity, he teaches a course each fall in rap poetics. He can talk to you about the rap stylings of Chuck D and Rakim but he can also talk to you about the sonnet structures of Charles Baudelaire.
Matejka’s also a huge boxing fan, which certainly has something to do with his choice of subject matter for The Big Smoke, his third book of poems, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 2013. It’s about the life of turn-of-the-twentieth-century heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson. Matejka’s also hard at work on a graphic novel about Johnson.
When I pulled into the parking lot, I had already made up my mind to talk to Matejka. I got my chance last Tuesday when we had an hour-long conversation by phone.
NUVO: What about Jack Johnson, the boxer and the man, spoke to you?
What got me interested in Jack Johnson is that he’s a quintessentially America figure. He’s a self-made man. He was self-educated; his parents were slaves. He came from as nothing as you can have to become the most famous athlete in the world. Everyone knew who Jack Johnson was when he was alive. So to be able to that seems very American to me... But at the same time, he’s doing this in the face of the most intense racism imaginable. Somebody could have killed him and nobody would have blinked about it. And a lot of people wanted to kill him because here was this black man with all this money. He’s bold. He wears all these nice clothes. He’s out there traveling the world and that’s not supposed to be in Jim Crow America. So I was really interested in how someone like that, someone who was had such magnetism, who was such an outsized figure could exist in turn of the twentieth century…
NUVO: I heard you on WFYI’s No Limits a couple of weeks ago. You were talking about a new book of poems about Indianapolis.
Indianapolis is in my new book called Collectable Blacks... It’ll be out in April of 2017… It’s funny. I spent so much time thinking about Jack Johnson’s story. I spent so much time thinking about how to craft it and how to make a contemporary narrative out of it that when I went back and tried to write my own poems, all of a sudden, place mattered in a way that it hadn’t mattered to me. Writing about Jack Johnson and thinking about geography, the geography that he existed in, made me think of my own geography.
NUVO: I read a poem of yours entitled “& Later” after a painting by Basquiat and you have in it a great line; “Indianapolis’s three-skyscrapered smile.” Does that relate to a particular memory of yours, growing up in Indianapolis?
That’s in the new book. There’s a series of poems that respond to Basquiat’s paintings in the book. And yeah. I used to live in Carriage House East, way out of Mitthoeffer and 42nd street and it was a neighborhood that was severely lacking in resources. Just a busted up basketball court and that kind of thing. But when you could see the skyline, when you could Indianapolis from a distance it was just these three skyscrapers. That’s all you could see from out there. And then when we moved out to Pike Township there were like five skyscrapers that you could see from that angle. Pike was really affluent: we got to see more of it from out there. There’s no way that was intentional. It’s just kind of funny how those kind of things work out.
NUVO: What got you interested in poetry in the first place?
Well, I wanted to be a rapper. In the mid-80s, my buddy Che and I were like this little rap group. And we’d record ourselves on these little tape decks. And we were really bad at it. So I had this idea that I wanted to work with language… And when I realized that my career as an emcee was never going to take off, I was casting about for other opportunities for self-expression. And then I got a chance to hear [poet] Yusef Komunyakaa read and that was it. Whatever he’s doing, I want to do that. And so that was kind of the beginning of it for me.
Reading: Alyce Miller & Adrian Matejka
Nov. 4, 7 p.m.
The Back Door
207 S College Ave. Bloomington
So I was driving to work a few weeks ago and WFYI’s public affairs program No Limits was on the radio. But the topic being discussed this time around was, let’s just say, more poetry than public affairs.