Interview by Anna Claire Hodge
Adrian Matejka was born in Nuremberg, Germany and grew up in California and Indiana. He is a graduate of Indiana University and the MFA program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He is the author of The Devil’s Garden (Alice James Books, 2003) which won the New York / New England Award and Mixology (Penguin, 2009), a winner of the 2008 National Poetry Series. Mixology was also a finalist for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literature. His most recent collection of poems, The Big Smoke (Penguin, 2013), was awarded the 2014 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. The Big Smoke was also a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award, 2014 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and 2014 Pulitzer Prize in poetry. His new book, Map to the Stars, is forthcoming from Penguin in March 2017. Among Matejka’s other honors are the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Award, two grants from the Illinois Arts Council, the Julia Peterkin Award, a Pushcart Prize, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Lannan Foundation, and a Simon Fellowship from United States Artists. He teaches in the MFA program at Indiana University in Bloomington and is currently working on a new collection of poems, Hearing Damage, and a graphic novel.
Your last collection, The Big Smoke, chronicled the life of legendary boxer Jack Johnson. Map to the Stars delves in great detail into your adolescence. How did you manage the transition from biographical poems to such personal work?
Map to the Stars is the aftermath of moving back to Indiana after being as far away as I could be for almost 20 years. Sometimes I get so far into my own poetic fascinations that it’s easy to for me to pretend geography isn’t as important to a poem as metaphor or archive or the music inside the words. But when I got home and found myself in this place that was familiar but isn’t anymore, I had no choice but to write about it.
I mean, the buildings are mostly the same, corn smells the same in the summer, and the humidity is as wet blanket as ever. But I’m twice as old as when I lived here last time and have a kid now. I know Emily Dickinson and Jean Michel Basquiat and why each is so beautiful. So how could Indiana be the same for me or for itself after being displaced by my migrations and demographic shifts?
That emotional and psychic confusion—of growth, of place, of change—forced me out of the docupoetics space I had been working in and into a more autobiographical, lyric mode. I hope the book is a little less inward-looking than I’m making it sound, though. I tried to get at more wide-angled concerns—economics, masculinity, racism, Voyager 2, and EPMD among other things. Some of those bigger picture concerns also end up being inadvertent intersections between the work I was doing in The Big Smoke and this new book.
Heavenly bodies have often served as fodder for poetry, which can fail spectacularly. I tell my students to avoid the moon and stars whenever possible, and yet you’ve written a whole book imbued with the astrological. Did you ever question this choice?
That’s high end advice. I also think young writers should avoid geraniums, grandparents, and break ups—not in their notebooks or personal graffiti, but definitely in the poems they plan to share. There are simply too many clichés in these subjects waiting for them and all of us, really, like trite potholes. We have to learn to write around them.
I was thinking about astronomy as a thread when I started writing the poems, but there was a metaphoric insistence happening that was way beyond my amateur astronomer patch. It seemed like stars, constellations, and planets kept popping up no matter what the poem was supposed to be exploring. Once I understood the poems were looking upward, I began questioning the choices of subject and language for slightly different reasons than you mention.
The oldest poems in Map to the Stars are from 2010 and two of my favorite recent books—Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon’s ]Open Interval[ and Terrance Hayes’s Lighthead—dropped around that time. Both collections explore outer space in sophisticated ways and I wasn’t sure what I had to contribute to the conversation. Which is a big deal for me. Who wants to be back of the bus when it comes to outer space poetry?
In the end, space is more of an extended metaphor than allusory engine. Carl Sagan has this great essay, “The Man in the Moon and the Face on Mars” which explores the ways we imagine human qualities in outer space in order to make more familiar the things we don’t understand—the moon, for example, or the geological patterns on Mars. I think some of the poems in this book work like that, only in reverse because I didn’t (and still don’t sometimes) understand why people do what they do. But stars emit lights in actionable patterns. Planets rotate on axes unfailingly and consistency makes them a little more familiar and dependable.
Was this book a project that you planned in advance or one that sprung from an obsessive churning out of poems that surprised you?
I had all kinds of ideas about what this book might be. None of them are what the book actually became, though, which is a good thing. Knowing the direction a poem or a book will take pickpockets all of the surprises and discoveries. Where this book ended up was so unexpected that I had to change the title the day before it went into production from “Collectable Blacks” to Map to the Stars.
I originally wanted to write a book that called out the violence toward black men and women while also bringing up the hypocrisy of blackness being collected and displayed in the mainstream as public spectacle: “Collectable Blacks.” I’ve always wanted to throw bricks, but the overtly political poems I’ve written are garbage. I thought this collection might be an opportunity to open up a more direct kind of critique.
But no matter how hard I tried, the kind of necessary and immediate truth-to-power work done by Amiri Baraka or Muriel Rukeyser or Run the Jewels is beyond my skillset. Writing this book reaffirmed that I’m back-burner political because my critiques kind of simmer in the back while a different kind of work is happening up front. Maybe that’s an imprecise metaphor, but I’m hungry right now.
When I finished the final draft of the book, I realized I’d touched on all of my political objectives indirectly, but the criticism implied by “Collectable Blacks” wasn’t present. I hadn’t earned the title. What I’d written instead was a book that angles into issues of black masculinity, family, and popular culture in the 1980s. Which is unfortunately timely again because the 1980s were framed by the same kinds of vocal and institutional racism as 2017 after this last election empowered so many of our country’s malignant demons.
Sound plays such an important role in these poems. In the first few pages alone, we encounter windows slamming, barking, sirens, and the click of a door shutting. I experienced a jarring sensory overload during the first few sections, but as I read on, the noise became a comforting hum, a friendly vibration. Was that your intent?
I’m very conscious of sounds—inside the language and as part of image—because I’m always listening. To conversations, to music, to dialogue when the TV gets left on. I think it’s a function of having terrible eyesight and not having glasses when I was I kid. The time the book encompasses was when my vision got shaky, so there’s some autobiographical overlap there, too.
The sounds you mention were also a function of the disparate geographies of the book. In the early sections non-musical sound is usually connected to something negative—neighbors fighting, somebody trying to break into the apartment, that kind of a thing. It also means that there are people around. There is a minor comfort in knowing that someone else is nearby even if their racket is keeping you awake.
In the later sections set in the suburbs, those communal sounds disappear because the suburbs are soundproofed by all of the lawns and foliage and fences. The quiet is the point. It means distance from other people. It means a kind of property ownership through which every aspect of living—including how much neighbor noise is heard—can be controlled. That’s one of the many privileges afforded to affluent Americans.
Can you speak on the use of dialogue within the poems? How do you think it drives the characterization of the friends and family that you quote?
I have a basic distrust of dialogue in poems. Whenever I see it, I question whether it’s actually “dialogue” or a product of the poet trying to write their way out of a jam. I’ve read (and written) too many poems with dialogue that sounds exactly like the poet’s voice but is attributed to a parent or a friend. Who knew so many poets had griots for parents and friends? I’m only half kidding. I think that dialogue can be an incredibly effective tool for characterization in poems, but it has to sound like somebody talking instead of a one of those cookie fortunes in italics.
In Map, I tried to use dialogue primarily as a narrative device. Richard Pryor has more dialogue than anyone and shows up occasionally to give commentary on everything from boys fighting to a couple of unprepared rappers at a house party to police brutality. We don’t get anything about how Pryor looks or what he is doing in those moments. Just a voice over and the dialogue is always from one of his stand ups. That helped me avoid some of that natural impulse toward lyricism.
This book is filled with classic 1980s references (Richard Pryor, stranger danger, Iran, Star Trek, post-Vietnam drug use). Did you include indicators of the era in order to appeal to a collective consciousness or rather chose subjects that were specifically meaningful to you? How did you avoid the overly nostalgic?
The allusions in these poems appeared organically as part of the individual narrative moments and that’s different from how I’ve used allusion before. In Mixology I wanted to use allusions like MCs use them, as part of direct self definition the way DOOM does in “One Beer”: “MCs sound like cheerleaders / rapping and dancing like Red Head Kingpin / DOOM came to do this thing again, no matter who be blinging.” The allusion completes the simile which is then transferred back to DOOM. All the great MCs make moves like this.
Allusion is less gesture and more foundational in Map. It’s part of the texture or atmosphere of the poems. How much listening to Richard Pryor or EPMD records shaped my perspectives, for example. Or how watching Star Trek reruns fed into my 11-year old self’s belief that if I could just get to outer space things would be better. There’s a little bit more in the poems for people who recognize the allusions—phasers on stun, that kind of thing—but I hope that the lyric movements sustain an emotional center beyond that allusory scaffolding.
Nostalgia is complicated, right? It implies looking back with the knowledge of now and usually that new knowledge is detrimental to memory integrity. We call it “learning” or “growing” or whatever, but what’s good for a human being is not always the best move for a poem. So from the jump I refused to directly share what I’ve learned in the time since the catalyst experiences. In part to avoid romanticism of youth (I would never want to be an 11-year old again), but also to avoid the kind of ham-fisted editorials I often want to make in poems. No need for the dramatic “And that’s when I realized we were poor…” or whatever off brand epiphany I might want to impose. The way the images, totems, and sounds are arranged should be enough editorialism.
The more often your absent father was mentioned, I found myself reminded of the Drake lyric “Sad story/another black American dad story.” How does it feel to add to a collective history of abandoned sons?
That’s a nice turn of phrase. I wonder which one of Drake’s ghostwriters wrote it? Seriously, ghostwriters are an endemic in hip hop right now, but only because most of the MCs who use them don’t cop to it. There’s a big difference between Drake’s agenda as a performer and Kendrick Lamar’s, for example. Kendrick couldn’t make his artistic and political statements with the kind of conviction he does if he was rapping someone else’s words. Drake’s not out here doing that kind of work, so it doesn’t make any difference to me who actually writes his bars.
Absent fathers are so much more important than ghostwriters that I almost want to erase what I just said. Hardly any of my friends had fathers around and I think we all suffered in one way or another because of it. Some of those missing men were just bad at being adults, while others (like my father) came back from Vietnam half-crazy and strung out. That changed, though, when we moved out to the suburbs. Everybody had a dad out there and none of them had been in Vietnam.
I think about the obligations of parents quite a bit since I’m lucky enough to be one. All of the male pop culture characters in the book (Sun Ra, Richard Pryor, and Basquiat) were raised in single parent households, which can change what you believe about other people. It can change the way you (dis)trust people.
I’m not sure if I’m adding much to that big conversation beyond the wrinkle that my biological father abandoned my sister, brother, and me while my stepfather stuck tight with us even after he and my mother divorced. It’s not about race, though. My stepfather stayed present because that’s who he is despite his own complicated childhood.
In these poems, the same images appear often, but it’s not jarring. It felt very much like a chorus. To me, they serve as a gloss for the narrative. Did those recurring images assert themselves early on?
I would love to pretend that the imagistic repetition was intentional, but I was surprised by the reoccurring images as well. Charting those systems of occurrences—the golden record or the different moments constructed around smiles or door locks—was part of the revision process.
There was even more repetition before and I cut some of the repeated images because they seemed redundant and/or lazy. I also moved a few of the poems with symmetrical imagery closer together in the book so those narratives and occurrences create texture and tension more directly. During revision I also realized that a) I have some serious hang ups about 1980s tech like black and white television sets and record players and b) most of my male-patterned behavior came from playing basketball.
Within Map, I caught sly title references to EPMD, J Dilla, Parliament Funkadelic, and Sun Ra (who also appears in the book’s epigraph). These artists are juxtaposed with NASA’s Golden Record, which was sent to space in order to represent the sounds of Earth. Do those melodies combine tell your story? Which musicians didn’t make the cut but were just as important to the narrative?
There is definitely a soundtrack here. I had to make one from the 1980s in order to access some of memories. It included the artists you mention plus Art of Noise, Newcleus, Blondie…music that was transitioning from disco and new wave to hip hop. The thing is, I see the musical genealogies I didn’t see then. How much of an influence Parliament was on EPMD for example, or Sun Ra was on Parliament. Or Sun Ra and Parliament were on Prince. It was tough to stay in the naiveté of the 1980s.
I’m also preoccupied with the Sounds of Earth records that went out with Voyager space crafts and I made a playlist of songs that should have been on it. The whole exercise was riffing off of a skit from The Richard Pryor Show in which he plays the first black president. I ended up having to cut my favorite Pryor quote from the skit, but it’s great:
We’re going to send explorer ships through other galaxies & no longer will they have the same type of music—Beethoven, Brahms, & Tchaikovsky. From now on, we’ll have a little Miles Davis, some Charlie Parker. We going to have some different kinds of things in there.
President Richard Pryor wasn’t kidding around. My record would include Miles and Bird, Nina Simone, The Rolling Stones, Bob Marley, Rakim, Funkadelic, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, Prince, Aretha Franklin, Sun Ra. Some recording of poets, too—Lucille Clifton reading “Cruelty” and Yusef Komunyakaa reading “Blue Light Lounge Sutra for the Performance Poets at Harold Park Hotel.” If the point of the record is to introduce the extragalactic listener to Earth, Mozart’s “Der Holle Rache” from Die Zauberflote must be there. But there should also be some room on the LP for two of humanity’s greatest accomplishments: funk and poetry.
Some of that list (like Sun Ra) ended up being a big part of the book. Others (like Bob Marley and The Rolling Stones) don’t fit the archive of the conversation. On the flip side, the most theme-song like song on my playlists didn’t even get mentioned in the book. Art of Noise’s “Moments in Love” was my jam and is a good sonic signifier for these poems thanks to its sparseness and fusion of hip hop and jazz aesthetics. Also, it was the song the DJ played at the rink during the couples-only skates as I sat on the side in my corduroys and Star Trek t-shirt. Now that I think about it, there are many parts of this book that feel like watching a couples-only skate from the benches. I still haven’t learned to skate backwards.
Anna Claire Hodge is a writer based in Jacksonville, Florida, and holds a Ph.D in creative writing from Florida State University. Her poems have been published in Prairie Schooner, Southern Indiana Review, Mid-American Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Copper Nickel, and others. They also appear in the anthologies Best New Poets 2013, It Was Written: Poems Inspired by Hip-Hop, and Myrrh, Mothwing, Smoke: Erotic Poems.
Honors include a Tennessee Williams Scholarship to Sewanee Writers’ Conference, a scholarship to Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing, a residency at Vermont Studio Center, as well as nods in numerous contests like the Copper Nickel Poetry Prize, Wabash Prize for Poetry, and the 49th Parallel Award for Poetry.