The Good Kind of Pressure: An Interview with Adrian Matejka

Weston Cutter


[If you don’t know Adrian Matejka‘s poetry that’s probably something you should get to fixing with some promptness: there’s his latest, Big Smoke, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and before that was Mixology, which was a National Poetry Series prize-winner, and before that was The Devil’s Garden, which won the New York/New England prize from Alice James. Of course, awards are a crap-shoot and the real reason to read Matejka’s stuff’s got zilch to do with the praise it (rightfully) earns and everything to do with how the work actually hits. This interview took place over email through a very cold January from two different ends of Indiana, Adrian south and me north. – WC]

1. This might be super dumb, but do you miss Jack Johnson and that persona you used in The Big Smoke? I can’t wrap my head around such an endeavor, but fiction folks talk of missing characters after they’ve finished whatever they’re working on. I know Jack Johnson’s not a ‘character,’ but I imagine the proximity you had with him might make for a similar feeling. I guess also: are there any parts of his story that you wish you could’ve included but didn’t? I read you mention that it was (is?) supposed to be the first of two books. Is that still a goal? Sorry there are so many questions in this one.

These are all great questions and they are tied to something I’ve been stressing over for a while—where does a research-driven project like this end? Biographies have the luxury of focusing on a life or a time period, but when we’re trying to investigate someone creatively, beginning and end points become more complicated.

I’ve never come up with a good answer because Jack Johnson’s life story is so thick. He directly engaged in many of the major moments in the early parts of the 20th Century including Jim Crow, World War I, the Mexican Revolution, and The Great Depression. His history is so wide-ranging that I decided early in the research process that I needed to write two books to show his story the proper respect.

The thing is, I didn’t want to write two books of poetry. Frank X. Walker did it successfully in his collections about York, but I couldn’t figure out how to apply the dramatic mode in which I imagine Johnson’s voice to his circumstances in the second half of his life. So much of what happens in his second act relates to the world changing around Johnson, rather than Johnson changing the world, if that makes sense. The monologue isn’t the best mode to explore that dynamic.

So I decided to do a graphic novel for the second part. I’m a straight-up comic geek and I always wanted to do a graphic; I just never had material that demanded the graphic form. And I can’t draw, so there’s that. The graphic form allows me to keep Johnson’s narrative style without having to make the kind of political or industrial statements necessary to describe the world changing around him, the kind of expressions that would be inorganic to Johnson’s voice.

That was a really long-winded way of saying I haven’t had the chance to miss Johnson because I’m still working with him. I’ve been bouncing between the graphic novel and my new poetry project for a few months now. Once the graphic is finished, I have the feeling I will go through some serious Johnson withdrawal. By that time, I will have been working on his project for 11 years.

(for the record: did Mos Def’s The New Danger have any threads in your writing? His stuff was the stuff that set me off most into rap [Black on Both Sides was released I think my freshman year in college and between that and the Roots’s Things Fall Apart life sounded suddenly very different], and I still can’t think the name Jack Johnson without picturing him with Black Jack Johnson just tearing it up in Minneapolis).

The New Danger dropped during the year I was boycotting rap music. But I saw (on TV) a Black Jack Johnson concert in 2001 (I think) and it blew me away. Things Fall Apart, though. That was it. The skit at the beginning throws down a treatise on hip hop culture and it goes bigger from there. That album is a classic, even though it doesn’t really get talked about as one. I think it’s because The Roots are on Jimmy Fallon yucking it up now. It’s hard to have any critical credibility as sidekicks. Even in retrospect. Of course, undun is a pretty brilliant album, so they should probably keep doing what they’re doing. AND Major Jackson wrote the liner notes for their first album, so there’s a connection to poetry there.

2. This is to some degree leading, and may be impossible to ask, but here goes: you’re part of Cave Canem, and you’re married to a writer, and, in every other interview I’ve read of yours, you consistently mention other contemporary poets. I want to ask about the significance of being part of a larger chorus, I think mostly because I don’t feel as if I am and it seems like it’d be amazing to be part of something bigger, some larger aesthetic attempting. Do you feel that way, or is writing still, ultimately, just a solitary thing? This might be too dumb a question to try to answer.

I might be taking this in a little different direction, but I think writing needs to be a completely solitary act. So it sounds to me like you’re handling business the right way by not thinking about the larger conversation in the moment of writing. I don’t know if this is the way you work, but I can’t write with anyone else—real or remembered—in the room. I can barely write with anyone else in the house.

I picked up the habit of hermit writing when I was working on the domestic violence poems in The Big Smoke. I couldn’t get into that headspace with my wife or daughter around, so I’d only work on them when the house was empty. Then I realized that I actually get more work done when I’m repping solo.

For me, the community you mention comes in after the work is already going. Or maybe the community is there the whole time, but I keep the door closed on them until after I finish a draft. I rarely show my work to anyone—not my wife or my other poetry people—until I’ve gone as far as I can with it. That’s when I start thinking about how the poem might be in conversation with the writers I admire like Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Terrance Hayes, or Erika Meitner.

Then there are also all of the writers and orators whose shoulders I’m standing on. There are the obvious ones—Robert Hayden, Gwendolyn Brooks, Philip Larkin. But there are also storytellers in other modes like Richard Pryor and Bill Sienkiewicz. In the moment of brawling with the page, it’s easy to forget we work in this great poetic tradition that precedes the written word. So there’s community in voicing a poem with the ear at the center instead of the brain.

Not that long ago, archeologists found a Sumerian tablet from 4000 BC inscribed with a love poem. I’ve been working on a love poem, too, so there’s community in writing love poems. What I’m saying is the act of writing poetry itself is a community endeavor. It starts private, but the ways in which we consider poetics—line breaks, tone, allusion, metaphor and the rest—are a way to define and to communicate with our perceived poetic communities.

3. Why poetry instead of fiction?

I read almost as much fiction as I do poetry. James Baldwin was the first writer who made me think about language as a musical and visceral thing. The act of writing fiction doesn’t have the same allure for me as writing poetry, though. Too many words. I get overwhelmed by prose because I’ve never trained myself to edit or revise as a fiction writer. I want every word to have the same kind of emotional value it does in poetry but unless you’re Toni Morrison, words seem to have a different exchange rate in fiction.

I borrow craft devices from fiction all of the time. I emulated the way Flannery O’Conner ended her short stories in the poems in Mixology. The dramatic rhythms of Michael Ondaatje’s work—especially Coming Through Slaughter—were a model for narrative structure of The Big Smoke.

One of the things I really admire about fiction is the continuing presence of hope. If you read a poem and the first few lines aren’t working, the poem as a whole probably isn’t working, either. Some of that is because of brevity, some of it is because of the way lines in poems scaffold each other. The length and shape of prose allows the chance to turn things around. Every scene is a new opportunity.

I just finished Donna Tartt’s stunning novel, The Goldfinch, and early on, I was not feeling the book at all. I didn’t believe the narrative voice, I had trouble with the agency, and I had some other squabbles with the shape of the thing. But Tartt is an elegant writer, so I kept pushing through. Then I came across a sentence on page 160: “He was a planet without an atmosphere” and the whole book changed for me. I don’t know what about that sentence triggered things, but I was in it after that moment. I’ve never had a conversion like that in a poem. I’m either there in the poem or I’m not and then the poem is over.

4. You mentioned in another interview that you were an Army brat, yet (unless I’m off) you went to undergrad and grad school in midwest states. Do you identify now as a midwesterner? This isn’t necessarily a talk-about-place question, necessarily, though you do have this cool aspect, which is: you got to choose. I’ll always be from Minnesota, lived there till I jumped to grad school at 26, and so can’t shake its rivers and valleys and winter. How did you choose the midwest–and, just as much, why?

You got it. I grew up in a military family and we lived in something like 15 states in three years. This was right after my father came back from Vietnam and we literally moved every couple of months. My mother is from Indiana, though, so when she decided to make a go of it alone, she brought us back to Indiana from Los Angeles.

It took me moving back to the West Coast after I finished college before I came to the realization that I am, in fact, a Midwesterner. My family is here, many of my friends from back in the day are still here. Some of the most formative moments in my life happened in the Midwest. This is where I’m from and the real work comes from trying to negotiate being from Indiana —one of the most homogeneous and conservative states in the U.S.—and my identity as an African American.

What is the experience of being a minority in almost every sense—racially, politically, occupationally, etc. —in contrast with a Mexican American living in Des Plains or an African American living in Atlanta? How do we code and negotiate the world differently when we are one of a few, rather than one of a community? Maybe it ties into your earlier question about writing since poets are always a minority.

What I’ve realized is that it’s about economics as much as race. When my family moved to Indianapolis back in the 1980s, we lived a really rough area on the East Side. There were broken bottles on the rimless basketball court, junkies being junkies, and all kinds of malfeasance happening around us. The one thing that wasn’t happening, necessarily, was racism. There were people of all races in our neighborhood and they were all broke. If you had a job or a car, it didn’t matter what color you were. You were at the top of our social house of cards. None of this is unique to the Midwest, but the Midwest is where I learned about it.

5. This might be an impossibly dumb question, and I really apologize if so, but here: your most recent book was shortlisted for one of the biggest poetry prizes in the country. Your book before that was another serious prize winner. Q: does this cause anything like a pressure within you regarding writing? Even just writing down that Q made me get clammy–I feel like the pressure’d get very big and/or real. Yes? No?

It’s funny to think of poetry and pressure in the same conversation, right? I mean, I was under a great deal of pressure to give up poetry for something more lucrative when I was younger. Especially coming from having been so poor as a kid. So when I was lucky enough to win a prize and get a check for doing something I would be doing anyway? That’s the good kind of pressure.

You’re right, though. It is an enormous and a rare public honor to be nominated for the National Book Award. The reality is that very few people who are nominated (or win) get nominated again. That’s one of the things that made Frank Bidart’s nomination for the NBA this year so amazing. He has consistently written books of such quality and poise that he’s been a finalist four times over three decades.

So it’s a bit of a cliché, but I’m just trying to create a text that interests me and that someone outside of my immediate family will want to read. Everything else is out of my hands, though I am supremely grateful for any attention my work gets.

I might feel less pressure because I’ve also made the conscious choice to try and write different kinds of work in each book. Not for the sake of doing something different, but as a way to keep pushing myself artistically.

William Logan made a complicated observation in his review of Louis Gluck’s last book. He claimed that poets find their voice or style or whatever around their second or third book. And with the exception of a couple of writers—he mentioned Robert Lowell and Geoffrey Hill—the poets continue to work in that same voice/mode for their entire careers.

That’s a deflating observation for a couple of reasons. I’m not sure that having a consistent style is a bad thing, for one. But I also have a hard time refuting Logan’s statement and it is a stereotype I want nothing to do with. As soon as I figure out how to write a kind of poem, I try to write a different kind of poem. Not in response to Logan; I’d been approaching poetry that way before I read his review. I just don’t want to get to the point where I can trick off a kind of poem like those tickets from a Skee Ball game.

6. If you can, at all, I’d be deeply curious how writing has changed for you, as you’ve progressed through it–from book to book, or life-event to life-event, however you’d like to break it down.

I think writing a book has to change us somehow, but I’m not sure how I would quantify the change. I can see shifts in the aesthetics, but emotional or intellectual changes are tough to gauge. When I wrote The Devil’s Garden, I’d just finished my MFA at Southern Illinois University Carbondale (shout out to my alma mater) and I was trying to figure out how to be a writer. Most of the poems in Mixology were written when we were living in Oregon and I was a stay-at-home dad right after my daughter was born. That was amazing experience.

I read somewhere that one of Picasso’s wives could always tell when he started a new affair because a new female face would pop up in his work. He had direct connections between romance and emotion and artistic creation, like romance/emotion = new art. For me, the connections between emotion and artistic output are the opposite. I start the project/book as one kind of writer and come out the other side thinking about and responding to poetry differently. So maybe the act of creation prompts emotional changes, rather than emotional changes prompting the act of creation.

And here’s the other thing. Once I’ve finished a book, I can’t go back into its style or aesthetic. Maybe that’s the real transformation. I couldn’t write the style of poem in Mixology today if I tried. I couldn’t write the monologues in The Big Smoke again, either. That’s part of why I’m taking a completely writing different approach to the graphic novel.

7. What’s the view out your window?

It’s snowing. One of those excellent snows with the big fat flakes that will eventually make the best snowballs. Because my office is downstairs, I can see the snow starting to stack up and my neighbor’s mangy one-eared tabby —I mean this is one straggly cat—is trying to hide in the window ledge. He doesn’t like me because I always chase him away from the birds in our yard. He just turned around and mean-mugged me.