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—ph