Conversation with Adrian Matejka
First, I want to thank you for agreeing to do this. As you know, Button Poetry has become the premier source of spoken word and slam poetry videos on the Internet. How do you think the Internet and social media has affected our relationship with poetry and art in general?
Thanks for taking the time to get at me. I’m a big fan of the work Button Poetry is doing. It’s a vital platform for so many diverse voices and I think it’s one of the rare literary entities that maximizes digital possibilities without sacrificing the three-dimensional muscle of books and performance.
The combination of the internet and social media is the great equalizer in poetry, really. The two come together to open up spaces for writers from a range of cultural and social scenes that have traditionally been marginalized. Nobody (in America, at least) can clamp down on the internet completely, so there’s a nonstop forum for dialogue through social media if writers are willing to do the work.
There’s also the access to information that social media has opened up for us. That’s big. Immediate information is a wonderful thing for poetry and so necessary in the face of our assortment of systemic oppressions.
You’re a really accomplished writer. What about the writing and editing process has changed for you over the years? Who workshops poems by National Book Award finalists?
Well, I’ve been really lucky that people have taken the time to read and support my work. I can’t stress that enough. There are much more talented and accomplished writers than I am who never find an audience so I’m grateful that I found one.
The main thing that’s changed for me the past few years has been my urgency. Not urgency in the writing itself because that remains among my first couple of thoughts in the morning and the last few before I crash. But the way I approach getting the work into to the world has a different kind of urgency than it used to.
Early on, I was filling envelopes with poems and sending them to journals before the ink was dry on the first draft. 99.5% of those poems got sent back to me with a big, red REJECTED stamp on them. And they deserved to be rejected because the poems hadn’t grown up yet. They needed more time. But I kept aggressively submitting that way for a long time because I believed I needed to get my words out in as many places as possible to be a writer.
That’s not true. You don’t become a writer because you submit to magazines. You become a writer because you write. I feel more comfortable with that now, laying in the cut and letting the poems grow at their own pace. I’ve learned there is no need to rush a poem. In fact, it’s a bad idea to rush a poem. The poem will let you know when it’s ready for the world.
It’s been nearly three years since your third poetry collection, The Big Smoke, was released. Did you learn anything while writing The Big Smoke that you’ve carried over into other projects?
For me, starting a new book is basically learning to write poetry again. I spent 8 years working on The Big Smoke and trying to find the right language for Jack Johnson and the various historical figures involved. Once I was finished with the book, I had to re-learn how to write poems in my own voice. Or more accurately, I had to figure out what my voice sounds like today in 2016, which is different than it sounded in 2015 or 2009.
But that makes sense, right? If we are evolving as world citizens—and hopefully we all are—then our poetry should naturally evolve along with us. So if I’ve learned anything, it’s that I’m still learning how to write poetry because I’m still learning how to be in the world.
In an interview with the National Book Foundation, you mentioned that you were working on a book about astronomy. Can you give us an update on that project?
The project turned into a book called Collectable Blacks that will be out next year—April 2017. It’s about the Voyager space mission, racism, Basquiat, growing up broke, Sun Ra, migration, early rap music—it’s about a lot of things and I hope that all of the various threads come together to tell a story. The book is almost finished. I hope.
During the National Book Foundation interview, you said you weren’t in control of the astronomy project yet. What does it mean to you to be in control of a project?
I’m not sure we can ever control a poem completely, never mind a project. I’m also not sure if we should be in control of a poem. If you already know what the thing is going to look like, why write it?
But in the case of Collectable Blacks, I was just coming off of writing The Big Smoke which required a kind of narrative and factual control that none of my other projects needed. Most of the poems in the book are based on real events and involve actual people and out of respect to them, I tried to stay as close to the facts as possible.
When I did that interview, I was still learning how to write the poems in Collectable Blacks, which is only partially grounded in fact. I was trying to figure out the music and the mayhem while still thinking about issues of craft and poetic tradition.
Who are you reading right now?
I’m reading a gorgeous new book that just came out from Alice James called Thief in the Interior by Phillip B. Williams and another stunner that Third Man Books is publishing this year, Kendra DeColo’s My Dinner with Ron Jeremy.
There are so many poets putting in unexpected work right now. It’s wonderful to see and it’s also a great reminder that hustling is paramount. There are a lot of poets who need to eat.
Do you have any advice for poets who are working on their first collections?
It’s familiar, maybe, but just keep grinding. After empathy and a delicate ear, the greatest skill a poet can have is tenacity. It takes a while to find equilibrium on the page. And like I said, there are a gang of poets out there doing big things, so competition for space in journals and on stages is substantial. But if poetry were easy, it would be called something other than poetry. So keep pushing.
Okay, it’s time for a hard-hitting question. It’s pretty well known that Hip Hop is one of the things that got you into poetry. Do you still listen to Hip Hop? If so, what are you listening to now? Who are your top 5 rappers: dead or alive?
Ah, man. Yes! I listen to rap nonstop: Backspin Radio on my XM Radio, Run The Jewels everyplace else. The music has evolved so much since I got my first Run DMC cassette in 1984. It’s a dynamic genre and it’s primarily for the young. I’m starting to sound like a dad right now, but it’s OK because I am one. I’m just going to pull my Dockers and get after it.
I came up with dense rappers—emcees like Rakim, Chuck D, Nas, and Biggie—who wrote lyrics like poems. These days, delivery and performance are valued more than dense lyricism, so emcees push a lot of epistrophe and antanaclasis where there used to be simile, allusion, and variations of rhyme. It’s a different kind of linguistic text now, one that’s maybe more suited for the way we communicate with a limited numbers of characters.
So it makes sense that my top 5 is backward leaning: Rakim, Biggie, Q-Tip, DOOM, and pre-Kingdom Come Jay Z. I’d throw Chuck D and pre-Relapse Eminem in there someplace, too, if I had space.
What they all have in common is they rep like poets in one way or another. Emcees are poets, really, and some of them are aware of it. Like Nas said, “Poetry, that’s a part of me.”
Adrian Matejka was born in Nuremberg, Germany. He is a graduate of the MFA program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. His first collection of poems,The Devil’s Garden
(Alice James Book, 2003), won the 2002 New York / New England Award from Alice James Books. His second collection, Mixology
(Penguin USA, 2009), was a winner of the 2008 National Poetry Series and was a finalist for a NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literature – Poetry. His most recent book, The Big Smoke
(Penguin USA, 2013), was a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award, the 2014 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. His work has appeared in Language Lessons: Volume One, Ploughshares, and Poetry among other journals and anthologies. He is the Lilly Professor / Poet-in-Residence at Indiana University in Bloomington and at Lesley University. His new book of poems, Collectable Blacks, is forthcoming from Penguin Random House in April 2017.
Mckendy Fils-Aime is a Haitian-American poet and educator living in Manchester, New Hampshire where he is a co-organizer for the wildly popular poetry reading, Slam Free or Die
. He is a Callaloo Fellow whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Journal, Atticus Review, Word Riot, Button Poetry, and elsewhere.