By Guest Contributor Jorge Antonio Vallejos, cross-posted from Black Coffee Poet
Adrian Matejka is the author of The Devil’s Garden (Alice James Books, 2003), Mixology (Penguin USA, 2009), and The Big Smoke (Penguin USA, forthcoming in 2013).
BCP: Why poetry?
AM: I first tried to write poetry in a lame attempt to impress a girl, but my appreciation for language came before that. I wanted to be an emcee when I was younger. Fortunately, for everyone, I figured out pretty quickly that I couldn’t spit rhymes and moved on to the next thing.
A few years after I gave up the mic, I discovered some poets who value sound and percussiveness the same way emcees do. First, Langston Hughes and Etheridge Knight. Then later, Gil Scott-Heron and Yusef Komunyakaa. Through these incredible poets, it became clear that poetry is an art that allows both music and communication. Once I figured that out, I never wanted to do anything else.
BCP: What is your process?
AM: I don’t really have a process because the way I approach the page changes with the project I’m working. Many of the poems in Mixology began as individual images or moments that made me laugh that I went back and mixed together. Like a collage artist or maybe like a DJ.
My new book, The Big Smoke, is all historical persona about the boxer Jack Johnson. That imagistic approach to writing wouldn’t work, so I changed my process to fit the material. I spent a long time researching Johnson’s life and times before I sat down to write a poem. And when I did finally begin writing, the poems came out as continuous monologues.
BCP: Who, or what, are your influences?
AM: My primary influences are my friends, many of whom are poets. Ruth Ellen Kocher, Allison Hedge Coke, Sean Singer, Sherwin Bitsui, Quraysh Ali Lansana, Major Jackson, Kevin Neireiter, Terrance Hayes, Gaby Calvocoressi, my wife Stacey Lynn Brown—my influence roll call could go on for a very long time. I experience their work and am inspired to write harder, to think more aggressively about language.
Then, of course, there’s always music. I’m always listening to music. It saturates the poems through the cadences and word choice. In fact, I just finished up a series of poems that are simultaneously about astronomy and jazz. Even when I was thinking about outer space, Miles Davis’s trumpet was playing in the background.
BCP: How long were you working on the poems featured in Mixology?
AM: Most of the poems in Mixology were written between 2004-2006. I had just quit my job editing a literary journal in Texas and made the choice to step away from poetry for a while. When I did come back to poems, I stayed in the lab grinding without really thinking about what might come out of it. I just wanted to write the kind of poems I would want to read. Because of that, it took a while to get the work out into the world. In 2007, two literary journals—Crab Orchard Review and Pleiades—ran some of the poems and it was on after that.
BCP: Why the name Mixology?
AM: You know, I thought I was being slick. I tried to imagine what the science of being mixed would be called. In my mind, Mixology also evoked another nameless science–the science of being a DJ—and that tied into the overarching motifs of music in the poems. I was really proud of myself for a minute. Then I found out that “Mixology” is actually the science of mixing drinks. I kept the title anyway because I like mixing drinks.
BCP: Your poetry is very personal. Was it, or is it, hard to go to those personal places in your mind and heart? For example, your poem “Do The Right Thing” is powerful and sad. Being told, “you ain’t even Black” by Spike Lee, one of the most influential Black directors of our time, must have been horrible. When reading it I felt its last line deeply: “the missed free throw feeling in my chest.”
AM: Thanks for your words about the poem. You’re absolutely right; some of the poems in Mixology are very personal. “Do The Right Thing,” in particular is open about its intention in a way that some of the other poems (“Language Mixology” or “This Be The Verse,” for example) are not.
Because the poem is so personal, I almost took it out of the book. I’m not comfortable sharing information in that way because I’m not really big on the “this really happened” aspect of poetry. It works for other poets, but it feels like a limitation to me.
The thing is, I don’t think the truth (in the “this really happened” sense) should get in the way of a good poem. The poems should be emotionally honest and true to the poet’s intent, but there are different kinds of truth, if you see what I mean. I’m not adverse to embellishing a moment to write a better poem. But in the case of Do The Right Thing—meeting Spike Lee and having my authenticity questioned all at the same moment—no embellishment was needed.
BCP: As a mixed-race person I really appreciated references to skin politics throughout the collection. Can you explain what you mean when writing in Colloquialism “Bad to be black, worse to be a mixed indetermination”?
AM: I’m sure you have probably experienced a version of what inspired that line. Some mixed-race people have the rare ability to be whatever “other” is out of racial fashion at the time. When I was kid in Southern California, there was (and still is) tension between the Latinos and whites. Through the lens of that tension, everyone thought I was Mexican. When I moved to Indianapolis, issues of race revolved around black and white, so I was seen as being black. After 9/11 I was magically mistaken for Middle Eastern wherever I went. For a couple years after 9/11, I could count on being taken out of the security line at the airport for an enhanced search.
The thing is, I have identified as black my entire life. I don’t recall ever having conflict or confusion about it. In the last 10 years or so, I’ve given a different kind of consideration to what it means to be mixed race. It’s much more complicated than my original “I’m black” manifesto might have suggested.
In the part of Texas where Colloquialism is set, there is a whole different template for race. Latino Texans and white Texans live together uneasily but are acutely aware of each other. So the white Texans and the Latino Texans both knew I wasn’t Latino, but neither could tell what I am. There was something very dangerous in that ambiguity. Especially since everyone in Texas seems to have a gun.
BCP: It seems that hip hop, Public Enemy in Particular, has been a big part of your life. Has hip hop or Public Enemy helped you with your poetry? If so, how?
AM: Music has been a big influence on me. When I was a kid, my parents had an extensive jazz collection—2000+ records arranged alphabetically. Sundays were music days and my dad would spend most of the day listening one record after another.
My father was actually the one who introduced me to rap music in 1980. Rap was the first music I really understood and it seemed like it was made for me, if that makes sense. Once Whodini and Mantronix and Run DMC were available at the record store, I knew I wanted to be an emcee. Unfortunately, I had no skills, or more appropriately, “skillz.”
Public Enemy was a profound influence on me because they were dropping crazy science. Black power and Afrocentrism are always necessary, but in the 1980s—after Reagan, trickle down economics, government policies that overtly espoused racism and downplayed affirmative action — Chuck D growling “Never badder than bad / ‘cause the brother is madder than mad / at the fact that’s corrupt like a senator” was the truth. We were mad and Public Enemy both harnessed and directed that aggression. I tried to get into that some in my poem Tyndall Armory.
BCP: It’s Black History Month. As a poet who writes so much about race what does this month mean to you?
AM: I like to call Black History Month “Christmas Money Month” because I get more invitations to read during February than any other month of the year. Everyone in the U.S. needs a black poet in February. In all seriousness, I love Black History Month because it was the way I learned about my culture.
I imagine the same thing applies for many young African Americans. So little of our cultural history is included in social studies books or American history class. In a small way, Black History Month helps fill in the gaps. But really, I look forward to a time where Black History Month serves a recap, rather than an introduction. Even if it means I have less money for Christmas.
BCP: You won one the biggest awards in poetry, The National Poetry Series, in 2008. As a result you were published by a huge publisher: Penguin. What does is it feel like to win such a big award? How was it moving from a small publisher to a big publisher? Do you feel pressure now that you have such a big award under your belt?
AM: Winning the National Poetry Series was humbling to say the least. I was stunned that Kevin Young picked the book and that Penguin agreed to publish it. When I was scribbling the Mixology poems in my basement office, it was hard to imagine that anyone outside of my poetry team would even want to read them. Something like the National Poetry Series was not part of the conversation, so the award was unexpected and wonderful.
As you can imagine, there is a big difference between a small press and one of the big houses. Alice James Books is a fantastic press and they have been so supportive of my first book, The Devil’s Garden. But because they are exclusively a poetry press, they don’t have the same sized pockets as Penguin. Penguin has all kinds of resources, connections, and outlets. When Mixology first came out, a friend in L.A. called and told me he’d seen the book at a bookstore in the Beverly Center. I attribute that kind of placement to Penguin.
The editorial care and consideration was the same in both places, though. My editor at Alice James Books, April Ossman, and my editor at Penguin, Paul Slovak, were both critical and considerate with the poems. Both of my books are better because of their insightful suggestions.
Honestly, I don’t feel much pressure because awards are out of my control. I do feel pressure to write readable, successful poetry, though. Finding a way to write a poem that is both surprising to me and that might be interesting to someone else is challenging, to say the least. That’s where the real pressure comes from.
BCP: You now teach creative writing. How has teaching affected your art and craft? What is the main thing you try to leave with your students?
AM: I love teaching creative writing. What could be better than spending time reading poetry and talking about it? I think teaching has influenced me as a writer because I’m always talking about the basics—line breaks, imagery, concrete language, the need for poetry to swing both on the page and in the air. Because I’m talking about craft in class, I’m thinking about craft outside of class, if that makes sense. So during the semester, I pay closer attention to line breaks, for example, than I might during the summer when I’m just reading and writing.
I always tell my students that poetry is a communicative act. We might write these verses alone with our headphones on, but once the poem leaves our hand or gets emailed or posted on Facebook, it becomes an effort at communicating. So the audience needs to factor into the creative process somewhere, preferably during revision.
BCP: Can you provide a recommended reading list for people?
AM: My reading list changes daily, but right now I’m rereading Terrance Hayes’s Wind in a Box, Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s Apocalyptic Swing, and a new book by Makalani Bandele, Hellfightin’. Then there are some of the classics: Belly Songs and Other Poems by Etheridge Knight, Lucille Clifton’s blessing the boats, and Neon Vernacular by Yusef Komunyakaa.
BCP: What advice do you have for other mixed-race artists out there?
AM: Being an artist begins with defining—or maybe trying to define—one’s self in the bigger conversation. Being mixed race complicates that process significantly. When I was coming up, we still used the “one drop” rule. You know, if you have one drop of African blood, you’re identified as black. Things are much more ambiguous now, but it up to the artist to figure out his or her own space. So I say this: honor your heritage, but don’t stop trying to figure out your unique part of the story.