September 27–October 3, 2021
Adrian Matejka is the author of The Devil’s Garden (Alice James Books, 2003), which won the New York/New England Award, Mixology (Penguin, 2009), a winner of the 2008 National Poetry Series, and The Big Smoke (Penguin, 2013), which was awarded the 2014 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and was a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award, 2014 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and 2014 Pulitzer Prize in poetry. Further books include the poetry collections Map to the Stars (Penguin, 2017) and Somebody Else Sold the World (Penguin, 2021), as well as Standing on the Verge & Maggot Brain (Third Man Books, 2021), a mixed media collection inspired by Funkadelic. The graphic novel Last On His Feet is forthcoming from Liveright in 2022. Matejka has received the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Award as well as fellowships from the Academy of American Poets, Guggenheim Foundation, Lannan Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Rockefeller Foundation and United States Artists. He is the Ruth Lilly Professor of Poetry at Indiana University Bloomington and served as Poet Laureate of the state of Indiana in 2018–19. On Wednesday, September 29, Matejka will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series via Zoom along with Carlie Hoffman and Michael Chang.
Somebody Else Sold the World
I don’t know if I should excuses
It’s a really good deal excuses
It’s not mine even if I could excuses
If I don’t do it someone else would excuses
If I don’t play along I’ll be excuses
I’m committed to it now see excuses
Oh no not me excuses
Excuse me I’ll get you back next Tuesday
Let us go you & I excuses
Excuse me because I loved you too much
Excuse me because I swerved too much
Well what had happened after it was excuses
Well I planned to catch a bus after it excuses
It was dark & he was dark recuse me
There was no one to help me excuses
I was worried about my safety excuses
What about me excuses
Excuse me what about me
—From Somebody Else Sold the World, Penguin, 2021.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I wrote this poem (and the rest of the “Somebody Else Sold the World” cycle) in the thick of the pandemic. The catalyst for this one was the inept former president and his lackeys as they acted like public health during a crisis is the responsibility of our unprepared state and local governments. Time was a messy construct in 2020, but this was shortly after Breonna Taylor was murdered and before George Floyd and Dreasjon Reed were murdered. Their unnecessary deaths and the systemic racism that led to them are also part of what the poem is calling out.
What are you working on right now?
I wrapped up Somebody Else Sold the World and Standing on the Verge & Maggot Brain this past spring and now I’m taking a break from writing poems to finish a graphic novel about Jack Johnson called Last On His Feet. The book is the second part of the project I started with The Big Smoke back in 2013 and it’s illustrated by French artist Youssef Daoudi. I thought the project would only take a couple of years to make, but it ended up taking six years from inception to completion and will finally be available from Liveright in the fall of 2022. The art Youssef has created for the book is exceptional. I can’t wait for people to see what he’s done.
What’s a good day for you?
I’m a pretty simple dude, so any day I get surprised is a good day. Sometimes that surprise might be finding a new song or musician. Other times it might be discovering a new poem or having an unexpected encounter with a past or future friend. I’m excited by just about anything I can’t anticipate, really. Especially after the malaise of lockdown when the only way I could differentiate one day from the next was by creating routines.
Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?
I’ve lived in the Bates-Hendricks neighborhood of Indianapolis for the past few years. It’s just about a mile from the center of the city. I’m being specific because not a lot of people are familiar with Indy geography and I grew up here. The wild thing is I was never in this part of town as a teenager. Back then, Bates-Hendricks was an insular, white neighborhood that wasn’t especially inviting to people who look like me. Fast forward twenty-five years and the whole city has changed for the better.
It’s hard for me to compare the places I’ve lived because I’ve had a pretty nomadic life. I lived in Seattle and Los Angeles and Chicago and Rochester and St. Louis and random smaller places that require state clarification like Eugene, OR, Carbondale, IL, and College Station, TX. But I’ve never lived in Brooklyn or any part of New York City. Not yet anyway.
Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
I’ve been in Brooklyn a lot over the years and I always dig it. The Cave Canem space on Jay St, the brilliant Brooklyn Public Library, Books Are Magic and Greenlight Bookstore! Amazing sneaker shops everywhere, too. There were a few shoe shops on Fulton I visited every trip back when sneakers were central to my wardrobe. I don’t know if they’re still there, but I hope so. Even as a once-a-year visitor, it’s easy to see how much Brooklyn has changed in opportunity and architecture over the past couple of decades.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?
We all write in isolation, but I think our work needs community—other readers and writers with similar political or aesthetic agendas especially—to fully become what it can be. Cave Canem offered that to me when I was just starting out and I’ve been fortunate to develop other writing friendships along the way. Some of those writers, like Kaveh Akbar, Ross Gay and Walton Muyumba, are in Indiana. But the rest are scattered and we connect when we can. There are times when I need their help in a tactile way, but mostly it’s enough for me to know that my longtime writing homies like Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Shara McCallum, Aimee Nezhukumatathil and Sean Singer are someplace in the world building poems.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
The easy answer is Walt Whitman since almost every American poet has been influenced by his lineation and opulent language. But I’m thinking about the poets living in Brooklyn now who inspire me with their craft and ways of being in the world. Tina Chang and Tyehimba Jess are great examples. I’m knocked out by their ability to be generous community citizens while also finding ways to do their own work. Jason Koo, too, for his poems and for building this space! I think there might be more boss poets per capita in Brooklyn than any place else in the US.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I’ve got a long list of people who have mentored me and as I say that, I realize how lucky I’ve been to have support. I would have never published a book or persevered without the guidance of my mentors. I also think that mentorship is something Black poets of a certain generation treat as if it is an extension of making poetry, rather than a separate service obligation and I benefited from that. I’m thinking about some of my mentors like Melba Joyce Boyd, Toi Derricotte, Cornelius Eady, Nikky Finney, Allison Joseph, Yusef Komunyakaa, Marilyn Nelson, Eugene B. Redmond and Al Young among many, many others. They each made poetry available to and possible for me in different ways.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I’m reading Phillip B. Williams’s Mutiny and Wanda Coleman’s new selected, Wicked Enchantment, right now. They’re both extraordinary writers with different poetic agendas, but both books are conversant in the language of revolution. The poems in Phillip’s book enact the book’s title in form and linguistic protest. It’s something else. Wanda Coleman makes language three-dimensional through her witty imaginary, so her book is full of unexpected acts of resistance. Everybody should read these books.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I’ve had Anne Carson’s Nox sitting on my shelf in the original plastic wrap for about nine years. I keep wanting to open that bad boy up but then some other book I’m excited about drops and I end up reading it instead. It’ll happen one day.
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books?
Rita Dove has an author’s note at the beginning of Thomas and Beulah that reads, “These poems tell two sides of a story and are meant to be read in sequence.” It’s a simple directive, but it just blew my mind at the time. The idea of giving instructions for how to read a book of poems.
After that, I started thinking about reading collections differently. I mean, poets dedicate hours and hours to sequencing. It makes sense to read their books in the order they want us to. So I try to respect that work by reading front to back the first pass. After I’ve read the book, I’ll jump around and find my favorites.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I’m really interested in the connections between visual art and poetry and have been trying to figure out how to put them together in a legible way. My poetry and art collaboration about Funkadelic, Standing on the Verge & Maggot Brain, is starting to lean into that, but I’d like to push it even further.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I’ll read a book any place I have space and time, but I only write at home. I take notes the rest of the time: scraps of paper, voice memos, etc., to hold onto the ideas until I’m back home. I used to think I would remember those fragments and ideas, but at some point I had to cop to how cluttered my brain is. I’ve lost some of my best images through hubris and I’m not an interesting enough writer to waste inspiration.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate amnesia and quarter notes, florescent beget instead of regret,
And what I forgettingly blued you into—the wah and inhale, full-dress centeredness,
For every muddled bleat and dance from me as good as happenstance for you.