Taking a Guitar and Trying to Make an Omelet with It: A Conversation with Adrian Matejka

This conversation took place on January 30, 2017 at Purdue University’s Brown Hall.

Adrian Matejka was born in Nuremberg, Germany and grew up in California and Indiana. His first collection of poems, The Devil’s Garden (2003), won the 2002 New York / New England Award. His second collection, Mixology (2009), was a winner of the National Poetry Series. Mixology was a finalist for a NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literature. The Big Smoke (2013), which focuses on the life of the boxer Jack Johnson, was awarded the 2014 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize. His most recent book is Map to the Stars (2017). He teaches in the MFA program at Indiana University in Bloomington and is currently at work on a new book of poems, Hearing Damage, and a graphic novel.

Mitchell Jacobs is an MFA candidate in poetry at Purdue University and Managing Editor of Sycamore Review.

MJ: My first question for you is based on something you said in a workshop I was part of. You mentioned that “Who you are on the page isn’t something you stumble into but something you work toward.” I was wondering if you could talk about the person you are on the page and the decisions you made toward that.

AM: Hey everybody. There’s a recorder up here stressing me out. I feel like I’m supposed to say something profound now.

So when we write a poem, when we write a story, we’re creating a kind of persona on the page, and for me, that persona has evolved as I’ve tried to develop as a poet. I always imagined that I wanted to be someone who seemed relatively informed, someone who seemed welcoming on the page, and so how that looks in the poems changes according to what the poem is trying to do. When I write poems that I imagine to be close to the actual voice that I have—whatever that is—I think about the references I make. I love rap music. I teach a class about rap music. And not everyone is invested in  rap history the way that I am. Thinking about who I might allude to—EPMD versus Chance the Rapper, for example—that’s two different audiences I’m speaking to. So I try to make choices that might give room for the audience’s understanding about the subject as well as things they don’t know. It’s not like everybody doesn’t have Google. If you don’t know who EPMD is you can go look it up, right? But I try to find a way to be inviting in some way, to bring someone into the conversations I want to have while the conversation is still going on.

That impetus shifts, though, in The Big Smoke. That book was all about Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion. And the needs of his voice are very different from the needs of the voice that I imagine I have. So I think the persona on the page changes. I don’t know who I actually sound like on the page, as a big, atmospheric thing. But I know who I sound like, or who I try to sound like, on the individual poem level.

MJ: So are you saying that the person you are on the page might change from poem to poem, or are you thinking on the scale of a book as well?

AM: Yeah, both of them. I think there are some great poets here who have this masterful way with language where you can hear parts of them in poems. Like “Ah, that’s Marianne Boruch’s great sense of imagery.” Or there are poetry things they’re able to do in remarkable ways that I’m not really sure I can do but is unique to them in nearly every poem. I feel like I work on a case-by-case basis. Like, “This particular poem needs an image for clarity, so let me figure out an image that fits in this poem.” So the persona changes in some ways in part because I’m changing all the time and I can’t always figure out who I’m supposed to be on the page.

MJ: Yes, the myth of the stable self.

AM: Yeah, yeah. We’re talking about voice in our workshop right now, and I think voice is a very fluid thing. If you write a poem, there’s what you want it to say, and then there is the way those things get said. They’re two distinct and movable parts of voice.

MJ: My next question kind of leads off of that, thinking about your books. Reading them, it seems to me that they grow less autobiographical—The Devil’s Garden being very personal, then Mixology bringing in a larger artistic scene, and as you mentioned The Big Smoke being about Jack Johnson and historical figures who are completely other than your self. Do you agree with that summary, and how does your upcoming book fit into that mix?

AM: I agree, but in the progression you just created, I’m trending backwards because the new book is very autobiographical. [laughs] But I think it’s okay to do that. About half of the poems in my first book were from my graduate thesis. And so maybe it’s not a surprise that when I look at those poems today I don’t really recognize the person who wrote them. It’s hard for me to read from them now, because I’m like, “Who was I back in 1999?” It’s hard for me to go back and invest in those poems in the same way. I was just trying to figure out in grad school—like so many of us are—how to write. I was sticking close to things I know to explore the craft of writing, instead of trying to explore the act of artistic expression. My first book is me trying to figure out how to be a writer by using things that are close by. Figuring out what a sonnet’s supposed to look like. Or what a persona poem is supposed to do. So there’s a lot more autobiography as a way to focus on craft.

There was a six-year gap between The Devil’s Garden and my second book, Mixology, and in that time I just decided I didn’t really care about academia. I didn’t care about publishing. I cared about writing poems, and if somebody wanted to read the poems, cool. If not, whatever. But I was going to write my poems. And I was writing in my basement, living in Oregon doing IT work, not even thinking about teaching, and not thinking about publishing. So the larger conversation in Mixology came from me trying to think about the things I value as a human being that aren’t related to my family or my personal experience in that moment. I was thinking about Fela Kuti, the great Nigerian musician, you know, or Lorca. Just random fixations in my day-to-day life, and I thought, “Why can’t I have those in the poem, too?”

Terrance Hayes’s book Hip Logic was a revelation for me because it wasn’t built on the familiar narrative of minorities trying to understand how to be in the world.  The it’s so hard to be a black and this is what it’s like narrative. Terrance was working on a whole other kind of narrative that rely on forms—sometimes forms he’d created himself. He starts the book with this persona poem from the perspective of an MC. And it’s all like 2002 when hardly anyone was writing inside hip hop culture yet. So when I read that book I thought, “Terrance is doing it. Why can’t I? Why can’t I write about the things I want to write about instead of the subjects or approaches I seem to be pushed toward as a writer of color?” And it ended up being just a different version of the same concerns from The Devil’s Garden. I was and am still preoccupied with the same things. They just have different houses now.

I was working on The Big Smoke at the same time I was writing Mixology and was using one as an escape from the other. When I’d get too overwhelmed by being in 1910, I’d go back and write poems about something else in my immediate sphere, and I bounced back and forth between the two projects for about five years. But writing The Big Smoke was an opportunity to explore the concept of voice again as well as the concept of history in a way I hadn’t figured out. The graphic novel you mentioned is the second part of this Jack Johnson project. It picks up where the book of poems ends. I always knew that there were going to be two books and I couldn’t imagine writing two books of poems. It was hard enough the first time. It took me eight years to write The Big Smoke and I knew I couldn’t commit another eight years to write a book of poems about the same subject and have any kind of revelation.

So being a comic book geek, I was like, “Wait a minute, I bet I could write a graphic novel script.” That was three years ago. And I just finally finished it. Like a month ago I finished it. Which shows maybe how much I misunderstood this process. I was like, “It’ll be no problem, I’ll write some stuff up, find an illustrator, boom. Graphic novel.” Three years later, and I’ve written about fifteen different drafts of this project. I’ve written three distinctly separate version of the story before I settled on the last one. It’s, you know, 180 pages of text. It’s a whole other kind of writing, and if I’d have known, I probably would have just stopped [laughs] with the first project. Okay, book of poems, good. If they want to learn more about Jack Johnson, they can go read his biography. But I think when it finally happens—and I’m working with an illustrator now—I think it’s going to be pretty cool. What happens to Johnson after his success is just as interesting, and maybe more so, because it’s that great ascension then fall from grace that a lot of Americans like to see happen in their stories.

MJ: So you said you’re kind of a comic book nerd. What other advantages of the graphic element did you want to tap into for this second part of the story?

AM: I think narrative storytelling is amazing. It’s evolved so much now from the 1980s when I was collecting comic books. I mean, graphic narrative is its own genre of storytelling now. It’s so much more sophisticated.

But on a fundamental level, it solves all the problems a historical book has to deal with. When you write a historical work, whether it’s fiction or poetry or whatever, you have to spend so much time world-building, saying, “Okay here, this is what it was like in 1910. You know, they had toothbrushes, but they didn’t have Crest. Some people had indoor plumbing, some people had phones, but they didn’t have public transportation in most places.” And setting up all of that stuff as monologue was really hard and really time consuming. If you live in our time, you’re not going to spend a bunch of time explaining that you communicate mostly by text, not by picking up the phone anymore. Or that there are 300 channels if you have HD. Those aren’t the kinds of things people regularly say; they just take the information for granted. How you build in the facts of that world when everyone understands it empirically is complicated. It’s like putting pieces of a puzzle together from the memory of the picture.

A graphic novel solves all that because you can see it. Early on I was looking at Gene Yang’s book Boxers & Saints, his graphic about the Boxer Rebellion. There’s one section from each side of the Boxer Rebellion, and it’s amazing. I’m looking and I’m like, “That’s it. That’s how you solve the problem.” You just put a picture there. You don’t need to explain what people are wearing because it’s right there. Part of it was being lazy, because I didn’t want to figure that history out texturally again. It was really a challenge the first time. And part of it was like, “Wait a minute, why not show everybody Jack Johnson?” I’m trying to describe it, but he’s this very handsome, magnetic person. He’s 6’2” and 240, and all the other boxers look like children compared to him. So why not show that?

MJ: It also makes me think of—have you read Nat Turner?

AM: Kyle Baker’s graphic? Yeah. If you all don’t know this book, Kyle Baker—he’s an incredible graphic artist who also drew superheroes for Vertigo and DC—did this novel called Nat Turner. There’s no text at all in the first 36 pages. It’s all pictures. It’s an incredible book and it was another influence. It shows how you can tell a story historically much more viscerally if you can see some of the things to situate that world.

MJ: My next question is one you could probably talk about this question forever. A major influence of yours—as you’ve identified, and as I see especially in Mixology—is music. What features of music do you try to emulate in poetry, and how did you end up a poet rather than a saxophonist?

AM: That’s a good question, man. I think a lot of poets are failed musicians. I was in a band when I was in college and I was in a rap group when I was in middle school. And I was really bad at all of it. I really wanted to be a rapper, but I was so terrible at it. No flow. I could come up with interesting combinations of language, but when you have a beat behind you and you have to follow patterns of bars, that interesting language—especially polysyllabic language—becomes pretty clunky. So I figured out pretty early, and thankfully for all of the ears around me, that I was bad at being a lyricist, that I was bad at being the front of a band. So I decided to try to look for music in a different way.

I heard Yusef Komunyakaa read in a coffee shop and his poems sounded like he was making music. Even then, I was like, “Whatever he’s doing, that’s the thing I want to do.” The reading was at the Runcible Spoon in Bloomington. But I think music is the foundation of all poetry. There’s this great haiku from Etheridge Knight where he says,

Making jazz swing in

Seventeen syllables AIN’T

No square poet’s job.

That’s the fact of it. If it doesn’t swing, then I think we’re going to have problems. If a poem has no music in the language choices, what’s the difference between that and a memo? Or a grocery list? What’s the thing that makes it a poem if it doesn’t swing to the ear? So poetry has given me at least an opportunity to find some ways to make weird sounds on the page that I might not have been able to make.

I also wanted to play sax when I was younger, but there were already like eight saxophone players in the middle school band. And so the band teacher said, “Okay, we want you to play the French horn.”

MJ: Really? Did we talk about this? Because I played the French horn. I was like the only one.

AM: French horn, you know, it’s a great instrument. But it’s always a backup singer. I wanted to be in the front. I wanted to be up there and be the soloist, you know? And French horn solos still sound like you’re warming up to introduce someone else. I guess they change it to the cornet or something when you’re in marching band. Or some other awful thing like the flugelhorn.

MJ: The mellophone.

AM: The mellophone, yeah. So it’s not even a regular instrument. Nobody plays the mellophone in a jazz band.

MJ: I have a jazz band to tell you about. Stan Kenton and his mellophoniums. But that’s for later.

So thinking about going into poetry because it’s a type of music that you want to do and can do—what can poetry do that music can’t?

AM: I think poetry can do things that no other form of art can do. It’s the most distilled example of emotion in language we have. Poetry exists on its own, does its work on its own, produces those feelings of frustration or anger or love—whatever—in such a concise space that no other art form can do. So there’s that.

It’s also one-to-one. It goes straight from the poet or the page to the heart or the brain of the reader or listener. Music requires all kinds of other obligations. You might feel it and if you don’t understand why Jimi Hendrix is such a transcendent player technically, you have a kind of reaction. But if you have the context and craft of his playing , you have another, more complex reaction. The music I love gets me, but it gets me in part because of all of the periphery things I’ve learned about music. The poetry I love and continue to respond to isn’t the result of studying poetry. It’s because I hear this language and on a very basic level, I’m like, “Wow.” There’s a reason people were making poems and saying poems before we had written language. It’s that primal. I’m sure the same thing could be said for music, but I feel like poetry speaks to me in a different way than music does because it doesn’t involve the same type of interpretation.

MJ: Interesting. Both being primal and fundamental, and having certain overlaps in how they’ve come to be.

AM: Yeah, and so for me the most fundamental thing is the language. I’m so tuned in to what a word means that it hurts me to hear this new person in the Oval Office speak. It’s not even about all of my disagreements with him politically; it’s language. It’s like, “That’s not how you use adverbs.” I respond to his language in a very negative, visceral way. I’m like, “Stop that. Stop. Stop. You’re doing this uncomfortable thing to the tool and device I love. You’re using words wrong.” It’s like taking a guitar and trying to make an omelet with it. He’s just doing the wrong thing entirely. And so, whatever disagreements I had with the previous president, at least he understood how to use language.

But see, that’s not fair. This new person knows how to use language, too. He’s just not speaking to me. He uses language for a different audience. Certainly not an audience of poets. Seriously, all my disagreement and anger about policy aside, I need words to be used properly. Or at least imaginatively.

MJ: You realize that’s the title of this interview now. “Taking a Guitar and Trying to Make an Omelet with It.”

So I want to talk a little bit about your upcoming book, Map to the Stars. You mentioned that it cycles back persona that’s closer to your own autobiography. How is it different this time around than in your first book?

AM: Well I have a better idea of how to write, I think. The first time I was still trying to figure it out. I look at some of the poems in my first book, and I think, “I could write a really good poem from that idea if I had it now.” But since I’ve already had it and I’ve already written through it, I don’t feel like I can go back and write a brand new poem off of the idea. I kind of wasted the idea. Well, it wasn’t wasted. It was the best I could do at the time.

My understanding of what my mother went through taking care of us as a single mother is completely different now that I’m a dad than it was when I was 27. My understanding of what poverty is, and what not having is, is totally different now that I’ve not had, then had, not had again, and then sort of have again. You know what I mean? All of the cycles of life—it just looks different from my middle-aged place.

I hadn’t planned on writing about any of this stuff. I ran as far away from Indiana as I could get after college and I wasn’t trying to come back. But somehow I kept getting drawn closer to being back home. All of a sudden I’m living in Texas. All of a sudden I’m living in Illinois. I kept getting closer and closer to home. Then when the opportunity at Indiana University came up, I thought, “How do you go home? What is that exactly?” There are some families who never leave their homeplace, but that wasn’t my family. I lived in a military family; we moved all the time. So how do you go home, whatever that home is?

It was really hard to come back to Indiana. I love Bloomington. It’s great. But coming back? I live three blocks from the apartment I lived in when I was a senior in college. So I walk by my old apartment and a version of my 22-year-old knuckleheaded self every day I go to my office. Trying to come back and deal with all that stuff psychically has been a complicated experience. So I didn’t want to write this book; I was sort of forced to write it by coming home. I couldn’t get away from all of the things around me. From how poor we were. I couldn’t get away from the difference between my life as a child when my mom was taking care of us alone, and my life after she married my stepdad, who was a vice president of Blue Cross Blue Shield. We went from seriously having nothing and hoping stuff would stretch out until Thursday so we could make it to Friday when she got paid—to all of a sudden having everything. To living out in this suburb, a brand new house that was built specifically for us. Everybody has their own bedroom. This kind of thing. From having nothing to having everything. It’s just incredible, and I never really processed it until I came back.

I’m preoccupied with the disparity between the haves and have-nots right now anyway, so getting back into the narrative of those things—being on both sides of that in the span of five years—seemed like a good thing to try to write through when I started the book. Now I’m on some other stuff poetically and I’m mad about other things. I mean the inequality of finances and resources in our country is still so incredible, but there are other, profound things we have to deal with right now, too. I don’t know that I’d still be thinking about my scarce upbringing if I had come back now.

MJ: I’m trying to think about that, just in terms of creative process. Because I’ve heard poets say that to write about something you need some distance in terms of time or maybe space. In this case you have the distance of time from growing up, but you’re thrown into inhabiting the same space. Is that productive, creatively, to be there? Or does it inhibit something?

AM: You know what? I would have never written this book if I hadn’t come home. Some of the poems would have been written because they don’t have to do with Indiana, but I would have never written this book if I hadn’t moved back. There’s no way. Because I didn’t want to. I guess there are those poets who circle around the things that are painful as part of the excavation process, but who wants to be reminded of how hungry they were in third grade? That’s not an experience that I really want to go through again. It doesn’t matter that it was third grade. It doesn’t matter that it was 36 years ago. It doesn’t make any difference at all. I still wake up thinking, “Do we have enough in the refrigerator? Do we have all of the things we need?” Because I know what it’s like to not have that and have that instability. I guess they call it “food insecurity” now and that’s very fancy. We didn’t have that kind of language, man. You were poor.  You didn’t have any food. But “food insecurity” sounds very sophisticated. It’s the same thing I guess: where’s your next meal going to come from?

When I finally went back to that experience on the page, I found myself gaining some weight the first year or so because I was eating all the time. I’d be writing the poems and eating to remind myself that I wasn’t insecure in that way anymore. And that wasn’t productive either. Those who have been in therapy know the things you discuss are almost always the things you don’t want to talk about and that’s the whole point. That’s why you’re sitting in the therapist’s room to begin with. This book is not therapy in any way because that kind of unfiltered language would make a terrible book. But it involves all the bits and pieces of things I didn’t want to go back and unearth. Which ended up being the most useful things for the poems. The parts that I cut out were all things I was trying to scaffold around the actual hurt or the actual hunger or the actual frustration.

There are all these little cues for people who are or have been poor in these poems, too. I know there are readers who have had similar kinds of upbringings who will catch all these little bits and pieces of trivia. If you’ve ever been stuck drinking powdered milk, then there are things in the poems that are going to make sense. If you haven’t, then you’re going to be able to understand, but it’s not going to whistle in the same way. And I know this because some of my friends who were fortunate not to have that impoverished experience read the poems. I have a group of poets I always go to and the people who had less privileged upbringings were all over it and useful in editing the related details. They were like, “I know what you’re talking about, so maybe you’re talking too much about this? How about you strip a little more of it back? You don’t need to spend so much time lingering on how terrible government cheese is. People either know that or they don’t.” So I was trying to find a way to share this experience without it being some sort of poverty porn. Like the reader’s thinking, “Aw, these poor people. Look at them.” You know, while they’re eating beignets or something and drinking espresso. “Oh, these poor people.” You know, powdered sugar sprinkled all over my poems. I wanted it to be for those people who were open to finding a different way into it even if they haven’t had the experience. Anyway I think about the book as a contiguous narrative about race and economics. Then I got the opportunity to figure out the places where I needed to open things up for someone who might not be part of that narrative. If you don’t know who Sun Ra is, then some of these poems aren’t going to make any sense to you at all. But if you do, then his outer-space antics are going to make a lot of sense and feed back into the other narratives. If you haven’t spent a lot of time with Richard Pryor and understand his upbringing—you know, he was fatherless and grew up in a brothel—all of these things fit into the poems in different ways. If you don’t know them you can still manage. But if you do, they hopefully add another set of nuances.

MJ: It sounds like this book is a little bit of the “I don’t care, I’m gonna write what I want” of Mixology but with an element of the more personal, too.

AM: Yeah, and I think I learned a lot writing The Big Smoke. About how to put together a narrative as a book. I knew how to put together a narrative in a poem. I mean, it’s pretty easy. A to B to C. There’s got to be a crisis and some resolution in the poem. It might not be a good poem, but there it is. But to do that over five poems or nine poems—or in this case this book is 128 pages long, however many poems that is—requires a different kind of finessing and placement and theme and repetition of idea to carry from one poem to the next.

I said it’s 128 pages, but it’s a book full of space. Like, big spaces. When the designers spaced it traditionally—single spaced and the rest—it was only 85 pages of poetry. But that’s not how the book was intended. So there are really 30 pages of space in this book. 30 pages of silence. And it’s okay because that’s what it felt like back then. When I was a kid I always felt isolated. Either because I didn’t have things, or because my mom was at work, or whatever it was. I always felt like I was by myself during these events.

MJ: Are you talking about white space within poems or pages of space between them?

AM: White space within the poems. Penguin wouldn’t have let me get away with all that. They were already like, “Huh, so you’re saying we’re going to add 30 pages of nothing.” [laughter]

I was like, “Yeah, basically. But it’s not nothing; it’s poetic gesture. It’s important to the poem. The poets will understand.”

“Uh huh.”

MJ: It’s as if you took out all the parts of a song where no one’s singing, then you’d have some gibberish.

AM: Exactly! I can say this now because the book’s already done, so there’s no way it’s going be traced back. The layout people were like, “Did he just admit that the space didn’t really have a textual point? And we just wasted all these pages?”

No. It had a point, but not the point they thought it had.

MJ: As a last question, you mentioned that you wrote Map to the Stars but now other things are calling. What are those other things calling?

AM: I just finished the graphic novel script for the Johnson book and I’ve got a second one I’m working on. It’s about rap music in the 80s when I was in seventh grade and  figured out I couldn’t be a rapper. I don’t want to keep looking backward artistically, but it felt like a useful exploration for a graphic. Being able to render what people looked like in 1985. How different we were in our dress. Actually, it’s not that much different from now. It’s come back around. I was looking at these old photographs of early rappers and they all have tight jeans on and big Adidas Top Tens, white high-top tennis shoes and leather jackets. The gear has all gone in reverse. It went really big and baggy for a long time, and now it’s back to where it was in the 1980s. But rendering all that  and the wood-paneled basement parties where we would try to rap seemed to offer a lot of possibility visually. But I made the pact with myself that this was going to be it. After this book, no more backward looking.

I really want to write something about being a dad, and I haven’t figured out how to do it. It might be a how-to guide or something because I’ve been such a bang-up dad. [laughs] I’m up here in West Lafayette while my kid is at home being watched by somebody else. Great work, dad. But I’m really interested in how these family relationships change us. I don’t want to go back and write about 1995. I don’t want to do that kind of backward looking anymore. I was just in 2010, then I was in the 1980s. So you know, I’d like to spend some time in the now.

So I’ve been working on this collection Hearing Damage about music, about the way these being-adult things influence our lives. They’re kind of weird lyric, longer-line poems. Kind of essay-y, if that’s a word. But they’re still poems. So you know, we’ll see. It might not end up anything like I’m talking about now, but I’m seeing something happening and it’s starting to take shape.

MJ: Great, well thank you so much for coming and talking with us!

AM: And thanks for your questions.