Easily another one of my best poetry moments occurred this past fall. One of the classes I teach is composed of all first-year black men. We read various poems, but we really focused in on Adrian Matejka's The Big Smoke.
I've been reading "bad man" poems with guys at the university for a few years now, but this fall, The Big Smoke gave us one of the ultimate bad men in Jack Johnson. Here, we had a volume of poems, most of which were presented from the first-person perspective of the heavyweight champion himself.
We didn't have to start from scratch with the book either. All the guys arrived to the class with knowledge about cool, problematic, confident, athletic, troubled, boastful, accomplished, and complex black men. So the students all had thoughts on men like Jack Johnson even before knowing much about him or reading The Big Smoke.
There were moments too when we felt that the "Shadow" who appeared to chastise Johnson was also speaking truths to us. On a few different occasions during the semester, guys in our group were on the receiving end of racist verbal assaults. So we lingered on the Shadow's observation that "you can't buy equality." As a black man, even if you change clothes, make multiple achievements, and display a refined sense of culture, you still "can't change your skin." Jack Johnson's Shadow was talking to ""Mr. Champion of the Negro World," but for a moment, it felt like he was directing those comments at us.
Talking about Matejka's volume of poetry often turned into conversations about sports, history, coolness, education, domestic abuse, money, cars, making a come up, eloquence, and rap. For those and other reasons, covering the The Big Smoke with those first-year fellas was a notable poetry moment in 2013.
• Good book moments in 2013
• A Notebook on Adrian Matejka