[The Big Smoke reading group]
Like many of the poems from Adrian Matejka’s The Big Smoke, his poem “Battle Royal” presents the first-person perspective of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion. As the opening poem in the volume, we began to get a sense of who Johnson is, or at least the Johnson that Matekja creatively presents.
In “Battle Royal,” Johnson details the histories of a battle royal from when bears were pitted against dogs to when groups of young black men were placed in a ring together to fight each other for the entertainment of white people. As Matejka’s Johnson notes at one point, “they rounded up the skinniest / of us, had us strip to trousers, then / blindfolded us before the fight.” The sport was dangerous and humiliating.
After reading the poem, what impression of Johnson that Matejka presented stood out to you most? Why?