Thursday, August 10, 2017

Adrian Matejka--sampling a black interstellar history in verse

My thought, back when I first read Adrian Matejka's The Big Smoke, was that he wasn't going to have a reason to write about so many different kinds of issues -- Jack Johnson, boxing, newspapers, abuse, interracial relationships, and so on -- in a single volume. Not sure what I was thinking. Reading Matejka's newest work, Map to the Stars was a reminder that this process of sampling a variety of material is central to his work and some various other poets and writers.

In the course of this latest volume, Matejka references Jean-Michel Basquiat, George Clinton, Prince, Guion S. Bluford, Sun Ra, Lando Calrissian, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Slick Rick, Larry Holmes, EPMD, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Reggie Miller, among others. Beyond those figures, Matejka discusses several different cultural points of reference, things like basketball, video games, hairstyles, music, movies, television shows, and space travel--real and fictive. He mentions encounters with police, or more specifically efforts to steer clear of cops, because of what could happen.

There are also recurring notations of hearing white folks refer to black folks as nigger. In "Crickets, Racists," Matejka recalls a moment in his youth riding his bicycle one late night. A driver rode past and shouted out the window "Off the road, nigger!" The epithet, the driver, and car startled the young Matejka, leading him to crash his bike into a ditch. He sits there alone in dark and dirt listening to crickets, which, the poet notes, are among the sounds one would hear on the album Sounds of Earth.

Unfortunately, I've heard many recounts over the decades of folks explaining what it felt like after a white person called you "nigger." I have to say, though, Matejka describing sitting their, stunned, and then thinking of crickets and linking that to a recording floating out in space was new for me.

Those crickets, Sun Ra, Prince, movies, all those references appear as Matejka weaves together this black interstellar history in verse. The references also link Matejka to a generation of writers and other artists who were influenced by the mixing, matching, and sampling of hip hop.

Let's see. For Matejka, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Kevin Young, Colson Whitehead, Aaron McGruder, Paul Beatty, really a whole generation of black men writers, there's a kind of sampling that persists in their works. I'm not saying you'll see it in the works of all black men nor am I saying it's absent in the compositions of non-black men. There are always exceptions.

Still, it's difficult to overlook the tremendous body of work these guys have put together over the last, wow, 20-plus years. We gotta add Matejka's Map to Stars to that mix. Too, it's worth noting his creativity in making stars, space travel, and interstellar ideas central to the ideas of this black boy figure growing up in Indiana at a certain moment during the 1980s.

A Notebook on Black Boys, Black Men & Creativity
Adrian Matejka

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