Wednesday, June 1, 2016
Adrian Matejka reading new then newer poems over a 9-year stretch
At the last minute, right as he prepared to read from his new, in-process poetry manuscript, Adrian Matejka decided to read a couple of poems from two of his earlier books, Mixology (2009) and The Big Smoke (2013), his volume about heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson. Along with a small group of other creative writers, he was giving a reading at Dressel's Pub here in St. Louis on May 25.
It's interesting to consider that Matejka is now at a point now of moving well beyond The Big Smoke. There was a moment when all he and I talked about was that manuscript and Jack Johnson. We're at this somewhat new moment now where we're looking back on that book. I still remember a time when we were looking ahead, when the book was an untitled manuscript and somewhere in a future.
I first met Matejka back in spring 2007, when he did a reading as part of his job talk here at SIUE. He was hired and began working here in the fall, before heading to Indiana University in 2012. When he gave the reading for his job talk in 2007, he mostly read new poems from what would eventually become Mixology.
During the reading and campus visit, Matejka began talking about an even newer project, a volume concentrating on the first black heavyweight boxing champion. At the time, I was doing research on persona poems, a mode that Matejka was going to use for his book on Johnson, so we began having a wide-ranging conversation about poets re-presenting history and writing in the voices of others.
I always had the sense that poets were putting considerable research into their volumes about historical figures. However, with Matejka here and having an office right around the corner from mine, I could witness first-hand what it meant for a poet to pursue research on his subject. There were always dozens of books and news articles related to Jack Johnson, boxing, and black people from the early 20th century on Matejka's desk.
On the desk, there were also pages of notes. There were videos--documentaries and old boxing footage. And he was always searching for something else, additional source materials. Was he writing a volume of poetry or a series of scholarly articles or a biography? From the conversations and a glance at his desk, it was difficult to say.
In 2009, at the readings on campus and around St. Louis, Matejka read mainly from Mixology. Over time, he'd read a limited number of poems from Mixology and a add a few poems from this developing manuscript on Jack Johnson.
By fall 2010, Matejka had produced quite a few Jack Johnson poems. He gave me permission to use several of the poems in an exhibit I curated. The exhibit, "Jack Johnson: The Man They All Dodge," included images, print-outs of Matejka's poems, and audio recordings of him reading and and an interview he did with me in my office discussing the pieces. .
By 2011, Matejka was reading more and more of the poems from the then upcoming book on Johnson. Once, here in St. Louis, at a reading in April 2013, Matejka was on the card to read with several other poets. To keep things short, he read just two poems from the book--the opening poem "Battle Royal" and the closing poem "IL Trovatore." A month later, in My 2013, his book was published.
The Big Smoke was a big hit, earning finalist nominations for the National Book Award for Poetry and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Matejka did a lot of traveling, giving public readings and leading workshops as a result of the book's success. At the same time, he was beginning to work on his newest volume, which will, I gather based on listening and reading a few of the poems here and there, focus on a recurring theme of stars and space.
Just as The Big Smoke poems began to displace the Mixology poems over time during his public readings, these newest poems from this upcoming book have been displacing those poems from The Big Smoke. His newest book has a spring 2017 publication date, and by then, Matejka will have newer newest poems waiting in the wings, ready to take flight.
• A Notebook on Adrian Matejka