Positive Rigor

A conversation with Adrian Matejka, Poetry’s new editor.
A headshot of Adrian Matejka looking into the camera, wearing a dark blazer, a sweater, and a necklace.

Adrian Matejka was recently named the new editor of Poetry, the 12th person to hold that title since the magazine began in 1912, and the first Black top editor in the magazine’s history. However, his professional relationship with Poetry began a decade ago when he published two poems in its pages: “End of Side A” and “Map to the Stars.” They were a stunning debut, although Matejka was a mature poet by then. Lines cooked up in couplets such as

[…] He could be Albright
himself, foraging the still-life swish of low-rise
tutus & skyscrapers cracked in the twisted
aftermath of a smile.

are followed up immediately with an internally rhymed grace note:

[…] Even without glasses,
he remembers her in high style: magnanimously

The poem is an example of Matejka’s extraordinarily deft touch. “Map to the Stars” displays his great range: lines such as “somebody’s mom-barbered head” and “the forgotten astronomies of disco” comprise the poem’s soundscape.

Matejka is the author of five collections: The Devil’s Garden (2003), Mixology (2009), The Big Smoke (2013), Map to the Stars (2017), and Somebody Else Sold the World (2021). With the visual artists Nicholas Galanin and Kevin Neireiter, he produced a Funkadelic-inspired multimedia project, Standing on the Verge & Maggot Brain (2021). In 2023, Liveright will publish Last on His Feet, a graphic novel.

Shortly after the announcement of Matejka’s appointment, I had the pleasure of speaking with him about his plans and vision for the magazine. In our conversation, Matejka begins there, revealing the wider context from which he reflects on his first publication in the magazine he now guides and why that matters.

The collaborative nature of his current work, along with his rich experience as a poet, an editor, and Indiana state poet laureate, offers Matejka an array of perspectives as he embarks on this new journey. At this point, it’s negligent to simply state the obvious: this is a time of multiple crises. What role does Poetry’s new editor see the magazine playing during this crucial time?

Describe your vision for the future of the magazine. What do you want to change? What do you think is working? 

I had a conversation the other day about the first time I had a poem in Poetry. It was 2012, and I was over the moon to finally have work in a journal that I’d read for so long. I already had two collections out at that point, but being in Poetry was a different kind of validation. When I got the issue and read the table of contents, I was troubled to see that I was the only Black poet in the issue. All of the sudden, my joy was tempered with a bit of loneliness, if that makes sense. I mention that experience not as a critique but as affirmation of just how much closer the magazine is to being representative of the poetry community now. There is still so much work to do, of course, but to go from having one Black poet in the issue to what the pages look like 10 years later is significant.

The work at the magazine and the Poetry Foundation that the Community Letter activated over the past couple of years changed the atmosphere and texture of the journal. I want to continue that transformation—to continue to make the magazine more inclusive and available while also developing its outward-facing component. I’m a believer in poetry as action as well as art. Some of my favorite poets do their best work in libraries and orchards and jazz clubs. I want the magazine to embody that public ethos—outward facing, artistically centered, inviting yet rigorous, and always acting in service to our art.

What do you see as the magazine's role in the larger literary community? 

It’s important for me to think about the magazine as less an arbiter of poetics—as maybe magazines worked in the past—and more an enabler of poetics. Poetry is one of the most prominent venues for our art in the world, and that means we can help amplify the voices of poets from all over our community. That way, the magazine becomes a part-time megaphone, part-time hype squad, and full-time advocate for poets. It's also a living archive, and I hope to lean into that historical aspect more robustly going forward. We are cataloguing contemporary poetry from all over the world in every issue. It’s important that we honor the work by putting it in conversation with a range of contemporary voices in a way that is satisfying for the poets and readers.

How will the magazine continue to address the community's calls for greater diversity?

The magazine is only a small part of the Poetry Foundation, which itself has an active and robust agenda of outreach and support. So, as I am thinking about how to transform the journal, I’m also thinking about ways to be present and active through the Foundation. Diversity, especially in America, is a project that requires constant agitation. We have to stay vigilant and active to maintain and build upon the positive changes that have happened since 2020. In addition to my hire—and last year’s hire of the first Black president of the Poetry Foundation, Michelle T. Boone—we have committed to prioritizing organizational diversity. At the magazine, the guest editor program is part of that. The issues curated by guest editors have been significant and brought different perspectives and voices to the poetry conversation. I think it’s important to recognize that those beautiful volumes could not have been conceived by our editorial staff; they were enactments of the editorial vision of the guest editors. So, definitely, we’re going to continue to have guest editors, and the next editors will be announced soon.

How does your background as a state poet laureate inform your work? 

During the two years I was Indiana poet laureate, I traveled to every part of the state giving workshops and readings and talks about poetry. What I learned first is there is a great desire for poetry generally, especially in communities isolated geographically or economically. Part of creating access is inviting everyone into the conversation, but another part is bringing poetry and poetry-oriented resources to those communities. Not everybody can drive. Not everybody has access to public transport. Not everybody is able to leave the house comfortably or safely.

The laureateship also shifted the way I see the various roles I fill—writer, editor, teacher, community member. Before my laureateship, I thought they were mostly separate. But now I believe that they all different parts of my poetic Venn diagram. At any given moment, I might be editing and teaching or writing and building community. That’s when my attitude about everything changed. I can’t be—and I am speaking only for myself here—a good editor if I’m not also immersed in my own writing. I can’t be a good teacher if I’m not thinking like an editor. I can’t be a good community member if I’m not thinking about what I’ve learned as a teacher. I hope those connections make sense because they inform who I want to be as a full-time editor.

How would you describe your editorial philosophy? What are your editorial models?

I’ve been lucky to work with a number of literary magazines over the years in various capacities: Callaloo, Crab Orchard Review, River Styx, Boulevard, Sou’wester, and Copper Nickel, and I’ve learned so much about what inspires me, what staff and reading strategies work best for me, and the importance of being as transparent as possible in deliberations and decisions.

But before all of that, I learned from two brilliant editors, Allison Joseph and Jon Tribble, when I was in graduate school. As editors, they modeled rigor, consideration, and openness of editorialism at a time when the monolithic, monarchic Editor was still the style at most magazines. What I learned from them—and what I have tried to enact in all of my editorial opportunities—is that the best editors are effective in part because they are committed to finding successes and reasons to keep reading a poem rather than looking for reasons to put the poem down. Positive rigor. This always made sense to me, and I try to enact that by listening to what the poem is telling me rather than what I want to hear.

I feel fortunate because I studied poetry in late 20th century and developed genuine reverence for the Harlem Renaissance, the Imagists, and the Modernists. At the same time, the poets who made me run home to try writing my own poems were the Black Arts Movement poets. Activism in art. BAM is, in a lot of ways, a precursor to the work being done now in style and in content. There are many other examples of poetic activism, of course, including performance poetry and Chicano poetry among other movements and schools. But I’m thinking about the transparency of BAM, the general desire to write for and be understood by the Black community. So, Gwendolyn Brooks and Etheridge Knight inspired me even as I was reading H.D., Pound, and Auden.

That’s a pretty long way to go to say that as an editor, I’m inspired as much by the writers who taught me how to read as I am by the many editors I’ve learned from over the years. But to put it as succinctly as possible: I look for poems that balance urgency with an awareness of the history of our art. I love when I can see a poem’s lineage tattooed on its own lines. And the most important thing in a successful poem, to paraphrase Yusef Komunyakaa, is need. I love poems that help me understand why they needed to be written into the world.

I remember something Jon Tribble told me in the Crab Orchard Review office many years ago while we were reading submissions. He said, “Writing a good poem isn’t that complicated. All you need is to be able to write and have something to say.” That’s compassionate rigor.

Originally Published: May 23rd, 2022

Rowan Ricardo Phillips is the author of five books, all published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: When Blackness Rhymes with Blackness (2010), The Ground (2012), Heaven (2015), The Circuit (2018), and Living Weapon (2020). He is also the author of a book-length translation, from the Catalan, of Salvador Espriu’s Ariadne in the Grotesque Labyrinth (2012). His books have been named a book of...