Starting From the Middle

Adrian Matejka on his new book, Somebody Else Sold the World.
Portrait of Adrian Matejka standing outside.

In 2018, I went to a reading at the Library of Congress featuring five poets laureate from across the country, which remains the best poetry event I have ever attended. All five poets were beautiful writers and readers of their own work; all five plainly loved and were devoted to their communities, both local and literary. Even in such excellent company, though, Adrian Matejka, then the poet laureate of Indiana, stood out, thanks to the easy musicality of his reading, which included his own work and that of Etheridge Knight, a nod to the legacy of Black poetry in Indianapolis.

Matejka has spent much of his career preoccupied with the past. In his previous collections, The Devil’s Garden (2003), Mixology (2009), The Big Smoke (2013), and Map to the Stars (2017), he created a body of work that spanned his childhood in the 1980s to the boxer Jack Johnson, who, in the early 20th century, became the first Black heavyweight champion of the world. In his newest collection, Somebody Else Sold the World (Penguin Books, 2021), Matejka turns to the present—or, rather, the extremely recent past. His new poems capture flickers of American life during the coronavirus pandemic, from “unemployed / cat burglars” waiting for sunrise to protests against police brutality at which “cops hang back, fidgeting / in their gunbelts & eyeing the blonde reporters.” Throughout the collection, he juxtaposes violence and loneliness with solidarity, resilience, and the brief joys born of necessity. His poems crystallize the agonizing fear and anticipation of early lockdowns, when the “air around us was so ripe, it might / have broken in half if we could touch it”; later, the poems convey the hope of reopening, of knowing we will once again be able to “watch things spin effortlessly, / as if we weren’t even here.”

Through email, Matejka and I discussed the challenges and opportunities of writing poetry that directly addresses its present. We ranged through Matejka’s many poetic influences, from the Black Arts Movement to hip-hop to Toni Morrison’s understanding of eros.

Somebody Else Sold the World opens mid-sentence, with an ampersand, as if the poem were already in motion before I picked up the book. What about that kind of running start—which you use often in this collection—appeals to you? And why give a poem about the slowdowns of COVID such a kinetic beginning?

One of my teachers, the great poet and memoirist Al Young, who died this past April, gave me some advice about the beginnings of poems. He said, “You’re born into the middle of a bunch of stuff, so why not start in the middle?” I thought about his advice constantly while I was stuck at home. We were (and still are) in the middle of so many things because of this relentless virus. Even while I was eating French fries for breakfast and avoiding eye contact with my neighbors, the flowers were still blossoming and the trees stretched out like they usually do. So I took Al’s advice and began in medias res, letting the before and after of these poems arrange themselves.

At what point in the pandemic did you decide, or accept, that you were going to write about it in real time?

I’ve got a convoluted relationship with temporality right now because of the pandemic and also because I spent most of the last decade writing historically. I had been trying to willfully write into the present and future when COVID happened, and all of the sudden, the future seemed like an impossibility. It felt like April and May of 2020 took eight years to get through. I was able to write about only the day I was living because it seemed like the exact same day on repeat.

I started writing to catalog or differentiate the days. It was a fluid document because understanding of the virus was constantly changing and what we thought we knew ended up being wrong. I mean, it was months before anybody figured out that we didn’t actually have to wipe off the mail and groceries or disinfect the clothes we wore outside of the house. Some of those rituals sound dramatic now, but the real time of it was terrifying.

There was a point in the summer of 2020 when I was able to get out of my own head long enough to think about the fact we would eventually be maskless and together again and, when that happened, we’d all be carrying this shared trauma in our own ways. Octavia E. Butler once said, “Delusional pain hurts just as much as pain from actual trauma. So what if it's all in your head?” She was talking about the pain of being empathic, and I think the pandemic has caused those of us who try to be aware so much additional pain.

Now we’re learning how to be with each other again. We’re learning how to talk with each other again but with this horrible experience in the backdrop. Like we had all lived through the same bad movie. We’re also about to have a reckoning with how we behaved to each other during this distressing time. One challenge of writing about all of this was trying to make legible a shared event in a way that doesn’t presume that I understand the experiences of others inside it.

The gift of writing into the past is that it is the past: we have memory and archive connected to the events, which allows a kind of wisdom that’s impossible in the present. If I were somehow writing this book now, looking back, I imagine there would be opportunities for some more direct realizations. But at the time I was trying to balance daily survival with my generalized fear and anger.

Many of the poems here—as in your broader body of work—take clear inspiration from music across forms and genres. How do your catholic musical tastes influence your poetic craft?

Music is poetry’s primary engine as far as I’m concerned. I mean this both in the creation of it and as it exists on the page. I always have music playing when I’m writing, and what kind depends on where I am in the generative process.

Stevie Wonder said that “Music, at its essence, is what gives us memories.” So maybe part of the reason that music is so vital to me is that it is kind of a repository of memory. Our connections to music are anecdotal, right? This Stevie Wonder song reminds me of prom heartbreak while another Stevie cut might remind me of the night sky over Chicago. This Portishead track sounds like the Amtrak clacking on the way to my aunt’s house while another Portishead song reminds me of slow dancing alone in my first apartment in Seattle.

Psychologists tell us smells and tastes are the greatest enablers of memory, but for me and other people like me, it’s music and sounds. There’s a whole universe of willingness and opportunity in every song. I want to share a quick list of songs that didn’t make their way into the book but should have:

I especially loved the collection’s three poems with epigraphs taken from hip-hop songs—and this is perhaps a rap-fan question as much as a poetry-reader one, but I’m both: How have you repurposed hip-hop craft, which of course is deeply related to poetry, as poetry craft?

I came to poetry through rap music. I wanted to be an emcee when I was a kid, but I didn’t have the talent. Even if I had been gifted enough, being a rapper wasn’t exactly a vocation in 1980s Indianapolis. I see so much congruency between rap and poetry, though. There are these beautiful patterns of trochees, breath, and beats that the brain hangs onto in rap, and the same thing is true of poetry.

To borrow something my friend Adam Bradley said—all rappers are poets. It’s just that some of them are bad poets. The ones who are good use poetic devices as easily as Elizabeth Bishop did. The ways Biggie chains rhyme, for example, or how Young M.A. uses anaphora and epistrophe effortlessly. Only a few poets can simile with the same imagination and verve as Lil Wayne back in the 2000s. Right now, rappers such as Mach-Hommy, Rapsody, and Armand Hammer are simply relentless in all aspects of craft from narrative to metonymy to metaphor. I love rap’s inventiveness with language, the dexterity and wit that come through in the figurative language and self-mythology.

One of my projects has been trying to lean into the rhetorical framework of rap—the internal logic behind simile construction, for example, or the systems of associative movements in lyricism. I’m thinking of the great DOOM, who died in October 2020, his ability to non sequitur and the way he used allusion as both literary device and self-definition in his verses. I’m trying to do some of that associative, allusory work in the poems you mentioned.

“Wake Up, Young Lovers” starts—title aside—as an affectionate-ish eye roll at its romance-obsessed protagonists and ends, to me, as a call to arms or to awareness. How did you get the poem to transform so swiftly and fully? And why did you pick that strategy?

There’s an old jazz standard called “I Fall In Love Too Easily” that might be my poetry theme song. Because it’s true of most poets: we fall in love dramatically, briefly, and all of the time—with sunrises and guitar riffs and men with beards checking their phones and women reading books on park benches and the purple pear sitting on the counter next to me. It takes a certain commitment to the romantic to be a poet even if you’re not writing about love.

I actually thought I was writing a book of love poems when I started Somebody Else Sold the World. I’d been reading a lot of Pablo Neruda, Sharon Olds, and Jack Gilbert and was trying to imagine a 21st-century love poem, in part because of my idea of how love has changed so much from what I thought it was when I was 15 or 25 or 35. Love can be fleeting and empowering. Love can be a lifelong and completely destructive thing.

But in practice, love creates a shared selfishness. Or maybe the monogamous, human enactment of it creates its own self-centered gravity for the participants: Look at us, we’re the luckiest people in the world, etc. And they’re right in some ways. At the same time, that blushing space can be a knotty thing when it doesn’t take the world outside into account. To be the best (poetry) versions of ourselves, we have to be able to hold all of these seemingly contradictory things at once, the public and the private. It reminds me of the question Hanif Abdurraqib’s beautiful cycle “How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This” asks. How do we balance both the politics of the moment, who we are in that social context, and also somehow stay aware of the splendor around us?

In “Darling,” the speaker skips a protest to have sex—a choice I imagine the majority of readers will understand but one that highlights the fact that the personal is not always the political. Here, the two are perhaps even in tension or competition. How do you write into that specific competitive space? And how do you protect the personal in your poetry while still consistently allowing the political in?

I love that you asked this because it’s one of the main questions I kept asking myself in the poems. How do we maintain ourselves as creatures of desire and want while also being fully engaged in the necessary politics of being? And to add to that, how do we write about sex in the 21st century while, to echo your language, protecting the personal?

Writing about sexuality is a political act for me simply because it’s something I’ve rarely done and I’m completely uncomfortable with. I came up in a long tradition of drooly, overly sharing dude poetry in the 1980s and ’90s. For every male poet who wrote about sexuality in complex ways, such as Yusef Komunyakaa or Tim Seibles, there were a hundred other dudes writing odes to their own genitals. Their poems had no concept whatsoever of the erotic.

Toni Morrison said, “Sex is difficult to write about because it’s just not sexy enough. The only way to write about it is not to write much.” That makes so much sense to me because the duality of writing about something so intimate for an audience that will most likely include my partner-in-action but also includes others who have never even met me fundamentally undercuts the sexy, if you see what I mean. It can turn a confession of love into a performance of it if we’re not careful. Morrison also said, “The best art is political and you ought to be able to make it unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time.” So maybe that’s the call to action and also what I hoped to achieve—to write about eros in beautiful, unquestionably political ways.

The word antagonist appears frequently in Somebody Else Sold the World, often taking on new facets of meaning: sometimes it seems to refer to white supremacists, at other times to COVID deniers, at still other times to callous political elites. The word accrues significance as the collection moves forward. How did you land specifically on antagonist?

There’s a beautiful essay by the novelist Ben Okri called “While the World Sleeps” in which he elevates the poet to incantatory status: truth teller, griot, protester. He also calls anyone who is against poetry an antagonist and says, “The antagonists of poetry cannot win.” I’ve been carrying his essay around with me for about 20 years, trying to better understand all of what he meant.

The word ties to my concerns about the erosion of citizenship in the United States before and after the pandemic. How our busted institutional framework has convinced a segment of our population that there’s only this much to go around. So if a Black or trans or disabled person gets something—money, a job, resources, whatever—that’s money or a job that those people are not getting. I can’t imagine a more antagonistic attitude than that. The pandemic pushed all of the selfishness and imaginary competition undergirding capitalism to the front. Now I’m thinking about those early mob scenes over toilet paper and ketchup. The desperation of consumption. So there’s that meaning of antagonist on a social and political level.

I’ve also been thinking about Robert Hayden’s work. He talked about the need for poetic diction—a kind of language that is meant for poetry in opposition to the vernacular of the Beats and Black Arts Movement poets. He was frustrated that modern poets (and he was talking about poets in the 1960s) favored colloquial and conversational language rather than the grand traditions of poetic language. It sounds a little stuffy when I summarize it that way, but I think it was as much about willful linguistic and poetic choice as it was contrasting diction. It seemed like a good challenge for me—to think about language in a more effusive way and to maybe elevate the sonic quotient of my poems. Words like antagonist swing and still fit into Hayden’s idea of poetic diction.

You finished your term as Indiana’s poet laureate not long before the pandemic began. How did being poet laureate impact your poetry or your understanding of yourself as a poet?

Serving as poet laureate of my state was an honor in the truest sense, and it was also an extremely difficult appointment. Indiana has a long history of segregation and racism, and the poet laureate tradition here reflects that. There have been poets laureate doing work in our state since 1945, and only one other Black poet—Wendell L. Parker in 1985—has held the position. So, in 76 years of poets laureate, only two Black poets have represented the state.

The lack of diversity in the poet laureate position accidentally reifies the misconception that there aren’t Black people in Indiana or in the Midwest generally outside of Chicago and Detroit. Indianapolis is 30 percent Black, with a long history of Black poetry. Mari Evans and Etheridge Knight raised this city up with their poems. So I was trying to hold all of this as Indiana poet laureate—the histories of bigotry and unseen Black excellence, the complications of being the first laureate of color in the new century, and my agenda as a writer and community citizen.

I’m a child of the Black Arts Movement in that my understanding of literary responsibility came from brilliant, outward-facing poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks and Eugene B. Redmond, poets who managed to enable and activate creative spaces while somehow continuing to make their own poems. It feels like an impossible project for me some days since the energy I use to teach, build, and write all comes from the same place. So many other poets have lifted me up, though, so it would be egocentric and lazy to not do the same for others when I’ve been given the opportunity.

Space is key—as in, how do we create it for others, how do we keep from taking up too much of it for ourselves, and how do we create a geography around us that’s conducive to writing poetry? One of my major projects as Indiana poet laureate was creating a free, online archive of Indiana poetry at the Indiana State Library called INverse. My idea for the archive was to collect poetry from any poet with ties to Indiana. There are no other requirements for being included in the archive other than a state connection. I wanted to make a space where people could share their work and be seen and read alongside other Indiana poets without inhibition.

In addition to all of that, I had a wonderful time traveling the state and sharing poetry in cities and towns I most likely wouldn’t have visited otherwise. I’m still processing what I learned, but one thing is for sure: poetry is thriving in places where we might not think to look for it.

Originally Published: July 26th, 2021

Lily Meyer is a writer and translator from Washington, DC. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books, and her criticism appears online in the Atlantic, the New Yorker, the Poetry Foundation, Public Books, and more. Lily is a PhD candidate in fiction at the University of Cincinnati. She is a two-time...