As a faculty member at Indiana University, Adrian Matejka teaches a course titled “The Poetics of Rap Music” in which he and students explore rhyme schemes and literary devices employed by Nicki Minaj, 21 Savage, and other hitmakers. Music factors heavily in two new books by Matejka: “Somebody Else Sold the World” partially inspired by David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” and released July 6 by Penguin Poets, and a graphic novel inspired by 1970s Funkadelic albums “Maggot Brain” and “Standing on the Verge of Getting It On,” set for release July 28 by Third Man Books. We caught up with Matejka for an interview before his July 13 release party for “Somebody Else Sold the World” at the Jazz Kitchen.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
There’s a wealth of pandemic imagery in “Somebody Else Sold the World.” Was this designed to be a pandemic project?
Not at all. I thought I was writing a book of love poems. I was in a new relationship a couple of years leading up to the pandemic, and I started a few poems about getting divorced and being a middle-aged guy back in the world in this way. Then the pandemic happened.
How did David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” come into your mind in the process of writing the book?
I’m a big David Bowie fan. There’s a poet, Tracy K. Smith, who has this book “Life on Mars” where she really dug in, and David Bowie is kind of a character in the book. So I never really wrote about him, because she was so elegant about it. But part of what happened when we were locked down is that I got my DJ set back out and we would have dance parties. I ended up leaning into the music that comforted me. I listened to a lot of Bowie and a lot of Prince and Fela Kuti and Miles Davis. “The Man Who Sold the World” just caught on [a] loop one day. So I listened to the album, but then I went back and listened to this live version that Bowie played at a festival in the ’90s after Nirvana had covered the song. He just killed it. Obviously, he wasn’t talking about the pandemic or Donald Trump, but it was very easy for me to make the move from the song lyrics to the present. I decided I would write one song with that title, and that poem became four poems and it ended up being eight.
The cover image of the book is suggestive of Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock” video, with silhouettes of musicians in “cells.” Is that a commentary on Elvis as someone who sold the world?
An artist named Dario Robleto created this shadow box using images from his grandmother’s records. Each silhouette is a doo-wop singer from the 1950s and ‘60s. That’s so cool and thoughtful to me, even if those musicians don’t match the era of the ones I was thinking about. I love the idea of what’s implied in “selling the world.” Almost always it’s Black musicians not getting paid and having their stuff stolen. But here we are in the pandemic, and it’s happening to everybody. Not just Black people now. We have this shared experience of being have-nots. All of a sudden there are people who would have never understood what I was talking about who know exactly what it means. Sometimes everybody is just under the boot.
A reader can have a sense of weariness about being swindled. Do you consider it to be a hopeful book?
There is some weariness, but it’s mainly about the pandemic. There’s hope in it because we were still in the thick of the pandemic when I wrote this, and I imagined it would be done. Also, this book wasn’t supposed to come out until 2022. My editor read it and said, “No, we’re going to move it up.” But watching our government sort of dismantle the social safety nets, trying to yet again get rid of this off-brand version of healthcare that’s barely universal, watching them trying to take these things apart for the benefit of insurance companies or the benefit of corporations, watching them give us up, it was exhausting. Trump literally sold the world. He gave up the Arctic wildlife reserve for oil drilling. Thinking about this from an ecological standpoint as well as a humanistic standpoint, we just got sold out.
Gold means a lot to “the antagonist” you mention in several poems in the book. And everyone wants gold, even though the value is open to interpretation. Have you ever seen Donald Trump described as someone who acts the way a poor person thinks a rich person should act?
Absolutely. Somebody once said that poor white men don’t think they’re poor. They think they just haven’t gotten their shot yet. So when someone has that entitlement in their worldview, they see Trump and think “he’s like us.” But in fact he’s not. He actually didn’t do anything. He’s like most people who are wealthy: He got that money from his parents and other people.
The book’s “Hearing Damage” could have been in your original group of relationship poems. You write about high school marching band and having “a double-talk as slick & overachieving as a kid trench-coated with a boombox overhead in the rain.” It’s a vivid picture of the way kids try to get over and connect with a crush.
I think for any of us who were in [marching] band, our quotient of game was minimal to none. I was thinking about “Say Anything” and that being a model of a kind of romance when I was in high school. A desperate kind of romance, you know. I had the same girlfriend from middle school through high school. Because I was with the same person, I never had those kinds of romantic connections until I went to college. When I did have that experience, it felt as unreal and confusing as it possibly could. Then when I was back out again, after being married for 13 years, the whole world had changed. I felt like a kid, like a very confused teenager in terms of what the social mores are for this now.