Adrian Matejka Is No Square Poet

Adrian Matejka
Adrian Matejka

EVEN AS I WAS SIGNING the contract to become the editor, I was still having a hard time envisioning it. Not because I can’t imagine all the possibilities for outreach at Poetry magazine and at the Poetry Foundation, because I think that’s one of the reasons they were interested in my editorship. It was just hard for me to imagine that I would have ever gotten to a place where people would value my perspective on this art enough to trust me with something as austere as Poetry. I felt that way when I got hired at Indiana University. I felt that way when I got my first job at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. It just seems impossible to me sometimes, coming from Carriage House East Apartments, coming from Section Eight housing, now to be working for the Poetry Foundation. It’s a pretty miraculous journey.

When we lived in Carriage House, there were particular vantages from which you could see the top of what is now the Salesforce building. It was impossibly distant. It feels like that on the far-east side. You know that the city is right there because you can see the lights, but it seems very far away. 

When I was a kid, my mom would save her change to buy gas so we could go to the library once a week. There were no libraries near us. We didn’t have a library in our school. Once in a while, the Bookmobile would come by, but that was about it. So to imagine a life where I spend my days reading and talking about poetry? Talking about Star Trek for a living would’ve seemed more possible. I think that’s why I’m still hung up on trying to get poetry into spaces where poetry isn’t usually found. I lived in one of those spaces for a very long time. I know what it could’ve done for me if I’d had access to it.

I’m still wrapping my head around this tremendous opportunity and editorship. One of the things that I really want to do is work with the current editors and staff to continue to make the magazine more outward facing. A critical step forward, in my mind, is a step away from the institutionalization of poetics and more into the community. I want the magazine to be open, inviting. I want it to be supportive of the diversity of voices that we have in 21st-century poetics.

Poetry Magazine covers of issues Adrian Matejka has published poems within.
Poetry magazine has been in print since 1912.

Access is the key. When I was a poet in the ’90s, I didn’t feel like I had access to Poetry magazine. I read it, but I still didn’t feel like I had access to it. I didn’t feel as if they wanted to hear from me. I didn’t feel like there was room in the magazine at that time for my stories. Poetry now is significantly different. It’s much more accessible than it was then. But I want to expand the conversation even further. I want to build. Not just change the conversation a little, but completely transform it. I want the magazine to be of the people, and I also want it to be historically aware. We can be supportive and inclusive, even as we try to maintain our rigorous editorial standard.

My first two poems in Poetry were in the same issue, in 2012: “Map to the Stars” and “End of Side A.” In my new book, Somebody Else Sold the World, the revised version is called “On the B Side.” I was the only Black poet in that issue. I have this intense memory, even as I was excited to be in the magazine, of feeling alone. So to imagine a magazine, even 10 years ago, where there were only a few people of color, versus what it looks like today? So much has happened since then.

When I was poet laureate of Indiana in 2018, I worked with the Indiana Arts Commission and the Indiana State Library to create an archive of local poetry called INverse, and it’s open to anybody with significant ties to the state, regardless of their publication record or professional intention. There are so many poets who have come through here that have written beautiful verse: Etheridge Knight, Marianne Boruch, Joyelle McSweeney, Kaveh Akbar, Ross Gay, and Mari Evans, to name a few. That’s part of the reason we wanted to create the archive: to find a way to catalog all of the brilliant voices in Indiana.

There are so many poets I love beyond our borders, too. Yusef Komunyakaa is the beginning and the end of all the things that I’ve been trying to do. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Gwendolyn Brooks, whose position on Black poetics has been transformative for me. Same with Lucille Clifton and Robert Hayden. Emily Dickinson is a favorite. I got to write a poem in Emily Dickinson’s bedroom. I was visiting her house, which is now a museum in Amherst, Massachusetts. That was amazing. And also kind of weird. If she was alive, she wouldn’t want me hanging around her bedroom writing a poem. There was a dress form wearing one of her dresses, a desk, and a little chair. And when I say little, I mean I was sitting in it and I felt like I was gonna break it. I was nervous. One of the poems that I wrote while I was in her bedroom is in Somebody Else Sold the World: “It’s all I have/Daydreaming.”

Adrian Matejka's book covers
Adrian Matejka’s books include The Big Smoke, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

The art of poetry is as robust as it’s ever been. I mean, there are more poets writing now than at any other time in human history. Even with COVID-19 interrupting things, people are attending readings en masse, buying books, listening to poetry. They’re sharing poems more fervently than I think they’ve ever done before. I’ve been saying this for a long time: Poetry is an artform designed for the 21st century. It’s compact, it’s intense, it’s direct. There’s been such an obfuscation of language over the last seven to eight years. Intensity and directness are what we need right now.

I love poetry’s egalitarianism, too. Anybody can compose a poem. You don’t need a lot of tools or machinery. It helps if you read poetry, but you don’t even have to do that in the beginning to write something that would look like a poem. It’s like the soccer of artforms. It’s available with whatever resources you have, no matter where you grew up, who your parents were, how long you were in school, or how short. It’s there for us. Reading, writing, creating space for other writers, it’s all part of the same poetic action and part of the same love. Poetry can embolden us, enable us, and validate us in a way that I don’t think any other artform can. 

Maybe that’s because poetry came from the oral tradition. The Greeks wrote poetry to be accompanied by music, and the word “lyric” comes from the Greek word “lyre.” So it’s already intertwined: the idea of playing music, the idea of language sounding like music. I’ve been inspired by music over the years, partly because I wanted to be a rapper, but I was really bad at it. I played French horn in the band at Lincoln Middle School. I was a radio DJ. I had all these versions of music intersecting with my life as I was learning how to write poems. It was a lot of fun. And it came in handy during COVID, when I busted out the turntables again. That’s what got my last book started. If your poems don’t have music to them, if they don’t swing in some way, then you’re probably not going to go very far. There’s the great Indiana poet Etheridge Knight’s haiku, which I put on my business card when I was poet laureate:

“Making jazz swing in
Seventeen syllables AIN’T
No square poet’s job.”

I want people to understand that poetry is supposed to sound like music. Now, what genre of music is up to the poet’s ear. I believe that Etheridge Knight was inarguably correct. Making it swing isn’t the job for a square poet. You have to figure out your soundscapes and what you want to write about. I studied with Allison Joseph, a fantastic poet who went to Indiana University, too. One of the things that she taught me was that the best poets remain open to the world, and you can write a good poem from anything if you pay enough attention. Pablo Neruda said something to the same effect. People disagreed with him, so he wrote the Elemental Odes: an ode to a chair, or to a salt shaker. He was refuting people who thought poetry had to be lofty, or that it had to be about war or God. It can be about socks. Between Neruda and Joseph, it became clear to me that anything that inspires me is fodder for a poem. Like the inspiration for Ross Gay’s essays in The Book of Delights: “This is something that delights me today.” The enactment is complex, but the inspiration can be anything.

Poetry Foundation plaza

Poetry Foundation indoor seating are
Ruth Lilly’s $200 million donation in 2002 allowed the Poetry Foundation to build an impressive home for the magazine and its archives in Chicago. Now that Adrian Matejka has taken the reins at the publication, he hopes to further diversify its cast of contributors.

Ross and I are Ruth Lilly Professors of Poetry at IU, and Ruth Lilly famously gave a $200 million endowment to the Poetry Foundation. Her legacy has benefited so many people. Ross and I have been able to do a significant amount of outreach as a result of our positions. I hope we can figure out a way to make this legacy more transparent for people outside of the state. The Lilly Library at IU includes a great deal of poetry and benefits everybody. The Sylvia Plath archives are there, and people come from all over to read her journals. That’s one of the gifts of all libraries: access to things we wouldn’t ordinarily have access to.

Access and representation matter so much. When I was younger, there were almost no Black people on television. I remember The Jeffersons, Good Times, and the bartender on The Love Boat, Isaac. That was about it. At the same time, I’m a straight-up sci-fi geek, and on Star Trek, there was this crazy-diverse cast. As a kid, that was the only show that looked like my neighborhood. So of course I would gravitate to that, the same way I gravitated to Black Panther comic books and Luke Cage, Hero for Hire because they were the only Black superheroes who had their own comics. This is me looking backward. I understand it now in a way I didn’t understand when I was 9.

Today, my wife and I live in Bates-Hendricks. Soon, we’re going to move up to Chicago, where Poetry magazine’s offices are. But wherever I go, I have infinite love for my hometown, a place that’s important to everything I do. I might not have been able to imagine it, but it would have been impossible for me to become the editor of Poetry if I wasn’t from Indianapolis and if I hadn’t had the support that I’ve had from our community. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

For an essential Indiana poetry collection according to local literary figures, click here.