By Natalie Solmer
While brainstorming about a poet to feature in our first issue, it became clear Adrian Matejka was our first choice. Though he was born in Germany, raised in California and Indiana, he spent most of his formative years in Indianapolis. His fourth book of poetry, Map to the Stars, delves deep into the Indianapolis landscapes that reside within him. I was taken with this book’s layered and complex subject matter, and especially its haunting and accurate descriptions of our city, such as “like Indianapolis’s three skyscrapered / smile when the sun goes down & even // the colors themselves start talking,” from “Trumpets Up In Here -after Trumpet (1984) Jean-Michel Basquiat”.
Map to the Stars follows the narrative arc of Matejka’s childhood and adolescence growing up on the Eastside of Indianapolis in the oft-referenced Carriage House East Apartments and on to his family’s eventual move to the suburbs in Pike township. Matejka explores drastic differences between these two racially segregated landscapes that include: intimacy with neighbors, assimilation, music, class, recreational activities, expectations, and the navigation of loneliness. No matter how disparate, the night sky is a uniting factor that runs through these environments. Matejka’s intense interest in outer space, the planets, and Star Trek informed his concept of belonging to a physical place.
“I felt like I was from nowhere,” Matejka said, remarking that this book was the first time he explored in his poetry how geography and place have played a role in his life. Map to the Stars just came out a few months ago, and I was lucky to catch his reading at Indy Reads Books on May 25 of this year. He did not disappoint, and was very open and generous during the Q and A session. He talked about how “a lot of [the book] is about space and loneliness and the ways in which we deal with the world.” He then elaborated on how even though the suburbs exacted some positive influence over him, such as expectations and the metaphorical maps which helped him achieve his current success, the suburbs were like “another planet,” often a lonelier and less friendly planet. “I never liked bridges or cops & there / are more of both of them in the suburbs, / lording over possibilities,” Matejka writes in the poem, “If You’re Tired, Then Go Take a Nap,” whose title is a reference to the hip hop group EPMD’s song, “You Gots To Chill.”
Matejka’s love and knowledge of music often shows up in his poems (the experimental jazz musician Sun Ra is a major presence in the book), and in deftness of sound within his lines. Matejka admitted during the Q and A that he wanted to be a rapper, but it didn’t work out because he didn’t have the requisite aggressive attitude. He mentioned how even in his poem writing, he is more subtle and circuitous, saying, “I imagined this book as a real aggressive addressing of income inequality, racism and police brutality, but that’s not the writer I am. . . I had to circle it and create small spaces to address it in.”
At times subtle, at times more direct, Map to the Stars is a fascinating exploration of the psychic and physical presence of the city of Indianapolis and its impact on a native son. This book is just one of his many impressive collections which also includes The Big Smoke, a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in poetry. The highly accomplished and lauded poet teaches creative writing nearby at IU Bloomington. Matejka was kind enough to answer a few questions about his latest book and writing process for The Indianapolis Review:
Yusef Komunyakaa has had a huge influence on your work. I remember hearing him talk about how we carry “internal landscapes” with us which come from the place or places we grew up in. I also read in your interview with Shari Wagner that you were surprised that you had so many Indianapolis poems inside you! When did you write the first Indianapolis poem for this book, and when and how did you realize you had a whole book of these?
No doubt. Yusef was the first poet I ever saw give a reading and I was knocked out by his combination of rhythmic intention and lyric sophistication. I use these descriptors now, 25 years after, but at the time I didn’t know one kind of poem from another. I responded to the percussion of his words in a very fundamental way. I got to study with Yusef at Cave Canem later and he helped me to be a more capacious writer. He also helped me see what my first collection was supposed to be (as opposed to what I thought it was). I owe Yusef so much, both as a reader and a writer. I think he is extraordinary.
But to your question, I don’t remember when I wrote the first Indianapolis poem from Map to the Stars. Maybe 2010? My original plan was to write about astronomy and the space program, so the appearance of so much terrestrial landscape was a surprise. Sometime in 2013 I realized I had a stack of poems that were orbiting and referencing Indy in various ways and that’s when the book began to take shape. That’s mainly how I work—in stacks and flourishes of sameness. I write a bunch of poems without thinking about direction. Revision is the part of the process that helps me see the poems’ shared obsessions whether they be space shuttles, Richard Pryor, or Lafayette Square.
Your third book, The Big Smoke, about the life of legendary boxer Jack Johnson, is made up entirely of persona poems. You’ve said that it seemed a little crazy and daunting to write a whole book in this format. In your current book, Map to the Stars, you explore your formative experiences with race and place and how that affected your identity. That’s not an easy topic to write about either! Do you ever feel resistance within yourself when you are writing? What do you think of the notion that for poets to be successful, the poet must be ‘taking risks’ in their writing?
Writing any kind of poetry is daunting for me, but it is a different kind of challenge to write historical persona. The imaginative action of examining someone life from inside—I mean, it’s their life and their experience, right?—asks that we subvert our perspective in service of someone else’s. Writers have to do a substantial amount of research to get it right, which is why these historical collections often end up taking a long time to complete. Projects like Camille Dungy’s Suck on the Marrow or Tyehimba Jess’s Olio or Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard or Frank X. Walker’s Buffalo Dance (and there are many other brilliant historical persona texts I could mention here…) require so much archival work to conceptualize and create. So there is the history the writer needs to learn and to contended with:all of the photos and documents and stories and myths swirling around the historical figure. Then there is the mode of persona itself, which expects that we give up most of our linguistic agency as writers and fully adopt a poetic mask.
I’m a selfish writer mostly, so I resisted subverting my “voice” in service of a larger narrative at first. But the more I researched and wrote, the more I realized Jack Johnson’s (and Etta’s and Belle’s and Hattie’s) voices and narratives were vital and so much more interesting than my song and dance. The less I was directly involved, the more successful the poems were. Sometimes we do our best work after we acknowledge the scarcity of our own devices. Maybe that’s where the risk comes in. It’s risky (for some of us anyway) to acknowledge and be open to our own limitations. Writing poetry is in some ways about recognizing and trying to navigate emotional or intellectual aphasias. Articulating what we don’t fully understand can be a great risk while also offering some of the fullest possibilities for a reverberating dialogue.
It’s obvious that music is an essential in your life and in your work. I’m going to ask you a sort of silly question that I ask all my students because the results (which are usually 50/50) really fascinate me! Do you write with music playing in the background or do you need silence to write?
I don’t think it’s a silly question at all—it’s an important one to ask because it can offer some insight into the writing process and I love thinking about process. As in, are you a musical poet or an architectural poet? Do you find your way through rhythm or some other imaginative opportunity? I listen to music nonstop when I’m writing because I think about the sounds the words make as much as I think about what they may or may not mean. To keep my creative space open, I only listen to music that’s wordless and full of atmosphere—ambient, electronica, and jazz. Whether or not all of that external sound helps or harms the music in the poems is a different question maybe.
Speaking of music (and poetry), can you share any favorite places or events you like to attend in the Indianapolis and/or Bloomington area for music? For poetry?
I’m an old man now, so I don’t go out for live music as much as I used to. But I when I was in the streets, I went to the Chatterbox and Jazz Kitchen, both of which are still great venues for jazz in Indianapolis. I’ve also spent many nights at the Vogue, but that depends completely on who is coming through. I just finished writing an essay for Affidavit about seeing the great dub musician Lee “Scratch” Perry at the Vogue last summer. He was on tour in support of his transcendent album Super Ape. It was extraordinary to see an 80-year old man getting a room full of folks moving.
I love the poems in Map to the Stars which draw on the influence of the artist Jean Michel Basquiat. How much of an influence does visual art have on your work? I hear you are now writing a graphic novel, so I would assume, a lot! Also, are there museums, galleries or events in our region that you recommend in regard to visual art?
Visual art moves me more than any of the other creative disciplines except music. There’s something about the way visual imagery imprints–I can see the full version of the image or painting when I recall, not an emotional paraphrase or assessment. That immediacy lends itself to substantial conversations across the arts for me. But I think it’s fair to say that most writers and musicians respond to visual arts with a similar enthusiasm as visual artists (Basquiat especially) respond to music and literature. There’s admiration there in addition to inspiration.
The Eskenazi Museum of Art in Bloomington is superb and has an extensive permanent collection in addition to visiting shows. The Eiteljorg Museum in Indy has a wide-ranging and truly overwhelming (in the good way) collection of art and Indigenous artifacts. But my favorite art space in the area is (and has always been) the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The grounds are gorgeous and the museum has featured some surprising and risky exhibits over the years. I saw an Egon Schiele exhibit there a while back that had people blushing from one painting to the next. They have a show coming up this fall about New York graffiti art that I’m really looking forward to as well.
BONUS QUESTION- What are you reading right now?
I just wrote something about this for the Poetry Foundation! I’ve got a stack of books I’m reading including the ones I listed in that post. But as of today my stack also includes Daylily Called It a Dangerous Moment by wonderful poet/human/Indianapolis resident Alessandra Lynch. She’s such a gifted writer with a superlative ear and awareness of imagery. I’m excited to spend some of my summer with her new poems.
SUPER BONUS QUESTION-How do you feel about revision? I know some poets who are very prolific and don’t revise much (work on a poem for a handful of sessions, and if it’s not working, they abandon it, it may turn up in a new poem from memory) and I know other poets who painstakingly revise individual poems for months and years. Which type of poet are you?
It takes me about eight months to finish a poem because of my process: I write it, work to revise it for a while, then put the poem away for a month or two. Then I come back to it and revise it some more after the initial creative shine is gone. Yusef Komunyakaa wrote that, “Revision means to re-see, and, at times, it seems more accurate to say re-live.” The only way I can re-live something is to get some emotional and intellectual distance from it. Otherwise, I’m working from the poem’s contrails.