So this is turning out to be the most fun ever. How do I get my own radio show? If I got to spend my days just asking people I like ridiculous questions I could die perfectly happy.
Speaking of people I like immensely, today we have Adrian Matejka. Adrian is a newer friend. I met him along with his wife, the poet Stacey Lynn Brown (more about her tomorrow), last year at the Miami Book Festival. Do you ever meet people and have that HUGELY affectionate reaction to them in seconds? I developed a crush on both of them equally and instantaneously.
We were trapped with a motley collection of wet poets in a semi-busted restaurant (Miami’s twice-daily monsoon having driven us inside indiscriminately), and I started having that awkward, “introvert trapped in an extrovert’s body” reaction I have that rarely goes well for me socially.
But some part of my mind was also paying attention to who Adrian Matejka actually is. Having been in the po bidness a long time, I find it very revealing to watch how poets react to suddenly being anointed the Baskin Robbins flavor of the year. Because poetry, as Hayden Carruth once said to me, is a looooong distance race.
At that time, I knew Adrian’s most recent book, The Big Smoke, which had most well deservedly caused an admiring ruckus in the poetry universe. The Big Smoke, focusing on the life of the boxer Jack Johnson, is indeed a first class book, with The Boston Globe declaring that Adrian’s poems illuminate the heavyweight champion’s life “so boldly” that “one almost wants to duck.” The previous evening Adrian had been one of the featured readers for the book festival which meant being in some fancy company, and there was sunshine aplenty available to him in the flattery being dished up hot by his throng of admirers.
Which is to say, sitting at the dinner, I wasn’t going to be caught off guard if Adrian turned out to be full of beans. Even the best of us can end up accidentally drinking our own Kool Aid when the shots are free.
But I am happy to report that Adrian, besides being a crazy gifted writer, is an entirely bean-free human being!
This is not a man who has any interest in having the UV rays blown up his backside. Adrian is open, funny, smart, down-to-earth, interesting and most importantly, interested. I left the dinner dearly wishing we lived nearer each other.
Here’s what we talked about yesterday:
The titles of your three excellent poetry collections, Mixology, The Devil’s Garden, and The Big Smoke, suggest you are a person with a large number of vices. Do you drink and smoke a lot? Do you recommend this to other writers looking to improve their poetry practice? It seems like it’s worked well for you.
Also, as self-proclaimed mixologist, please share with us your favorite cocktail recipe. We’re counting on your expertise.
What's sad about this is I never realized I was putting my business on the street through my titles! Yes. I used to drink and smoke with vigor and sometimes it was attached to writing. But mostly it was attached to playing pool or avoiding writing, which are both sometimes more enjoyable than the act of writing can be.
I was a bartender for a while, too, back in the 90s when you could still fog up public places with secondhand smoke. I started questioning all of my behavior when I was at work one day and there was an old timer sitting at the bar, eating a salad with French dressing, and he would take a drag off of his cigarette between bites of iceberg lettuce. It was an intricate study in vice.
I'm going to admit now that I was a terrible bartender. I couldn't make anything past a Tom Collins. At the bar where I worked, it was more likely that a fight would break out than someone would order anything more complex than a Long Island Iced Tea. And I could pour a mean Miller Lite.
The crazy thing is I wasn't even thinking about mixing drinks when I titled Mixology. It was one of those great moments in the echo chamber of my own cracked-outness. I was thinking of the art of DJing and the art of being of mixed races—there should be a degree conferred for making it through these things. I thought I had come up with something revolutionary until I did a title check online and found all of pages of cocktail recipe books. That's when those sad trombones played and I made myself a drink.
So I don't have a good recipe, but Stacey does. She makes a malicious mojito. You should ask her about it.
Ah yes, fighting. Good segue. In this trilogy of debauchery you’ve created, the most recent book The Big Smoke, which was nominated for (insert all major prizes, including the Pillsbury Bake Off and Fields Medal for mathematics), centers on the life of the heavyweight champion Jack Johnson.
Beyond your innate licentiousness, Adrian, what attracted you to Johnson’s story very particularly? And more importantly, why not a UFC fighter? Wouldn’t that be more relevant to kids these days? Do you see yourself doing a sequence of poems in the voice of Tito Ortiz or Fedor Emelianenko?
First, thanks for the kind words. It's been a wild ride for this book, to say the least. Jack Johnson is such a compelling figure for me because he is different from me in almost every way other than the gambling and carousing. That most definitely includes his fight game.
I'm a complete lightweight when it comes to brawling in the real world. I lost a fight in 3rd grade when this guy punched me in the nose. I was standing in the pocket, wailing away. I was a boxing fan back then, too, so I was talking trash while I was punching him. But as soon as he hit me in the nose, I was like, "It's cool. You win." Other than a few bar scuffles, I haven't been beyond posturing and pushing since then. So the opportunity to study Jack Johnson became an opportunity to explore a kind of courage—or maybe, just an absence of fear—that I haven't had since I was a kid.
Boxing is an action that's more like dancing than hand-to-hand combat. MMA is the opposite of that for me. The beauty in the motions leading up to and following the punches in boxing is largely absent in MMA because the dimensions of the fights are different. All of the contact in boxing happens vertically and above the waist, so there's a premium put on maximizing range and motion from the waist up when throwing punches. MMA allows for all dimensions, so fighters get arm barred on the mat and things like that. The action is horizontal and vertical.
You are right that most American audiences are more interested in MMA, especially since there are so few American title-holders in boxing. But what's missing—at least from a poetry standpoint—is history. Boxing is ingrained in all of our histories, regardless of nationality, race, or culture. It was on once someone figured out a fist could be as much of a weapon as a rock. Can you imagine what the first person to take an uppercut must have felt like? It was probably like that scene from Friday with Debo. Now that I think about it, the guy who punched me in the nose in 3rd grade was about the same size as Debo.
There is no doubt in my mind that you've been in some brawls, Erin. When was the last time you got in a fight? Have you ever written about that experience?
Yeah, I took a decent uppercut in 8th grade. Before that, I was identified as a jock and was taller than most kids for a brief, shining moment in grade school. I was never required to prove myself much on the playground. The tough girls frequently considered punching me for my smart mouth, but they weren’t certain that I couldn't handle myself.
Then one day getting off the bus in junior high, a girl named Marcia--who I discovered 20 years later was angry at me because she had a closeted lesbian crush on my best friend Teri--picked up my trombone case and clocked me upside the jaw with it.
Talk about injury to the insult of playing trombone for 7 years. But I look back on it now and feel terrible for her. That must have really sucked for her, being in love with Teri and not feeling she could tell anyone. I hold no grudges.
But I am glad you’re leaving the MMA to me as I have my heart set on writing poems from the point-of-view of Aleks Emelianenko's brilliantly awful tattoo; you know, the giant one on his back where the Grim Reaper is cuddling a baby? Very promising, I think.
This conversation reminds me of the homosexual panic often visited upon straight guys watching MMA fights, which makes me think of the heterosexual panic visited upon straight male poets when considering the idea of dating a female poet. You, on the other hand, are married to a beautiful woman (the aforementioned Stacey Lynn Brown) who’s also a terrific poet.
Don’t you worry that she’s stealing all the poetry juju out of your house? How do you guys negotiate the unavoidable dark energy of competition when making art right next to one another?
Aleks Emelianenko's tattoo is straight out of Sons of Anarchy, so that makes me happy. You should definitely write that persona poem. Especially since Emelianenko is 6'6, which would make his tattoo the size of a small child. Make it happen!
I'm sorry to hear about the trombone to the face, though. It's not like those cases are light to begin with. I'm going to say it: playing trombone is pretty awkward in most ways unless you're J.J. Johnson or someone like that.
Of course, I played the French horn and that's a whole other level of band-geekdom. At least the trombone has an occasional solo. The French horn just makes those long honking sounds in the background. And there's the matter of how you have to mute the thing. I used to get cracked on all the time about that. By trombone players, no less. That's one of the reasons writing is so great—there's no one there to see what you have to do to mute things.
Way back when I was in workshop, my friends and I had two rules: don't date anyone in workshop and don't date a memoirist. We didn't have a contingency for hanging out with a poet from another place. We were very regional. When Stacey and I got together, I knew we would get along socially, but I wasn't sure how things would work in relation to writing. We had very different introductions to and educations in poetry. We're the same age, but she was in graduate school while I was on the five-year plan in undergrad and then I took 3 years off before graduate school. So by the time we met, she had been thinking about poetry in a very complex and imaginative way while I was just figuring out what I wanted a poem to be.
I've benefited from her sophistication over the years, though I'm not so sure I have been all that helpful to her. I generally stay on my poetic grind—always writing even when most of the verse is terrible—while Stacey has a more metaphysical approach to the text. The two approaches don't often line up and I think that is one of the reasons things have worked well for us. Also, we have different aesthetic needs and different poetic neurosis. Which helps us to look for poems in different places, I think.
The one time there was overlap happened back when we lived in Oregon. Stacey went into a KFC to get something to drink while I waited in the car. The next thing you know, KRS-One was in the drive through, ordering a bucket of extra crispy and 8 biscuits. I heard him through the loudspeaker of the drive through before I saw him. He was in this green van with gold 5-star rims. Stacey was bugging out when she back to the car and the first thing she said after confirming it was KRS-One was something to the effect of "I call this for a poem." What? Now, this is when I was working on Mixology, which is full of hip hop culture. In my mind, seeing KRS-One at the KFC was a natural fit for my project. She called it, though, so I was out of luck.
I can't be the only person something like this has happened to, though. Have you ever had a squatter's rights conflict with someone over a poem subject?
Dude, pretty boy bikers would pee their pants if confronted by the raw magnificence of baby-holding Grim Reaper. That’s some real deal, Russian prison artwork he’s sporting, after doing a stretch for armed robbery. IN RUSSIA.
Also, don’t try and sell me on the equality of the French horn’s dorkiness. My older brother played French horn specifically to avoid having the family spit valve passed down to him.
Second also, yes, my partner Adam has recently starting stealing poems out of the house again. He’d been writing prose for a while, but recently turned back to the superior genre. I’m very careful not to point out anything good that he might swipe. He’s ruthless. No moral compass whatsoever.
Final question: don’t think too hard, but give me three books that are helpful to an emerging poet. Or three movies. Or three albums (do albums still exist?).
Someplace in Russia, the man who inked Emelianenko's back tattoo is nodding along with you. The guy who plays Jax Teller is nodding, too.
Erin, that's a brutal question to end with. How about 1 of each?
1) Lunch Poems, Frank O'Hara. Every beginning poet should read the gorgeous book that's been imitated more often in the past 10 years than any other collection.
2) Ghost Dog, Jim Jarmusch. An African American samurai who reads Mary Shelley? Old mobsters talking about Flava Flav and rapping “Cold Lampin’”? Jarmusch shows anything is possible in film and in poetry if you get after it.
3) Maggot Brain, Funkadelic. It’s impossible to look at the world or language the same after listening to Eddie Hazel on the title track.
Perfect! And two out of those three would have been serious contenders for my list, too (Lunch Poems and Maggot Brain). I don’t know that Jarmusch film but intend to Netflix it this evening.
Thank you so much, Adrian Matejka, for this very edifying conversation.
My goal is to get you and Stacey down to Tallahassee to eat wings at my place while we watch a UFC fight. I used to watch them at Hooters with my friend Jared, but I felt like the co director of VIDA hanging out at Hooters sends the wrong message (though they really do have decent wings and the best televisions).
Tomorrow is Cate Marvin on her family's death stare, the snares of influence and poetic style (fashion, that is. Like, clothes).