Photo by: Polina Osherov
Adrian Matejka is the author of The Devil’s Garden (Alice James Books, 2003), which won the New York / New England Award, and Mixology (Penguin, 2009), a winner of the 2008 National Poetry Series. His third collection of poems, The Big Smoke (Penguin, 2013), was awarded the 2014 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. The Big Smoke was also a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award, 2014 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and 2014 Pulitzer Prize in poetry. His fourth book, Map to the Stars, was published by Penguin in 2017. His mixed media project in collaboration with Nicholas Galanin and Kevin Neireiter inspired by Funkadelic, Standing on the Verge & Maggot Brain (Third Man Books), was published in 2021. His most recent collection of poems, Somebody Else Sold the World (Penguin, 2021), was a finalist for the 2022 Rilke Prize. His first graphic novel Last On His Feet, will be published in 2023 by Liveright.
Among Matejka’s other honors are the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Julia Peterkin Award, and fellowships from the Academy of American Poets, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Lannan Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, and a Simon Fellowship from United States Artists. He served as Poet Laureate of the state of Indiana from 2018-19 and is Editor of Poetry magazine.
I had the honor of conducting an email interview with this multi-faceted author. Here’s what he shared about giving his younger self some advice, influences, and what readers might expect as he takes the helm at Poetry magazine.
PrideIndex (PI): What is your earliest memory of being a writer?
Adrian Matejka (AM): This is a little embarrassing to admit, but my first memory of writing was also my first instance of writer’s block. I was in third grade at Public School 113 in Indianapolis. Our teacher gave us the assignment to write a story, and I couldn’t think of anything to write about. I spent the whole weekend trying to come up with something and just couldn’t do it. I summarized a book called Miss Suzy and pretended it was my idea. It’s about a squirrel who hangs out with toy soldiers in a dollhouse. My teacher loved it, but another kid in the class knew the book and said, “He stole that story!” It was so embarrassing and a good early lesson. Poems and stories can be an inspiration, but we need to take them someplace new and uniquely our own for them to be valuable.
PI: If you could travel back in time to the night before you submitted your first book to a publisher, what advice would you give yourself?
AM: I would share the same advice I give the writers I work with now: Poetry isn’t an idea or a product. It’s a fact of life. Slow down. Please wait until the poems tell you they’re ready. The desire to publish can motivate some, but it puts unnecessary pressure on the work of others. It’s important for writers to resist that pressure so that the writing has the necessary time to mature.
PI: Name three people that have influenced your artistic style. Give a reason for each one.
AM: Miles Davis: I hear his music in my head when I’m writing poems. His restlessness as a musician is inspirational to me as well.
Gwendolyn Brooks: She’s one of my favorite poets generally. Her work off the page was staggering—her advocacy for poetry and poets, the outreach she did it the Black community and her lifelong dedication to sharing poetry wherever she could. Ms. Brooks is an example of generosity that we all need.
James Baldwin: He is among the finest writers ever to pick up a pen. He’s best known for his novels and essays, but he also wrote poetry and plays. For Baldwin, writing was less about genre and more about communicating in whatever way the subject matter required, and I admire that.
PI: You have won many awards and accolades throughout your career. Which one do you most cherish? Why?
AM: I am still overwhelmed whenever I meet someone who has read my work. It knocks me out that anybody would take time out of their day to read my poetry. The awards are a more public kind of attention, and I’m grateful for all of them. If I had to pick a favorite, it would probably be the National Book Award citation. Not because of the award itself (which is fantastic), but because I got to take my daughter to the awards ceremony. She was eight at the time, and being there with her made the whole night even more magical.
PI: Describe the exact moment when you learned you were selected as the next editor of Poetry Magazine?
AM: This is going to sound fancier than it was, but I found out I was being offered the job while returning from Paris. My flight got delayed; I missed connections and all of the rest. It was so frustrating. But when I finally landed in Detroit and saw the message, I almost shouted in the airport. What an incredible opportunity. I feel so fortunate that the people at Poetry Foundation believe in my vision.
PI: What can readers expect of you in this post?
AM: Editors are most successful when they create space for writers. So, my job is to help curate a conversation in the pages of the magazine while making room for a diversity of styles and perspectives. My co-editors and I will continue to work to make the magazine representative of this dynamic moment in poetry. We need poets to speak their truths now more than ever.