The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Adrian Matejka about his new collection Map to the Stars; the connections between Star Trek, Parliament, and Sun Ra; writing about poverty in contemporary poetry; and how racism maintains its place in our society.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: So about the book, first thing I have to ask is how big a Star Trek nerd are you? Casual fan or ready to fight about whether Voyager or DS9 was the better show?
Adrian Matejka: Ah, Star Trek. Man, I’m a purist. I only watch the original TV show. I was more interested in the characters than the mythology if that makes sense.
Brian S: No, it totally does, given the way Star Trek works in the book alongside Sun Ra and Parliament. The time frame is Star Trek reruns, pre-TNG.
Adrian Matejka: Exactly. The show, and to a much lesser extent, the original movies, were formative for me.
Brian S: Can you talk a bit about how that combination formed you, and by extension, these poems?
Adrian Matejka: Sure. I was always casting about for role models as a kid and the show was always available via reruns and also full of possibilities. I wanted to be like Spock because he was unflappable. I wanted to be like Kirk because he had magnetism and the ladies loved him. Bones was a grouch but he was sympathetic. The show worked like a boy band in that way… it had characters who embodied different psychic or emotional positions and that allowed me to see a great range of things. So one of the things I took from the show was emotional possibility. I never thought I would type that I learned how to emote in poems from watching Star Trek but there it is.
Brian S: I remember being drawn to it also because while there wasn’t a lot of opulence among the crew, there also wasn’t any want. It was socialism at work, and I was working class growing up in a trailer, so that meant something too.
Adrian Matejka: Very egalitarian. And the fact that race was rarely an issue was big for me back then.
Brian S: Aw man, now I’m going to imagine you reading these poems in Shatner voice and it’s going to be bad. 🙂
Adrian Matejka: You should check out William Shatner’s album The Transformed Man. It will alter the way you hear poetry forever. And not in a good way.
Brian S: I’ve heard individual tracks. I might harm myself if I listen to the whole thing at once.
Adrian Matejka: I’ve got it someplace, but I’m afraid to go find it. I think it was over for me when he covered the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”
Brian S: I’m thinking about those lines from “Those Minor Regrets”:
where I sewed a yard-sale
_____Star Trek patch thinking
Cynthia might like it.
_____Even the front-row kids
made fun of me for that.
_____How could I know?
Poor only matters around
_____people who aren’t poor
& everyone I knew was already
_____a trivial thief.
It’s an experience that isn’t seen enough in poetry, I feel like.
Adrian Matejka: Thank you for saying that. This book was rough for me to write for a number of reasons, and many of them are in the lines you just shared. One of the hardest things for me to do is be fully open in a poem. By that I mean, honest and not trying to amplify some mythological version of myself. I was a poor, geeky black kid in Indianapolis. There is nothing mythological about that. So to try to truly render the kind of economic and racial inequity I grew up in, I had to find a way to be more honest about what happened. And it wasn’t fun to write, even though the poems aren’t 100% autobiographical.
Brian S: And this book is definitely open. Being white and Southern, I found myself seeing a lot of these poems from the other side of the racism you talk about.
Adrian Matejka: That’s real. Can you talk about it some more?
Brian S: Like, my dad wouldn’t have been the white guy saying racist stuff—he was an elder of Jehovah’s Witnesses and we were in integrated congregations from before I was born and he took race seriously for a man of his time—but the dads of kids I went to school with dropped n-bombs regularly. And even as an adult, in my mid-twenties getting my degree and tending bar to pay bills, I had customers who were members of the Klan who were buddies with my boss the sheriff’s deputy who were not quiet about how they felt about people of color.
Adrian Matejka: I hear that. Thank you. That sounds so much like what parts of my childhood were like. These strange fracturings of people who were aware and trying to make the world a more open place next to people (including some of the white side of my family) who weren’t having any part of being around black people. It got exponentially worse when we moved to the suburbs because people stopped saying what was on their minds. This kind of zipped-lip racism took over and that caused even more tension and confusion.
Brian S: Yeah, we were in the suburbs of New Orleans but that didn’t stop people from saying what was on their minds. We lived in a trailer park about three blocks from one of the bigger black neighborhoods and I used to walk to school through that neighborhood. There was a six-foot high chain link fence that separated the two neighborhoods that we used to jump to cut some length off the walk. And the white parents in the neighborhood didn’t want us doing it because they thought the blacks on the other side of the fence would get ideas. Like it takes an idea to jump a fence.
Adrian Matejka: Man. That’s it, though. It’s about race, certainly, but it’s also about economics and systems of gentrification and marginalization whether it’s New Orleans or Indianapolis or St. Louis. The constructs work in similar ways.
Brian S: I didn’t really experience that zipped-lip racism until I was an adult, and it was probably due as much to the social backlash that had come into play in the 1990s. That’s about the time I first remember the look-over-your-shoulder and whisper the word “black” came into play.
Adrian Matejka: Right. And the 1990s were also when a bunch of the soft-shoe language for race, gender, and class became paramount. Because before that I wasn’t thinking about systems or food insecurity or whatever. I was just thinking about not getting picked on for being black and not being hungry.
I learned a new language for it all in the 90s. Which in some ways isn’t bad… I mean getting people to think about what language actually means before they use it is a good thing. But it’s become very clear the past nine years that some Americans truly resent thinking before they speak.
Brian S: No kidding. Man, if I hadn’t always known the white people who got into their feelings last year when Trump started winning primaries, I might have been shocked. But those were the guys I went to school with, feeling like they were free all of a sudden to be who they always wanted to be.
Adrian Matejka: That’s what was so wild for me was the permission that this last election gave some of my neighbors. The Confederate flags came out (seriously) and there was affirmation that they weren’t the only ones flying the flags.
This sort of circles around, but the day after the election, I remember feeling like it was 1984 again. It was in the air somehow. That ownership of bigotry. I hadn’t seen it since I was a kid. It made me want to change the kinds of poems I was writing, but I’m terrible at writing overtly political poems.
Brian S: I think that in some parts of the country, white people have convinced themselves that Confederate flags and open racism were the province of the South, that it didn’t happen in the Midwest or the Northeast or anywhere else, and this put the lie to that. But if you were paying attention, well, Steve King is from Iowa and he’s about the loudest-mouthed bigot in the House of Representatives.
Adrian Matejka: Exactly. Bigotry doesn’t care about state or regional lines. It’s all over the place. But fortunately there are also really excellent human beings all over the place, too. So it’s about perception and balance sometimes I think.
Brian S: I think I know what you mean about overtly political poems, but I read the poems in this book as deeply political in some ways. Like, I wonder how readers who haven’t experienced this kind of dislocation react to the lines that start “Space Is the Place”:
I would rather be back in Carriage House
_____stashing away stale bread
than in this abundance of landscaped dirt
_____where the neighbors’ dog-walk
greetings are twice as loud
_____as their arguments.
I mean, on the surface, especially compared to the poverty that’s described earlier in the book, it would seem kind of unreal to long for that earlier place, but it says a lot about how there’s more than economic insecurity at play here.
Adrian Matejka: Man, Brian, that was one of things that surprised me so much when I was writing the poems. The contrasts between the haves and have-nots is so complicated. It’s financial of course, but it’s also the lifestyle choices. The more money people have the further away from each other they often want to be. So while I loved not being hungry and having new gear, etc. I missed the sounds of my neighbors and the kind of generosity people who are struggling together often show.
Which is not to glorify in any way what it was like to be poor. It was horrible, but all of this is judgment I had the privilege to make later because we were lucky enough to move to the land of the haves.
Brian S: And then there’s the moment in the book where you talk about a murder that caused the white neighbors to want to get even farther away.
Adrian Matejka: Yes. So if this book were a movie, it would have that “Based on a True Story” tag at the beginning because a lot of it is accurate, but as my mother told me after she read the book, “What we went through was worse than you show here.” But that narrative thread about my neighbor’s violent attack and the whole suburb moving is 100% true. I think he’s still in prison now.
Brian S: Luck is right, and there’s no substitute for it, and yet it’s a word that so many people hate to use when they’re talking about their stability. It seems to be at odds with merit, and few people want to admit that they got lucky in life as opposed to earning everything they have.
Adrian Matejka: Luck is complicated, right? In my case, I was lucky that my mother is amazing and she and my stepfather connected. That serendipity is what moved us out of Section 8. Had my mother not been having dinner with her friend, she might have never connected with my stepfather. I love the bootstraps story of America, but there’s always a certain amount of right place, right time I think.
Brian S: Absolutely, and that’s without even getting into systemic inequality that’s baked into this society. This is just the pure blind luck that affects us.
Adrian Matejka: That’s certainly true for these poems. I was fortunate enough to get a job at my alma mater, which brought me back to Indiana after being gone for twenty years. There is no way I would have written these poems had I not come back. They are 100% the product of the circumstances that led me home.
Brian S: Are you working on a new project yet?
Adrian Matejka: I am! I’m working on this graphic novel called Hurt Business that finishes the Jack Johnson project. I’ve been working on that for a little while. I’ve also got a new collection of poems I’ve been sketching out called Hearing Damage. I’m going to take a break from writing poems for a few months, though, so I can read and learn some new things. I don’t want the new book to sound like Map.
Brian S: Nice! I’m jealous of the graphic novel. So much good work being done in that genre right now.
Adrian Matejka: It’s incredible… the work being done, I mean. I’ve been reading/collecting comics since I was in middle school, so the opportunity to write one has my twelve-year-old self doing cartwheels.
Brian S: Who are you reading these days? What should we be on the lookout for?
Adrian Matejka: Ah, there are SO many excellent poetry collections being written right now. One of my recent favorites I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On was a Rumpus Poetry Book Club pick. I think Khadijah is an amazing writer. Rodney Jones has an incredible new book called Village Prodigies that’s a novel in verse. Marcus Wicker’s new book Silencer is going to knock some people out when it drops later this year. Nicole Sealey’s book Ordinary Beast, too. I’ve got Alex Dimitrov’s Together and by Ourselves on my desk right now. There are many, many more. This is one of the best years of poetry I can remember.
Brian S: And a lot of great stuff coming out too. September is shaping up to be epic. Thanks for joining us tonight Adrian, and for this amazing book.
Adrian Matejka: Thank you, Brian. I am such a fan of The Rumpus and all of the work you do. I appreciate all of it, man!