As National Poetry Month drew to a close, news landed that Poetry Magazine officially appointed a new editor: the esteemed, Adrian Matejka. Quite the riveting pairing: Poetry, founded in 1912, is the oldest English-language monthly publication dedicated to written prose. And, Adrian is an accomplished verse-maker whose accolades have included: 2019’s National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship; Indiana’s Poet Laureate (2018-2019); a 2014 Pulitzer Prize finalist and more. Additionally, he has authored several collections which we absolutely implore you to explore.
To Poetry, he brings: bold talent; honorable humility; a respect for the craft and a genuine desire for diversity.
And now, The Poet’s List is overjoyed to present our conversation with Mr. Adrian Matejka.
Prior to landing on poetry, what memories do you have of your relationship with literature and writing as a youth?
I wasn’t much of a writer when I was younger, but I was a rapper. A terrible rapper, in fact. I just didn’t have the machismo for it. I loved word play and rhyme, though, so I like to think the poetics of rap led me to the poetics of the page.
When did you begin to claim the title of poet and how did you first connect with the poetry community?
I’m always trying to earn the right to call myself a poet. I’m always in the process of figuring out what kind of poet I want to be and what kind of poetry I need to write. I think being a poet requires constant self-reflection and renewal. In a lot of ways, we begin again every time we write a poem or complete a book. So, I’m in the process of reinventing myself on the page now, trying to understand everything I learned writing my last couple of collections.
How has the poetry landscape changed from when you entered to now? Could you have envisioned this level of opportunity or success?
I wouldn’t have ever imagined that I would be able to publish and have the literary friendships I’ve been able to cultivate. When I started out there were so few Black and brown writers being recognized; even as Black and brown writers were writing transcendent work. Things are so much more diverse now. As an example, only three Black poets won the Pulitzer in the 20th century. Four Black poets have won the Pulitzer in the past decade. A lot of the recent success of Black poets can be attributed to Cave Canem. Over the past 26 years, the organization has supported the work of hundreds of poets from across the Diaspora. It’s been incredible to see.
You have received so many awards and accolades! To name a few: Indiana’s Poet Laureate 18-19, Pulitzer Prize Finalist 14, National Endowment for the Arts 19. Which honor do you hold most dear?
I’m still knocked out whenever someone who isn’t related to me reads my poetry. It’s truly humbling. I’m also grateful for all of the attention my work has gotten, including the awards. They are all affirming and so meaningful to me. If I had to choose one, I’d probably choose the National Book Award citation. Not because the citation itself, but because I was able to attend the ceremony in New York with my daughter. Having her there made the night even more special.
You have penned several acclaimed collections of work and have appeared in multiple anthologies. Can you share a few words on your latest book, Somebody Else Sold the World?
I wrote almost the entirety of Somebody Else Sold the World between March and October 2020 when we were in COVID lockdown. The poems were a way for me to remember the beauty in the world while everything was falling apart. There are some love poems and odes in there along with some protest poems. I hope that the poems will be useful to others as we continue processing what collectively happened to us.
The Poet’s List reaches a wide range of poets – both established and burgeoning; many of whom self-publish. What advice do you have for a poet looking to connect with a literary agent or a renowned publishing house?
In my experience the best way to make those connections is to be present in the literary community. Going to readings, subscribing to journals if you have the resources, developing artistic relationships in your local writing community as organically as possible. That’s one part of it. The other part is to truly commit to the craft of poetry. Make your poems as immaculate as they can be so that you’re ready when the opportunity to publish presents itself. All of the networking and community building in the world won’t be of any use if the writing itself isn’t ready.
In what ways would you like to see the poetry community grow and evolve in the coming years?
This is a wonderful time to be a poet. There are more people writing and reading poetry right now than any other time in human history. The biggest increases in the readership have come in the 18-24 year old demographic according to a study by the NEA. There’s also been a huge increase in the readership among traditionally marginalized communities. Black, Asian, and Latinx readership has more than tripled since 2012. I’d like to see even more of that—more young readers and writers, more diversity of point of view and identity. Like Pablo Neruda said, “Poetry is like bread; it should be shared by all.”
On Poetry Magazine:
We listened to an interview where you detailed the research involved in penning your award-winning book, The Big Smoke; which was based on the life of Jack Johnson. To us, it sounded like the work of a poet and journalist! As you step into the role of editor for Poetry, what aspects of your career do you credit with best preparing you for this chapter?
I’ve been fortunate in my career to learn from many brilliant editors over the years; and I credit them for modeling strategies for editing with compassion. What I mean is, editors like Jon Tribble (who passed in 2019) and Allison Joseph always take the time to read poems on the poems’ own terms. They showed me how to read with rigor while also respecting the poem’s agenda, if that makes sense. As Editor of Poetry, I hope to offer a similar compassion to the poems submitted to the magazine.
Poetry has an incredibly prestigious history. Thanks to your press release quote, we can tell that it is one that you cherish. How important is it to have a true affinity for an organization prior to stepping into leadership?
It definitely helps to believe in the direction and mission of an organization. Poetry magazine and Poetry Foundation as a whole have undergone profound changes over the past couple of years. I’m excited to contribute what I can to that continuing transformation and our collective efforts to make the magazine as inviting and inclusive as possible.
May you explain the process of submitting to Poetry?
We use a system called Submittable that allows poets to submit up to 4 poems electronically. It’s very simple and easy to share work with our editors through this submissions portal.
What do you look for when vetting submissions?
I love poems that show a pronounced point of view and that have great music. The best poems sing to me. I’m a big fan of metaphor and simile. And imagery, as well. One of my favorite poems, Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Blue Light Lounge Sutra for the Performance Poets at Harold Park Hotel” is an example of everything I love in poetry. At the same time, I’m only one of several editors at the magazine and we all have different, yet complementary tastes in poems.
Your biography states that you grew up in Indiana. We also understand that your father was in the service and that you moved around plenty as a youth. Is there one place that had the most significant impact on you, and why?
We moved around all the time when I was a kid in the United States and in Europe, but I’ve lived in Indiana longer than anyplace else and it’s my home. It took me a long time to square the global perspective I developed living in Germany with the more provincial attitudes I encountered when I first moved to Indiana. Living here has given me a different understanding of kindness and humility, though. Some of the best people I’ve known live in Indiana, including my mother.
Other than poetry, what are some of your interests (music, travel, sports, etc.)?
I used to be a DJ on the radio; so music remains my other favorite art. Right now, I’m preoccupied with Harry Styles’ new album Harry’s House and an ambient album by Alessandro Cortini called Avanti. They couldn’t be more different kinds of music, but both albums inspire me to get back to work.
What has been the greatest piece of advice you’ve received thus far (poetry related or other)?
The best advice I’ve ever received was from a friend’s father. He told me I need to think about life as a series of incremental plans. Where do you want to be in five years? How are you going to get there? He was talking about my life before poetry, but it still applies. What kind of poetry do you want to write? What can you read/study/learn practice to make that happen? I’ve been challenging myself in this way for 25 years and, thanks in part to his advice, I’ve been able to achieve my dream of writing poetry for a living.