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Indiana’s poet laureate writes his truths

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MatejkaColor

Adrian Matejka discovered his vocation as a poet in a roundabout way. His first love was not literature, but rap music, a creative calling that he soon determined was not meant to be.

“I was a terrible emcee, so I gave it up and decided to be a stockbroker,” he said. But during his second year in college, he heard American poet Yusef Komunyakaa reading in a coffee shop and felt compelled to try his hand at writing verse.

Despite abandoning his early dreams of musical stardom, Matejka (pronounced Mah-TEE-kuh) still finds inspiration in rap, which he describes as “the most popular example of poetry we have.”

“Rappers use the same language devices – rhyme, simile, metaphor, allusion – as poets. The big difference … is the goal of the language. Rappers are trying to team up with music in order to evoke emotion, tell stories or get the party going. Poets are teaming up with the reader’s imagination to do those same things.”

Musical and other pop culture references are among the means by which Matejka provides readers a non-intimidating entry into his work, with the goal of creating poems that “offer up stories and circumstances that I hope will be both familiar and surprising to the reader.”

The accessibility of Matejka’s work was perhaps one of the contributing factors to his appointment as the new poet laureate of Indiana by the Indiana Arts Commission. He began his two-year tenure on January 1, and will continue serving through December 31, 2019.

His published poetry collections include The Devil’s Garden (2003), Mixology (2009) and The Big Smoke (2013), the latter of which was a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award and 2014 Pulitzer Prize. His most recent book, Map to the Stars (2017), explores growing up in Indianapolis in the 1980s.

TheBigSmoke

Matejka was born into an American military family in Germany, but settled in Indianapolis in 1980. After graduating from Indiana University Bloomington, he left the state for nearly 20 years to live in Chicago, Seattle, St. Louis and elsewhere before returning to Bloomington in 2012 to take up his current position as poet-in-residence at Indiana University.

“I rarely wrote poems that were influenced by geography before Map to the Stars. When I came back to Indiana [in 2012], I was struck by how little the place has changed cosmetically but how completely different the climate and culture is now,” he said. “So growing up in Indianapolis didn’t influence writing the poems as much as coming back did. I was able to think about my experiences here in the 1980s a little differently after being gone so long.”

Matejka’s other preoccupations as a poet include race, economics, family and masculinity.

“The racial conflicts in our country have been exacerbated by the current politics of ignorance and bluster, but all of this bigotry was here before. It just has a bigger megaphone in 2018,” he said, adding that while poetry “can’t change legislation, reduce gun violence or right electoral maleficence,” it can offer a way to speak out against oppression like sexism and racism.

“Poetry is a great enabler of voices,” he said. “The art has empowered many people who were previously disenfranchised, silenced or otherwise ignored in the larger public discourse. Poetry has the power to amplify the natural voice of protest, which I hope is happening in some of my work.”

He said one of his obligations as poet laureate is to remind people that poetry is vital and that anyone is “welcome to join us, as creators or listeners of poems in whatever way they would like.”

“Poetry can sometimes be intimidating because it has its own agenda for music and creativity, and it can feel like a party we’ve crashed without an invitation. At the same time, poetry often uses traditional English building blocks – words, syntax, allusions, even punctuation – that are familiar to many of us.”

Matejka also hopes to emphasize poetry as one of the oldest forms of communication, a means by which people remembered history, entertained and shared political ideas long before there were novels, radios or movies.

“[Poetry] is our most essential public art and there is room in it for everyone. It’s cheap to create and easily available. Once people accept that there is no right or wrong in poetry and there are no secret handshakes or initiation rituals necessary to writing poetry, creation naturally follows,” he said. “If you write your truths, you can learn the rest as you go along.”

Read Adrian Matejka’s poetry here:

“Gymnopédies No. 1”

“Gymnopédies No. 2”

“Gymnopédies No. 3”

Portrait Photo: Stephen Sproll

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