Questions and authors: Adrian Matejka, Hal Prize poetry judge

Adrian Matejka grew up in Indianapolis and is the author of seven books, including a graphic novel due out in 2023. His collection of poetry The big smoke won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

Other honors for Matejka include fellowships from the Academy of American Poets, Guggenheim Foundation, Lannan Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, and Rockefeller Foundation, as well as a Simon Fellowship from American Artists. He is the Ruth Lilly Professor of Poetry at Indiana University in Bloomington and was the 2018-19 Indiana Poet Laureate.

Matejka was appointed editor-in-chief of poetry magazine in 2022, making him the first black editor in the magazine’s 110-year history.

Matejka chatted with me from his Chicago office about poetry, how music inspires him, and the future of poetry magazine.

The following is an excerpt from a Door County Pulse podcast that has been edited and condensed for clarity. Listen to the full podcast here>>

Grace Johnson (GJ): To start, we have a big question. Tell me about you. Who is Adrian?

Adrian Matejka (AM): I think writing poetry and trying to build a worldview that centers that art requires a little more introspection than if I was still a DJ or still working in a bookstore. I spend a little more time doing introspection than if I had an outward-looking job.

It’s funny to think that poetry is also a profession, because it really is an art that requires a lot of practice and that requires a lot of commitment. When I try to define myself, it starts with the work that I do rather than “I really like martinis”, you know?

GJ: You were born in Germany and moved around a lot before landing in Indiana. How was it?

A M: My father was in the army. I was talking about this with someone the other day – we’ve lived in about 30 places in four years. Even to this day, I think of things in terms of how many things I can keep if I move. Because that’s what I did when I was a kid – take as much as you can fit in this box to the next location.

GJ: Did you ever consider a life in the arts as a child?

A M: When I was younger, I wasn’t interested in poetry at all and I hadn’t read any, really, until I was in college. I tried to be a rapper, and I was really bad at it, and I was in a band and I wrote lyrics for the band.

When I came to poetry, I thought poetry was supposed to sound like song lyrics. Sometimes they can, but song lyrics are not the same as poetry. I got it completely wrong.

It wasn’t until I started seeing poets practicing art and thinking about language as something that exists in the world on its own – I mean, that’s the big distinction.

GJ: You mentioned that you wanted to transform poetry magazine. What does this look like to you?

A M: I want it to look like what contemporary poetry looks like – not just in the United States, but around the world. I want to think of it like the poetry magazinenot only poetry magazine. I want the magazine to see the work we do as something that is not set in a particular region or nation, but centered on the art itself.

GJ: For people who are going to participate in the Hal Prize, what are you looking for in a submission?

A M: All I care about are poems that are well written and have a strong point of view and something to say. I don’t want people to write poems like I write, but poems like they or they write. So it’s all about perspective and something well designed. It doesn’t matter what it is, what style it is – all that matters is that it was done with care.

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