Interview with Adrian Matejka, 2013 National Book Award Finalist, Poetry

Adrian Matejka

The Big Smoke by Adrian Matejka Adrian Matejka

The Big Smoke

Penguin Poets/Penguin Group (USA)
Photo credit: Taylor Cincotta

Interview by Shara Lessley

Shara Lessley: The Big Smoke takes world champion boxer Jack Johnson as its primary subject, but also manages to investigate his life outside the ring by depicting the prizefighter as a son, showman, renegade, inventor, lover, outlaw, etc. At what point did you decide Johnson deserved a book-length project, rather than a cycle or single poem?

Adrian Matejka: It probably comes as no surprise that I’m a boxing fan, and when I started researching Jack Johnson, I thought I might write a poem or two about him just because of his distinction as the first African-American heavyweight champion. But the more I dug into his biography, the more it became clear that I couldn’t do him justice in the limited scope of a poem or two.

Johnson was one of the most famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) people in the world in 1910. The great Booker T. Washington couldn’t stand him. He thought Johnson represented everything African Americans should not be. President Theodore Roosevelt wanted to ban boxing in America because of Johnson’s success.

At the same time, James Weldon Johnson said, ‘watching [Johnson’s] face, sad until he smiled, listening to his soft Southern Speech and laughter…I found it difficult to think of him as a prize fighter.’ Jack Johnson was complicated and meant different things to different people. I couldn’t visualize a way to show Johnson—or the people around him—the appropriate respect in a cycle of poems. The history is too thick for that.

SL: Readers of The Big Smoke are privy to diverse voices and multiple vantages that together create a complex portrait of Johnson. How did you decide who gets to speak? Did differentiating the characters prove particularly difficult?

AM: The current polyphonic structure of the book is not how the project started. The first version of the collection was made up of dramatic monologues exclusively in Johnson’s voice. As a form, the monologue is great for making the audience aware of character and intent, but it isn’t really capacious enough to illuminate an extended historical dialogue. There are things that the speaker of a monologue wouldn’t acknowledge or clarify simply because those things are a given in the world of the poem. For example, turn-of-the-century boxers weren’t required to wear mouth guards and instead of calling them ‘mouth guards,’ they called them ‘gum shields.’ There is no place in a dramatic monologue to clarify the linguistic differences between 1908 and 2013 about a piece of safety equipment, if you see what I mean.

Maybe more importantly, the monologue as a structure allows the speaker to say what he or she wants to say, and that isn’t always necessarily the fact of the moment. Jack Johnson was a natural storyteller and was very comfortable embellishing his autobiography. There was story he used to tell about beating up a 25-foot long shark while he was diving for shells. When he was 12. With his bare hands. And people believed it—because he was Jack Johnson. The kind of fabulist who would add shark-fighting to his mythology is not the kind of person who is going to present himself in any self-aware or emotionally vulnerable way.

So that’s where the other voices in the book come in. I wanted to create a more three-dimensional version of Johnson, one beyond his version of himself. I imagined the texts from Belle, Etta, Hattie, and Shadow to be a collective lens through which we could see Johnson and the corresponding events in the book in the book in a more objective way. Like Kurosawa’s Rashomon, only in poems. The complicated thing is that Belle, Etta, and Hattie are distinct and important figures on their own. We know them because of Jack Johnson, but they had their own enormous and robust lives that just happened to intersect with a very public figure. In the end, I tried to show their mythologies the same respect I tried to show Johnson’s.

The big difference is that Johnson has an extensive public record of text, photographs, and video. None of the other figures in the book have a public record except for Belle, and that is only because she was the center of the government’s Mann Act case against Johnson. I decided to use different modes of poetry—epistolary, broken sonnets, and interviews—to clarify the positions of the other characters vis-à-vis Johnson and to help make their voices unique.

SL: From the book’s details and abundant end notes you’ve clearly done your research. What was most challenging about transforming an international sports hero into a poetic figure? What was the most interesting thing you uncovered about Johnson that didn’t make it into The Big Smoke?

AM: For me, there’s something epic about Jack Johnson. He’s a mythic kind of figure—literally larger than life because he was bigger, faster, and a far more accomplished boxer than anyone of his time. He managed to win the most coveted title in sports, but through the combination of his own hubris and the institutionalized racism of the time, he lost everything. That rise and fall naturally lends itself to the oral tradition of poetry. I could imagine a bard singing ‘The Ballad of Jack Johnson’ to a King or Queen. What I’m saying is I think Johnson is already a poetic figure; I just organized part of his story for a contemporary audience.

There is an abundance of material that didn’t end up in this book because of the narrative structure. I planned this book as the first in a two-volume project. The Big Smoke ends in 1912 (is there a such thing as a spoiler in poetry?) with Etta’s death, and the next book will pick up two weeks later when Johnson married another white woman, Lucille Cameron, and subsequently got convicted through the Mann Act.

Some of Johnson’s greatest hits post-1912: He expatriated himself to avoid jail and lived in Paris before World War I. He almost became a French citizen until the French authorities made it clear he would have to fight in the war. While in France, Johnson hung out with Dadaist artists and even boxed an exhibition with Arthur Cravan. When his prospects in Europe ran out because of the War, Johnson ended up in Mexico in the middle of the Mexican Revolution. He worked with Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata in an effort to keep his fight career going. Johnson was a history maker in his own right, but he also intersected with a variety of early 20th century historical figures and events.

SL: Did boxing itself—its repetitions, pauses, jabs, the staccato of its punches—influence the composition of the poems? Did you consider, for instance, the rhythm of the sport and how it might relate to a poem’s structure or phrasing?

AM: That’s a great question. All sports are physical, but boxing is the most extremely physical—or it was before Mixed Martial Arts—because a boxer only wins by erasing the other fighter’s will to continue. Sometimes it means one boxer gets knocked out. Other times, the allotted number of rounds isn’t enough for a knockout, but one fighter is clearly more physically dominant than the other. There aren’t any ties in boxing.

I thought about the finality of boxing and its kinetics while I was generating the poems. I tried to use line breaks and other poetic devices like similes to emulate the cadences of fighting. In fact, one of the reasons the sonnet shape appears so often in the book is that the 14-line burst with a volta seems most like the distillation of energy in a boxing round to me. But I think the direct connection between the rhythms of boxing and the lineation of the poems comes from Johnson himself.

There is a wonderful recording of Johnson narrating part of his 1910 fight with Jim Jeffries. As Johnson describes the action, his cadences emulate the fight action in a way that makes him sound like a ring announcer. I used the recording as one of the primary sources for Johnson’s ‘voice’ in the book.

SL: The Baltimore American once described Johnson as ‘Carefree as a Plantation Darky in Watermelon Time’—a headline you adopt as a title. How do you think Johnson’s story represents the country’s racial legacy?

AM: Johnson was the child of emancipated slaves, so in that way he’s a direct representation of our country’s racial legacy. It was bequeathed to him.

It is comfortable for contemporary Americans to ignore or dismiss just how bad things were for African Americans in the late 19th and early 20th century. That’s one of the reasons I included some of the quotes from newspapers like the Baltimore American and the Los Angeles Times. The quotes highlight the fact that racism wasn’t even ‘racism’ yet. It was simply the way America worked. To call an African American a ‘darky’ or a ‘picaninny’ was common parlance, and it was the least of the concerns. Lynching, burnings, and other public (and private) ways of murdering African Americans were equally acceptable. It wasn’t just demonstratively racist people who accepted these atrocities as facts. The racist mindset was an elemental part of our societal fabric.

Jack Johnson woke up to this every day. He was fully aware that someone could murder him without any consequences simply because he was black. So every time he left the house, he was risking his life. I can’t imagine that kind of pressure. But the pressure, too, was part of the American construction. Johnson wanted things to be different, and when he traveled abroad, he realized that they could be. He often said the only place he was treated like a man was England. Maybe that’s why he affected an English accent later in his life.

SL: The Mann Act of 1913 played a critical role in Johnson’s life. Before reading The Big Smoke, I knew nothing about Johnson’s conviction. Members of the Senate recently urged President Obama to pardon Johnson posthumously. Your thoughts on this?

AM: This is to President Obama: Please pardon Jack Johnson. I know he’s not a banker or political operative, but he was actually innocent of the charges laid on him.

Last April was the third time in 10 years the Senate has approved a resolution to pardon Jack Johnson. They just can’t get a president to sign it. President Bush declined in 2004 and President Obama declined in 2009. This most recent Senate resolution was approved unanimously—which is pretty incredible given our contemporary political climate—and it’s on President Obama’s desk right now. He just hasn’t signed it. Please get on that, Mr. President. It would be a different kind of justice to have the first African-American President pardon the first African-American heavyweight champion.

SL: What’s next for you?

AM: I’m eventually going to write Part Two of Johnson’s story—what happens after Etta dies and the government begins to prosecute—but that will have to wait for a while. It’s probably going to be prose, and I’ve some serious writing to do before my prose chops are up to it. But even more than that, there are other stories that need to be told in the meantime.

I spent the past couple years while I was finishing The Big Smoke researching the history of astronomy for a new project. My plan was to use astronomy as a filter for considering some more mundane issues of race and politics, but what has happened is that all of the related poems have ended up being about poverty and social class. As in, we were really poor when I was a child, and somehow the study of Kepler, Jansky, Olber, and other astronomers led me back to my days in HUD housing drinking powdered milk and looking at the moon through a paper towel tube. I’m not in control of the project right now. I think it might need to be in a different artistic mode—maybe a graphic novel or book of essays. I’m going to keep writing and see what happens.

Shara Lessley is the author of Two-Headed Nightingale and a former Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University. Her awards include an Artist Fellowship from the State of North Carolina, the Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellowship from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, Colgate University’s O’Connor Fellowship, The Gilman School’s Tickner Fellowship, and a “Discovery” / The Nation prize. A recent resident of the Middle East, Shara is the 2014 Mary Wood Fellow at Washington College.