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by Charles Ellenbogen

Anisfield-Wolf award winner Adrian Matejka has produced another excellent book of poems. I chose the word ‘book’ deliberately. This is not a collection of poems, but it is, like The Big Smoke, a book. Generally, when I read poetry, I can read 2 or 3 poems at a time. If I read too many more, I can’t really give them the attention they deserve. This is not to say that Matejka’s poems don’t deserve careful attention; they do. It’s just that the book has such a narrative drive (see the transition between “Stardate 8705.29” and “Business as Usual” for an example) that I often had to remind myself to slow down.

Together, “Map to the Stars” tells a compelling coming-of-age story that involves a move to the suburbs (which means a move from Prince to Fleetwood Mac) and all that involves, notably the sometimes unspoken but always simmering issue of race. In “After the Stars,” Matejka reports that “Upward / mobility equals stars in every // thing” and that the persona’s new neighborhood has “One sedan per driveway / & one tree centering each & every yard.” But all is not idyllic in the suburbs. Matejka reminds us that “All of this dirt came from some / other dirt repeating itself & you stand on top / of its frozen remains, arms raised like the Y / in YMCA. Look at you now. You are high-fiving / yourself in the middle of a future strip mall.”

Throughout, “[t]he spacious myth of space” proves to be just that, a myth. There is a hope that “everyone looks the same / in a space suit” but they don’t. In “Outta Here Blacks,” Matejka notes that despite the move, some things didn’t change:

We were outside our chalk-outlined / piece of town like a bad pitch. // We were outlying that old spot // like perfectly spelled / gentrifications.

Still, there remains a somewhat empty hope for a fresh start. In the perfectly named “Record Keeper,” Matejka writes:

& because nobody / hunts for dinner in the suburbs, we put down / our implements of half step & appetite, sidestep / the moon as it descends into a whole plateful / of charred thighs and wings. We collectivize / the back-in-the-days way as tenaciously as chicken / legs undress themselves at a cul-de-sac party, then raise the stripped bones to history. Out here, there / isn’t any, so history is whatever we want it to be.

Charles Ellenbogen teaches English at Campus International High School in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.

National Poetry Month, celebrated every April for the past 20 years, became a little less abstract for Cleveland students this spring. This year the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards embedded local graduate students in two Cleveland-area elementary schools and a community center for an eight-week poetry residency.

Ryan Lind, Ali McClain, Karly Milvet, and Amanda Stovicek — all students in the NEOMFA creative writing consortium — drew inspiration from the Anisfield-Wolf canon in crafting their lessons, sampling Toni Morrison, Lucille Clifton and Langston Hughes, as well as recent winners Adrian Matejka and Jericho Brown.

Stovicek taught fourth and fifth-graders at Urban Community School, her second experience in the classroom with younger students. “One student wrote, ‘Sometimes it feels like the last bee in the hive and the last one to get honey.’ What a startling wonderful poetic connection. The voices of these children are just waiting to be heard.”

McClain, an MFA student and director of the Sisterhood program at West Side Community House, used the residency to help her students discuss race, gender, violence and trauma through a poet’s lens. “The Sisterhood girls responded to poetry the same way most students respond to something new — with hesitancy and curiosity,” McClain recalled. “But by the time our second session took place the girls were approaching me with poems they wrote on their own time. I wasn’t shocked because I know that this is what poetry does — it pulls people in.”

A Greenview Upper Elementary school student recites his poem at the April poetry slam.
A Greenview Upper Elementary school student recites his poem at the April poetry slam as his student-teacher Karly Milvet looks on.

Lind and Milvet used Lucille Clifton’s “Won’t You Celebrate With Me” and George Ella Lyon’s “Where I’m From” to engage their Greenview Upper Elementary students in a lesson on identity and origin. “One of my favorite lessons,” Milvet said, “and the students’ too, was Langston Hughes ‘Hey!’ and ‘Hey! Hey!’ because they got to explore repetition and rhythm and colloquialism. Overall, I think we succeeded in making poetry accessible and fun.”

Lind agreed: “I love the calm moment that follows our group activities when individuals start grinding out their own work, raising their hands with pride with each interesting word or phrase.”

To cap the enriching experience, students at all three locations were invited to perform in a poetry slam at Urban Community School on Cleveland’s west side.

One by one students filed onto the stage to recite their poetry. Students from Greenview Upper Elementary wore sunglasses as they shared their work, and fourth-graders from Urban Community donned their “Word Nerd” shirts from Kent State’s Wick Poetry Center.

Several students recited their remixed version of “Won’t You Celebrate With Me” into their own odes of lip balm, basketball championships, and school awards. In his version, Brandon Johnson, of Greenview, mused about winning a character award: “When I get it/It will be because of my hard work/So let me get started/today.”

“Sometimes my heart feels like a baseball thrown into the air/Sometimes my heart is hoping for a scarf against the cold,” Lily Tidrick of Urban Community School wrote in “My Heart.”

“It snows ten times a day/And you make it feel like 100 degrees,” Shantrel Anthony, a student from the West Side Community House, wrote in her poem, “Miracle.

Awards manager Karen R. Long envisioned the partnership as a potent artistic brew. “What better way to pass 80 years of the Anisfield-Wolf tradition to two generations simultaneously?” Long said. “Our marvelous MFA graduate students amplified their commitment to literature all spring by introducing grade school children to poetry via their own voices.”

The parents in the audience were moved by the hard work of their children. “Wick Poetry Center assistant director Nicole Robinson overheard one parent exclaim about their child: ‘I had no idea he could write!'” Long said. “That is a magical discovery.”

Listen to three of the students as they recite their poetry. 

Brandon Johnson, “Won’t You Celebrate With Me”

Lily Tidrick, “My Heart”

Beyonce Smith, “Characterize”

Take a look at Jean-Michel Basquiat’s mesmerizing 1984 painting “Trumpet.” It inspired a new poem from Adrian Matejka that he calls “& Later,”

Matejka won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award last year for “The Big Smoke,” his Jack Johnson-infused collection. Now the Indiana University professor is putting together a new book called “Collectable Blacks.”

“I get caught up easily in Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings, especially his work focusing on boxers and jazz,” Matejka said. “His painting from 1984, ‘Trumpet,’ cracked open a tense holiday moment from my childhood. I don’t remember any actual trumpets at that holiday fracas, but Basquiat’s lines and pigments always seem to create unexpected opportunities for improvisation and meditation.”

Matejka made this observation for staff at the American Academy of Poets, which sent “& Later,” to some 300,000 readers September 4 as part of its digital dose of verse.  Readers can sign up for the “Poem a Day” project.

& Later,

Adrian Matejka

—after “Trumpet,” Jean-Michel Basquiat

the broken sprawl & crawl
of Basquiat’s paints, the thin cleft

of villainous pigments wrapping

each frame like the syntax
in somebody else’s relaxed

explanation of lateness: what had
          happened was.
Below blackened

crowns, below words crossed out
to remind of what is underneath:

potholes, ashy elbows, & breath

that, in the cold, comes out in red light

& complaint shapes—3 lines
from the horn’s mouth
in the habit of tardy remunerations.

All of that 3-triggered agitation,

all that angry-fingered fruition

like Indianapolis’s 3-skyscrapered smile
when the sun goes down & even

the colors themselves start talking

in the same suspicious idiom
as a brass instrument—

thin throat like a fist,

flat declinations of pastors
& teachers at Christmas in the inner city.

Shoulders back & heads up when
playing in holiday choir of hungry

paints, chins covered
in red scribbles in all of the songs.

Adrian Matejka’s “The Big Smoke” is a nuanced, polyphonic book that explores the life of boxer Jack Johnson, the first African- American heavyweight world champion. A fan of the sport, Matejka was moved by this son of emancipated slaves – born in Texas just 13 years after the end of the Civil War – who loved Shakespeare, Verdi’s operas, travel abroad and a series of white women. The Big Smoke follows Johnson until 1912 in 52 poems. Matejka spent eight years researching and writing this book. He teaches at Indiana University in Bloomington.  

We caught up with Matejka in a few quiet moments before this year’s ceremony to hear his thoughts on being honored with the 2014 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for poetry: 

Adrian Matejka, Winner of The 2014 Anisfield-Wolf Award for Poetry from Anisfield Wolf on Vimeo.

 

Faded fight posters on the walls at Cleveland’s Old Angle boxing gym served as an authentic backdrop for the poetry of Adrian Matejka, 2014 winner of an Anisfield-Wolf book award. Matejka’s 52-poem collection, “The Big Smoke,” centers on Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champion, who earned the crown in 1908.

Gym owner Gary Horwitz rearranged his gym and his week to host. Dave Lucas, a founder of the “Brews & Prose” literary series, canceled his September plans and moved his audience from the Market Garden Brewery down W. 25th St. to the gym. The night featured Matejka’s reading, two live boxing demonstrations, and dollar bratwurst. Clad in a white T-shirt bearing Johnson’s likeness, Matejka, 42, took to the middle of the ring to read a selection of poems.

“Johnson was a folk hero, a contradictory figure,” Matejka said, testifying to the complexity of the boxer’s life. Born in Galveston, Texas in 1878 to former slaves, Johnson became one of the first African American celebrities. He flaunted an extravagant wardrobe and listened to Verdi’s arias while he trained.

“I didn’t mention that he had gold teeth, but he did,” Matejka added to his description later. “I didn’t mention that he used to change his clothes four to five times a day, but he did.”

Speaking to the crowd through an old-school boxing mic, Matejka began with the same poem that opens his book: “Battle Royale.” The title refers to a winner-takes-all fight in which black men were blindfolded and placed in a ring to fight for the amusement of white men. Last man standing won. Johnson got his start as a boxer in a battle royal in 1899. He won $1.50 for beating four other men and caught the eye of a local promoter. By 1910, he would headline in the “Fight of the Century” against heavyweight boxer Tommy Burns and see a $65,000 payday (today more than $1 million).

Johnson’s conspicuous glamour riled his white critics (and some black critics, as well — most notably activist Booker T. Washington). The physically imposing fighter – easily outweighing opponents by 40 pounds or more – took his lashes for being an unapologetically bold black man in the Jim Crow south.

As one of the most photographed figures of his day, Johnson had no shortage of press. Matejka used these references to create “Alias,” a sonnet composed entirely of callous monikers given to the boxer by mainstream newspapers like the Los Angeles Times:

The Big Smoke. Jack Johnson. Flash

nigger. The Big Cinder. Black animal.

Jack. Texas Watermelon Picaninny.

Mr. Johnsing. Colored man with cash.

His rendering of Johnson made the sport of boxing more accessible to some of those in the audience. “There’s something extra besides the brutality,” one woman told Matejka during the question-and-answer period.

In the midst of the demonstration bout that followed Matejka’s reading, boxer Darryl Smith received a gash near his eye. A little pressure from a towel, a dab of Vaseline — and the fight went on. Time for round two.

Golden Gloves
Boxing gloves hang on a wall at the Old Angle boxing gym at W. 25th St in Cleveland | Photo credit: Ryan Brady-Toomey

On the cusp of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards ceremony, join awards manager Karen R. Long for a personal introduction to the titles being honored this year. Long will offer a speed date with each book, and an introduction to the Lifetime Achievement winners on Wednesday, September 3 at noon. Her presentation will kick off this fall’s Brown Bag Book Club at the Cleveland Public Library downtown.

In subsequent weeks, the series will then break out to examine each of the 2014 award-winning books in turn. Beginning Wednesday, September 10, readers will gather at noon with expert librarians to consider the poetry, novel and nonfiction works in the spotlight this year:

 The Big Smoke

by Adrian Matejka

Wednesday, September 10

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

by Anthony Marra
Wednesday, September 17

My Promised Land

by Ari Shavit
Wednesday, September 24

Tickets to the September 11 awards ceremony at the Ohio Theatre are available here. (Stand-by tickets are guaranteed due to no-shows.)

Karen R. Long served as book editor of The Plain Dealer for eight years before becoming the manager of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. Long is a vice president for the National Book Critics Circle, where she is a judge for its six annual prizes, awarded each March in New York City.

Karen will give her talk on the 2nd Floor of the Main Library Building, in the Literature Department. Interested guests will be able to check out the featured books after the talk. Questions? Call the library at 216-623- 2881.

Poet Adrian Matejka mixed his love of boxing with his love of literature to produce “The Big Smoke,” 52 poems that center on Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champion. The collection won this year’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer and the National Book Award.

On September 10, Matejka will bring his words to the Cleveland canvas of the Old Angle Boxing Gym while boxer Roberto Cruz, 11, and Corey Gregory, 42, will each demonstrate the sweet science in separate demonstration bouts. We are proud to collaborate with Old Angle owner Gary Horvath and Dave Lucas of Brews + Prose to welcome the Clark Avenue neighborhood, the boxing community and local literati for a memorable night of sport and poetry.

The evening begins at 7 p.m. and is free. The public is welcome, with registration details available at the event’s Facebook page. Matejka, a professor at Indiana University, will also take audience questions and sign books.  He spent eight years researching the storied and much-mythologized life of Johnson before creating the poems—told in the voices of the boxer and the people around him.

“There is a wonderful recording of Johnson narrating part of his 1910 fight with Jim Jeffries,” Matejka told Shara Lessley of the National Book Awards. “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.”

Matejka, 42, said some of his work, particularly the sonnets, reflect the physicality and cadences of the sport.  “The Big Smoke” ends in 1912, a full 34 years before Johnson died. Matejka plans a second volume of poems on the man who, he says, “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.”