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.
—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.
George Lamming, who spent decades as a leader of the Caribbean literary Diaspora, won our 2014 Lifetime Achievement award for his deeply political books that critique colonialism and neo-colonialism. His first novel, In the Castle of My Skin, drew accolades from Jean-Paul Sartre and Richard Wright. Health concerns prevented Lamming from attending our 2014 ceremony in person, but we were able to film him in his native Barbados for a brief Q&A:
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is an intoxicating first book about intersecting lives in war-torn Chechnya. The novel begins as Russian officers burn down a Muslim home and “disappear” the father Dokka but can’t find his daughter Haava. A neighbor hides the 8-year-old girl in a barely-functioning hospital. Novelist Anthony Marra sets this story over five taut days, as the child is hunted and the adults around her try to navigate radically different circumstances. Marra teaches at Stanford University. We caught up with Marra a few hours before he accepted the 2014 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for fiction. Hear his remarks in the brief video below:
Ari Shavit, a columnist for Jerusalem’s daily newspaper Haaretz, spent five years writing My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel in English and Hebrew simultaneously. A former Israeli paratrooper, peace advocate and great-grandson of Victorian-era Zionists, Shavit carefully examines a fraught and difficult history, interweaving family memoir, multiple documents and hundreds of interviews with Arabs and Jews. This important, clarifying book asks why Israel was created, what it has achieved, what went wrong and if it can survive.
We spent a few minutes with Shavit prior to this year’s ceremony, and he expressed his gratitude to the jury for recognizing his work:
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:
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.
Anthony Marra startled the literary world in 2013 with his stunner of a debut, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. His fresh, Chechnya-inspired book won this year’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and will bring its author to Cleveland for the first time. He follows in the footsteps of Iraq War veteran Kevin Powers, who spoke last year about his own war novel, “The Yellow Birds” on the campus of Case Western Reserve University.
Marra, 30, will speak and read at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, September 10, in the intimate setting of the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities at Case. “Wars shatter families, relationships, even stories,” Marra has said. “But Constellation is less a story about war than a story about ordinary people rebuilding their lives during and in the aftermath of war. It’s a story not about rebels and soldiers, but about surgeons, nurses, and teachers, each of whom tries to salvage and recreate what has been lost.”
The writer first found his way to the Caucuses as an undergraduate abroad. He grew up in Washington, D.C., and now lives in Oakland, Calif., and teaches at Stanford University. His novel, set over five days between the two modern Chechnya wars, has many sources in nonfiction and fiction. One is to the work of assassinated Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya; another is the Anisfield-Wolf winner Edward P. Jones.
In crackling scenes flecked with notes of mordant humor, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena contains six central characters, and begins with an 8-year-old girl hiding in the forest as the Russian federals burn her home and “disappear” her father. A neighbor determines to hide the child in a mostly-destroyed hospital where one doctor and one nurse remains. “When I traveled to Chechnya,” Marra remarked, “I was repeatedly surprised by the jokes I heard people cracking. It was a brand of dark, fatalistic humor imprinted with the absurdity that has become normalized there over the past two decades.”
The novel won the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize, and was long-listed for the National Book Award. Marra earned his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and studied with novelist Adam Johnson at Stanford. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Republic, Narrative magazine, the 2011 Pushcart Prize anthology, and the Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012.
The Baker-Nord event is free and open to the public, but registration is required. Get more information and RSVP for the event HERE.
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:
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.”