I’m thinking now – as I often am – about what it is to revel in the idea of your otherness, even if not reveling in whatever harm may be caused due to it. I was a kid who often had a hard time fitting in, and who escaped in whatever sounds I could pump out of my headphones. My understanding of the particular and exciting predicament I find myself in now as a writer, is tied to this: how, as an escape, I looked for places where sound and language collided. That has nothing to do with much of anything, but as I write this now, I’m listening to Bone Thugs N Harmony – who hail from my beloved Ohio – and I’ve been considering lately that the work of the writer is to also write language that is beautiful to them. Language that sounds good coming out of their mouths, so that it might me a single instrument in the larger orchestra. I like the word “moist,” and have a poem about it in my first book. I don’t know why it makes so many people uncomfortable, but I imagine that it might be because the word sounds the way it feels. It sits in your mouth the same way moisture sits in or on your body. I get the aversion. But also, what is more beautiful than a word that comes out of you the exact what that it sits on top of you?
Adrian Matejka and I are from two different type of Midwests. I think it’s important to note that now, in post-election America, where the Midwest is often looked upon as one, singular block. Adrian and I are both black Midwesterners, separated by a generation and one state – his Indiana, and my Ohio. Both our generational and geographical differences aren’t that much (about ten years and 175 miles, respectively,) but the time frame he operates in is a crucial one, when compared to mine: He’s a child of hip hop’s first era, the age of the slightly older heads I had to rely on as a kid to tell me what was up with the shit being kicked in rhyme sessions on corners. He navigated blackness in midwestern suburbs in an era different enough from mine, even though the language and fears and experiences he focuses in on are familiar to me.
When I say “reveling in otherness,” I mostly mean being able to rebuild a world you were in once and make yourself so large that you are, for a moment, not alone. Or, to reach across some vast landscape and find hands like yours reaching back. Hands that might not have been there when you lived it, but can be there as you write what you’ve lived. In the poem “If You’re Tired, Go Take A Nap,” Matejka opens with: I never liked bridges or cops & there are more of both of them in the suburbs, lording over possibilities like stumbles
do stairs. Down the blue & white set next to the small gym after first period, shoelace caught under a new bully’s foot. He would
have gotten stole on in Carriage House, but not by me. Gots to chill or it’ll get worse
I think what we’re really talking about is how many ways we can talk our shit to an audience of nonbelievers, or people who have no reason to care about where we’re coming from. What I like most about Adrian is that – at least in his poems – he is such an exquisite and subtle shit-talker, one may never see it coming if they aren’t hip to how shit gets talked when shit talk is a means of survival. In the poem “Basketball feat. Galileo & EPMD,” one might peep the obvious shit talk: …& when the smoke cleared, I hung as tight as a sweaty headband on that rim, talking smack to the other nine ballers & to their nine mamas
and yes, that is, indeed, the reveal. But what happens earlier in the poem, right before this scene, is what I revel in most: Matejka’s scene-setting. Shit-talking as a statement of intent first. The small jabs before you catch the haymaker: every bit of tangled shine around my neck: a hypotenuse of intention. Highlights are the only lights in my low-rise space of a sneaker to shin & elbow to crown.
Adrian is a writer who, it seems, is concerned with sound. Language as a type of music. I came up in slam, so it’s important for me to think about language in terms of what might sound good exiting my body, or what words pair well with other words. I had to approach this shit like a bandleader, and imagine that every word had its place, and one wrong bit of language could throw the whole groove off. I like the way Adrian’s words stumble into each other so neatly, like hands fumbling around until the fingers interlock and it’s like they’ve never been apart.
But mostly, I like Adrian Matejka as a subtle shit talker, and then a not so subtle shit talker. Anyone who has ever had to crack a joke on someone so that they didn’t have to throw a fist knows what I mean. It has been an interesting year for me. I haven’t always thought of myself as a poet this year, because I was told that I had to think of myself as something else, or I was talking more about essays than poems, or I thought I was too sad to be anything but sad.
I hate to pull iconography from a Midwest that neither Adrian or I come from, but the thing I liked about The Fab Five was this idea that they talked trash to get into the heads of their opponents, sure. But they also did it to push themselves past their own insecurities, or their own fears. There’s this picture I love from 1993. Chris Webber, standing still and tense on the court, perhaps a bit nervous. And then there’s Jalen Rose, confident, sneering in his face. Probably saying something wild to get his boy fired up again. In the moments of this year I haven’t felt like a poet, I’ve found myself drawn back to Adrian’s work. It’s there, sneering in my face, challenging me to get back in the game.