College of Arts and Letters hosts award-winning poet

Adrian Matejka spoke about race and poverty as part of the college’s “Off the Page” series.

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College of Arts and Letters hosts award-winning poet

Photo courtesy of Flickr

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Photo courtesy of Flickr

Cameren Boatner, Contributing Writer

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When Adrian Matejka was a child, he used to visit a drug dealer named Ray in his beat-up neighborhood.

As they were playing a video game in Ray’s living room one afternoon, a man broke into the house and tried to rob him. Ray then shot the man and fled, leaving the house to become a looting free-for-all.

A child in poverty at the time, Matejka couldn’t have known what was to come of his circumstances.

There he stood, 14 years old, in a mess of people stealing Ray’s objects. Now he stands, 46 years old, behind a lectern, wearing a two-piece navy-blue suit and telling his story through poetry to a collection of over 20 visitors.

Matejka visited the Boca campus Jan. 24 to read some of his poetry to students and professionals alike. Hosted by the College of Arts and Letters, the event was part of the school’s “Off the Page” series, which brings authors to campus to read their works.

Matejka, a professor at Indiana University, is the author of four collections of poetry and the winner of several awards throughout his career, like the Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts grant.

Matejka started off by introducing his book, “Mixology,” which won the 2008 National Poetry Series, according to Becka McKay, director of the FAU Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing.

“I wanted to be a rapper and I was really terrible at it,” Matejka. “This book came about from me trying to combine the cadences and expectations of rap music with poems.”

He began to speak rhythmically as he recited his poem “Seven Days of Falling,” and seemed to take on a new character as he spoke. As he grew more comfortable with the audience, he removed his watch and lifted his marked-up book to read more freely.

He read poems about his childhood as a product of a white mother and black father, “which in the math of race in the 80s means you’re black.”

“These poems sort of interrogate that question of who we are and what that looks like to other people,” Matejka said, standing in the Student Union Majestic Palm Room.

He then moved on to “the way we identify blackness in the 80s,” and started to read passages from his latest book, “Map to the Stars.” All of the poems in the book are based on his experiences growing up in Indianapolis.

His poem, “Intergalactic Blacks,” was inspired by Guion Bluford, the first black man to go to the moon.

“When I was coming up, my dad wasn’t around and my mom was trying to explain to me how to be a black man, so I had my white mom trying to tell me what to do,” Matejka said.

His mother, who worked “nonstop,” still struggled to support the family.

“The only reason we got out of it,” Matejka said, “was because she married a rich guy.” Until then, however, he looked to black celebrities such as Bluford for role models.

Carrying on with the theme of black public figures, Matejka’s most famous poetry collection, “the Big Smoke,” is about Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion in the early 1900s. Johnson was “brilliant” but also “incredibly problematic,” according to Matejka.

“He used to beat his wife, which is horrible, and we all know it’s a bad thing. In 1910, it was received differently,” Matejka said.

For this reason, Matejka wanted to write Johnson in a different, more apologetic way, but he knew that to portray the character accurately, he had to stay true to who the boxer was as a person.

Matejka left the audience with a statement that summarizes how he sees his work. “Poetry is more than a vocation, it’s a way to see the world.”

The “Off the Page” series, picks back up on March 13 with author Deb Olin Unferth.

Cameren Boatner is a contributing writer with the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected].