A Conversation with Adrian Matejka
BY MELISSA STUDDARD
Adrian Matejka is the author of seven books, including a mixed media collection inspired by Funkadelic, Standing on the Verge & Maggot Brain (Third Man Books, 2021) and a collection of poems, Somebody Else Sold the World (Penguin, 2021), which was a finalist for the 2022 UNT Rilke Prize and the Indiana Authors’ Award. His first graphic novel, Last On His Feet, was published by Liveright in 2023. He served as Poet Laureate of the state of Indiana in 2018-19 and is Editor of Poetry magazine. He lives in Chicago.
The first time I read Adrian Matejka’s poetry, I had that feeling Emily Dickinson describes—as if the top of my head had been taken off by poetry. Through Adrian’s work I saw what was possible both in form and content. Now, reading his collaborative graphic novel, Last on His Feet (illustrated by Youssef Daoudi), I find myself having the same basic reaction: You can do that with a graphic novel? Last on His Feet is as much a nuanced, artistic tribute to the seminal moment of a brave and complicated life as it is a graphic novel. Adrian employs poems, speech bubbles, intricate narrative structures, a chorus of voices, and so much more to convey the historical importance of Jack Johnson’s life and boxing’s Battle of the Century.
Melissa Studdard: I feel like only a poet could have written this book—even the prose sections employ poetic techniques. On page 304, for example, when Jack Johnson crashes his car, we hear through the flames, “Your hair smells like summer.” Then, page 305 starts with, “You like my hair Papa?” and we realize Johnson is now with his deceased wife. In the space between those two pages, we linger in tragedy, live and die a lifetime, and are vaulted into the afterlife. It’s like a line break, only supercharged. Can you say something about how your background as a poet informed these kinds of narrative decisions?
Adrian Matejka: Thanks, Melissa, for reading the book, and for this kindness. It’s a heavy book in all ways: the history, the violence, the general beauty of the lives lived in the pages. 330 pages of it. But poetry does gravity better than almost any other art form because of poetry’s immediacy. As soon as the poem is spoken or read, the words are in your heart playing the strings, you know? It comes from imminence and need but happens so fast that it’s sometimes a little difficult to attribute the call and response in the moment.
I’m thinking about one of my favorite poems by Yusef Komunyakaa, “Blue Light Lounge Sutra for the Performance Poets at Harold Park Hotel.” In the poem, Yusef says:
the need gotta be basic
animal need to see
& know the terror
we are made of honey
cause if you wanna dance
this boogie be ready
to let the devil use your head
for a drum
The need in boxing is like the need in poetry that way. I don’t know if there’s anything other than poems that is as immediate as a punch to the face. Or in Komunyakaa’s version, having your head drummed by the devil. So we focused on poetry at hand—the music of Jack Johnson’s voice, but also visual cadence and capaciousness—as the primary driver. We wanted to make an art book that sounded like a poem and moved like poetry through this important time in history more than we wanted to make a graphic novel.
MS: To keep quoting Yusef Komunyakaa’s amazing poem, you and Youssef Daoudi made a book that goes “so deep fragments of gut / & flesh cling to the song.” I’m struck by your “animal need to see” and understand and honor the life of Jack Johnson. What is this profound force that’s driven you through the poetry collection The Big Smoke, and now, Last on His Feet? Does it feel satiated?
AM: Whew. What a question. In a good way, I mean. Early on while I was researching The Big Smoke, a friend suggested I go to Jack Johnson’s grave to ask permission to write the book. I don’t know if you believe in spirits, but I absolutely believe there is energy around us that we haven’t figured out how to name yet. I also believe in honoring the ancestors, so the trip to Graceland Cemetery made sense. I was at his grave for about an hour on my first visit and during that time I felt like I was trusted, or maybe gifted with, the opportunity to carry his story for a while.
I didn’t start out planning to write poetry about him, though. I wanted to write an essay about learning to love boxing from my mother in the 1970s. It seemed useful to talk about being gifted this very violent and hypermasculine sport from a 5’2” white lady from Indiana. But the more I learned about Jack Johnson, the more it was clear the work couldn’t be about us; it had to be about Jack.
People of a particular age know Jack Johnson (if they know him at all) through The Great White Hope. The movie amplifies the most salacious parts of his life and pretends they are biography. It’s based on a play by Howard Sackler that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969. The thing is, the play and the movie are almost completely inaccurate in both style and substance. It felt important to me to challenge the misrepresentations of Johnson in popular culture, while also calling out the racism that made such misrepresentations possible. I don’t know if I’ve been able to completely reclaim his myth, but I’ve done the best I could.
MS: Your deep care is palpable through the whole book—thank you for that. And, The Great White Hope, my god—even the title is awful. Can you talk about where that title comes from, and maybe detail one of the misrepresentations you worked to correct?
AM: Right? Imagine writing a play that pillages the history of a Black man, the first Black heavyweight champion of the world and calling it “The Great White Hope.” The levels of appropriation are simultaneously staggering and not surprising at all. I mean, the movie begins with a frame that reads “Much of what follows is true.” True to what and for whom?
I’m not sure there’s just one to point out. So much of the movie was willfully inaccurate in service of pearl clutching. But Sackler won a Pulitzer for his version; a lot of people responded to it. So it’s important to recognize there’s something alluringly American—revelatory and problematic—in Jack Johnson’s story, even when it’s lensed by someone who doesn’t actually care about the man and the life he lived.
This reminds me of a quote from W.E.B. DuBois: “The reason Jack Johnson was so beset by his own country, a country ironically which had only recently reaffirmed that all men were created equal, was because of his Unforgivable Blackness.” A fragment of the quote is in Last On His Feet as part of an imagined debate between DuBois and Booker T. Washington. The debate is a collage of quotes from their speeches and essays. It’s about Blackness, about Reconstruction, and about a new century of celebrity as well. Jack Johnson was one of the biggest celebrities on the planet in part because of all the racism. Infamy instead of adulation.
It’s a small thing, but if Sackler had quoted DuBois or included any of the available history about the boxer in the movie, “Much of what follows is true” might have been more serious. Instead, the first time we see “Jack” in the film he’s working with a trainer on a heavy bag as his white wife “Eleanor” giggles, sitting on the side of an elevated boxing ring. Heavy bags weren’t part of the training regimen at that time. Elevated boxing rings weren’t in gyms until years later.
Maybe I’m going on longer than I need to about this, but I believe that any historical writing requires a kind of ethical commitment to the people involved. So correcting the minor liberties—even before we get to the larger cultural and social ones—is part of liberating Jack Johnson’s myth, and liberation has to be part of any historically adjacent writing.
MS: What a strange thing—to be the best in the world at something—to be totally admired and idolized for it but so terribly disrespected and villainized too. I keep thinking how strong someone would have to be just to survive that.
AM: I can’t even imagine. He’s truly the archetype of the Black male athletic experience in the United States. The basic segregationist attitude has always been at play as it relates to Black people and entertainment. Jack Johnson was in fact an entertainer even as his way of being in the world encouraged further disdain.
He chose to get gold teeth he didn’t need as a display of wealth. He chose to wear immaculately tailored clothing that would cost others a year’s wages to buy. He drove fast cars when few people had access to them and was generally very public about his riches. These were lifestyle choices he made, in part to monetize the racism. He knew that being hated—being the heel like in professional wrestling—was a way to make more money. I just don’t think he recognized the volume that hatred could be turned up to.
MS: It’s interesting psychologically. If I think about what I would do in that situation, embracing it makes sense. I mean, what else are you going to do?
AM: Right. Because he wasn’t going to change anyone’s mind. It’s not as if the people who despised him would learn to love him just because he quoted Shakespeare or spoke Italian. All they cared about was his skin. We tried to address both the ways violence was visited upon Jack Johnson and how he visited it upon those around him, particularly Etta.
I mean, his parents were enslaved. He was born in a space of violence, so how else would he be? We know trauma gets passed down generation to generation. He was part of so many firsts: the first generation after slavery. The first Black heavyweight champion. A true American original and at the same time a person of his time, following what served as the moral compass of that time.
MS: Thinking about these traumas, and your representations of the Battle Royal in The Big Smoke and Last On His Feet, and how the Mann Act was unjustly weaponized against Johnson, I’m in awe of your ability to immerse yourself as fully as you needed to in order to write these books. It’s like a doctor or nurse being able to sew someone up while everyone else is passing out. I keep thinking, how did Adrian live with this suffering so deeply embedded in his space and mind and heart? How did you steel yourself to look directly in the face of these horrors?
AM: It was hard to hold all that violence whether it was physical, emotional, or verbal. I imagine it was rough for Youssef to draw such things, too, but we never talked about it. I could tell I was doing some damage to myself imagining these things, crafting poems and scenes, then trying to make legible the language that was used against Johnson. Parts of the graphic novel were simply oppositional to the way I believe poetry should work. At the same time, poetry is the only thing that can carry this kind of violence and not break. Poetry is the only thing that is visceral enough to navigate such rough history. So while it was needed, it was difficult on the heart and the brain.
MS: I can only imagine. I think of Johnson as a kind of tragic hero, you know? He had all this brilliance and these beautiful qualities, and he was powerful. But then he had these flaws, these tragic flaws.
AM: Yes. Significant ones that emanated harm. Early in my research, I had the idea that Etta had been mesmerized by Jack Johnson’s charms. He was so handsome, successful, and seemingly dangerous to a high-society denizen like Etta. She couldn’t have known anyone as magnetic as him, so of course he was able to seduce her. Then I found a photograph of the two of them leaning on one of Jack’s cars. It’s like Bonnie and Clyde and she’s fully with it. That’s when I stopped thinking of her as enthralled and focused on her very complex life that was marred by emotional distress. They were a terrible match. Here’s Jack Johnson acting the way he acted married to a person with a history of depression and anxiety. Their relationship was combustible from the start and we wanted to highlight it. Narratively of course, but also to raise the question of mental health at the turn of the 20th century.
MS: I remember that she left the suicide letter in a safety deposit box because she didn’t want to worry her mom by sending it. To be so depressed that you’re thinking of taking your life but so concerned about how that’s going to make other people feel—it’s so sad.
AM: It’s really sad. She emphasized that it was not Johnson’s fault and that he tried to help her. In the graphic we show that some of it is true; he did try to help in his own way. But he was also one of those people who just kept it moving. A couple of weeks after she committed suicide, he married one of his mistresses. No time for grieving at all. Nobody used language like “grieving” back then, which is also part of the problem. He didn’t even take a moment to be still, to cope with what was lost. He just kept being “Jack Johnson,” which then began a series of debilitating events including his Mann Act conviction in 1913. The time before Etta killed herself was the pinnacle of his life, personally and professionally. After she was gone everything fell apart. And he tried to reconcile that for the rest of his life.
MS: I remember when it was shameful to talk about personal issues. Then there was a turn with Oprah and Geraldo. Suddenly people were talking about things they had never talked about before. But those earlier generations not only didn’t have anyone to talk to; they carried these troubles as a shame.
AM: Exactly. And you got the survivors of multiple wars with no concept of how to take care of their trauma, right? In the ways his parents unknowingly passed down the traumas of enslavement, he’s passing them on, too. He didn’t have children, so he passed them to the people near him with his words and fists.
MS: What a great observation. Circling back to The Big Smoke for a moment, can we discuss how Last On His Feet intersects with or departs from The Big Smoke?
AM: When I was working on The Big Smoke, I knew I had too much material for a single volume. I also knew I wanted the two books to be completely different. I didn’t plan to write any poems for Last On His Feet and then ended up writing forty new poems. It was a great reminder that we don’t get to choose whether a poem happens or not. The only full text that overlaps is “Battle Royal.” There are a couple of fragments from “Prizefighter” and “The Battle of the Century” as well. All the rest of the verse is new.
In The Big Smoke, I wanted to bring Jack Johnson to a twenty-first century audience. In Last On His Feet, I wanted to make a portrait of Jack Johnson for audiences who might not be inclined to read poems on their own. Both books stick to the real history in the same way, but Youssef’s art creates a different, more cinemagraphic version of his life.
MS: Yes—I remember noticing that “Battle Royal” was the only full overlap. Why did you choose to repeat just this one poem?
AM: The story, as brutal as it is, is central to Jack Johnson’s origin and I couldn’t imagine a fresh way to approach it. There were also cultural and historical happenings around the poem that I couldn’t fully explore in The Big Smoke because the collection is mostly monologues. The graphic novel allowed me to revisit things, to create a more three-dimensional history thanks to the art and archival materials. Seeing the world as he moved through it, rather than just having him describe it to us.
MS: It’s so vivid. I know the coloration—black, white, gray, and red—was an artistic choice, but I wonder if you contributed to that decision, because it’s perfect on so many levels.
AM: Thank you. That was all Youssef. He wanted to emulate the newspaper and newsreel styles of the time. The texture of the book changed quite a bit when we started adding historical ephemera and memorabilia. Fight posters, articles, fragments of speeches. He put them in motion, often with dialogue I imagined.
MS: Truth with a capital T, not a literal truth.
AM: Exactly. We stuck to the facts related to the events with dedication, but poetry and art are the true engines. This has been one of the challenges of describing Last On His Feet. It’s almost nonfiction, but it’s not. It’s a graphic novel.
Same thing with The Big Smoke. It’s almost nonfiction, but it’s a collection of poems. Docupoetics. Even though the events in the books happened, different kinds of imagination are at play activating that history.
MS: Speaking of imagination at play, there’s so much onomatopoeia in Last On His Feet. You and Youssef really got to play with booms and smacks and whaps and whacks.
AM: All of that was Youssef. He’s got the ear of a poet. He filled in all those sonic details. We worked together on this project for six years, so we learned a lot about our various creative enthusiasms. There would be times when not a lot was happening, especially during COVID, and then some new fact or photograph or idea would appear and then the inspiration would return.
MS: Were you ever afraid you wouldn’t finish the book?
AM: I wasn’t afraid we wouldn’t finish it, though there were times I didn’t know if the book would make it into the world. There were varying reasons, varying things that slowed down the process beyond the usual creative fatigue that comes with longer projects. I also wrote Map to the Stars, Standing on the Verge & Maggot Brain, and Somebody Else Sold the World during the time I worked on Last On His Feet. A lot was happening at that time.
Youssef and I also had differing catalysts for our creative activity. I start from images or sounds and Youssef starts with characters and story arcs. He wanted to solidify the ending before we started. We worked from a script I’d written and I liked the ending, but in retrospect, my original ending was like the ending of a poem, not a novel. I wanted to end on a scene with Jack and Etta because their relationship is the point of the story for me.
MS: The scene I referred to earlier, where it seems the conversation is between two people in the car until you realize it’s the afterlife?
AM: Yes. I would have liked to have just ended there. I trusted Youssef’s instincts to close things down differently and I’m glad I did. The ending we have now made so much more sense. It was wonderful to work with someone who asked me to reimagine the way writing begins and ends. I’m so used to avoiding repetition in poetry–unless it’s for sound, of course–and so I wasn’t highlighting all the themes with the deliberateness required to keep them at the forefront for 330 pages. Youssef helped me to do that.
MS: It must have been so interesting having the graphic novel toolbox—thought bubbles and so forth—in addition to the poetry toolbox. What are some other ways you and Youssef orchestrated image and text?
AM: One example of our collaboration appears in the middle of the book, about how Jack Johnson became champion in the first place. He chased the previous heavyweight champion Tommy Burns—who didn’t want to fight Johnson or any other Black fighter—from city to city, challenging him from the front row. “I’ll fight you for free,” “You’re not a real champion unless you fight me,” that kind of thing.
It’s fascinating because Johnson basically bankrupted himself doing it. He ended up borrowing from everyone, selling things, whatever he had to do to keep following Burns. But to tell it as a poem or in the basic narrative structure of a graphic was boring. We couldn’t convey the ambition or the stakes. After trying and failing to write it as a monologue, I suggested we make a newspaper comic inside of the graphic. I wrote some dialogue and scene action, and Youssef came back with this wild, stylized comic with Jack chasing him all over the globe.
MS: I know you made up some details but there were others that I thought were documentary.
AM: There were peripheral pieces that are documentary—ads in the margins of the comic, that kind of thing. The date we chose for the newspaper also happened to be the beginning of the Chicago Cubs’ spring training, so I wrote an article about the Cubs in the style of the time. Collaboration is often an exercise in applied problem solving. In this case, it took both words and art to circumnavigate some of the narrative challenges we came up against. There was a lot of problem solving and back and forth. The big splash pages are another example where we were trying to highlight the conversation between language and visual art in more surprising ways.
MS: I love how the larger narrative is structured by the rounds in the match, but there are also other stories and flashbacks interspersed.
AM: We wanted to play with the composition and texture of things. Storytelling and visual narrative. We had the tools to be nonlinear, including the graphic design itself. You know, as poets we spend a lot of time thinking about the language—music, concision, texture—but I don’t always think about the bigger page as part of the composition. I’m mostly a left margin kind of guy.
But in the graphic, I’m thinking about line breaks, even as we’re thinking about visual forms and all of that. There’s a different conversation going on, and one that, if we weren’t being mindful of it, could have worked like a picture book where the text simply describes the image. We wanted the opposite of that. We wanted an artistic portrait which required a whole new thing from the text and art, something neither can be by themselves.
MS: Yes—I get that. I have a poem about a pancake of all things. But it’s about interconnectivity, and it was made into a film as part of the Motion Poems/VIDA collaboration.
AM: Oh, yeah. I remember that.
MS: And the director, Dan Sickles, didn’t show any pancakes in the film. Instead, it’s a cow and a rainforest and spiderwebs. It had to be that way; otherwise, the film would have just been a representation, not a new work of art.
AM: That makes so much sense in the framework of textual and visual art collaboration. There’s a theory fabricated by Homi K. Bhabha called third space communication that feels relevant here. You have people from two disparate communities trying to communicate with each other—one might be speaking Navajo and the other might be speaking Spanish—neither can understand the other, so they must find a third way for them to talk, a third space to meet each other. The video poem you mentioned and the graphic novel are two different kinds of third spaces between poetry and visual art. The two things coming together as something that’s neither and both at the same time.
I also believe that about poetry itself—a poem on the page feels like a third space to me. One between the reader and the writer. In the third space everyone has power because the reader can always just walk away.
MS: And the reader can so often see something in the poem that the poet didn’t notice until the reader pointed it out.
AM: The best poetry I’ve written wasn’t useful because of me. It was because someone else met me in the poem, in the third space and helped me to activate the poem. Hopefully people will meet us in this graphic novel and help to activate it as well.