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A vision for change: Adrian Matejka welcomes marginalized communities to the pages of Poetry
The acclaimed poet and editor shares his remarkable story, his passion for inclusion, and his advice for young writers.
Adrian Matejka is known for writing five award-winning books of poetry and for helming Poetry as editor since 2022. However, not everyone knows Matejka’s remarkable story: how an early exposure to Black writers changed his life, how his work at Amazon ended up opening doors to a literary career, and how he’s using his role at Poetry to bring more diverse representation to the magazine’s pages.
Here, he shares his journey to literary stardom, his passion for diverse representation in the poetry world, and his advice for young authors.
“Books became my refuge”
Born in Germany to a military family, Matejka says he didn’t have a lot of resources growing up. After his parents separated, he moved with his mother to Indianapolis, where he discovered what would become a lifelong love of reading at the public library downtown.
“Everything I have came from my mom's dedication and willingness to make opportunities for me and from the library,” he says. “Books became my refuge, the thing that helped me to reimagine the world in a way that wasn't like my current circumstances.”
At the library, young Matejka pored over the works of Black writers like James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Alex Haley, and others. It wasn’t until college, though, that he discovered poetry and realized he wanted to become a poet. After graduating from Indiana University Bloomington, Matejka began working at bookstores and soon landed a job with a promising startup company.
“It was at Amazon, and we only sold books. There were maybe 40 employees at that time. When I left, there were 2,500,” Matejka remembers.
Matejka used the skills he learned at Amazon to pursue a career in IT and coding, which allowed him to work from home and gave him the freedom to write. Although his path to a career in poetry was very roundabout, Matejka sees value in everything he learned along the way.
To write a poem for me is to figure out the most distilled way to navigate and interrogate the things I don't understand.
“Everything I did helped me accrue experiences and ideas, gathering things that would eventually find their way into poems or maybe didn’t, but would help me figure out how to write them,” he says.
He attended the MFA program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and published his first book of poetry right after graduation. By now, poetry had become intensely personal for him—a way to understand his own life and what he observed in the world around him.
“To write a poem for me is to figure out the most distilled way to navigate and interrogate the things I don't understand,” says Matejka.
Making space for marginalized communities
In the years following grad school, Matejka gained traction as an author. He wrote and published the poetry collections The Devil’s Garden, Mixology, The Big Smoke (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry), Map to the Stars, and Somebody Else Sold the World—all of which emerged to critical acclaim.
In May of 2022, he became editor of Poetry, the longest-running monthly magazine devoted to verse in the English-speaking world. Although the magazine was founded by a woman, Matejka notes that its pages and leadership have often been populated by white males; he is the magazine’s first Black editor since its founding in 1912.
“Every day I walk into the office there’s a lot of history that needs to be attended to,” he says.
Matejka recalls attending a Christmas party at the Poetry Foundation that featured a display of archival copies of Poetry. “There was not a single poet of color in those magazines, no one that I could tell was from a marginalized community.”
In an effort to overcome “the erasure of all those other voices,” Matejka has led Poetry to welcome a more diverse authorship and readership. Even a brief glance through the magazine’s pages shows the changes that his tenure has accomplished.
He’s proud of the progress that’s been made.
“It makes me happy that we now have a chance to make Poetry look more like what poetry actually looks like, in the US and globally,” says Matejka.
Crossing artistic boundaries
Matejka isn’t just committed to a diversity of voices when it comes to the arts. He’s also passionate about drawing together diverse creative disciplines. He frequently makes this a priority in his work, as he did with his graphic novel Last On His Feet, which he created with visual artist Youssef Daoudi.
“It's a collaborative exercise to work with my illustrator, Youssef. We're going back and forth on scenes, I'm rewriting them, and he's drawing differently after he sees the rewrites. It's a really organic and beautiful partnership,” he says.
Matejka is also passionate about the intersections between poetry and music. He loves listening while he writes: “I have a record player that I put away when we moved, but I finally broke that thing out a couple of months ago. And I've been listening to a lot of jazz.” Some of his favorite albums include Beasts of No Nations by Fela Kuti and In a Silent Way by Miles Davis.
As he prepares to teach his workshop at Interlochen, Matejka says he’s compelled by the collaborations between disciplines that happen across campus.
“So much art is ekphrastic. A piece of art might be responding to some other genre or discipline entirely: a poet looking at a sculpture and writing a poem about the sculpture, or a musician looking at a painting and writing a song inspired by that painting,” says Matejka. “The fact that Interlochen students get to do that on a daily basis, if they choose to—that's really exciting to me.”
He looks forward to sharing insights gleaned over many years of writing and publication, including the many rejections he experienced along the way.
"I'm sitting here, seven books in, but when I look at my track record… I would get cut from a baseball team if that was my batting average,” he laughs.
So much art is ekphrastic. A piece of art might be responding to some other genre or discipline entirely: a poet looking at a sculpture and writing a poem about the sculpture, or a musician looking at a painting and writing a song inspired by that painting. The fact that Interlochen students get to do that on a daily basis, if they choose to—that's really exciting to me.
According to him, failures provide young authors with irreplaceable learning opportunities.
“I think that what's really important for me to impress on writers, especially when they're starting out, is that they have to recognize that the greatest lessons are learned in the failures and rejections that we are inevitably going to experience. How you navigate those things is a good indicator of how long you're going to be able to survive as a writer,” he says.
In the end, though, he’s found that the process is incredibly rewarding.
“Writing is hard. Making art is hard. If it was easy, everybody would do it. Because who doesn't want to make beautiful things?”