Autobiography as Language
Blame military life, family scuttling
from Los Angeles to Germany,
back again before my words
could find the vocal fold of English.
Blame the bilinguality of chance.
German first-- ham fisted umlauts,
non-negotiable consonants stacked
by the hubbub of need. Blame
the new neighborhood, four parts
Mexican, no parts half-blood.
Or blame me, cardboard color heavier
than a sneaker in the back, fist
that makes the jaw clack. If the Mexicans
bum-rushing me before school
was bad, my mother making them
lunches was worse. You know they
don't have any food, pushing me out.
Peanut butter and jelly in tow for Alex,
Chucho, and John: brawlers who would
rather swing than understand why I looked
like them, but sounded like the man
at the newspaper stand. Blame pain,
turning everyone a ripe shade. Language
comes before crawling. Blame that.
Three of us, in a circle, shooting
craps. Instead of crumpled bills
or food stamps, we used an army man,
a Dukes of Hazzard matchbox car
and Coca-Cola bottle caps, all
with "C" underneath. Never the "L"
that would have won us a million,
that hook of phonics keeping
my friends from seeing Mo run
from the apartment next to us.
But they saw White Boy come
after, shotgun in the crook bursting
the door like Superman, wood
and hinges flying like a drunk dad after
kids. They saw him aim that shotgun,
catch Mo's back with two. They saw
that man break apart on the pavement
like a carton of milk. White Boy: Bring
back my shit, muthafucka and Mom
dragging me inside, her sweating
fingers braceleted around my wrist.
Paris, Texas (1954)
White faces spring
from the crowd:
dandelions in the front lawn.
Ropes so tight I can
feel flies prowl fibers.
Their legs, a twisting frenzy.
Police uniforms in flies'
eyes, floating like fish
breath from the river's
bottom, so I stay down,
crumbs. Someone near
hawks soda and beer
to white people splitting ribs,
arms against the platform's
Nose mashed into lip,
unforgiving as the sticks
and fists spilling
over my face. You
won't be touching
another white woman.
A dirty child, dirty yellow hair,
perched on father's shoulders.
She licks a cone wet
with sugar diamonds,
ice cream dripping
father's shirt sleeve.
Let me have five
minutes with that black
son of a bitch.
bloating the sweaty crowd.
Some woman curses my ape
mother. Sheriff pulls a knife.
He cuts my arm.
the slow fire
around the break. My arm.
Nigger, you gonna die slow.
The man cuts my chest.
My heart beating,
He starts sawing.
Pieces of skin in strips like bacon.
-from The Devil's Garden
BIO: Adrian Matejka is the author of The Devil’s Garden (Alice James Books, 2003). He is a graduate of the Southern Illinois University Carbondale MFA program and is a Cave Canem Fellow. His work has recently appeared in Callaloo, Crab Orchard Review, Gulf Coast, and Indiana Review. He currently serves as a Creative Writing professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
Autobiography As Language, an Interview with Adrian Matejka by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: One thing I like in particular about “Autobiography as Language” is that we immediately understand that this “blame” is associated with much more than simply the speaker’s way of talking. Maybe it’s the repetition of the word, blame, and how that repetition is used to open up the poem to its many small discoveries about the self, beginning with an investigation of language and migrating into discussions of poverty, race, and kindness in the face of cruelty.
I can imagine a million different ways that you could have approached this aspect of childhood. Do you mind discussing how you came to this poem?
Adrian Matejka: I wrote the poem my first summer as a fellow at Cave Canem, after several days of thinking about racial definitions within the African-American community. The poem was, in part, my attempt to reconsider the things I knew to be true from my childhood. I am African American even though my mother is white. This distinction is very important to me now, but when I was a child, race was of less consequence than money in the pocket.
Race became part of the neighborhood conversation by default because everyone in our neighborhood was broke. It was even more of an issue for me because we were poor and my father was absent. As a result, my racial identity was based on my say so, rather than some identifiable phenotype or patented dance move. The idea of blame came from both this conviction and this misunderstanding.
AMK: Seeing that this is the first poem of your book, The Devil’s Garden, which is largely about childhood and identity, does “Autobiography as Language” serve as a sort of anthem for the poems that follow it?
AM: “Autobiography as Language” is anthematic in the sense that I wrote it specifically to be the first poem in the book. The original version of The Devil’s Garden was a finalist for the Bakeless Prize judged by Yusef Komunyakaa. At Cave Canem, I had the good fortune of spending time with Yusef and he was gracious enough to explain to me why the initial version of the book didn’t do what I wanted it to. He pointed out that beginning poem wasn’t successful in articulating the ideas in the book. “Write a poem that does,” Yusef told me. “Autobiography as Language” is that poem.
AMK: “Crap Shoot” is probably my favorite poem in the book. It unfolds with such graceful narrative detail (“Three of us shooting craps,” “instead of crumpled bills…an army man”), and then, suddenly, Mo running from the apartment, White Boy shooting him, and the speaker’s mother pulling him to safety, “her…fingers braceleted around my wrist.”
This fluidity of story telling is an aspect of narration that a young speaker could not possible access and, yet, the visuals in the poem are clearly seen through the eyes of a young boy. I’m wondering how you balance your adult voice with a childhood memory.
AM: Thanks for the kind words about the poem. “Crap Shoot” was culled from an extended nonfiction piece I wrote while I was in graduate school in Carbondale. The essay was a first person narrative from the perspective of a child. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the essay wasn’t any good. But there were some important, salvageable happenings in the narrative. Those moments became “Crap Shoot,” “English B,” “The Meaning of rpms,” and “Peace and Soul.” Writing that unsuccessful nonfiction essay resulted in some of meatier autobiographical poems forThe Devil’s Garden.
AMK: Is this poem intended as an interaction between these two perspectives…a sort of lyricism of story, memory, time, perspective?
AM: When I transformed the prose into a poem, I hoped to create a narrative about childhood that was bigger than our neighborhood or being broke. I hoped that there would be something in the happening—shooting craps, the community children create, the projection screen TV that my neighbors stole out of White Boy’s apartment after the poem ends—that would be resonant. I showed one of the early drafts of the poem to my mother and her response was, “That’s one way of remembering it.” It’s like Borges said, “Things belong to the past quite quickly.”
AMK: Do you think that when we talk about these poems we should discuss the narrator as a speaker or as you, Adrian Matejka, the poet speaking from his own experience?
AM: It can sometimes be difficult to differentiate the poet from the speaker when “I” is being used these days. I think the confusion partially comes from the solipsism license passed down by the confessionalists. When the poet’s internal diary becomes the point of the poem, rather than the place the diary inhabits within the poetic dialogue, we are left with little to work with as readers.
This muddy point of view can be problematic, but William Matthews said, “the ‘personal’ and ‘impersonal’ are intricately braided, and thus both difficult and perhaps not even useful to separate, in the way a craft—let’s say the craft of poetry—is practiced.” I believe him.
For the sake of accuracy, there needs to be a separation of poet and speaker in my poems. I’m not egocentric enough to believe the things that have happened to me are important enough on their own to hold the center of poems. I do believe they are connected somehow to things larger than me and while several of the poems in The Devil’s Garden had autobiographical germination, I was pretty liberal with the events within the text. I’d rather end up with an engaging poem that reframes the truth in some creative manner than a historical document.
AMK: What are your thoughts on biography, autobiography, and persona in contemporary poetry?
AM: I’m a big fan of biography as fulcrum for poetry. I really admire poets who find beauty and necessity in history. In the African-American literary scene, there are several writers who revisit history to reframe the poetic discussion. Poets like Tyehimba Jess, Quryash Ali Lansana, Marilyn Nelson, and Frank X. Walker utilize poetry as a space for historical discourse.
They seek a new view of important African American historical icons such as George Washington Carver, Leadbelly, and Harriet Tubman. Most of these poems are persona and the resultant work is in keeping with Adrienne Rich’s ideas of cultural definition. That is to say one’s definition should come from contrasting with the self, not from contrasting the oppressor. Right now, I’m working a project in this historic persona vein that centers on Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world. Hopefully, the end result will contribute something to this dialogue.
AMK: “Paris, Texas (1954)” is obviously not a poem about your own experience. Do you mind telling us a little bit about this speaker and where this poem came from?
AM: The genesis of the poem was a very depressing documentary about lynching I watched about 15 years ago. I don’t remember the title or much other content from the documentary, but I jotted down some notes at the time about the lynching that the poem refers to. I wrote the original draft of the poem from the notes.
When I later tried to find additional information about the specific lynching I referenced, I wasn’t able to. I’m not sure if I am a bad note-taker or if I looked in the wrong places, but I couldn’t find any mention of the events in 1954. I decided to borrow authority from Earnest Gaines’s Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitman and work the imaginary in a real setting. In the end, the poem became a hybrid of fact and fiction.
AMK: The last images in this poem are pretty intense. The heart beating outside its chest. The “skin in strips like bacon.” I think it’s impressive how the poem tells its story and conveys its message without an external voice, without injections, but with images that speak for themselves.
Are images your preferred method for speaking in such a way in a poem?
AM: Your question speaks to one of the primary concerns of the poem. When I decided to write from first person, I had massive problems with the kinetics of the poem—what the speaker would see, what he would hear in such a situation, etc. The event itself seemed to resist the narrative I thought would be necessary for context. Image seemed to be the best way to create the scene.
As I look at it now, the major shortcoming of “Paris, Texas (1954)” is the first person perspective. If I’d written it yesterday, I would have used shifting perspectives with more extravagant breaks to attend to a 3 dimensional sense of imagery, rather than a first person one. Maybe my 2008 approach wouldn’t have worked, but I had a hard time then and have an even harder time now figuring out how anyone—even the narrator I am trying to create sympathy for—would be able to take the described abuse and still remain lucid. At times the poem is successful. I think the end works, but some of the necessary narrative in the poem seems less effective to me now than it did when I wrote it.
AMK: Would you call this poem a poem of witness?
AM: I hope so. The fact that lynching and other racially-motivated atrocities, like what happened in 1998 to James Byrd, Jr., are still options for some people begs, the question of evolution. But if we insist that things are better without acknowledging the fact that things haven’t changed all that much for some corners of the population, then we’ve really lost it.
AMK: Thank you.
AM: Thank you. Keep doing what you are doing.