Adrian Matejka’s most recent book is Somebody Else Sold the World. It stands out, breaks new ground for the writer, but at the same time is of a piece with the work of the poet who wrote Mixology. That was his second collection, and in many ways that—mixology—has always been his subject, his poetics, and his ground of being. Matejka moved something like thirty times in two years when he was very small. That was life in a military household, his dad’s service taking the family new places all through childhood, from Tacoma to Frankfurt to San Bernardino. That movement didn’t take away a love for place, for specific patches of earth, but instead heightened it—he would go on to write a collection called Map to the Stars, for instance, about Indianapolis, where he lived for years, treating it like Frank O’Hara treated New York, as the center of a world—and all that movement gave the poet a range of mind, and a range of music.

Survival does that. Especially survival as a person who has had to code-switch from the get-go. “I want dissimilar words, hyphenated,” he writes in the third poem of his first book. (Words like “dream-shaded” and “oil-embalmed” follow.) And though his “dissimilar words” seem almost always spoken in some particular and knowable place, the places he’s lived and loved and suffered thread into one another like hallucinations, and the “place” for this poet is ultimately the mind—or language itself. The “I” in his poems, meanwhile, seems more often than not to be synonymous with the person in the world called Adrian Matejka—except when it’s obviously not, like when he’s writing in the voice of the boxer Jack Johnson, as in his third collection The Big Smoke. All of which is to say, Matejka’s poems are inclined to speak of what it means to be a Black man of mixed descent, and this too, is what he means by Mixology.

Mixology is also a kind of musicology. A music hostile to purist thinking. A DJ’s set. Some of the poems in the newest collection, a gorgeous, urgent river of meditations called Somebody Else Sold the World, begin with epigraphs from artists like Future, Blood Orange, and Rhye. There’s a series of poems named “Gymnopédies” like the Erik Satie compositions, and the first section is even called “Sung Entropy.” Order and chaos, order of chaos. Isn’t that the magic of all great art? That it makes music of entropic reality? You can hear that music in any Matejka poem, but here’s one, for instance, called “It’s Just a Guess,” in the third section, a coruscating gathering of lines:

so the record diminuendos
on its own & the old notes
in the lead-out seem
less summary. The latch
relatching its familiar up
& in as the LP stops …

… and the poem that follows is about the blur of days and worlds in the life of a modern professional, and it ends like this:

       I guess
I’m doing fine, I say whispery
as static behind the door
I’m still closing. All nine
volts in the vocal cords went
out again, so there’s not
a lot to say while music
circles this way. Maybe
love is more vernacular
than secular anyway.

That cascading internal rhyme—say, way, may, and then, delayed until the final line, way—is signature Matejka. So is the concern for the meaning—or the definition—of love. (And I want a copy of the syllabus for the course this poet taught for years on rap and rhyme.) “I Say the Thing for the First Time” starts off like this:

& what comes after? Charcoal
underbone, some darkroom

for soliloquy …

That soliloquy, like most, is troubled like the age it’s uttered in. Matejka’s first book was called The Devil’s Garden, and with Somebody Else Sold the World, he bookends another cross-oeuvre concern: the moral shambles of our time and, by implication, anyone living in it. We’re in a world that’s been sold to the highest bidder, he seems to suggest, so our home might therefore also be described as the devil’s garden. Everyone complicit or apathetic or just unable to keep up. The newest collection makes clear again what a music of that overwhelmed situation might sound like. “Count to Five” begins:

I shouldn’t even be out,
squeezing into these melodic
habits as the afternoon
gets overcast & models-
in-waiting return snappable
heels, sunglasses on the tops
of their sun-kissed heads.
Everyone is masked
& somehow stays
beautiful in their buoyant
mantras. Nobody panics
except me. Nobody feels
out of place except me

… and part of why the voice feels, in this case, out of place is because he’s older, older than the people around him in the mall, that place of boredom and sales, for he’s “middle aged / as medieval script,” his “front jean pockets: / abundant with outmoded / dad things,” he can’t understand “masked interrogatives”—it’s a pandemic poem—and he’s caught, in his specific way, in the vertigo of these times:

A time that’s a little
stretched out like me,
uncertain in its assurances.

The mixedness of paradox—the uncertain and the assured, here melded in one line, modifying one another—stands for the mixedness of our being, and for Matejka, that is the meaning of the music.

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JESSE NATHAN: I’m interested in what kinds of things spark poems for you. Do you tend to see an image first? Hear a striking word, or a bit of language? Is it ever conceptual first?

ADRIAN MATEJKA: It’s wild, because everything I want to be as a poet is connected to the freedom of words and concepts. I’m not talking about craft, rigor, or history. I’m talking about dropping words on a page and realizing they’re almost iambic. It’s a creative thing. it’s a magical thing. It’s a capacious thing.

I love the poets for whom the world is a kind of grab bag of poetry. I’m thinking about Marie Howe or Yusef Komunyakaa or Frank O’Hara, where the time of day might invite a poem from them. Or the reflection of clouds in a lake. Or Charlie Parker doing Charlie Parker things. Any happening or detail can welcome a poem into the hearts of such magnanimous poets. Pablo Neruda’s Ode to Ordinary Things was supposedly written in response to a critic, but I like to imagine he was simply inspired by an artichoke’s striations and his gratitude for saltshakers. Poets like Neruda who seem to live on Poetry Time, where everything is cataloged by observations instead of minutes, are a marvel to me.

I’m not one of those poets. I wish I was. My inspirations and curiosities are more basic. And they change as I change over the years. But generally my poems start from a body memory that is so intense I can’t put it away. Sometimes it’s a fresh memory from ten minutes ago or two days ago. Other times it’s something I’ve been carrying around for years without really knowing what to do with it.

The carrying isn’t in response to whether the memory is joyful or traumatic; it’s about amplitude. Easy recollections like my first heartbreak or favorite church camp don’t usually yield interesting poems in part because they don’t require much self-reflection. To make a poem, I need to synergize the present version of myself with those more complicated, persistent memories. That’s where I can find new truths, even as “truth” is finicky in poetry.

There’s also an interdimensionality to this. My poems start in the body but are activated by external invitation. It might be a phrase or image that surprises me. The last paragraph of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” is the catalyst for a poem about my younger brother I’m still trying to figure out how to write. That’s Baldwin’s fault for being timelessly brilliant. But he also understood the syntax of music in a way that goes beyond the ear. It’s not words arranged so they seem like music. It’s words building octaves so you know they are music.

Musical riffs often elicit a poetic response from me. David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” was a catalyst for my last book, but there were other musicians in the conversation, too, who incited and inspired unfamiliar terrains for me: Gunna, Prince, Nina Simone, Dexter Gordon, Portishead, and so many others. It’s a pretty long playlist. I’ve been thinking a lot about the physicality of music, the way it manipulates our body via the eardrum. Same with spoken language, bird sounds, anything with its own rhythmic topography.

Maybe that’s why music (both internal and external) is such a consistent enabler of poetry for me. Music initiates the verse, which activates the body, which then creates more music in the form of poetry. I love revision, but I love improvisation even more. I try to let the circuit that poetry creates—between all of the things I am, have forgotten, and wish I could be—remain unbroken during the act of writing. Once I’ve got something that feels substantial enough, I put it away for a while. I revisit it when I’ve put some space between us, between the words and me. That’s the only way I can be sure the music on the page is reflecting the music I felt in my body while I was writing.