Adrian Matejka reflects on cruelty as manifested in American institutions, history, private lives, and the public realm of the past year. He opens with Ai’s invocation of the human hunger for violence (“Cruelty”), Lucille Clifton’s deft blending of imagery and wisdom (“cruelty. don’t talk to me about cruelty”), and Al Young’s meditation on American cruelty as it begins with slavery (“The Slave Ship Desire”). To close, Matejka reads his poem “Somebody Else Sold the World,” which considers the complexities of cruelty in the context of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020.
You can also watch a 2016 reading by Adrian Matejka on Voca.
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Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:00:02.52] Welcome back to Poetry Centered, where we invite a contemporary poet to curate and introduce recorded poetry readings from Voca, the University of Arizona Poetry Center's online audiovisual archive. In each episode, you'll hear three poems from the archive plus a poem from the host. I'm Julie Swarstad Johnson, here to welcome you to the show.
[00:00:26.01] We'll hear today from poet Adrian Matejka, author of four previous collections of poetry who had two brand new books come out over the summer. Somebody Else Sold the World, his newest collection of poetry and Standing On the Verge and Maggot Brain, which is visual art and poetry inspired by Funkadelic. He's the Ruth Lilly professor of poetry at Indiana University, Bloomington. In this episode, Adrian reflects on the reality of cruelty as it runs through American institutions, history, private lives, and the public sphere. He traces these ideas through recordings by Ai, Lucille Clifton, and Al Young. Adrian, thank you for being with us today.
[00:01:09.87] Peace everybody, this is Adrian Matejka and I'm recording from the Bates Hendricks neighborhood of Indianapolis, Indiana. It's wild that the last year of isolation and sheltering in place made me think about my friends and my neighbors differently than I had before. Having to stay separate from them, I mean, for their good as well as mine has made me think about compassion and about cruelty differently. And thinking about all of this too, framed by the general absence of citizenship and empathy in a lot of Americans.
[00:01:43.94] I'm thinking about the day to day microaggressions, and usual racism, and how differently they play now, while everyone has been living separately for a while. I mean one of the only good things about isolation was I had a little more space to think about the American institutions. They are often cruel, almost always, but for anyone who's ever relied on assistance from the state, it's a bureaucratic kind of spitefulness.
[00:02:09.62] I mean it's still awful, it's still humiliating, but it can sometimes be offset by the empathy of the people who work inside of it. Parts have been speaking about this kind of thing forever, the possible brutalities and the people who resist those brutalities. So I wanted to share a few poems that meditate on our inherent cruelty by some of my favorite poets.
[00:02:33.83] The first poem I want to share is called, Cruelty by Ai, and it was recorded September 13, 1972. Ai is a Japanese word for love, which is wonderful, and a sonic, and metaphoric level, but especially beautiful, since the poet herself often talked about the general sentimentality of love while she was rejecting it and the romantic traditions it inspires. She was much more interested in the other side of things, those possibilities and bleaknesses of the human condition.
[00:03:01.61] This particular poem is a testament to that, as is the book it comes from, which was also called Cruelty. And everybody should read it if they get the chance, it's brilliant and also very harrowing experience. I was more interested in those places where our capacities for violence intersect with our hunger and our need. She was one of the first poets I read to and it was before I understood what persona was, or what kind of opportunities persona, as a mode, gives us for exploration outside of ourselves.
[00:03:33.28] I think the word unflinching gets overused and blurbs in introductions, but a poet has to be flinch resistant to write a poem that includes lines like, the thing I want most is hard running toward my own teeth and it bites back. What sounds, I mean what clarity of rough intent. Here is Ai reading her poem Cruelty.
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[00:04:01.52] Cruelty. I'm very obsessed with the cruelty of human beings to others, and to animals, and to themselves, and lots of my poems are about there. And especially, the perversion of sex. I never write love poems unless they're about the perversion of love, I can't. Because I'll be too sentimental if you just wrote about love.
[00:04:29.18] Cruelty. The hoof marks on the dead wildcat gleam in the dark, you are naked as you drag it up on the porch, that won't work either. Drinking ice water hasn't or having the bed-springs snap fingers to help us keep rhythm, because I've never once felt anything that might get close. Can't you see the thing I want most is hard, running toward my own teeth, and it bites back.
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[00:05:07.40] Almost anybody who's heard me talk about poetry has probably heard me talk about my love for Lucille Clifton's work. And particularly the second poem I want to share with you all, which doesn't have a title. It's just called Cruelty, Don't Talk to Me About Cruelty. This version was recorded October 12, 1983.
[00:05:25.94] Like so many of Ms. Clifton's poems, cruelty is an elegant balance of wisdom and imagery. She mentions it herself in the introduction to the poem, and I'd like to repeat what she said. She said that this poem is aware of the complications and dangers each person is capable of. I think that that speaks to her entire body of work really, she's deeply invested in the tensions, like the moral, and ethical, and intellectual tensions we all carry.
[00:05:54.91] I love her use of the word, capable in the poem, because it comes from the Latin, accipere, which means take or hold. In the poem, Clifton makes legible just how tenuous our moral hold on goodness is. She's one of the rarest of poets, the kind whose work is poetic in perspective, as well as language.
[00:06:14.02] And in my pantheon of best poetry endings ever, "Now I watch myself whenever I enter a room, I never know what I might do," is right there with the end of Robert Hayden's, Those Winter Sundays and Yusef Komunyakaa’s Thanks. That's how you in the poem, that's how you lock the door on any excuse we might have for our actions and eventual cries for forgiveness. Here's Lucille Clifton reading her poem. Cruelty, Don't Talk to Me About Cruelty
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[00:06:46.99] This is the next to the last one. And what this is about is, I'm very hard to surprise, that's the first thing. And I never think about the awfulness that happens with humans as over there, because that allows you to keep it over there. And I always know that there is in me, the possibility to be Hitler and the possibility to be something else, Mother Teresa. This is a poem something, I think it's about that, cruelty, don't talk to me about cruelty or what we are capable of.
[00:07:34.95] When I wanted the roaches dead, I wanted them dead and I killed them. I took a broom to their country, and I smashed, and sliced, without warning, without stopping, and I smiled all the time I was doing it. It was a Lebanon of roaches. Bodies, parts of bodies, red all over the ground. I didn't ask their names, they had no names worth knowing. Now I watch myself whenever I enter a room, I never know what I might do.
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[00:08:20.12] The last poem I want to share doesn't include cruelty in its moniker, even though the poem is a manifestation of the kinds of cruelty both Ai and Lucille Clifton talked about in their poems. It's called, The Slave Ship Desire, by Al young, and it was recorded in 1997. Before I say a little bit about the poem, I want to talk about the poet.
[00:08:40.82] Al Young died on April 17, 2021, at the age of 81. I was fortunate to study with him at Cave Canem back in 2002 and 2003. Among the many things I learned from him, is how history is always bigger than us no matter what we think we might be doing. He gave me some advice once about revising the beginning of a poem and I'd like to share it with you. He said and this is paraphrased but it's almost a direct quote.
[00:09:08.10] He said, "You're born while everything's already happened, so why not start the poem there." I love that advice and I'm so grateful for everything I learned from Al Young. His poems are preoccupied with history and music and all the different variations possible in language. He was a living jazz solo really, as anyone who met him can attest to, as he was constantly improvising lineation and imagery, and playing with sounds.
[00:09:36.76] I'm so glad I get to share The Slave Ship Desire with you, because it's an example of so many of the things I love in Al Young's work. His brilliant ear, his wit, his humility inside of history, and always his awareness of just how cruel people can be to one another. In this case, that cruelties illustrated by all of the brutalities that were held inside of the first American built slave ship, piled high, groaning, in fact, beneath the strains of expectations that somebody in Boston named "Desire." Here's Al Young reading the Slave Ship Desire.
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[00:10:18.76] When I was doing the research for this volume here called African-American literature which is a textbook, which first time I've done anything like that came out last year, and it seems to be doing quite well. I made a discovery, I don't know, how the study eluded me before some of you out there probably already know this. But I found out that the first ship bringing in a commercial load of slaves in the Boston Harbor when the slave that kicked off the American slave trade, North American slave trade, 1638 was Named "Desire.”
[00:10:56.82] And I was-- poems runs across something like that, and I say, well, I got to write something about that. And I was looking for an epigraph to frame it and I couldn't find one, so I had to quote myself from the introduction to that book, African-American Literature says, "As for the New England slave trade, which along with rum and opium, turned the kind of get-rich-quick profits and its day that international drug trafficking does now. That industry would not be launched until 1638, when the first Africans arrived in Boston on the slave ship, Desire.
[00:11:39.56] Human cargoes, what we're talking here, a boat piled high groaning, in fact, beneath the strain of expectation factored in. On board, stuff hogged up space turned soon to be. Straight ahead and bright, the salt sweet taste of sweat and sacrifice, you couldn't spit it out. Like opium, gold, and Rome, like land enough to grow bigger eyes than food gone belly up, the money is there.
[00:12:16.91] Like sugar or tobacco, crack cash crops then as now, like coal, September wheat, October cocoa, like unslit pot bellies, like Jesus crossed with sex and shoot them ups, like Anglo Franco Banco American futures. Desire the boat, streetcars still to come, where human beings won't cross roads, get jammed, get all tied up. Whoever blocks escape routes gets locked in too. No exit signs shine just fine in the dark and anger blows. Picture a boat that crowds you oversize, a load of whoa there is no way around, a slave ship named Desire."
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[00:13:25.05] It feels a little funny to share one of my poems after talking about Ai, and Lucille Clifton, and Al Young, three incomparable poets from whom I've learned and borrowed so much. But I'd like to read one of my own poems that I hope is asking some of the same questions about our human capacities as they ask. The poem is called, "Somebody Else Sold the World" and it's part of a cycle from a book with that same title.
[00:13:51.66] Both the poem and the book reflect the anxiety, and violence, and preventable damage that happened during the pandemic. I should say is still happening since we're still struggling with it. The poem also reflects on the protests and the curfews we had here in Indianapolis after George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many other Black women and men were murdered by the police.
[00:14:18.87] Somebody else sold the world. And before I knew it, the violet sky was flagged with the sun's violent demand for magnolias in bloom, natural light, any place magnanimous without locks or doors, different kinds of masks for being and breathing. The antagonists with their vanity tans and usual mischiefs whistle jingles about liberties and war, while we buttoned up in our confinement and dreamed about hugging.
[00:14:45.27] We talked about was and when we missed our friends and dentist appointments. Molders dropped out without breathable air, hair forgot its natural colors without testimonies at intersections and barbecues, words lost their family recipes, friends lost their words then lost their parents. Amassed few found love somehow and the gerrymandered grocery lines and farmer's fields upturned with unsalable vegetables.
[00:15:11.20] So the antagonist cornered the curfews, manufacturing arguments with guns at the ready like henchmen, there around us was so ripe, it might have broken in half if we could touch it. [MUSIC PLAYING]
Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:15:33.27] Adrian, thank you so much for choosing those poems and for giving us so many different vantage points on this hard topic. Listeners, thank you for being here with us. We hope you'll check out the show notes to explore the full recordings by these poets, they're absolutely phenomenal. Two weeks from now we'll be back with a new episode hosted by Adam O. Davis. If you're enjoying the show, we hope you'll leave us a review, or a rating, or share us with a friend. Thanks again for joining us.
Diana Marie Delgado:
[00:16:03.28] Poetry Centered is a project of the University of Arizona Poetry Center, home to a world-class library collection of more than 80,000 items related to contemporary poetry in English and English translation. Located on the campus of the University of Arizona in Tucson, the Poetry Center library and buildings are housed on the indigenous homelands of the Tohono O'odham people. Poetry Centered is the work of Diana Marie Delgado, that's me, and Julie Swarstad Johnson, with support from
[00:16:33.49] Sarah Gzemski
Diana Marie Delgado:
[00:16:35.38] Explore Voca, the Poetry Center's audiovisual archive online at voca.arizona.edu.