This Thursday, the Binghamton Center for Writers hosted its first event of the semester — a Distinguished Writers Series reading from award-winning poet Adrian Matejka. Matejka is a professor of English at Indiana University Bloomington and is known for his award-winning collections of poetry inspired by hip-hop and Black American history. His 2009 work “Mixology” was selected for the National Poetry Series, and 2013’s “The Big Smoke” was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Thursday’s event had Matejka reading from his most recent book, “Somebody Else Sold the World,” which is out now and published by Penguin Random House.
“We’re honored to host Adrian Matejka as our Distinguished Writer this spring,” said Tina Chang, director of creative writing at Binghamton University, associate professor of English and host of the reading. “[Our] series features nationally and internationally recognized writers as we bring the world’s most influential thinkers and writers to the BU community.”
The Distinguished Writers Series has continued to bring talent from across the literary world to BU, even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the series shifted to a Zoom format, writers such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jericho Brown and poet and essayist Cathy Park Hong have spoken to BU students. Matejka’s reading was the latest of the many events shifted onto Zoom as a precautionary measure, something he found fitting regarding the content of his most recent book.
“I wrote [‘Somebody Else Sold the World’] during the pandemic, though I never imagined that we’d still be in it — the third, fourth iteration — by the time it finally came out,” Matejka said.
According to Matejka, this idea of writing during a crisis underscores the collection.
“The whole book was an overflow, one of the only ways I was able to hold off anxiety and depression and everything that my friends and family were going through,” Matejka said.
While pandemic-era anxieties are a major focus of the poems, so too was Matejka’s collection of music that kept him company throughout the confusion.
“My relationship with listening — to music and to poems — has evolved as well,” Matejka said. “Because [the pandemic] was so quiet, everything seemed amplified to me. The silence was loud.”
Among the poems included in the collection is “Highest,” inspired by and in conversation with Travis Scott’s 2019 song “HIGHEST IN THE ROOM.” Matejka also cited rappers like Future and Gunna, as well as rock musicians like David Bowie and Portishead as essential to his creative process. As a professor, Matejka teaches a class on hip-hop history and poetry and finds the two mediums very interconnected.
Another notable poem in the collection is “Bullet Parts,” a long piece inspired by the school shooting in Parkland, Florida in 2018. The poem is divided into several structurally distinct sections, each with a heading named after a part of the bullet. Matejka read part of the poem, titled “Primer (Brass + Lead),” at Thursday’s reading and described the difficulty he had dealing with and writing about the extreme violence he feels is unique to America.
“The question [of the whole book] really is ‘Who sold the world?’ and each of these poems, in their own way, tries to answer that question,” Matejka said.
In times of chaos and confusion, poets, like the rest of us, have had to adapt — be it with readings on Zoom, difficulty separating work from home or simply more time for introspection. Matejka’s reading and collection show that even difficult times come with new opportunities to share and create meaningful art. The Distinguished Writers Series seeks to make the most out of a difficult situation, and even now keeps the tradition of sharing the arts and writing alive in BU’s campus community.