There’s a song that recurs in “Sesame Street” called “One of These Things.” The lyrics might be familiar: “One of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn’t belong.”
When Adrian Matejka won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2014 for his poetry collection The Big Smoke, it placed Matejka in the company of literary luminaries such as Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes, Zadie Smith, Maxine Hong Kingston, August Wilson, Louise Erdrich and lifetime achievement winners like Oprah and Martin Luther King Jr.
Matejka said “One of These Things” came to mind, because that’s exactly how he felt: “one of those doesn’t belong there, and it’s clearly me.”
Matejka said to be part of that coterie is an honor, and it’s one he’ll run with.
It’s also an honor that will bring him to Chautauqua. Matejka and Karen Long of the Cleveland Foundation will give a presentation on the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards at 3:30 p.m. July 3 in the Hall of Philosophy. The event is presented in partnership with the Cleveland Foundation and the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle.
The Cleveland Foundation is serving as presenting sponsor of Week Six programming at Chautauqua, and Long, who manages the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, said that helped inspire the book presentation.
“We looked around our shop to see where some of the exciting thinking happens,” Long said. “And of course, I’m a big proponent that the best and exciting thinking happens around the Anisfield-Wolf books themselves.”
The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards are meant to celebrate books that further people’s thinking on race and diversity, Long said. In a story from NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday called “Why the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards Are Good for You,” host Linda Wertheimer said the prize is often known as “the black Pulitzer Prize.”
According to the Anisfield-Wolf website, the awards were founded by Cleveland’s Edith Anisfield-Wolf in 1935. Anisfield-Wolf was a poet and philanthropist, and the award that bears her name is the only major literary award that directly addresses issue of race and diversity.
“Like all great radical ideas, it often boils down to one person, and that was Edith Anisfield-Wolf, who pooled her family fortune behind this,” Long said.
Long said Matejka made a strong impression when he visited Cleveland after winning the award in 2014, and she felt he’d be the perfect fit to present with her at Chautauqua. The two will discuss Matejka’s work as well as the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards.
Besides winning the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, Matejka’s The Big Smoke was also nominated for the 2013 National Book Award and 2014 Pulitzer Prize. Matejka said he’ll read a few poems from the collection for the presentation.
The Big Smoke is inspired by the boxer Jack Johnson, the first black world heavyweight boxing champion. Matejka is a boxing fan — “one of the few boxing fans left” — and the idea for the collection came from memories of watching boxing with his mother when he was a child.
They would watch the fights, Matejka said, and his mother would get really into it. When a fighter would lose, she’d say they were “no Jack Johnson.” She never told Matejka precisely who Johnson was, only that these other fighters weren’t him.
“And so in my head, I had this version of this fighter who never lost, because clearly he couldn’t have lost — my mom was always talking about how the guy that lost was not him,” Matejka said.
As he began researching, Matejka said he realized this image he had in his head was largely true: Johnson rarely lost a fight, and he was blown away by how someone like him could even exist, let alone be hugely successful, in the Jim Crow era.
“I was just like, ‘Who is this guy?’ ” Matejka said. “ ‘How could he exist in 1908? How is that a possibility?’ ”
Johnson had initially planned on writing an essay about watching boxing with his mother when he started researching Johnson, but much of what he found made him realize he should write a poetry collection instead.
“So much of the work that went into that book was a result of surprise,” Matejka said. “I didn’t know, and I was learning. So the learning and synthesizing of that information lent itself to a book of poems. That’s what poems do: they help us make sense of the world.”
Matejka said it’s crazy to think about the small moments that inspired The Big Smoke for him — those mornings of watching boxing with his mother.
“My mom gave me everything,” Matejka said. “So to think about of all the things she gave me, these Saturday afternoons watching boxing are among the most long-lasting of those moments.”
Matejka said it makes him think about the moments he shares with his daughter: what she’ll remember, what her version will be.
“It’s wild to think about the way we carry these things with us, too, these little bits and pieces that we’re collecting all the time,” Matejka said.
And while The Big Smoke is a few years behind him now, Matejka said he still thinks about Johnson and the very American ideology he embodied.
“I think Jack Johnson is a great example of how you don’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” Matejka said. “This man — everything around him was telling him no. His parents were slaves. You can’t get any farther down than that. He started from the very bottom. And he willed himself to be a star, he willed himself to be the greatest athlete of his time. And the whole time, people were telling him no.”
Matejka will also read from his upcoming poetry collection, Map to the Stars, which is set to be released in April 2017. The poems in Map to the Stars are inspired by astronomy and growing up in Indianapolis, Matejka said.
The poems are also inspired by a formative part of his adolescence, Matejka said. His life changed when his mother married his stepdad — he went from living in subsidized housing to living in a suburb, he said.
“It was extreme — the shift from all of us waiting until Friday because we knew there would be food, to living in this place of excess,” Matejka said. “It took me a really long time to get around to writing those poems, because it’s a drag to be poor. I didn’t want to think about that — I didn’t want to go back to thinking about being hungry and things like that. So that took me awhile.”
Both Matejka and Long said they felt like the subject matter of Map to the Stars would be a good fit for a week at Chautauqua centered on “The Future of Cities.”
Long said Matejka’s poetry offers readers “a proximity to beauty,” and she thinks the perspective he’ll bring to their conversation is an important one.
“He has this beautiful mind that positions itself, I think, uniquely in the world, to think about some of the questions we all think about in cities,” Long said.
Matejka said he hopes people come away from the presentation curious about the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. He said it’s brought many different books to his attention and “new ideas and opportunities” for him as a reader — something other readers may be interested in as well.
“I think it’s a great gift,” Matejka said. “I would be saying this even if I wasn’t doing something with them. It’s a really terrific award in its intentions.”