'The Big Smoke' Author Reads Poems About Boxer Jack Johnson at Murray State

Apr 1, 2015

Credit The Big Smoke book cover, adrianmatejka.com

Update: This reading was rescheduled to April 2, due to winter weather in February. This conversation was re-broadcast on Sounds Good, April 1.

In 2013, Penguin Books published Adrian Matejka's book about the flamboyant boxer Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world who held the title from 19088 to 1915. The book received the 2014 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award recognizing its important contribution to the understanding of racism and human diversity. Writing for Boston.com of The Boston Globe, John Freeman says that Matejka's voice is that of the boxer: "The gold-toothed, Shakespeare-loving, womanizing child of ex-slaves talks jive, taunts opponents, and muses philosophical about the American condition: 'When I clinch a man/it's like being swaddled in forgiveness.'" Kate Lochte visited with Matejka about The Big Smoke ahead of his reading Thursday night at Murray State.

Adrian Matejka's book of poetry, The Big Smoke, is mostly written in the voice of America's first black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, and partly in the voices of his wife and two lovers. Matejka says, "Somebody like Jack Johnson and his story is so dramatic and it's such a tragedy... on it's own, that writing about it is really more like documenting than imagining."

He spent two years researching Johnson before writing poems to make sure he could "earn the right" to write about him, by learning enough about his life and personality. Writing poems in the voice of his wife Etta were especially difficult in the instances of domestic violence, he says. Writing about the violence in a boxing ring wasn't as difficult because to an extent it felt sanctioned and under control, but outside of the ring - in the home - that was a challenge.

Though Johnson loved Etta, he had two other women in his life, Belle and Hattie, both former prostitutes who left their profession to be his mistresses. What was especially notable about this at the time was that the women were white. Matejka says interracial relationships 100 years ago would have been generally considered taboo in both black and white communities. Johnson and his lovers would get booed at restaurants and only certain hotels would let them stay - even still charging more for a room.

The poems tell more of a love story than a boxing career. Centered around Johnson and Etta, Matejka says these were two people who people who loved each other but couldn't deal with their emotions in the right way. He likens their story to that of the tragic tale of Romeo and Juliet, but with race as a division.

Indiana University, Bloomington faculty member and writer Adrian Matejka reads poems from his most recent book, The Big Smoke, about boxer Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world, in Murray on Thursday. His presentation is at 7:30 p.m. at Murray State's Clara M. Eagle Gallery on the sixth floor of the Price Doyle Fine Arts building at 15th and Olive.