David Bowie, Travis Scott Inspired The Poems In This New Collection

Jul 29, 2021
Originally published on July 29, 2021 12:23 pm

When award-winning poet Adrian Matejka was working on his latest book last year, he thought we'd be out of the pandemic by the time it would be published.

The book, Somebody Else Sold The World, was released this month — and we're notably not out of the period that's been so difficult for so many of us.

"Every day seemed to be the same day and every day was so exhausting," Matejka says of 2020. "And I couldn't figure out how to lift myself out of that other than to write poems."

Each of his books usually takes the former poet laureate of Indiana several years; The Big Smoke, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, took eight years. And Matejka tends to look back when he writes; his last book Map to the Stars was all set in the 1980s. But Somebody Else Sold The World is different — it looks at the current moment, and Matejka wrote most of these poems in just eight months, between March and October of 2020.

Music plays a big role in the new book

"[The book] is about the pandemic. It's about the protests that happened and the way we responded to each other," he says. "It's also about music and the joy that music brings."

Music does play a huge role in the book. Matejka riffs off of songs by popular artists like Talking Heads, Travis Scott, and Lana Del Rey. All his verses follow a very apparent rhythm, like in this poem "Highest," motivated by Travis Scott's 2019 song "HIGHEST IN THE ROOM."

I am risen like the blood pressure of anybody

Black mimeographed in the textbook

of this monochromatic year. That's infant

mortality rate high. That's high-top fade high.

Adrian Matejka
Polina Osherov

"I think that other than poetry, music is the most direct conduit for emotion and memory," he says, pointing to moments when we hear a song and are transported back to the first time we heard it. "And so I think one of the things I was trying to do in this last year when things were so ambiguous was [try] to figure out ways to maintain memory."

Matejka, who used to be a DJ, spent a lot of time listening to archives of his favorite artists during the pandemic. And as a big fan of David Bowie's, one of the songs he kept returning to was "The Man Who Sold The World."

"It got stuck and was on play every day. And I realized that there was something inside of it that I needed to write about," he says. "So when I started writing about the song, it became clear to me that what I was really writing about was how the former president and his cabal sold all of us out during this pandemic."

The antagonists could be anyone

When writing about this betrayal, Matejka decided to make a play on the song's title and think about the different ways in which we all tend to sell the world. The "somebody" could be Donald Trump, or it could be his own neighbors — some of whom became more selfish during the pandemic. Sometimes, Matejka says, the "somebody" who sold the world is himself. It changes from poem to poem.

Eight poems in the book share this same title. Here's an excerpt from one of them:

...To be poor is to always

be blamed for your already

busted happenstance. There's

no changing that American

tradition now, not even during

a pandemic. Meanwhile,

the antagonists boat out

to their islands of isolation

& repose. Anything they need

is essential, while the rest of us

stay in place like furniture.

Matejka talks a lot about these "antagonists" throughout the book — the people who only think of themselves, leaving everyone else behind.

"And so when I was writing this book, I kept thinking of this word antagonist as something that was pretty malleable," Matejka says. "Sometimes when I'm using it, I'm thinking about the white supremacists who are around me. Sometimes, I'm thinking about the politicians who are enabling this behavior. Sometimes, I'm thinking about the people who were just being selfish and buying, you know, 9000 rolls of toilet paper."

The word's meaning changes all the time, because it's elastic. But even with antagonists all around us, there are moments we surprise ourselves with our generosity — moments Matejka uses rhyme and music to highlight. The book's last poem begins with the lines: "I'm trying to get as close to you as rough-printed fingers get to guitar strings". It is through his poetry and music that the poet reminds us — we can find joy in talking to each other, and reaching out to each other.

"I hope that people will read this book and remember that even though things were terrible and still are very difficult, that there is something on the other side of that," Matejka says. "I hope that the book is offering some optimism and some opportunities to think deeply about who we are and who we want to be."

This story was edited for radio by Reena Advani and adapted for the web by Jeevika Verma and Petra Mayer

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The pandemic has felt endless for so many of us.

ADRIAN MATEJKA: Every day seemed to be the same day, and every day was so exhausting. And I couldn't figure out how to lift myself out of that other than to write poems.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

That's Indiana's former poet laureate Adrian Matejka, who wrote a book called "Somebody Else Sold The World"

MATEJKA: "Somebody Else Sold The World" is about the pandemic. It's about the protests that happened and the way we responded to each other. It's also about music and the joy that music brings.

MCCAMMON: The poet riffs off of songs by musical artists like Talking Heads, Travis Scott and Lana Del Rey.

MATEJKA: I think that other than poetry, music is the most direct conduit for emotion and memory. And so I think one of the things I was trying to do in this last year when things were so ambiguous - right? - was I was trying to figure out ways to maintain memory.

MCCAMMON: As a former DJ and a big fan of David Bowie's, one of the songs Matejka kept returning to last year was "The Man Who Sold The World."

MATEJKA: It got stuck, and it was on play every day. And I realized that there was something inside of it that I needed to write about. So when I started writing about the song, it became clear to me that what I was really writing about was how the former president and his cabal sold all of us out during this pandemic.

INSKEEP: So he decided to play on that title and think about the ways in which we do tend to sell the world.

MATEJKA: Sometimes the somebody is me. Sometimes the somebody is the president. Sometimes the somebody is, you know, one of my neighbors.

INSKEEP: Eight poems share this book's title.

MATEJKA: (Reading) To be poor is to always be blamed for your already busted happenstance. There's no changing that American tradition now, not even during a pandemic. Meanwhile, the antagonists boat out to their islands of isolation and repose. Anything they need is essential, while the rest of us stay in place like furniture.

MCCAMMON: Matejka talks a lot about these, quote, "antagonists," people who only think of themselves, leaving everybody else behind, but it's the music in his poems that reminds us we can lift each other up. Adrian Matejka's new book is out now.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID BOWIE'S "THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.