Adrian Matejka

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Headshot of a man.

Photo courtesy of Adrian Matejka

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Poet and NEA Big Read Author

Jack Johnson is an unlikely subject for a book of poetry. But that’s exactly what poet and NEA Big Read author Adrian Matejka did when he wrote The Big Smoke-- a collection of 52 poems about Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight world champion. He held the title from 1908 to 1915 when Jim Crow ruled and white America was outraged—by Johnson’s holding the title, certainly; but, also by his propensity to live large and live large with a white wife. White America called for “a great white hope” to take the title from Johnson, and that “hope” emerged when boxer Jim Jeffries comes out of retirement to take up the challenge. The Big Smoke follows Johnson’s journey from the son of formerly-enslaved parents to the victor in the ”fight of the century” against Jeffries through the perspective of Johnson himself and occasional observations of three women who figure prominently in his life. In this podcast, Adrian Matejka takes us through his interest in Johnson and boxing (spoiler: it was his mother who introduced him to both!), reaching across a century to find Johnson’s voice and the music he finds in poetry.