Adrian Matejka

Poet and NEA Big Read Author
Headshot of a man.

Photo courtesy of Adrian Matejka

Music Credit: “NY” written and performed by Kosta, from the album Soul Sand. Used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

Adrian Matejka: The man could have left his house, gotten murdered, and nobody would have said a word. There was such an inattention to the lives of black people and such a disregard for their value that having somebody like Jack Johnson in a lot of ways, especially later, became dangerous for other black people because they couldn’t get to him. So, they would take it out on other black people.

Jo Reed: That’s poet and NEA Big Read author Adrian Matejka and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. Jack Johnson is an unlikely subject for a book of poetry, but that’s exactly what Adrian Matejka did with “The Big Smoke,” a collection of 52 poems about Johnson, the first African American Heavyweight World Champion. He had the title from 1908 to 1915 when Jim Crow ruled and blacks were killed throughout the country with impunity. Johnson was a bon vivant who lived large, a flashy dresser who drove flashier cars, hung out in nightclubs, and took up with many different women, marrying three times, all white women. His lifestyle infuriated white America, but his winning the title enraged them. So, they called for a great white hope. The boxer Jim Jeffries came out of retirement to fight Johnson. “The Big Smoke” explores Johnson’s journey from the son of former slaves to the champion of the fight of the century against Jeffries. Adrian Matejka book won the Anisfield-Wolf Prize, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and it’s an NEA Big Read title. Adrian Matejka teaches in the MFA program at Indiana University in Bloomington. He’s published three other collections, including “The Devil’s Garden,” which won the New York/New England Award, “Mixology,” winner of the National Poetry Series, and most recently “Map to the Stars.” I spoke to Adrian Matejka about “The Big Smoke” when we were in pandemic shutdown and I wanted to know where did he get the idea to write a book of poetry about Jack Johnson.

Adrian Matejka: I didn’t really know much about Jack Johnson at all when I started the project. I had first heard about him through my mother. My mother was a big boxing fan and we used to watch the fights when I was a kid. This was in the 70s when boxing was still on TV. So, we would sit there on a Saturday afternoon and watch Ken Norton or watch Muhammad Ali or George Foreman, the era of great heavyweights and my mother was a very animated fan and if the person she was cheering for didn’t win, she would say “Forget that guy, he’s no Jack Johnson,” but she didn’t say forget. She said something a little bit more pointed and so, she’d bring up this guy Jack Johnson all the time in that context and I just never knew who he was. Then, I don't know, maybe 2005, I saw a picture of him and all of this came back, like “Wait a minute, that’s the guy, the guy that my mother used to reference,” and so, I thought I was going to write an essay about learning to love boxing through my mom. But the more I researched Jack Johnson for that essay, the more I realized that his story was really valuable and much more important than the essay that I was working on. I thought I’d write a few poems, but it didn’t seem like I was doing the work his story deserved and so, through that, it became a book.

Jo Reed: Tell me about the research you did because you really take in the scope of his life.

Adrian Matejka: Yeah. I’m a great admirer of historically based fiction and poetry and one of the things that those wonderful books, like Natasha Tretheway’s “Native Guard” or Tyehimba Jess’ “Leadbelly” or Michael Ondaatje, “Coming Through Slaughter,” those kinds of books where they’re grounded in a time in place. One thing that they all had in common was kind of authenticity and honesty about the experiences of the protagonists and so, when I started thinking about writing about Jack Johnson, I didn’t want to walk into his story without fully understanding as much as I could about where the story took place. It seemed to me that in order to be respectful of the life that this man lived, I needed to know as much about him and as much about the time as I could. It’s one thing to make up a story. Novelists do it all the time. They take little bits and pieces of their lives. Poets do it all the time and they’re able to kind of weave a narrative and create a world that’s believable and valuable. I needed to be able to do all of that, but because he actually did these things, I felt like it would have been disrespectful to not really focus on the events as they happened. So, I spent about two years researching Jack Johnson, his biography, the time he lived in, boxing at that time, all of that before I even wrote a poem and I continued to research the entire time I was writing the book. So, it took me eight years total to write.

Jo Reed: Wow.

Adrian Matejka: I was researching the whole time.

Jo Reed: I’m always curious about that leap from research to writing. Was it difficult to navigate for you or were you eager to get into the writing by the time you started doing the poetry?

Adrian Matejka: It was difficult, in part because everything I had written before “The Big Smoke,” they were poems or essays and the speaker was always a variation of me and so, there’s a kind of a permission there and there’s a latitude that I felt like I could permit myself while writing that kind of poem. But Jack Johnson is a different thing entirely. So, what I was afraid of was not so much the leap from all of the material I collected to-- sort of the codification of that, the imaginary world that would be created from it. The thing I was worried about was just getting it wrong. So, I just was so intense early trying to make sure that I was-- if it happened in 1910, then it happened in 1910 in the poem. So, caught up with that early that I think some of the first poems I wrote were more like essays or newspaper reports than actual poems. So, it wasn’t until I gave myself the permission to open up a little bit poetically and to start thinking about these as stories that Jack Johnson might have told that it really clicked and then all of the research was already in there scrolling around. I can’t remember anything anymore. Like, I have such a bad memory now, but for some reason, back when I was working on this book, bits and pieces of his biography, facts about Chicago, those kinds of things embedded themselves in my brain in a way that allowed me to eventually just write without going back to look at my notes, without going back to double-check and there were only a few times that I got it wrong and I caught those while I was copy editing. So, it was a really transformative experience and it took me a long time to get out of that mindset. After I wrote the book, when I finished the project, “What can I do next? I want to write about astronomy. Where were the black astronomers? Benjamin Banneker was a black astronomer. I’m going to write about him.” I immediately wanted to go back into that research and creation, but decided not to because it took so long to figure out how to write a poem again that approximated my own voice after working on this book.

Jo Reed: Well, yeah. Most of “The Big Smoke” is narrated through Jack Johnson’s voice. Was that difficult for you to find once you decided that that’s what you were going to do?

Adrian Matejka: Yes. It was really difficult and it goes back to this conversation about research. I had about, I think, 20-22 primary texts for this book and then probably another 15 secondary texts and I was lucky because there were-- Jack Johnson wrote a couple of autobiographies and there were recordings of him talking and he had a pretty extensive archive to play with, but what I found was there was an incredible amount of inconsistency in his voice as it was rendered places. So, Ken Burns created this documentary called “Unforgiveable Blackness” and it’s based on a biography of Jack Johnson by Geoffrey Ward. All of the quotes that are in the documentary come from Jack Johnson’s autobiography and they were ghostwritten in French and then translated into English. So, if you can imagine all of those steps, the voice that’s in the autobiographies doesn’t sound anything like him. He sounds like an English professor and then in the newspapers, there would be these kind of vaudeville versions of him “I shows is happy to be...” this kind of ridiculous vernacular that was nothing like he sounded because they wanted him to seem ignorant. So, on one side, you’re getting this journalistic version of Jack Johnson that’s like a vaudeville version. On another side, you’ve got this version of him that’s so incredibly erudite that it would have been impossible, simply because he quit school in third grade, and somewhere in the middle is who he really sounded like. So, it took me a long time to find that middle ground and he was a brilliant man. He was witty, adaptable, and really, really intelligent. He spoke Italian, but he taught himself Italian. He played classical viol, but he taught himself that. He used to quote Shakespeare and Kipling in these books, but it was all things that he took it upon himself to learn. So, to try to find a voice that’s that self-made inside of these other documents took a while. The best way I can explain it is when I finally figured it out, the whole story opened up. Everything else made sense.

Jo Reed: Well, why don’t we have an example of that, of Jack Johnson’s voice as you captured him in “The Big Smoke?” I’m thinking about “Mouth Fighting.”

Adrian Matejka: I really like that poem. One of the things that I learned while I was writing this is that there were all these phrases that didn’t carry over. I know there’s a name for that. I’ve forgotten it now, but phrases that have come and gone in fashion. We call it trash talking now, but mouth fighting is that very same thing. “Mouth Fighting”-- sometimes the fight is over before we even split the ropes, fighter’s glass jaw, the cut of his costume, the absence of pretty women and his entourage, all fair game for the mouth fighting. Never mothers or children, never wives or crippled relatives or women at all unless they’re sporting women. There’s always something else to talk about. A civilized mouth fight is about making a fighter wild and as soon as I can tell he’s listening, I know I’ve won. Yellow fighters like Tommy Burns want to tear out when the talk starts. You can see their knees knocking as clearly as spoons in a vaudeville show. Others lose composure and that’s when it’s over. How is a fighter supposed to think about defensin’ when he’s trying to get at me by whatever means necessary. That’s why the mouth is the most devastating weapon and mine? Mine shines to high Heaven every time it takes a swing.

Jo Reed: That is such a wonderful poem. It also reminds me of Muhammad Ali, obviously.

Adrian Matejka: Yeah.

Jo Reed: And boy, it tells you so much about the character of Jack Johnson.

Adrian Matejka: Yeah. It’s funny that you mentioned Muhammad Ali because he talked about Jack Johnson quite a bit and one of the things that he said was that he modeled his style of talking trash after Jack Johnson. Poems he would recite and things like that, it was all an emulation of Jack Johnson. He also said that Jack Johnson might have been the greatest heavyweight of them all, but he was also crazy is what Muhammad Ali said. I wish I had the exact quote, but he said something to the effect of “Jack Johnson is around after slavery, running around in fine clothes and married to a white woman. Black Panther Party isn’t here. There isn’t anybody to protect this man and he’s out here running around like that. He must be crazy.” There’s some truth to that, right? There’s some truth to the fact that he was living a kind of life that is really impossible. It doesn’t make any sense that Jack Johnson existed, someone who is that ahead of their time. I mean, he’s a 21st Century athlete and he’s got the gold teeth and splendid clothing, fast cars, and all of these women, but he’s just like athletes now in 1910, like one generation after slavery. So, it doesn’t make sense.

Jo Reed: No, of course, and it’s impossible to talk about him without talking about Jim Crow America and that that existed in this time when people were being lynched very regularly.

Adrian Matejka: Absolutely. Absolutely. The man could have left his house, gotten murdered, and nobody would have said a word. There was such an inattention to the lives of black people and such a disregard for their value that having somebody like Jack Johnson around in a lot of ways, especially later, became dangerous for other black people because they couldn’t get to him. So, they would take it out on other black people. That happened quite a bit. After he beat Jim Jeffries, there was an event in, I think, West Virginia. A black man was driving through a town in a car and they pulled him out of his car and lynched him. He didn’t look anything like Jack Johnson, but he was a black man in a car after Jack Johnson had just beaten the greatest of great white hopes and I don’t think that Jack Johnson really thought about that part of it. I mean, he was pretty self-centered. There’s a phrase we talk about people like W.E.B Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. We talk about people who were race men, people who were there to uplift the race and Jack Johnson wasn’t really that and for that reason, Booker T. Washington hated him. W.E.B Du Bois didn’t really care one way or another, I don’t think. But Booker T. Washington, all over his correspondence, he just did not like Jack Johnson because he’s the exact opposite of what Mr. Washington was suggesting that black people should do.

Jo Reed: Let me ask you this, Adrian. From the beginning, you knew that these poems were not going to be standalones, but rather interconnected fragments that told Johnson’s story. Did you decide that pretty early on?

Adrian Matejka: Yeah. You know what? I did. In fact, I mean, it was in tandem with the realization that this was one book of a two-book project too. So, there was a lot that became clear to me early. It just didn’t seem like any one poem could do the work-- codifying Jack Johnson? How do you embody someone with such a complex and wonderful history in one poem? So, I spread it out. I thought maybe five poems would do it. It still didn’t. So, once I got to that point where a cycle couldn’t do the trick, it seemed clear that it needed to be a book. So, this is the first one and then the second one is a graphic novel that will be out-- well, it’s supposed to be out in 2021 but I’m not sure now how all the things are going to work in publishing. But it’s called “Last On His Feet” and it picks up the story after “The Big Smoke.”

Jo Reed: “The Big Smoke,” we should say pretty much ends with the fight of the century between him and Jeffries. There are maybe like three poems that follow, but I’d say that fight is the culmination of the book.

Adrian Matejka: It is and I’ve been working-- this has been, I don't know, maybe three years now, four-- I’ve been working with this really brilliant illustrator named Youssef Daoudi. We decided to use that fight as the frame for the graphic novel and part of the reason behind that decision was that’s really the pinnacle to him. He wins that fight. He’s on top of the world. He’s got everything that he ever wanted and then it all falls apart because of him. It’s his own hubris. But the other side of that fight is all downhill. It’s equally interesting and surprising in its own ways.

Jo Reed: Now, while the book is primarily in the voice of Jack Johnson, there are, very judiciously, other voices and three of them are women, including his wife, Etta, who killed herself.

Adrian Matejka: Yes, and Etta is so fascinating to me. Originally, when I wrote the first version of “The Big Smoke,” it was just Jack Johnson. There were no other voices in it and my editor, Paul Slovak, made the point that “We think it’s good, but there’s some opportunity,” and that led me to trying to figure out if there was a way to get Jack Johnson to admit weakness, which he would not have done, which then led me to thinking about the people around him who would have seen him in a way that he maybe didn’t see himself and so, there were three women in Jack Johnson’s life, at least as it leads up to “The Big Smoke,” Hattie McClay, who was a prostitute, Belle Schreiber, who was also a prostitute, and then Etta Duryea, who he married and was a wealthy socialite from Long Island. So, it took me a long time to figure out, I don't know, what would be at stake for a poem about a woman who, in 1910, a white woman who’s wealthy and educated who would marry a black boxer. That is a complicated and fascinating discussion. She deserves her own book, but I’m not the one to do that. I had a hard time with the poems and the voices of the women in the book.

Jo Reed: Well, how did you find their voices and write in them? Can you walk me through that process?

Adrian Matejka: It was really hard. I should say it was difficult to write about Jack Johnson because I’m writing across a century. The only thing we have in common is we’re both black. I was not an athlete in any kind of way or any of that, but there was some commonality. At least I have a male point of view, but to try to do that same jump 100 years back and then across race and also across gender was difficult because it’s kind of in resistance to the way that I try to approach art. There’s somebody else who can tell that story better than I could ever tell it. So, I went round and round about the voices of women because on one hand, I’m an imperfect vessel for those voices. On the other hand, if I don’t write them, then who’s going to? So, there was this conversation-- I had it in my head “What kind of agency can I give these voices? What kinds of things can I do to show them the same respect that I’m showing Jack Johnson?” and the main problem is there was-- while Jack Johnson has this capacious archive of interviews and everything else, there was nothing for the women in his life. That meant that I had to do a lot of work to find anything at all about them. So, with Hattie, there was very little, but there were pictures and things like that that I could work with. With Belle, there were transcripts because she ended up becoming a state’s witness during Jack Johnson’s Mann Act trial. She was mad at him and that’s how she got back at him. So, there was quite a bit of text with her. So, Hattie shows up in the book as letters and Belle shows up in interviews and then Etta shows up as sonnets, but they’re all broken sonnets. They only have 13 lines instead of 14 and I think she was the most difficult voice to write because she was the most intimate with him and also because there was nothing. There wasn’t an interview. There wasn’t a quote. The only thing I could find that was truly Etta’s voice was a letter she’d written to her parents and it was a five-sentence letter apologizing for marrying Jack Johnson and asking to be buried in Long Island. That was it.

Jo Reed: You also make very clear, both from Johnson’s viewpoint but from the viewpoint of these women, that he was physically abusive to them quite often.

Adrian Matejka: Yes. He was. I didn’t know anything about that when I got into the project. So, I had no idea. Now that I’ve done this research, it makes sense. It’s deplorable as it was widespread and Jack Johnson, he was coming out of a tradition of ownership that was despicable in every way and so, you’ve got people around him modeling this kind of behavior. He’s modeling this kind of behavior and when I had that conversation with people when I’ve been reading from the book, nobody wants to think about it in the big picture or it’s more difficult to think about it in the big picture. What I mean by that is that if he was doing that, it was absolutely true that many of the men of his time were doing that. It means that people’s grandparents and great grandparents, their grandfathers and great grandfathers were doing this same kind of thing and nobody wants to think about that part of it. It’s easier to say “Well, there’s this fighter who was a domestic abuser.” That’s unquestioned, absolutely, and he deserves every bit of disdain for that. But to suggest that he’s an anathema means that we’re letting everybody else off the hook too.

Jo Reed: It’s a deeper conversation. He’s not the anomaly.

Adrian Matejka: Yeah. It’s so frustrating to me and I still, even while we’re talking about it now, I have such a hard time articulating it because I start to get mad about it. But this is the way that we do, right? It’s easy to pick one person out. Frankly, it’s diminishing to the experiences of the victims. Even right now, when I’m talking about this, I’m talking about Jack Johnson and where he learned it, not the experience Etta had of it and that seems to be the most important thing.

Jo Reed: And I think that’s a good segue. Why don’t you read “Fidelity,” which is in Etta’s voice?

Adrian Matejka: “Fidelity”-- Papa loves “Il Trovatore,” so, he understood what I meant when I said “Di geloso amor sprezzato.” He grabbed my arm like it was an engine wrench and began to twist, his face screwed up like an engine wrench. He said “I’m leaving this,” and did quickly, the same way an engine unhinged from its automobile leaves everything it loves.

Jo Reed: You say so much in this poem with so few lines. It’s really kind of extraordinary.

Adrian Matejka: Thank you. I hope it does justice to her. I keep saying things like that, but it’s so important to me that I be considerate and careful with these stories. I mean, I feel like I got trusted with them and the last thing I want to do is show a lack of respect.

Jo Reed: Well, the other voice that echoes throughout the book is-- I’ll call it Shadow because that’s what you call him and I want you to explain what you did with that character, which I thought was fascinating.

Adrian Matejka: Yeah. Shadow is interesting. The Shadow poems were the last things I wrote in the book and I’d already finished the poems in Etta, Hattie, and Belle’s voices and I finished all the poems in Jack Johnson’s voice and it still didn’t feel like he was being as honest as I’d hoped he would be in the book and so, the remedy for that ended up being the Shadow. I was lucky enough to do a residency for the Lannan Foundation in Martha, Texas, and I was trying to figure out where to go and I had this vision of Jack Johnson talking to his shadow while he was training and I thought “Man, that’s it. Here we go. Jack Johnson will talk to his shadow. His shadow will talk back.” Boom, that’s where we get the honesty and I was so proud of myself. I was walking around this house that they’d put me up in just strutting and I was like “Man, that is a brilliant idea,” and the next day, I got up and I remembered that one of my teachers, Marilyn Nelson, gave me that idea like two years before. We were talking about the project and she said “Honey, I’ve got this idea and I always wanted to write a poem where somebody was talking to their shadow and I haven’t been able to figure out how to use it. So, here, you can have that idea,” and at the time, I wasn’t ready for the idea and in my head, I was like “Oh, man, I don’t think that’s a really good idea.” So, like two years later, after all this writing and work, I realized what a brilliant idea it was and like so many of our ideas that we think are brilliant, it came from somebody else. Thank you, Marilyn. If you ever hear this, thank you again for that idea.

Jo Reed: Well, I’d like to have you read another poem. This is in the Shadow’s voice called “The Shadow Knows.”

Adrian Matejka: Absolutely. Okay. So, “The Shadow Knows”-- you’re not fooling me by quoting Shakespeare, Mr. Champion of the Negro World. No matter how carefully you enunciate, Tiny was a slave and the condition of the son follows the condition of the mother. Emancipation didn’t change a thing. Ask John L. Ask Jeffries. Ask Gentlemen Jim or any of those other color line calling white fighters. Better yet, ask Tiny, your ex-chattel mama will tell you all about the unconditionalness of blackness. You can wreck an auto and buy a new one the next day, but you can’t buy equality. You could change clothes five times a day while speaking Italian and playing that viol in that fancy classical way, but you can’t change your skin. What do you know, Shadow? I’m bettering myself.

Jo Reed: That whole business, “Tiny was a slave and the condition of the son follows the condition of the mother,” using it in this context, it was such a moment for me as I was reading this book of just putting him in such a precise, historical context and such a deeply personal one too.

Adrian Matejka: Yeah. I mean, I was saying earlier that it doesn’t make sense that Jack Johnson existed and I think that part of that is the institutionalized racism of his time. But so much of it comes from the fact that his mother and father were slaves and so, to go from slavery to being the most famous, infamous person in the world in one generation is extraordinary. I mean, it kind of ties into this myth of American exceptionalism. I mean, America has always worked hard to present itself as exceptional. Jack was kind of the living embodiment of that great American exceptionalism myth. He’s starting from nothing, less than nothing, but through his wit and his imagination and his physical strength, he was able to transcend that, but you can’t really transcend it.

Jo Reed: Exactly.

Adrian Matejka: That’s the thing. You’re always inside of it even when you are allowed to feel like you’re not.

Jo Reed: Adrian, what drew you to poetry?

Adrian Matejka: Oh, you know what? I wanted to be a rapper, but this was in the 80s. I wanted to be a rapper and I was really bad at it, unfortunately. I mean, I was really bad and I figured out early enough that this was not going to be the move. I gave it up but when I was in college, I heard Yusef Komunyakaa read and when I heard him read, it was like hearing somebody make music out of words and so, “That’s it. Poetry is the thing I’ve been trying to find.” So, I was lucky to get to study with several wonderful poets, including Yusef, and through them found a way to try to, at least in some small instances, codify words into music.

Jo Reed: You grew up traveling all over the place, all over Europe and all over the US. Do you think that has an impact on your writing and sort of the way you look at the world?

Adrian Matejka: It’s funny because I didn’t think it did at all, but it’s impossible for it not to. So, my dad was in the service and my mom was a translator for the UN and so, we bounced around a lot. But all the way through graduate school, I didn’t really write about place or about those experiences. It wasn’t until I left Indianapolis and came back to Indianapolis like 20 years later that I realized how important place was. I mean, that’s kind of an elliptical answer, but it took me leaving and coming back to realize how important all that movement had been. While I was doing it, it was just a new learning experience. I get bored about every three and a half or four years with where I am. Like, I get tired of being wherever that is. I go figure out new things and be exposed to different possibilities. The thing that stopped me was my daughter. I think it was not a good lifestyle for a kid, as I can attest to, to be moved every three or four years. It’s difficult and so, that caused me to slow down, which is probably a good thing.

Jo Reed: I’m wondering, Adrian-- we’re speaking in the midst of a pandemic and I’m curious if that has changed your work habits or the way you approach work or your concentration. My concentration is pretty much shot and I’m curious how it’s affecting you.

Adrian Matejka: I really feel like we’ve all just-- we’re all being changed in radical ways by this and nobody really understands the full extent of that change and so much of my process of writing begins with being centered and being aware and knowing who I am and where I am at that moment and since I don’t know who I am and I barely know where I am, it’s hard for me to write poems. I’ve been able to work on the graphic material because it’s a little bit different. It’s just trying to stay in some way, some small way connected with myself and my friends. So, yeah, work has been kind of secondary to that.

Jo Reed: And I think that’s a good place to leave it. Adrian, thank you so much, truly. It was wonderful speaking with you.

Adrian Matejka: No. Thank you, Jo. Thanks for taking the time today.

Jo Reed: That was poet Adrian Matejka. We were talking about his book of poetry, “The Big Smoke,” which is an NEA Big Read title. This week, the Arts Endowment announced funding for 84 organizations to lead NEA Big Read projects between September 2020 and June 2021, providing a range of activities, in-person or virtually, around a book selected from the NEA Big Read Library. Read all about it at You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Subscribe to Art Works and leave us a rating on Apple because it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Stay safe and thanks for listening.

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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.