Adrian Matejka
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"The Big Smoke" by Adrian Matejka

Author Adrian Matejka, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for 'The Big Smoke," a collection of poetry about prizefighter Jack Johnson, will deliver the next installment of Southern Lit Alliance's South Bound: Distinguished Lectures.

The program is scheduled Wednesday evening, Feb. 10, at the Arts Building.

"The Big Smoke," Matejka's third book of poetry, follows Johnson's journey from poverty to the most coveted title in sports. The child of emancipated slaves, Johnson overcame the violent segregationism of Jim Crow, challenging white boxers — and white America — to become the first black heavyweight world champion. Matejka's words, which range from sonnets to prose letters and interviews, offer insight into the multiple layers of Johnson's personality and the women he loved and betrayed.

"The Big Smoke" won the 2014 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and was a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award, the 2014 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.

Matejka also has won the Julia Peterkin Award, the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Award, two grants from the Illinois Arts Council and fellowships from Cave Canem, the Guggenheim Foundation and the Lannan Foundation. His work has appeared in American Poetry Review, The Best American Poetry 2010, Gulf Coast, Ploughshares, Poetry and Prairie Schooner, among other journals and anthologies.

He serves as the Lilly Professor/Poet-in-Residence at Indiana University in Bloomington and is currently working on a new collection of poems and a graphic novel.

Wednesday's event opens with a cocktail reception for VIP ticketholders. General-admission ticketholders will be admitted at 6 p.m. for a reading. A book signing will immediately follow.

While in Chattanooga, Matejka also will visit East Hamilton High School for a discussion and Q&A session with students.

If you go

› What: Adrian Matejka in South Bound: Distinguished Lectures.

› When: 6-8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 10 (VIP cocktail reception starts at 5 p.m.)

› Where: Arts Building, 301 E. 11th St.

› Admission: $15 general admission, $5 students, $25 VIP (includes cocktail reception, reserved seating and fast-track superpowers at book signing.

› Phone: 423-267-1218.

› Website:

Critical praise for ‘The Big Smoke’

“Jack Johnson, the world’s first African-American heavyweight champion of the world, comes so boldly to life in these poems one almost wants to duck.” — The Boston Globe

“Matejka’s Jack Johnson is a deeply flawed hero of American history — balanced between heroic success and human failure, between worldwide acclaim and personal evil, between black and white, right and wrong. The tension is so powerful that there’s no putting this book down.” — St. Louis Post-Dispatch

› “[‘The Big Smoke’] is a rich, sometimes disturbing portrait of a fascinating, flawed and complex man.” — The Washington Post

“With the lean, long jab and agile step of a boxer, Adrian Matejka delivers this knockout dramatization of the larger-than-life life of heavyweight champion Jack Johnson. In dexterous interpolating voices, and in forms ranging from enveloping sonnets to prose letters and interviews, Johnson emerges as a scrappy, hard-edged hero — troubled by his own demons but determined to win the ‘fight of the century,’ a fight that underscored the bitter realities of racism in America. These poems don’t pull no punches.” — 2013 National Book Award Citation

“[An] imaginative work by a commanding poet who engages the history and mythology of larger-than-life boxer Jack Johnson.” — 2014 Pulitzer Prize citation


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