As part of the 2020 Dear Poet project, students around the country and the world wrote letters to Adrian Matejka in response to a video of him reading his poem "Basketball feat. Galileo & EPMD" aloud. Adrian Matejka wrote letters back to six of these students; their letters and his replies are included below.
Adrian Matejka reads "Basketball feat. Galileo & EPMD" for Dear Poet 2020.
Dear Professor Matejka,
As of late, I have been reading many poems, mainly in English class, but some in my own free time. While some of them have made lasting impacts, with pretty much all of them being love poems (I have a girlfriend I’m trying to learn to write poetry for), your literature was the first that really spoke to me that wasn’t about love and sappy feelings. Something that has really called me towards your poems has been the way you describe your childhood, making me remember the good times I spent before I went into the hot mess that is high school. It made me recall the sort of childhood glow that distant memories seem to have. Reading how you “dug through frozen dinner boxes & apple cores” and spent “three months of collecting” money for your would-be prized possession of a solar system model made me think of simpler times where those things would be your only problems in life. However, like we all realize eventually, with growth comes change. But reading your poems was a blast to the past that I thoroughly enjoyed and was blessed to have experienced.
Two poems specifically that I grew attached to were “Mail-Order Planets” and “Basketball feat. Galileo & EPMD”. Something you should know about me before I keep writing is that I absolutely adore basketball with all my heart and soul, so seeing how you describe the atmosphere of the game in such an accurate and appreciative way really drew me into your world. From “every bit of sunlight at College Ball’s ball court, to the “sweaty Rebook tees,” every aspect and feeling of the game you described encapsulated what I saw every day when I played the game. I’m sure that your first dunk will forever be in your Hall of Fame “highlights,” regardless of whether it may have ended in tragedy or not. By the way you wrote this poem, I sense a grand feeling of love for the game that I can do nothing except respect and admire you for. No person that sees basketball as just a meaningless game would be able to write about it the way you so graciously detailed. While others pay no mind to the game, I see it as a way of life and a culture itself, and I get the feeling that you see what I see too. It’s funny how the seemingly meaningless things in life like a game of basketball can evolve into something so much more. Rather than seeing life as a big picture made up of little things, I see it as the little things in life that make it into the big picture, and after reading your poems, I find myself reading a poem of life, not of simply basketball or planets. So thank you, not only for showing me what I already see, but for showing it for the whole world to see.
The second poem, “Mail-Order Planets”, resonated with me in a different way. While your basketball poem took me for a ride with its exhilarating rush and detailed view, “Mail-Order Planets” took me back with its nostalgic essence and its hopeful tone of something more to pursue out there in the world. Something I’ve noticed in reading some of your poems is your expressions of life and the values that it holds around us. As a kid, the one thing I did the most wasn’t studying, reading, or playing video games. Instead, I would be daydreaming all the time, wondering what was out there in the world. I always thought of all the people out there to meet, the things to do, the places to see, and the connections to make. Eventually growing up, I’m not proud to admit that my thoughts became more down to earth and had started worrying more in the present than looking forward to the future. Thankfully, reading your poem reminded me of those times and what it was like to dream big again. I enjoyed learning that you “dove into dumpsters searching for cans & bottles under the OJ cartons” and “dug through frozen dinner boxes and apple cores” trying to collect anything that might bring you closer to accomplishing your mission and bringing that solar system model home because, much like you, I would’ve done anything for something I was passionate about when I was younger (I was a pretty energetic child if you couldn’t tell already). The way you described yourself, so hopeful of escaping reality and becoming an astronaut to fly the cosmos, was so real to me that I felt as if I was reading a letter of my own thoughts. What I loved the most about this poem was how you intertwine something as small as a solar system model with the bigger aspects of life. It encourages me to keep on looking for the more minute parts of life, because I think we both know that in those little things is where we find the “things that make the universe spin”.
I want to thank you for being a part of the “Dear Poet” project. I want to thank you for inspiring me and making this not just another assignment, but turning poetry into something I care about. I want to thank you for inspiring thousands of people around the world with your stories and your witty style of writing. I hope that they found the inspiration and the memories that I found with you. And finally, I want to thank you for reminding me to keep dreaming big and to reach for those cosmos.
Thank you for spending time with the poems and for your delightful letter. I appreciate you sharing your wonderful observations as well as your insightful perspective on life.
High school is so complicated, isn’t it? My daughter is a freshman this year and watching her navigate the challenges has been a reminder of just how difficult these four years are for almost everybody. It’s the end of one thing and the beginning of another and even those delineations aren’t right. It’s really like the beginning of one adventure which then leads to the beginning of the next, even bigger adventure but without a cheat code.
It would have been easier for me (maybe) if I’d had poetry as a way to process and consolidate things, but we didn’t study poetry at my high school. Open mics and slams weren’t a thing in Indianapolis back then, either. I’d only read one or two poems before college.
Like you, the thing that brought me to poetry was a girl. I wanted to impress the girl who sat next to me in philosophy class so badly that I spent an entire night at the campus library reading all of the poetry I could get my hands on before writing my own terrible verses to her. I’m sharing this with you because you’re already on another planet poetically speaking from where I was in high school, so I imagine the poems you are writing for your girlfriend will inform and delight her the way Horace said poetry should.
I really appreciate your point about basketball and the culture around the game. I understand that you live in Texas where basketball is something people do in the offseason to stay in shape for football. I lived in College Station for a few years a long time ago, so no shade. Just facts. But basketball is a microcosm of the world and is a life-long practice, like poetry or jazz. It’s also a reminder (for me anyway) to stay humble: it’s as easy to go from being the man to an afterthought on the court as it is in life.
Maybe that’s where the daydreaming you talk about comes in. There isn’t pride or humility in daydreaming. There’s just possibility and as we get older, we’re asked to think less about possibility and more about practicality. But it’s the people who learn to daydream while being on time to class or to work who end up in outer space taking pictures of the Earth or playing shows at the Apollo or writing the best love poems ever. Daydreaming is one of the rarest and most beautiful of human gifts. That’s the place where poets live.
You didn’t ask for advice, but I’m going to offer you just a little: try to stay in contact with that dreamy part of yourself. You’re going to succeed regardless of what you do, but that dreamy
corner of your imagination will help you find opportunities nobody else has even imagined yet. Poets have many different vocations out here and our daydreams lead us to them.
Take care and good luck with your poems,
Dear Mr. Adrian Matejka,
Your poem “Basketball feat. Galileo and EPMD” made me think of myself because I play basketball as well and I know that feeling when you make a shot and everyone cheers. When I read the title of your poem I was instantly excited to read your poem because I really love basketball. But I don't know what it's like to break my arm. I wonder how it felt when you broke it.
How did it feel to break your arm? Did it hurt a lot? That really must have hurt. How old were you when you got injured? I mean you were in College so I'm guessing you were about twenty years old. How did it feel to dunk for the first time and hear the crowd cheer? I can’t imagine dunking yet because I can’t. Did you end up winning the game? That would suck if you broke your arm and lost the game. How long did it take to publish your poem? What was your strategy to write the poem? Is it hard to write a poem?
Your poem inspired me to keep working harder and keep trying because you kept trying when you said “left-handing jumpers, blurry scribbles on my cast, the basketball rotating as insistently as the back-spinning apple that split Galileo’s wig.” You had to shoot with your off hand! You loved basketball so much that when you got injured you used your left hand. I tried to shoot with my left hand and it's never close to the hoop. So I cannot imagine what it feels like to be able to shoot with your off hand and actually be good at it.
West Springfield, MA
Thank you for reading my poem and for all of the wonderful questions. I’m glad to know you’re a baller, too! Basketball is the best sport (to me anyway) and there are few things better than the sound the ball makes when it goes through the net and the crowd cheers.
To answer your question, the crowd was cheering like crazy when I dunked the ball. All the cheering stopped when I slipped off of the rim, though. My teammates said it looked pretty bad because it’s such a long fall from at 10-foot rim. The wild thing is the fall didn’t hurt at all. I didn’t even know I’d broken my wrist until later that night when I was trying to do my math homework and it started to swell.
The good news is we won the game and my performance was a big part of the win. The bad news is I had to wear a big, goofy cast on my wrist to Prom. That was embarrassing!
I’m going to tell you secret about shooting with your off hand. All it takes is practice and a lot of patience. The first couple of weeks after I broke my wrist, I could barely get the ball up to the rim. But I kept practicing and practicing and by the time they took the cast off, I could shoot 3- pointers left handed.
Basketball is a little like poetry that way. The first time I tried to write a poem, it didn’t make a lot of sense. But I kept working and reading and working until one day I was able to write a poem about basketball that makes sense to other basketball fans. You can do whatever you want—whether it’s shooting left handed jumpers or writing sonnets—if you practice hard enough.
Shoot 100 free throws a day,
Dear Adrian Matejka,
Hello, my name is Noah and I am a freshman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. First off, allow me to say that your poem moved me in a way that I have never felt before. Not just with any poem, but with any piece of literature I have ever read. Now that shouldn’t be saying much considering that I am not the biggest poem reader myself, but that should just make it even more impressive how this poem got to me. I know that I shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but I immediately was interested in this poem just by the first word of the title. Let’s just say I love basketball…
Everything about it is just awesome. Even the bad is good if that makes sense. So when I saw that this poem was about basketball, I got really excited. As soon as I started reading the actual poem, my initial hopes, and dreams of what this poem would be, did not disappoint.
If I had to describe my emotions when I read this poem, I would say warmth, excitement, a weird kind of nostalgia, and especially, identifiable to my own experiences as a basketball player. This definitely occurs when you say, The only time I dunked, the court exploded like a party hearing “You Gots to Chill” for the first time. I can definitely relate, except I’m usually the one that says, “You Gots to Chill.” This entire poem resonates with me to a point where almost every line brings me back to a memory of me playing basketball with my friends. Somebody just takes over the game and can’t be stopped like it’s a videogame.
Thank you for creating something that many people like me can relate to and feel happy that they know what the basketball references mean. I don’t read often, but if every poem or book in the world was about basketball, it would be hard for me to let go of a book.
A question that I have is, other than playing at College Park’s ball court, what was your inspiration for writing this poem and what would you say to someone like me who loves playing basketball, but doesn’t love reading as much?
Thank you so much for the letter and for taking the time to read my poem! I’m glad you found some things you could connect with in the verses.
When I was in 9th grade, I was similar to you—I loved to play ball more than almost anything else and I was sure I was going to get a scholarship to play for UNC or Georgetown. As it turned out, I was 5’9 in 9th grade and I’m 5’10 now so it’s not a surprise that the Tar Heel future I wished for never materialized.
My other big dream in high school was to be a rapper, but I wasn’t any good at it. This is where everything come together: rap is poetry with beats and once I realized that, I was hooked on poems. Most poetry isn’t as flashy as rap music is, of course, but poems allow us to imagine anything we want to imagine. Poems don’t have to be true or autobiographical (though this poem really happened). They can be completely fabricated like most of the stories in rap music.
I have a lot of friends who love hoops and video games (one of my oldest friends is a game designer for Ubisoft), but who aren’t the biggest fans of poetry. One thing they all have in common, though, is they love to read things that relate to their other interests. My basketball friends like to read about basketball, my gamer friends like to read the Manga that inspired the some of the games and so on.
So what I would suggest to you (or anyone who isn’t especially interested in reading) is that you get with your English teacher or your librarian. Ask them for books about hoops or Manga or whatever other interests you have. There are so many books waiting for you; you just need to find them.
Thanks again for spending time with my poem and thank you for sharing your experience with me.
Three from the key,
Dear Adrian Matejka,
My name is Sasha. I am a sophomore at Arlington High School in Massachusetts. I love playing soccer competitively, and playing any other sport I can. I really enjoyed reading and listening to your poem “Basketball ft. Galileo & EPMD.”
What inspired you to write this poem? Did you write it right after healing from your injury? If so, did writing this poem help you deal with not being able to play for those two months? I remember breaking my pinky finger playing dodgeball in eighth grade (I caught the ball anyway). I kept playing and my team ended up winning. I was elated to win, but at the same time I knew something was wrong with my finger. Dunking for the first time and then breaking your arm must have resulted in similar feelings, but a thousand times stronger. I remember the swelling and discoloration of the finger, yet I denied that it was broken until the x-ray came back, and even after. I had a soccer game the next day that I couldn’t stand to miss. Despite my begging, my parents didn’t allow me to play. Sitting on the cold bench while my teammates demolished the other team 4-0 was extremely frustrating. I can’t come close to imagining how annoying not being able to play for two months would be.
I am curious about the last line and a half, “the basketball rotating / as insistently as the back-spinning apple that split Galileo’s wig.” I looked up the word “insistently” and found that it meant repetitively. This helped me better understand the line. The imagery of the basketball rotating like an apple with backspin is extremely vivid. To get all that backspin you must have practiced shooting with your left hand quite a bit. I didn’t really understand the Galileo reference. A quick search of Galileo with apple and wig didn’t reveal a clear answer. The last line of a poem is always important to understanding the poem and I was wondering what the Galileo part of it meant.
Playing pickup soccer with my friends is similar in many ways to the pickup basketball described in the poem. Trash talk is as ever-present as sweat and is taken advantage of by every one of us, especially after doing something special. Whenever one of us makes an incredible play the volume also instantly gets much higher. I appreciated the reference to a party getting told to quiet down, because in every movie where this happens, the opposite occurred. Did growing up in Indiana, one of the most if not the most basketball-crazed states, heighten your love for the game?
Good luck to the Pacers in the playoffs, if they happen/if you are a fan, unless they play the Celtics in the conference finals. It must be nice that Victor Oladipo finally came back from injury before the season was postponed. It almost gives them a chance against the Bucks in the second round, if they can beat the Heat in the first round, of course.
Thanks so much for spending time with my poem and thank you for sharing your dodgeball experience! It sounds really painful, so I’m glad you were able to get it taken care of.
What you described is almost exactly what happened with me. After I fell and broke my wrist, I played two more games. We were winning and I wanted to keep playing for the team. That’s how basketball works in Indiana. It felt like something was wrong, but I had no idea of how wrong it was until it swelled up later and I had to go to the hospital.
The funny thing is soccer was my favorite sport when I was younger. I played until middle school, but soccer wasn’t a sanctioned sport in Indiana back then. Can you imagine that? Our high school didn’t have a soccer team until my senior year, so those of us who wanted to play had to find other sports to compete in.
That frustration is one of the things that led me to becoming a writer. Poetry is a great venue for expressing big feelings—anger, frustration, happiness, or confusion. I couldn’t express myself on the basketball court for months after that broken wrist, so writing with my left hand had to be a substitute. There were two things I wanted to convey in the poem from that moment at the end of the poem. One was about backspin and rotation (yes!) and the other is about Galileo himself.
There’s a story that may or may not be true that Galileo used an apple to represent the Earth in his heliocentric model of the solar system. “Split his wig” is old slang for getting your mind blown by some outrageous idea. So in this metaphor, the realization that the Earth isn’t the center of the solar system “split Galileo’s wig.”
Thanks again for reading this poem and for sharing your stories with me. I hope your soccer team has a better run in the playoffs than the Pacers did!
Hello, Adrian Matejka. My name is Eli. I am in the 6th grade at Mars Hill Bible School and my teacher's name is Mrs. Harmon. I was wondering what kind of dunk you made as you were going to the basket. Were you surprised you were able to dunk the basketball? Did your arm heal okay? Did you have to have surgery on your arm? Do you enjoy writing about your experiences? Are these the type poems you like to write about the most or do you write about other things. When I heard you read your poem I thought about me loving to run down the court and wanting to dunk the ball so bad, but I am just not tall enough right now to do that. It did make me wish I could though! I enjoyed listening to your poem.
Thanks for taking the time to listen to my poem! I know exactly how you feel. When I was in 6th grade I was 5 feet 5 inches tall and I couldn’t even touch the backboard. But then I grew 5 inches in one summer. Once that happened, I was able to grab the rim and eventually dunk the ball. But it took a while, so you’ll need to be patient.
I was very surprised when I successfully dunked because every other time I tried to throw it down, the ball would go off of the back of the rim or to the side because my hands weren’t big enough to palm the ball. When it finally went in I couldn’t help myself: I had to talk trash to my friends about it.
Do you want to know the saddest part of all of this? The dunk I mention in the poem is the only time I was ever able to dunk. My wrist healed just fine, but I’ve never been able to do it again.
Basketball and poetry have a lot more in common than it might seem. Both require creativity and imagination. Both require some style and maybe a little bit of trash talk. But most importantly both can be so much fun when you have a story you want to tell whether it’s in line breaks or 3- pointers.
Thanks again for listening to the poem. One last bit of advice: when you finally dunk, don’t hang on the rim!
Defense wins championships,
Dear Adrian Matejka
My name is Noam and I live in New York City. I’m in seventh grade and am writing to you after finding your poem on the Dear Poets Project. Honestly, I haven’t always been the biggest fan of poetry, but when I read Basketball feat. Galileo & EPMD something felt different. I felt a bigger connection to poetry and basketball. I play basketball and I am already highly passionate about it. Now I feel even more for the game after reading your poem. I never knew how basketball could be turned into a poem, and sound so meaningful and poetic. Truly connecting to the experience.
You inspired me to try to write a poem about basketball myself. I don’t mean just about basketball, I could see the deeper meaning in your writing. It’s amazing to write about such a general topic, but the way you added a deeper meaning makes it even better. I liked how you conveyed the meaning of taking risks, having confidence in yourself, and to be brave, all in a short poem about basketball.
Your poem, Basketball feat. Galileo & EPMD, reminded me of taking risks and the idea of being brave and believing in oneself. This connected to me because if you don’t take risks you don’t know what will happen. Even if they turn out badly, at least you’ve experienced the moment. I think this message is so valuable to find inside such a fun and exciting poem. Everyone should hear this so they can stop being afraid, especially for today, whether you’re a basketball fan or not.
“I hung as tight as a sweaty headband on that rim, talking smack to the other nine ballers & to their nine mamas. Then/the slipping & cracking. Then the next two months left-handing/jumpers, blurry scribbles on my cast.” This was my favorite quote and spoke to me the most because it can be interpreted in many ways. Some could think that you’re showing how you were scared after dunking and regretted it, but some could also think that you were enjoying it and were glad to take that risk. What it did is make you braver. I agree with both of these statements; at first you were scared to go for the dunk, but you faced your fears and accomplished it even if you had to pay for it by breaking your arm. This is a good lesson that you showed through your poem that I hope everyone can understand and learn from it.
I want to thank you for sharing this with the world; it inspired me to take more risks and try new things. I also want to thank you for helping me write poetry. For once you made it fun to get creative with writing because I learned you can write about whatever you want and deliver any meaning you want. I would like to know how and why you chose to write about this story? Was it because of the message it delivered, or do you have other stories you could’ve chosen to deliver this same message of taking risks and believing in yourself?
Hope I hear from you soon,
New York, NY
Thank you for taking the time to read my poem and for writing this letter. I appreciate your perspective and your enthusiasm for hoops! It’s especially timely since I received your letter during the NBA playoffs. Yes!
It might not seem like it on the surface, but basketball and poetry have so much in common. They both require dedication, tenacity, and a lot of imagination. They both have fundamental skills you have to master to participate and rules that need to be followed (and also broken) in order to succeed.
Like you said, both basketball and poetry want us to take risks, too, though what kind of risk are involved is a little different. I’ve never heard of anyone breaking a wrist writing a poem, but I suppose it’s possible!
To answer your question, I wanted to write about the first time I dunked a ball because it was simultaneously exciting and frightening at the same time. I had tried to dunk many other times and it never worked because my hands were too small to palm the ball. When it finally worked, it was amazing for a few moments—I was so proud then equally embarrassed once I slipped off of the rim.
Has something like that happened to you, where one minute you were feeling like the man and then the next something humbled you? It’s easy to talk and write about our successes, but it’s a different kind of honesty to talk about times we didn’t succeed. Poetry is big enough for both conversations at once and I try to be balanced even when it’s a little embarrassing.
I hope that you’ll write some poems about your experiences on the court. If you ever want to read other poetry about basketball, look for “Slam, Dunk, & Hook” by Yusef Komunyakaa.
Everything starts with defense,