Bryn Mawr College professor Airea D. Matthews wants to make poetry Philadelphia’s new public art. And she may challenge you to a slam.
by Melissa Jacobs
Photography by Wes Matthews and Ryan Collerd
Listening to Airea D. Matthews talk about poetry, it’s easy to forget that meter and rhyme were once considered the eminent domain of Shakespeare, Keats and Poe. Inspired by Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou – and Public Enemy and Big Daddy Kane – the award-winning Bryn Mawr College professor talks about phrasing and imagery in ways that make poetry seem not only accessible, but a crucial part of modern culture. “Documenting the world as you see it, in your own words, is a creative art and means of self-expression,” Matthews said. “Everyone can write verse.”
Making poetry accessible – and upping it’s dope factor – are goals Matthews will pursue during her term as the 2022-2023 poet laureate for the City of Philadelphia. “Why limit poetry to a page in a book?,” Matthews asked. “Why can’t poetry be in a mural or on a sidewalk? Philadelphia has such a rich culture of poets. I want to create opportunities and points of entry around poetry.”
Matthews’ point of entry came later in life. After earning her degree in economics from the University of Pennsylvania, Matthews spent nearly a decade in a corporate job. She’d been writing since middle school, but didn’t think that poetry was a viable career path. “My family thought options for women of color were to be teachers or nurses and my mom, who was a teacher, steered me away from both of those,” Matthews said. “When I went to Penn, I felt pressure to do something business related and that’s what I did.”
And Matthews, who had been steeped in Eurocentric literature throughout her education, didn’t think that creative writing could reflect her point of view. It wasn’t until halfway through her Penn education that Matthews took an African American literature class and was introduced to Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker and J. California Cooper. “Those African American writers offered a way into a different type of voice,” Matthews explained. “That gave me permissions about how I show up in my own work.”
Showing up was a requirement for the poetry slams that Matthews frequented while she pursued her corporate career. “I got deeply into the slam and open mike scenes,” she said. “I was even competing in national slams as part of teams and in individual competitions. I loved it.”
In 2011, a full 20 years after she matriculated at Penn, Matthews enrolled in the MFA program at the University of Michigan. “I think poetry is a craft and I wanted to learn the inner teachings of it, even though I didn’t want to write in a formulaic style,” Matthews said. “It was an expansion experience. I could feel myself growing.”
In 2016, her first collection of poems, titled Simulacra, received the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. That same year, Matthews won the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award and the Louis Untermeyer Scholarship in Poetry from the 2016 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. In 2017, Matthews became an assistant professor of creative writing at Bryn Mawr College, and in 2020, she was awarded a Pew Fellowship.
This January, Matthews became Philadelphia’s poet laureate, following in the footsteps of her son. Twenty-year old Wes Matthews, a senior at Penn, was the 2018-2019 Philadelphia youth poet laureate. “We don’t write together, but he’ll send me his work for editing,” Matthews said. “I’m his first reader and he’s mine.”