Meet Philadelphia’s New Poet Laureate

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.”

Photos by Ryan Collerd

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.”

because my mother named me after a child     borne still

to a godmother I’ve never met     I took another way to be

known—something easier to remember          inevitable

to forget         something that rolls over the surface of thrush

     because                                                 I grew tired of saying

            no it’s pronounced…   now I’m tired of not

conjuring that ghost I honor            say it with me:        Airea

                          rhymes with sarah

sarah from the latin meaning          a “woman of high rank”

       which also means whenever I ask anyone to hold me

in their mouth             I sound like what I almost am

hear me out:                          I’m not a dee             or a river

     charging through working-class towns where union folk

cogwedge for plots                &          barely any house at all

where bosses mangle ethnic phonemes & nobody says one

    word because checks in the mail             so let’s end this

                 classist pretend where names don’t matter

& language is too heavy a lift                       my “e” is silent

like most people should be              the consonant is sonorant

              is a Black woman                  or one might say the spine

       I translate to ‘wind’ in a country known for its iron

imply “lioness of God”                                   in Jesus’ tongue

            mean “apex predator”           free of known enemy

fierce enough         to harm              or fast enough to run

                          all I’m saying is                  this:

the tongue has no wings     to flee what syllables it fears

the mouth is no womb             has no right to swallow up

                                     what it did not make

– “etymology” by Airea D. Matthews

To read more of Matthews’ work, visit her website. For more about the poet laureate program, visit The Free Library of Philadelphia.

One response to “Meet Philadelphia’s New Poet Laureate”

Leave a Reply