As an economics major at Penn, Airea D. Matthews C’94 found poetry in all the graphs and numbers. She’d translate data and formulas into prose, then whittle that down until only small, memorable fragments remained. More than 20 years later, she’s still distilling big ideas into packed fragments—but they’ve changed from study aids to award-winning poems.
“There’s something about the fragment that is fascinating to me,” Matthews says. “If I give you a fragment of text, you can insert your own agency, create your own understanding.”
In late February, those fragments helped Matthews land the 2016 Yale Series of Younger Poets prize—the oldest annual literary award in the country. “I’m going to stop crying eventually, just not right now…,” she tweeted on March 1, the day of the official announcement.
The award means that her first book, simulacra, will slide into Yale University Press’s Younger Poets series as Volume 111 next April. Past winners include Muriel Rukeyser (1934), Adrienne Rich (1950), the late Penn English professor Daniel Hoffman (1953), John Ashbery (1956), and the only other African-American woman, Margaret Walker (1942).
The Yale Younger is “one of those astronomical prizes,” says Matthews, assistant director of the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program. “It takes you to a whole different level of acceptance inside poetry circles. You get asked for an interview. Your job prospects change. There’s a book tour. It’s a game changer. It changes the way your creative life takes shape.”
Carl Phillips, who judges the Yale competition, described Matthews’ manuscript as a “rebellion” against “all formal expectations of what a book of poetry is or ‘should’ be.” Matthews wears the rebel’s mantle proudly.
“If someone says to go in the direction of A, I will absolutely go toward B,” she says. “I don’t really write like anyone else. I write about weird things that interest me. I obsess over the opposite side of a story.”
In describing simulacra, Phillips noted its “wildness to theme,” with poems that all look very different from each other. Styles and genres include “Narcissus Tweets” (“@Maenads When @Dionysus claps your breasts like cymbals all night, sleep is impossible. He’s not looking for wifey in the club, ok?”), Anne Sexton texts, a miniature opera, prose poems—even Barthes-influenced calculus.
“You don’t discover a new form unless you’re resisting an old one to some degree,” Matthews says, “and I constantly want to butt up against tradition.”
Though she had been performing her work around the country for five years, Matthews didn’t have a formal poetry lesson until 2010, when several friends raved about Detroit-based poet Vievee Francis.
“I had my youngest child in hand—I’ve got four—and I would be breastfeeding her at a café and having these one-on-one poetry sessions with Vievee,” Matthews recalls. “She said, ‘You’ve got to consider taking this a step further and understanding the craft of poetry.’”
“All of the raw materials were there,” Francis now says of Matthews, whom she encouraged to pursue an MFA. “Her voice was already quite developed.”
By then Matthews had worked as an account executive with Procter & Gamble and earned a master’s in public administration at the University of Michigan. Studying social policy and poverty changed the poetry she’d been fiddling with on the side. She stopped writing about people and instead became the characters in her poems. In the 2006 spoken-word piece “Wisdom,” for example—inspired by an NPR report on failed evacuations during Hurricane Katrina—Matthews channeled an older woman in New Orleans. It was partly an effort to understand those who hadn’t fled, just as she later wrote a series of poems, collectively titled “-Icity,” in order to understand a mother in Detroit who had killed her own daughter.
By the time she enrolled in the University of Michigan’s MFA program in 2011, she was 38 and the mother of four. Though she found the program “terrifying” at first, she now says that earning the degree was one of the best decisions she ever made. Even so, fresh fears snuck in soon after she finished it. After all, most of the other “emerging” poets she met in and through the program were in their 20s.
“I would get discouraged because I’d feel like maybe I started too late,” she says. And yet, she adds: “The reality is that all of those experiences made me a better writer. It’s not age. It’s just experience, just living, just life.”