Airea D. Matthews, a fixture on the Detroit poetry slam scene for more than a decade, has won one of the most prestigious poetry prizes in the country, the 2016 Yale Series of Younger Poets award for her debut poetry collection, simulacra.
“Rebellion is the first word that comes to mind, when reading simulacra, Airea Matthews’s rollicking, destabilizing, at once intellectually sly and piercing and finally poignant debut,” said the judge, Carl Phillips, during his announcement. Winners of the Yale Younger (as it’s often called) include luminaries Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, Jack Gilbert, Jean Valentine, and Robert Hass. Winning the Yale Younger is a life-changing event for a poet.
Matthews lives in Palmer Woods with her husband, Emery, and their four children: Trey, 17, Wes, 15, Eli, 11, and Willow, 6. Originally from New Jersey, Matthews has called Detroit home since 2000. A diminutive yet dynamic person with wide, expressive eyes, and a beautiful face, Matthews is a mesmerizing performance poet. Her poetry slams were legendary around Detroit long before she made her way to the national stage.
Even though she had already received numerous accolades including a 2015 Kresge Literary Arts Fellow and a nod from Best American Poetry 2015, she says she was stunned to win the Yale Younger:
“I was driving home from my job as Assistant Director of the MFA program at U. of M. It was dark, it was 6 p.m., February. I got a call from a St. Louis number and the person said, ‘This is Carl Phillips. I read your manuscript and I was just calling to see if it’s still available?’ All the blood drained out of my face. I had to pull over. I was really sick. I had pneumonia and felt like the walking dead. When he said they wanted to publish it, I just started weeping.”
Matthews’s meteoric rise is astonishing. When she first moved to Detroit in 2000, she worked at Proctor and Gamble in a job she’d held for over a decade. In 2004, she decided to quit her job and return to the Ford School of Public Policy because she had always been interested in politics. At the same time, a close friend who knew she wrote poetry asked her to come to the Meetery Eatery in the Park Shelton and be a part of the PicNap Poetry Series run by Kalimah Johnson.
“I got wrapped up in the vortex of the slam scene and competed from 2004-2010. I liked the idea of the community, of creating a collaborative. We were competing with each other but there was nothing to win. We were all just in it because we loved poetry and loved performing.”
Some other well-known poets were also involved in the slam scene during that period including the late singer/songwriter/poet David Blair, poet Jamaal May, the songwriter/musician Mic Phelps, Lashaun Moore and poet Aurora Harris.
In 2010, Matthews decided to take her poetry to the next level. She contacted Vievee Francis, a celebrated Detroit poet, who is now an Associate Professor of English at Dartmouth. For two years she traveled to the 1923 Café in Hamtramck for Francis’s classes, often with her newborn, Willow, in tow.
She says, Francis’s tutelage proved pivotal.
“Up until then I felt like I had been intuiting the words, picking them up in the ether. My poems were narrative, essentially I was just telling concise stories. I wanted a deeper relationship with the lyric.”
After two years, Francis encouraged Matthews to apply to graduate school and in 2011, she was admitted to the University of Michigan MFA program for poetry; a feat in itself, as the program is currently ranked number two in the country.
When asked what it was like to work with Matthews, Francis says:
“Once in a while a poet comes along who is not content with the surface order, who is willing to upturn conventions, who in doing so reveals what was buried, what others chose not to see.”
At the University of Michigan, faculty members encouraged Matthews’s innovative poetry and she says, “gave her permission to run with it.”
“The hallmark of a good teacher is they encourage you in your differences. Linda Gregerson, Keith Taylor and Laura Kasischke are completely different poets, but as teachers they were able to recognize the difference and appreciate it.”
Thankfully no one squashed Matthews’s originality. Her poetic range was one of the things that made simulacra a standout in this year’s competition, according to Phillips:
“Narcissus communicates by Tweets, Anne Sexton sends texts from death to a recipient who may or may not be dead; there’s a miniature opera; there are upended nods to the epistolary tradition, prose poems, even a Barthes-influenced calculus.” There are 34 poems in the collection including a rebel opera, a fugue, a 12-note scale or cacophony among various other forms.
Matthews is not the only Detroit poet garnering national attention, she’s quick to point out. On the national poetry scene there has been a lot of excitement brewing about a “movement” which now include such well-known names as Vievee Francis, Matthew Olzmann, Tarfia Faizullah, Jamaal May and many others. Some are saying this generation of Detroit poets might one day be as well-known as The Beat poets or the 19th century Romantics.
Matthews is excited to be in Detroit during this time of cultural and economic resurgence and hopes that Detroit will continue to see “increased collaborations along every possible matrix − city and suburbs/charter and public schools/corporate, non-profit, artistic and government. For instance, my cover was designed by Detroit artist and curator, Matthew Eaton from the Red Bull House of Art. That’s one thing I learned from Vievee Francis. One person doesn’t make it; we all make it or none of us do.”
Currently she’s working on her second poetry collection, under/class, which explores the behavioral and cultural ramifications of poverty.
“My writing is always seeking to challenge mirrors. Not believing what the easy reflection holds. You have to hold up the mirror to figure out what you don’t see. You see the eyes, the nose, the mouth, the way the ears rest, how your hair lays against your cheek; but what of the soul in all of its totality (the light and the dark, the kind and the unkind, the private underworld). I’m interested in that.”
simulacra will be available March 28, 2017.
You can follow Airea D. Matthews on Twitter @aireadee.