Airea D. Matthews
Airea Dee Matthews, Philadelphia’s 2022 Poet Laureate, is an acclaimed poet and educator, known for her collections Simulacra and Bread and Circus, and serves as an associate professor and co-director of creative writing at Bryn Mawr College.
Airea D. Matthews
On Making an Essential Nigga
Airea D. Matthews
As a black American, writing into my own fullness is a political imperative. History is all too often written by the victors, and the victors often don’t look like me. This lack of representation leads to an unbearable sameness, a narrowing, an essentialization. When static depictions are normalized, no pressure is applied to tradition, stereotypes, or received histories. What is most at stake for my work is visibility–resisting monoliths, embracing invention, and forwarding the idea of multiplicitous intersections of identity. This same impulse ignites my poetry. By expanding the notions of identity, ideas around poetic form shift. When possibility and re-invention enter the conversation, poems (and poets) are freed beyond stricture, expectation, and assumption.
I’m further interested in dialectics as a kind of oppositional force and rhythm that doesn’t necessarily synthesize in expected ways—how disorder originates in order, return mimics cyclicity, myth informs memory, and integrated selfhood creates power. I arrange these parallel themes to struggle against and with one another to better understand how their adjacencies make meaning. I further invoke different theories and disciplines, which are sometimes at odds, in making luminous discoveries around fundamental human concerns: Who am I both singularly and in collective? How does my lineage influence behavior? Who holds value and who does not? How do individual struggles—personal and political—appear to disappear? How can and does language construct or deconstruct to trouble our presumptions? As for the lyric “I,” I believe the “I” is at once a private and public concern because the “I” is always political (and thus a “we”). I forward that selfhood is, in fact, a collective construct based on circumstance, our private and received histories, philosophy, and religion. My work asserts the sum total of my social identity as myriad and complex.
I played with these concepts in my first collection, Simulacra, where I juxtaposed unlikely thinkers and characters with unlikely forms to address broader concerns. One series of poems re-mixed the messiness of the confessional mode (via Anne Sexton) with the meticulous detail of the text message to posit questions around the direct relationships between lineage and nature, inherited dysfunctions, vacuous desires, and the borders we draw around ourselves. The text messages with Sexton configured a direct route to my own confessional inheritance. This layering, often found in my poetry, locates the thread between two disparate identities (or theories) while considering how language itself places them both in conversation. By giving platform to multiple voices and perspectives, I become more than who I appear to be. This approach provides not only a perspectival advantage but also amplifies form. My poems are formally wide ranging, and I posit form as sound–not just visual formula or prosodic prescription. If sounds are my rhythm, form is my instrument that modulates the poem’s energy. I’m fixated on composing forms and sounds that disrupt and order the forces warring within or against structure.
My most recent book, Bread and Circus, which is also the home for “On Making An Essential Nigga,” situates the archive as a ghost text, a haunted text with the voice of experience overriding the voice of theory. Told in four parts—Acknowledgment, Resolution, Pursuance, and Psalm—the book amalgamates spectral imaging, photography, and poetry to explore the social and economic realities of race and class in America. The concept took form after a research trip to the University of Edinburgh to study Adam Smith’s archives and his magnum opus, The Wealth of Nations. As a former economics student, I found myself perplexed by Smith’s theory of the invisible hand, which claims that self-interest is the key to optimal, equitable outcomes. I draw on Smith’s original text to determine its meaning in my own life while pulling in concepts from Guy Debord, theorist and founder of the largely Marxist Situationists, as an intervening interlocutor. The book ultimately enacts a psychgeographic journey through time, memory and history—social and personal—as proof that self-interest fails when people, themselves, become commodities.
Airea Dee Matthews’s first collection of poems, Simulacra, received the 2016 Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. Matthews is also the author of Bread and Circus (Simon and Schuster, 2023). Matthews received a 2020 Pew Fellowship, a 2016 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, and was awarded the Louis Untermeyer Scholarship in Poetry from the 2016 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Matthews earned her MFA from the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan. In 2022, she was named Philadelphia’s Poet Laureate. She is an associate professor and co-director of creative writing at Bryn Mawr College.