Airea D. Matthews, C’94
Airea D. Matthews

Associate Professor of Creative Writing / Co-Director of the Creative Writing Program at Bryn Mawr College

2022–23 Poet Laureate of Philadelphia

Philadelphia, PA

Economics Major

I was always interested in economics, but it didn’t come naturally to me. What came naturally was writing, but I was afraid of literature classes because I didn’t grow up in a household in which we read. I didn’t really start reading until probably my late teens. But I could understand the visual and spatial elements of ECON by writing short clips about them, almost like a line in a poem.

I find my work most enjoyable when I see others deriving something from it.

I wound up in sales and marketing with Proctor & Gamble, which had interesting ways of packaging thought. In that job I learned the value of diction, using the right language, saying the right thing. I recognized how language played an important role in forming authentic connections with people, which I think is part of the job of poetry.

I went to get my Master’s of Public Administration because part of me missed the analytical realm of ECON, but I also wanted the human realm of working with nonprofits or non-governmental organizations. I went to the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy and recognized a trend: While I was there, I was still writing. I was learning statistics, but not through the numbers—through language. I was doing the same thing I was doing in those ECON classes, trying to understand something by writing short, rhythmic clips around it—essentially poetic lines that I was writing so I could understand the subject in a language that made sense for me.

After my MPA, I got involved with performance poetry. My neighbor had a café and said, “I have an open mic night, and I love what I’ve read from your writing. I’m wondering if you might come read a couple things.” I went and met this whole community of writers. It felt like this was where I was supposed to be the whole time. I started my MFA in creative writing a year after having my last child. I have four kids—one is at Penn now (Wes Matthews) and was the Youth Poet Laureate of Philly.

On a whim, I applied for the Yale Younger Poets Prize, and I won. That’s one of those awards that changes things for you. I knew I could find an academic job and teach creative writing, which is what I wanted to do. I saw the job Bryn Mawr posted and just knew, “That’s going to be my job.”

I find my work most enjoyable when I see others deriving something from it. That’s why I was interested in becoming Philadelphia’s Poet Laureate—it gives you a platform to serve the community. I have two projects underway. One is a Speakers Bureau for poets. The second is finding ways to turn poetry into art exhibits throughout the city.

My book, Bread and Circus, went up for auction in February, which doesn’t really happen in poetry. It will be published in May 2023. It’s incredibly powerful to know that whatever I make will outlive me. I’m thankful I was able to breathe light into something that mattered for me, and I hope it matters for other people. — April 1, 2022 • Photo by Brooke Sietinsons