In 1942, writer Margaret Walker’s seminal work, “For My People,” earned her the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. It would be 74 years until another Black person—the second also happened to be a woman—would win again. After much work, writing and rewriting poem after poem, Airea Dee Matthews’ received an acknowledgment in 2016 few poets know, when her collection of poetry, “simulacra,” earned her the Yale Younger Award. Her professional highs haven’t stopped there, however. She’s since then begun a new position as assistant professor of creative writing at Bryn Mawr College and started work on a second book. In advance of the 75th Anniversary of For My People Symposium hosted by the Margaret Walker Center Friday, that would feature her, Matthews agreed to an interview. In a lengthy discussion, she generously discussed her influences, mentors, supporting other writers and the advantages of being othered.
Hilary Word: You are a scholar, a professor, an author, and a poet, Professor Matthews. Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview with the Lighthouse | Black Girl Projects. We are so glad you took time to speak with us.
Airea Dee Matthews: It’s my pleasure.
HW: One thing that’s always very interesting to me about authors is how they were introduced to the world of literature. I’m also really interested in the ways that authors become connected to poetry over forms of literature. What drew you to poetry as an art form?
AM: A couple of things. First, I think I’ve always had a love of language and play. I love playing with words. I love language. I love listening to language. I love listening to languages I can’t even understand… I love the sound. For me, poetry is this perfect amalgam of language, words, sound. … I can keep my attention on a poem, and I can feel like I’ve achieved something because I can write a poem and I can finish a poem. It feels like a closed system to some degree. It’s a system you can come in, enter, and then also finish, but still have it sit with me for a while… It feels complete to me. I think that’s why I’ve always been drawn to language. Also, there’s the fact that my grandmother was from rural Pike County, Ala., which is outside of Troy, and she had a fifth-grade education. When she spoke, she would often confuse tenses of verbs. I heard her talk to a lawyer once and she said, “I were going to. …” I love that. I love the fact that she was still owning a part of a language that, in some way, tried to disinvest in her. You make language what you want it to be. As long as you can be understood and you can use it; it’s suitable. You can make yourself understood. In that, language has always been a mighty tool to me.
HW: Moving back to your background, I know your grandmother is from Alabama, but where are you from originally?
AM: I am originally from Trenton, N.J. My family migrated up north. My grandmother migrated up North to northern New Jersey. My mother and father settled in Trenton, N.J., which is where I was born and partially raised. So I’ve got some Southern and decidedly Northeastern cultures inside of me.
HW: I love that. I love hearing the stories of migration. What were the languages and dialects like in Trenton in your neighborhood that you grew up hearing?
AM: That’s a great question. A number of things actually. We heard Spanish; there are parts of Trenton that were, in the ‘80s, largely Puerto Rican. We heard Southern Black English. We heard urban and Northern Black English. We heard the “King’s” English. It was a very eclectic mix of languages, dialects, and tonal influences. It was very resonant with me, primarily again, because I love sound so much. It also influenced music, which plays a big role for me and how I think about poetry. All of these influences converged at some point inside of my thinking.
HW: I love that! Music as a kind of influence for poetry. … I think people don’t often consider how deeply influential music can be to the creative process. …You talked about having a lot of different music inside of you, but is there a particular genre or artist or band that when you sit down and want to write that you say, “Yeah, I’m going to listen to this person today, because I want to be this in type of mood for this work that I’m doing right now”
AM: That’s a great question. ‘80s R&B is kind of on constant rotation and I don’t know why! [laughs] That influences me. But there are certain times when I really need to hear classical music especially when I’m trying to be serious about something. I’m a huge fan of Maurice Ravel. He’s a fascinating composer for me for a lot of reasons. He composed a song “Bolero,” which when you hear it, you’ll know it immediately. When he first composed that piece of music, people thought that he was insane, because there was so much repetition inside of the piece. It was all intentional, of course, but also a reflection of his neurodivergent landscape. If the spirit moves me, I listen to rock and roll. I really like the White Stripes. If the spirit moves me even more, then I’ll listen to some gospel. I’ve never disregarded any genre of music and thought that it was off limits to me because of my experience. So if I like something, I just like it… I’ll even listen to chamber music sometimes. There’s no genre in particular that gets the creative juices flowing. It’s kind of all of them.
HW: So you were partially raised in Trenton, where else were you raised?
AM: I went to school and lived in a small town in Pennsylvania after my parents divorced. The town was called Fairless Hills, Pa. It was a steel mill town; so it was working-class and incredibly white. We moved as one of the few Black families in that town—mostly for the school district. I was in public schools my entire educational career except when I got to college. Moving from a city to a small town was a culture shock. I went from a ‘Black is the majority’ experience to an environment in which I was the other. I took what I needed to take from there, got a decent education, moved out and moved on.
HW: Definitely. How has that feeling of being “othered” affected the way you feel about poetry, the way you write, and what you write about?
AM: That’s a great question. One of the things I decided when I started writing poetry seriously was that I did not want to sound like anybody else. So, I had been so accustomed to being “other” that it was nothing to be “other” in poetry and to want to assert my individuality and be who I am. Which is to say, the voice inside of my poems is fairly distinctive. The forms that I play with are newly re-engineered forms, or they are older forms that I’ve broken in some way. That’s where my interest lies in poetry. How do you innovate? What does it mean to innovate poetry? In this discipline that is thousands of years old, what does one do to innovate it? How do you do that without thinking you’re more important than you actually are? The answer I find time and again: Just be who you are. I don’t find myself to be particularly important, but I find myself to be myself if that makes sense. I want my voice to be certain and full of breadth in my poems. It’s important to me that I am not taking on some sort of affectation or trying to sound different than I sound or me trying to write differently than I know how to write. I’m not trying to affect anyone else’ style. I just want to have my own and be distinctive. When I got older, I started thinking about it less as being “othered” and more as being myself. If we embrace the idea that we’re all others, because none of us are completely alike, then the idea of “other” becomes a lot less invasive and malicious. It becomes a lot more intentional.
HW: In delving into this concept of identity, I want to talk about your identity as a writer. In watching and reading interviews of authors over the years, I have noticed that some experienced periods of disconnect in which they didn’t necessarily feel comfortable identifying themselves as writers. Instead, a lot of them chose to just identify themselves as people who write. Do you think there’s a distinction and have you ever experienced this sort of disconnect in feeling that you were not necessarily a poet, but a person who writes poetry?
AM: For me, it’s how words and action become very important in terms of identification. When I think about whether I call myself a writer, it has everything to do with whether I’m writing. I call myself a writer because I write. I think that action helps me to self-identify. I’ve never really had an issue where I thought “maybe, I’m not a writer,” because I’m always writing. It’s no different for me with thinking about (I have four children) being a mother. I’m a mother because I mother. It’s the act of mothering that makes me call myself a mother. The action of writing makes me call myself a writer. I don’t want to get too caught up in the semantics. I understand why some people have to say, “well, I’m a person that writes” or why someone doesn’t want to call themselves a poet over a fiction writer. I understand all that. My reality is that I write poetry. You can call me what you want. I’m going to stick to the action. I’ll let others worry about the name. I’ll stick to the verb.
HW: Regardless of what you call yourself, we know that you are the winner of the prestigious 2016 Yale Series of Younger Poets for your collection of poetry “Simulacra.” You are the second Black woman to win this award, the first being, of course, Margaret Walker in 1942. That’s quite a gap for Black female winners for this award. Do you have any thoughts about this gap and your identity as the second Black woman to this award?
AM: You know, Margaret and I are, actually, the only Black people period to win this award. There hasn’t even been a Black man to this award. It’s a tremendous honor. I do think about that. I want to carry the mantle that Margaret Walker carried, and I have revered and honored and admired her work for many, many years. …You think about the greats who’ve come before, and she’s definitely one of them. I consider it an honor. I don’t know what happened in that gap. What happened in those generations? There was a full generation between her year and my year. … Does that mean no one else deserved it? Absolutely not. It just means that we were two very fortunate people who were identified. The thing that gives me hope is that Black writers are out here doing it big, in a very big way. They’re putting in the work on the page every single day regardless of laurels. I think about that a lot. I called myself a writer for years before I ever won anything. I think looking at the work for answers has helped me tremendously because I don’t know why there’s that gap. Does it make sense? Not at all. I look out into the landscape and I see so many talented Black authors who surely put a manuscript in for the Yale, but I’m just thankful for it. I think one of the things that the Yale Younger offered Margaret and I was a platform and space to continue our writing and advocacy. Whenever awarded anything, we can’t overlook the importance of helping other writers. We can’t overlook generosity as one of the fundamental pillars of the writer’s life. To the degree that I can use the platform to provide that same level of advocacy, I’m all for it.
HW: I love that you’re interested in helping others learn to write but also thinking about writers who have inspired you, particularly Black female writers. You talked about Margaret Walker. Are there any other Black women writers and poets, past or present, whose work you love or whose work has touched you in really meaningful ways?
AM: Absolutely. In the present, I’m thinking of Vievee Francis. Vievee was my first poetry teacher, and I didn’t step foot inside of her office until I was a grown woman with four children. I had a whole other life before I really dedicated my life to writing. I was still writing at that point, but the true dedication to just making a living from the writing was not what I was doing. I was performing quite a bit. Before that, I was doing a lot of activism work and community teaching. I wrote Vievee an email which said “I just really want to learn how to do this. I want a deeper engagement than what I’m doing.” Intuitively, I knew how to write, but I didn’t know the intricacies of the craft. I longed for a sister to say, “Hey, let me help you.” That’s exactly what she did, and she remains a stalwart mentor for me to this day. To be someone’s mentor is committing to care for that person, and she assuredly offers care and generosity, and I am eternally grateful to her. I want to give that Issa Rae quote that she gave when she was at the Emmys: “I’m rooting for everybody Black,” particularly women. There is so much beautiful work out there. June Jordan. Sonia Sanchez. Nikki Giovanni, Toni Morrison. Alice Walker. With all of these women, I can honestly say if not for them, then not me. I want to provide that same example for other writers of color. We lift up one because we lift up all. Every single Black woman who has ever put pen to paper has influenced me, quite frankly.
HW: That’s wonderful. The concept and practice of mentorship are really invaluable. It’s safe to say this is what you drew to choosing a career as an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing as well, right?
AM: Yeah, absolutely. I care so much about writing. I love language. I enjoy teaching and exploration primarily because I believe that teachers are mentors. They are your de facto mentors for a specific period of time. Their purpose is to guide you in some ways and to help you see things from different angles and different perspectives. They offer their keen consideration. I never impose my thoughts on my students; I just offer them consideration. I think the level of knowledge is so vast that it would be far too egotistical to believe that there’s only one way to do a thing or see a thing.
HW: As an assistant professor of creative writing at Bryn Mawr, what do you consider the single most necessary or important idea or concept about writing that you want to convey to your students?
AM: Revision. … I think about things like Twitter. You have 140 characters. Once you post a thing, that’s it. You can’t edit. It’s just there. You have to delete it, write it again, and put it back up; or it will be in the forever ether, mistakes and all. That’s lesson—good or bad. It teaches people how to spot their errors and correct them. Or, conversely, folks just leave it up there—which speaks to the need for a careful eye. If you think that in writing that first draft, you’ve written a finished product, your thinking is flawed. You have to write it and hone it. That takes patience and time. … Revision is everything. The first product is not the end product. We have to give ourselves time to be imperfect and work at making the poem better, sharper, crisper. Teaching that work ethic is important.
HW: Revision is change. We are in an age of change, rapid change in fact. Some people are loving it. It’s helping their identities to become more mainstream and accepted by larger society. There are some people who are uncomfortable with change. In this era of change, young people, particularly those pursuing higher education, are incredible agents of change. What is one thing that you hope to impress upon students at Jackson State University at the 75th anniversary of For My People symposium if nothing there’s nothing else they take away from what you say?
AM: Don’t lose hope. There are so many opportunities in which even if you’re only making a difference to yourself, you are making a change. Change gains momentum and change requires hope. The worst seat in the house is in despair. There’s power in action, revision, and in change. Don’t forfeit hope to despair.
HW: Beautifully stated. Our trajectories are not always straight; sometimes there curve a bit here and there. We cannot give up hope and sink into nihilism. That’s really important for young people to know. Moving forward, I understand that you’re working on a second book of poetry, and this book is said to be based on the issue of poverty and classism. In looking at America as a nation, we can say that most people here value equity to some extent. However, there are definitely strains of classism in a country that was at one point a British colony. First, what drew you to the topic of poverty? Next, at looking at issues of equity and social justice at large, do you believe writers are becoming more critical players in reshaping the ways that people think about these issues in our society?
AM: Yeah, I do. I think the creative mind has a lot to say about social issues. A lot of times, the conversations shut down as they relate to issues of inequality and justice since most of the arguments can be anticipated. If you can anticipate someone’s argument, that argument is probably old. You’ve had time to dissect it and think about it. A lot of that comes from the looking at the issue in the same way and not looking at an issue in a more nuanced way. I think what the creative mind does is that it offers a nuanced perspective on age-old issues, things that have plagued the human condition since before the first dawn.
I came to the idea of poverty, partly because one of my first graduate degrees concentrated in social policy. My undergrad degree is in Economics. I wanted to have a better understanding of how policy affects people. I was living in Detroit and saw exactly how white flight, fear, and isolationism changed the physical and emotional landscape of that city. It was devastating. Over the course of 50-75 years, the core population was predominantly Black and poor. Everyone else moved away. It was kind of a system that intentionally put Black folks in a very precarious position economically. I thought about that for years and wanted to understand the real-life implications of xenophobic policies.
While I lived in Detroit, the people I choose to spend time with were not necessarily people with all kinds of degrees. They were hardworking people who were willing to open their lives and share their stories with me. I’m interested in life as a long, persevering form. And it’s reflected in a lot of the new work, which through essay, prose and prose-poem form, pays homage to some of those good people. To try to condense any part of a struggle for the sake of a line break feels disingenuous to the struggle and the poem. The natural forms are making themselves known, and I’m thankful.
And although the second book is in a nascent stage, it’s coalescing around its own needs and my interests. I’m rather obsessed with the social dynamics of this country and how inequality takes shape on a global level. My husband’s cousin once said, ” Black people catch hell all over the globe.” And that rings true for all the images I see on an international scale. It doesn’t really matter where you live. Inequality, hunger, poverty, and xenophobia are not solely American problems, and certainly not only a Black problem. What I am saying is this: There is a global war being waged on both the spiritual and economic battlegrounds—the sites of our greatest poverties.
HW: Wow. I’m taking in everything you said, and I’m really fascinated with the idea of spiritual poverty and how it affects Black people globally. There’s the struggle of just trying to meet basic needs like having access to food, healthcare, quality education, etc. However, there’s also the struggle of occupying a hated position in society that is wrought with constant degradation and isolation. I think the work you’re doing is so incredible. I really enjoyed our conversation. I’ve learned so much about you as a person and also an author. I have just one last question before signing off. Have you ever been to Mississippi?
AM: I have never been. This is going to be my first time, and I’m looking forward to it!
HW: I’m really excited for you! Once again, thank you so much for joining me…I love talking to incredible Black women, and I really think the work you’re is doing so important.
AM: It was lovely to talk to you. Thank you so much! Best of luck to you.
*This story has been corrected in some responses for clarity.