Public Media Arts Hub

Mother and son who are both poet laureates work to inspire others


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: Becoming a poet laureate is a coveted role and rare honor, rarer still, having two laureates in the same family.

Jeffrey Brown went to Philadelphia to meet with a poetic family and hear how a mother-son duo works to bring poetry to a wider public. It is part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Airea D. Matthews, Poet Laureate of Philadelphia: Want moves between, or up, or down, or through the bloodline. Desire is spacious. Want is in the DNA.

Jeffrey Brown: Airea D. Matthews is Philadelphia's newest poet laureate.

Wes Matthews, Former Youth Poet Laureate of Philadelphia: I saw his body disfigured, out of place, barbed wire around the neck.

Jeffrey Brown: Wes Matthews is the city's former youth poet laureate. They are mother and son, perhaps the first such duo of their kind. We met recently at their family home.

Airea D. Matthews: When I first got the news last January that I was going to be the poet laureate, we were driving back from Florida. And I yelled back in the car to him: "Oh, I got the poet laureateship."

And then he yelled back to me and he said: "Legacy."


Jeffrey Brown: You handed it down.

Wes Matthews: I was being -- I was being tongue in cheek.


Jeffrey Brown: In fact, Wes was the first laureate in the family. He is the second of four children of Airea and her husband.

A self-described shy child, he came to poetry early on by watching YouTube videos of his mother. And it became a place to express himself.

Wes Matthews: Not everyone who has seen the bar of a cell knows of its coldness.

Jeffrey Brown: By 2018, at age 17, he was named youth poet laureate by the Free Library of Philadelphia. Last year, the library named Airea Philadelphia's sixth poet laureate.

Airea D. Matthews: I encouraged you to apply. Then you encouraged me to apply.

Wes Matthews: Yes. I think that's kind of symbolic of the type of relationship we have as a whole, I mean, this constant encouragement.

Jeffrey Brown: Airea grew up in a working-class family in Trenton, New Jersey.

Airea D. Matthews: Poetry was not on the agenda or on the forefront of anyone's mind when it came to, what are the possibilities for a career? What are possibilities to sustain you?

Jeffrey Brown: She got degrees in economics and public administration, before adding poetry to the mix, first as part of the poetry slam scene in Detroit, and then getting a master's of fine arts at the University of Michigan.

Her 2016 debut poetry collection, "Simulacra," was selected for the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets. She is now associate professor and co-director of the creative writing department at Bryn Mawr College.

Airea D. Matthews: I just try and hold space for the very many me's, you know, the service Airea, the poet Airea, trying to wear very many hats, the teacher Airea, all very different, but working toward the same goal.

Jeffrey Brown: Her commitment to service is what drew her to the laureate position. Outside the main branch of the Philadelphia Free Library, she spoke of wanting to make poetry more available, giving poets new platforms to reach audiences, and bringing poetry to public places for people who don't usually have access to it.

Airea D. Matthews: You might see a public projection. You might see a poem scrawled on a sidewalk. The sites that I'm targeting around the city are sites of distress. It's a redirection.

My hope is that those thoughts redirect and lead to a library, something where you can get a book in your hand. People may never come in contact with a hard copy of a text, but you can still interact with a text. It can still interact with you. And I can say that the literary has changed my life, so I'm hoping that it has the power to do that for other folks.

Wes Matthews: I do love Philadelphia. It's a beautiful city. I'm glad I have gotten a chance to serve it.

Jeffrey Brown: Wes Matthews, now a senior at the University of Pennsylvania studying anthropology and religion, has also inherited a strong sense of service.

Wes Matthews: For me to feel fulfilled, there needs to be something hands-on. There needs to be something more concrete, where I feel like I can help, and I can serve, and I can be directly involved in the life paths of people, community.

Jeffrey Brown: He writes and spends time at the campus' Kelly Writers House, editing recordings of readings and performances. He also works with local students, something that began during his time as youth poet laureate, teaching poetry workshops and music lyric writing.

Wes Matthews: It really feels like A full circle of poetry. It feels like the fulfillment of the poetic impulse for me.

Just like my mother'S YouTube videos and her performances inspired me all those years ago, I still -- I want to be a vector of that inspiration for other people when I can.

Airea D. Matthews: It is possible to fall.

Wes Matthews: In terrible love with burning.

Airea D. Matthews: Into jet bile currents.

Wes Matthews: Double meters, calinda bomba body's gentle gestures to the drummer.

Jeffrey Brown: At one event at the Kelly Writers House, Airea asked her son to join her reading her poem "Rebel Fugue."

Some people worry about how many young people are reading these days or taking to poetry. What do you see?

Airea D. Matthews: I see very young, brilliant writers who are looking at the world with a critical lens and an artistic lens at the same time.

I think I see this ability to see outside of oneself. We're in the age of technology where the world is no larger than the screen that sits 10 inches in front of your face. And I'm seeing these students who are able to interpret a world beyond a screen. And that feels very encouraging to me.

Wes Matthews: There are lot of people who don't think that poetry or music exists within themselves. They think -- like, a lot of people think of a poet as being this essential, discrete category, like you either have it or you don't.

And I have never viewed it that way. To write poetry, you need radical encouragement and radical engagement, because it's hard. It requires observation and it requires that you process observation in a certain way. But it's beautiful and it's fulfilling and it's feeling.

Jeffrey Brown: You got that?

Airea D. Matthews: I did.

Jeffrey Brown: The radical encouragement.

Airea D. Matthews: Radical encouragement.

Jeffrey Brown: Between all their other roles, both Matthews continue their own writing. Airea's next book of poetry, "Bread and Circus," will come out in the spring.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Philadelphia.

Amna Nawaz: What a beautiful family tradition.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.