“Tremble with the world”: Airea D. Matthews (MPA ‘07) on using the arts as an avenue for change

December 6, 2023

Airea D. Matthews (MPA ‘07) dreamt of being a writer since she was a child. As she got older, she struggled to identify a clear path that turned her dream into reality. “My working-class roots didn’t seem to make space for sustainable possibilities in the arts,” she said. “Much of my life has been spent doing things I don’t like, figuring that out, then going into things I eventually think are okay, then finally finding the thing I really love.”

After nearly a decade in the private sector, she was accepted into the Ford School. There, her Ford School writing instructor Elena Delbanco helped her identify writing opportunities that expanded her scope beyond the corporate realm, and she began to see arts as an avenue for change. “I had never had anybody tell me that before, that I could be a writer,” Matthews explained. “I don’t even know how to express how helpful going to policy school was for me and my creative life. Much of how I come to the page has been influenced by sitting around tables at the Ford School and having these tremendous conversations with peers, colleagues, and faculty members.”

Following a poetry reading hosted by the Center for Racial Justice on November 9, Matthews chatted with Ford School writing instructor Molly Spencer about her latest poetry collection Bread and Circus, a-memoir-in-verse that grapples with economic theory, marginal poverty, and commodification through a personal lens. “Bread and Circus is really trying to consider how theories impact our lived experiences,” Matthews explained. “How we can believe one thing and act in another way, and how complicated and complex we are as human beings. We’re not just one thing, we’re many things. It’s okay to be all that you are. It’s okay to be too much. One of the beauties of poetry is that you can live on the page as authentically as you like.”

When asked by Spencer what her advice would be for Ford School students, and for all people who care about the world and each other, Matthews replied thoughtfully, “The world can be a mutilated place, but the moment we decide that we want to tremble with it and be a witness to what’s happening, that goes a long way. Our hearts change. As our hearts change, our minds change.”

Bread and Circus is available in ebook and print.

Airea D. Matthews holds an MFA from the Helen Zell Writers’ Program and an MPA from the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, both at the University of Michigan. In 2022, she was named Philadelphia’s Poet Laureate. She is an associate professor and co-directs the poetry program at Bryn Mawr College.

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