Airea Matthews is named the Yale Younger Poet for her ‘rollicking, destabilizing’ debut collection

Airea D. Matthews, a Detroit-based poet and 2013 Pushcart Prize nominee, has been selected the 2016 Yale Younger Poet for her manuscript “simulacra.”

The prize, the oldest annual literary award in the United States, is awarded by Yale University Press. Critically acclaimed poet Carl Phillips selected Matthews as the winner of the competition, which is open to emerging poets who have not previously published a book of poetry and who reside in the United States.

“Rebellion is the first word that comes to mind, when reading ‘simulacra,’ Airea Matthews’s rollicking, destabilizing, at once intellectually sly and piercing and finally poignant debut,” says Phillips. “The main rebellion here is against all formal expectations of what a book of poetry is or ‘should’ be — Narcissus communicates by Tweets, Anne Sexton sends texts from death to a recipient who may or may not be dead; there’s a miniature opera; there are upended nods to the epistolary tradition, prose poems, even a Barthes-influenced calculus. The subject matter is no less various — from miscegenation to Gertrude Stein, from estranged love to Wittgenstein — but a particular constant is the theme of wanting: on one hand, wanting as desire, for safety, for faith, for a way to know the self; and on the other hand, wanting as lack, lack both as emptiness and as a motivating force behind the quest for an end to emptiness. And if language itself is empty, and all we have, when it comes to knowing? This is the governing, haunting question behind these always meaningfully provocative poems — poems, yes, but very much, also, poems as epistemology.”

Yale University Press will publish “simulacra” in April 2017. The manuscript is Phillips’s sixth selection as judge and the 111th volume in the series. Phillips’s fourth selection, Noah Warren’s “The Destroyer in the Glass,”will be published by Yale University Press on March 29.

Matthews is a 2015 Kresge Literary Arts Fellow. She is currently the assistant director of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where she earned her M.F.A., and the executive editor of “The Offing,” a channel of the Los Angeles Review of Books. Her poems have appeared in “Best American Poetry 2015,” edited by Sherman Alexie, and in American Poet, Four Way Review, The Missouri Review, The Baffler, Callaloo, Indiana Review, WSQ, and elsewhere. Matthews’ fiction and essays have appeared in SLAB, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Vida: Her Kind. Her performance work has been featured at the Cannes Lions Festival, PBS’ RoadTrip Nation and NPR. A Cave Canem and Callaloo fellow, Matthews lives in Detroit with her husband and their four children.

Awarded since 1919, the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize celebrates the most prominent new American poets by bringing the work of these artists to the attention of the larger public. Earlier winners of the prize include such talents as Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, Jack Gilbert, Jean Valentine, and Robert Hass. 

Yale University Press will also continue its partnership with The James Merrill House. Winners of the Series will receive one of the five writing fellowships offered at The James Merrill House in Stonington, Connecticut. The fellowship provides a furnished living space and daily access to James Merrill’s apartment for a writer in search of a quiet setting to complete a project of literary or academic merit.

An excerpt from Matthew’s poem “Rebel Prelude” follows:


       either way, the infested pepper dangling by

       frayed browning stem threads caught both

       our attention — how did that parasite get inside?

       you mumbled about larvae.

       but I knew it was a winged thing

       a puncture, a black and wicked door


Matthews can be followed on Twitter @aireadee.