Poet Wes Matthews combines writing, music, research, and service

The fourth-year’s mother, Penn alumna Airea Matthews, is the Philadelphia Poet Laureate.

Wes Matthews standing outside surrounded by tree leaves.
A former Youth Poet Laureate of Philadelphia, Wes Matthews is a fourth-year anthropology major and religious studies minor in the College of Arts and Sciences. 

Like mother, like son. Like son, like mother.

Poet Wes Matthews is a fourth-year at the University of Pennsylvania and a former Philadelphia Youth Poet Laureate. His mother, poet Airea D. Matthews, is a Penn alumna and the current Philadelphia Poet Laureate. She’s the first to read his work. He’s the first to read hers.

And he is finding his voice through writing, just as she did.

“I think poetry is an art form: It's an art form of imagination. But I also think it's about questioning what's hidden. It’s about looking at the simple experiences of life and interrogating those, seeing what’s under the veil,” he says. “I want to write about small moments. I want to step outside of myself.”

An associate professor of creative writing at Bryn Mawr College, Airea Matthews says her son Wes has “grown into the man that he will be in the world at Penn. He’s grown in his wisdom as a writer and a poet, and his instincts have gotten sharper, and his trust in himself as a writer has gotten sharper. And that's really what has to grow as a writer; you have to be able to trust yourself.”

Wes Matthews’ writing goes beyond poetry. An anthropology major and a religious studies minor in the College of Arts and Sciences, he is one of 12 Undergraduate Research Fellows with Penn’s Wolf Humanities Center, and his research project focuses on the culture of Black male rap artists in Detroit, where he grew up. He writes articles for the student-run “t-art magazine” and works as an audio/visual assistant at the Kelly Writers House. As part of his commitment to community service, he spent the summer as an intern teaching assistant for the Summer Workshop for Young Writers working with rising high school juniors and seniors.

Wes Matthews hands out papers during a class
Matthews was a teaching assistant during the Kelly Writers House Summer Workshop. 

Wes Matthews shares his poetry as a spoken-word artist, rhythm driving his performances. Which is not surprising, since he is also a musician, self-taught on guitar and piano, and in a band with his childhood friends.

For him, music is inextricably linked to his poetry, academic research and journalistic writing. He has an extensive vinyl collection, heavy on 1960s and ‘70s Motown, the album covers as artwork on the walls of his West Philadelphia apartment.

“I love records. I want to hear what people heard back then, and it feels like an authentic music listening experience for me to listen to music of that time as it was intended to be listened to,” he says. “I play them when I'm studying. It kind of gives me the head space of solitude and being away from the phone, being away from digital streaming, being away from digital media.”

Detroit and Philadelphia

Born in Detroit, where his father is from, his family moved to Philadelphia, where his mother is from, just before he entered the 11th grade in high school, at the Science Leadership Academy in Center City.

His mother says he has always been quiet, curious, observing, questioning. He remembers that he was fascinated with the poetry books on his mother’s shelf, her spoken-word events, and her readings on video.

Wes Matthews and his mother Airea standing outside
Wes Matthews (right) and his mother, Airea Matthews, in 2019, his first year at Penn. (Image: Courtesy of Wes Matthews)

When he started writing his own poetry in middle school, she says she noticed that he had a natural talent for it, “just the way that he would turn a mundane thing into a metaphor.” She encouraged him to enroll in creative writing afterschool programs to find a community.

“I realized this what I really enjoy doing,” he says. “Not just because I get to write and express myself, but because I get to be around people and listen to them express themselves.”  

It became clear to his mother that he would become “a force” as a writer, when, around the time that Trayvon Martin was killed, he wrote the poem “Emmitt Till Infinity,” which he performed at 15 years old in a TedX talk.  “It was just one of those special moments when you begin to realize, oh, this is a legacy, this is something that is in him,” she says.

Airea Matthews was an economics major at Penn and worked in the corporate world after graduating in 1994. But she changed course mid-career, getting a master’s in public policy in 2004 and a master’s in fine arts in 2013, both from the University of Michigan, where she joined the English Department faculty. She has been teaching at Bryn Mawr since 2017, when the family moved to Philadelphia.

Community and community service

With that move Wes, the second of four children, came out of the shadow of his big brother, who stayed in Michigan for college. “It kind of forced me to crack open my shell a bit, and live as my own person,” he says.

And that opening allowed him to consider applying to be the Youth Poet Laureate, encouraged by his mother and his teachers. “In my application I said something along the lines of poetry is great, but really what I care about is people, what I care about is empathy and fellowship,” he says. “I feel like poetry at the end of the day for me is only half full unless I have people to share it with and for people to talk about poetry with and learn from.”

Community service is expected of the Laureate, and Matthews created a series of poetry workshops, sharing poems in an open mic format at the Free Library of Philadelphia.

“Wes has always had a heart for service,” says Airea Matthews. “He loves working with kids. He loves connecting with them.”

Wes Matthews and Jamie-Lee Josselyn stand together in a doorway outside the Kelly Writers House
Jamie-Lee Josselyn (right) worked with Matthews during the Summer Workshop for Young Writers at the Kelly Writers House. 

This summer Wes Matthews worked with high school students as a teaching assistant for the Kelly Writers House at the Summer Workshop for Young Writers. The internship through the Summer Humanities Internship Program was sponsored by Penn’s Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships, and comes with an award of $5,000.

The residential program for 20 students, held July 10-20, required weeks of preparation, long days during the workshop, and an assignment for Matthews to edit and assemble an anthology of the student writing afterward.

“Wes takes such care with every aspect of his work, whether it's filling out a spreadsheet of information about our student participants, or writing comments on student essay drafts, or writing his final reflections to each individual member of the student group,” says Jamie-Lee Josselyn, director of the Summer Workshop.

The tradition of giving “final words” at the end of a session is a sacred one at the Writers House. “In my 18 years here, I’ve never seen anyone handwrite something for everybody in the room, but Wes did, and the students were all just so pleased and so grateful,” she says.

He also shared a personal original essay that helped “set the tone” for the workshop, Josselyn says. “He wrote a really gorgeous piece, kind of a tough piece, about the pandemic and being alone and how that felt,” she says. “It was definitely written through the voice of a poet, and he did a great job reading it.”

Matthews says the internship gave him valuable experience working with high school students. “Teaching brings me a lot of joy because it combines my passions for knowledge, human-to-human connection, writing, and youth development," he says.

As a Silverman Fellow through Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships he has for the past year been working in the music program at West Philadelphia High School, holding workshops with students around the art of making hip hop music.

Finding his way at Penn

Arriving at Penn, Matthews says he wanted to be part of the Kelly Writers House and its diverse community. He applied for a job there his first semester and has been an assistant at the Wexler Studio ever since, working with Zach Carduner, coordinator of the recording studio. “Wes has done a great job with us,” says Carduner.

Matthews mixes and edits podcasts and student projects, and creates audio segments for the poetry archive PennSound, and the podcast PoemTalk. He helps video and record the Writers House speakers and programs and take photos at the events.

Wes Matthews takes a photo with a camera
One of the jobs Matthews has as part of his work at the Kelly Writers House is to take photographs of events. 

“I get to hear every word of the authors and writers and artists who come in and give talks,” he says. “I've come across all types of writing that have captured my interest in different ways and I've met people, writers, who I wouldn't have met otherwise.”

Wes Matthews chose anthropology as a major, based on his “deep appreciation and love for humanity, and deep and profound longing to understand people and culture,” encouraged by his father, Emery Matthews, to enter a field in which he “wasn’t going to be totally comfortable” as he might have been in English. He says instead of music for a minor, he chose religious studies. “I realized when I was writing about music, I was also writing about faith and people's beliefs, because I think music, culture, and belief systems are like inextricably entwined,” he says.

As one of 12 Undergraduate Fellows at Penn’s Wolf Humanities Center, Matthews’ project is titled “Architecture of Disillusion: A Qualitative Study of Nihilism Among Black Men in Hip Hop Performance.” His research of Black male rappers in Detroit is focused on the “structural and environmental factors that give rise to a pathological rejection of the intrinsic value of human life,” taking on the concept of “music as a vessel whereby these values consolidate and get passed on.”

He started the research last year for a capstone project in a seminar with Lauren Ristvet, associate professor of anthropology; work he will expand on for his senior thesis. Matthews went to Detroit several weekends and hung out with performers, and read a variety of theorists, ending up connecting hip hop with religion. Ristvet says he was a “star” student.

“Wes is super brilliant and he’s very motivated,” says Ristvet, noting that he completed 14 interviews instead of the expected four or five.

Music and poetry

 Music also keeps him connected with his friends in Detroit, part of a band named Critical Theory (his mother’s suggestion) that they put together in high school. Meeting mostly virtually, they write their own music and instrumentation, collaborating with artists in Detroit and Philadelphia.

They play what they call “riot jazz,” jazz-inspired hip-hop. “Riot meaning kind of resisting or rebelling against norms or expectations,” he says. “And then jazz, as in a kind of freeform, kind of flowing, reflection of the inner soul.”

His vinyl album collection, now numbering in the hundreds, started with the gift from his grandmother of either “Purple Rain” by Prince or “Songs in the Key of Life” by Stevie Wonder, he says, when he received a record player for his 18th birthday.

Wes Matthews leaning in a doorway at the Kelly Writers House
Matthews says he plans to write poetry throughout his life, and hopes someday to collaborate on a poem or book with his mother. 

The music informs his poetry. “He's listening to the full composition, the lyrics but also the music behind the beat, the durations, the pauses, the loudness, the softness. And I think that tenderness that sensitivity helps him in his writing,” his mother says. “He has this lovely command of longer lines. He listens to music with such a keen ear that when he comes to the poem he asserts that same sensibility.”

In other creative pursuits he’s joined a songwriting collective at Penn and is on staff of the student publication “t-art” magazine, often writing about music -- reviews, history, artists – including “Rediscovering Blackness in the Aesthetics of Country Music,” and “Freedom and Love in Aaron Taylor’s Icarus,” although his latest article is about fireworks. And he is an integral part of the Excelano Project spoken-word group, which he joined his first year at Penn.

“It's pretty amazing to see him perform his poetry, which is exceptional,” Carudner says, “because he adopts a totally different persona. He has a performative flair that you'd never suspect talking to him in a ‘normal’ work context.”

While his work was awarded the School of Arts & Sciences 2020 College Alumni Society Prize for a poetry collection and the 2020 Lilian and Benjamin Levy Prize for music criticism, he says he’s not in it for the recognition.

“I think I will always be writing poetry because writing is a way to engage the world. But I don't want it to feel forced,” he says. “I don't put so much pressure on myself to submit, or to share, or to perform, because right now it's about new and challenging experiences for me. Maybe in the future, I'll write on them and reflect on them. But right now I'm really focused on living in the moment.”

A sampling of poetry by Wes Matthews: "Three Poems by Wes Matthews" in "Scoundrel Time"; "In Celebration: After Lucille Clifton" in "NY92"; "1995: Mariah Carey, Daydream" in "SIXTYEIGHT2OHFIVE"; and "Aubade" in "Muzzle Magazine".