Philadelphia names youth poet laureate

Wes Matthews, 17, a rising senior at Science Leadership Academy, is Philadelphia's new Youth Poet Laureate.

Wes Matthews, 17, a senior at Science Leadership Academy, is Philadelphia's new youth poet laureate. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The Free Library of Philadelphia has named the city’s new youth poet laureate.

Wes Matthews, a 17 year-old senior at Science Leadership Academy, was born and raised in Detroit where he was active in poetry slams and competed nationally at the annual Brave New Voices festival.

He is new to Philadelphia, having relocated here a year ago with his family as his mother, the poet Airea D. Matthews, was hired to the faculty of Bryn Mawr College. The move was relatively smooth.

“Outside of Philadelphia, everyone thinks the Philly scene is very robust and together,” he said. “I’m very blessed to come to such a poetry-strong city like Philadelphia.”

Matthews immediately dove into the local poetry scene, wasting no time before getting involved with the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement (which competes strongly at Brave New Voices) and popping up at readings and slams.

“We were impressed by how quickly he has enmeshed himself in Philadelphia and become part of the Philadelphia youth poetry community,” said Andrew Nurkin, the library’s director of civic engagement who sits on the selection committee. “It’s a pretty tight-knit group, and he’s been part of that since he moved here.”

Matthews often writes about African-American history, and the way that history marks bodies. For a performance at TedX Detroit, he read his poem “Emmet Till Infinity,” which opens:

I saw a body disfigured.
Out of place. Barbed wire around the neck.
Eyes gouged out. One shot, or two,
inhaled by soft tissue, stomped
straight on another down-south Saturday,
the bones and black flesh peeled back flush
into the veins of simmer Money, Mississippi summer

“I think history is a trapped thing. It’s something in a box that we’re always adding to, and not taking anything out,” he said. “I use my poetry to contemplate who we are, and how we are, and why this order came to be.”

While his poems can be brutal in a corporeal sense, they also have a deft sense of wordplay. Matthews likes the sounds of words — how a single word can roll around inside both a mouth and a brain. Before he started writing seriously, Matthews said he used to read the dictionary for pleasure.

“I think of poetry the same way an architect thinks of their craft,” said Matthews. “You can look at something and be, like, ‘Wow, that’s pretty.’ But also, you know, there’s math behind it, there’s law behind it.”

I much rather rejoice
that God has let me
drain these two bronze-earth slats from
the bassening cello & frenzy
– from “Touching Fire”

The youth poet laureate – just as the adult laureate, currently Raquel Salas Rivera – is selected not just for that writer’s quality of work but the promise to coordinate civic events around poetry. Matthews does not yet know what his civic project will be, but it may involve youth poetry programs in prisons and detention centers.

“On the page and in person, he has a real humility,” said Nurkin. “He’s confident in his writing, but has a real humility that we thought would serve him well in this position as he listens and learns.”

The youth poet laureate is a one-year position.

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