By Caty Gordon
Matthew Shenoda is the author of two poetry collections, “Somewhere Else” (2005) and “Season of Lotus, Season of Bone” (2009). His poetry has earned him two nominations for a Pushcart Prize, named one of Poets & Writers Magazine debut book of the year, and earned the Hala Maskoud Award for Emerging Voice and won the 2006 American Book Award. He was also quoted by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a speech delivered after 9/11. Shenoda is currently serving as the Assistant Provost for Equity and Diversity and Professor in the School of Critical Studies at California Institute of the Arts. He took a few moments to share his thoughts on poetry and craft below.
You’ve published two books, “Somewhere Else” and “Seasons of Lotus, Seasons of Bone,” both of which have been lauded for their astute imagery, persuasiveness, and transnational appeal. Are you working on any projects now?
MS: Yes, I am currently working on a book-length poem called Song of Remembrance, which is written in an invented form. The form runs a total of ten stanzas and repeats itself for the length of the book. Much of the form is based on some interpretations of reggae rhythms and the “break” in the form is a syllabic translation of a specific piece of music written by the Nubian composer Hamza El Din. The work in general is quite cyclical and explores the trajectory of immigration, diaspora and the larger ideas of home. The piece is one long journey and meant to be read from virtually any point within the text. Each of the stanzas serves as a kind of meditation on these larger themes while telling a very non-linear narrative. It’s by far some of the most challenging work I’ve done and is completely immersive.
Where did you first see one of your poems in print and what was that experience like as an author?
MS: It must have been early on in my undergraduate education, likely through the university’s literary journal, if I recall correctly. I remember feeling like it was certainly a type of validation and it encouraged me to send work out to a broader range of journals, outside of my immediate circle at the time. By that point I had been working pretty seriously on my craft and the larger study of poetics and knew that writing and publishing was something that I wanted to explore, so to see my work along side the work of other contemporaries was in many ways an exhilarating feeling. It created a context and conversation that, to me, is one of the most exciting things about contemporary poetry. The way all these various works speak to one another is something I’ve always found intriguing. I like the idea of language speaking to language, I’ve always been invested in ideas of intersections and in many ways publishing in a journal or anthology is just that, it’s an exploration of intersections.
“Somewhere Else” and “Seasons of Lotus, Seasons of Bone” both dwell in the awareness of contemporary culture in terms of its relation to the past and engender listeners to question what is happening around them. Do you think that art can be successful at motivating audiences to partake in social change?
MS: I feel both indebted and somewhat fixated on the idea of history. Virtually everything I write engages this idea of history and continues to explore what it means to be from somewhere, to be from someone, to have a trajectory that has led to the present. In that vein, I think it’s deeply important to recall the past, to always contextualize our presence in that trajectory. In doing so, I think the larger ideas of social change become quite natural. It’s hard to not envision a new and changing world if you are truly engaged in the longer vision of the world, including the past. Often, I think we suffer from a kind of ahistorical perspective, one that completely ignores, or in some cases, intentionally hides the past. In that model of being, it’s hard to enact social change, it’s hard to give people the necessary tools to imagine a different kind of world. If you do not know where a thing comes from, what its purpose is, how it came to be, then it simply becomes a thing. You may like it, dislike it, but whatever the case it’s easy to be apathetic towards that thing. On the converse, when you know the history of something, understand its story and journey, you have a larger context for engagement to invest in the larger ideas of betterment. In that way, I think understanding past, asking questions about what’s happening around you etc. are all crucial elements of being fully human and I find there is no better way to engage these questions and explore these ideas than through art. Art is bound only by imagination and therefore allows the artists to explore as deeply or as minimally as they wish and thereby affords the viewer/reader/listener the same opportunity. There is no question that art has shaped the way societies understand themselves and move forward. At the core, art is ultimately about perspective and the artists job is to see the world anew so that those engaging the work can also see the world from a different angle and when we do so successfully, change is inevitable.
Some argue that the arts do not sustain a viable living. What would you say to those who might feel hesitant to pursue a career in the arts for fear it’s only a hobby and not a career path?
MS: Well, to be sure, the arts are in some manner a way of life, not a career. It’s far beyond either hobby or career. An artist will make their art no matter what their circumstances, I have always believed this. But to get at your question and this idea of making a living, I think it’s very important that artists find viable ways to integrate themselves into the larger world around them and to help shape the conversations of our society in every way they can. When we attempt this, we often find that a new space is made for us, a place at the table is set and sometimes this translates into the larger idea of a career. I think for many artists, isolation is the easy road. We do very solitary work, at least in part, and so it’s easy to relegate oneself and to also be relegated in a society that privileges profit over people. Art is ultimately a human thing, it is about an exploration of our complex and rich humanities, not about creating capital or products for simple consumption and this is where the tension often exists. However, I think we can be hopeful in arguing against such a binary and believing fully in the power of art and its ability to make societies better for all people. If we believe this then there is a place for us, in fact, society needs art more than art needs society. Art has always existed in nature, no matter what society springs up around it, but it’s we who need art to make our lives whole. If we truly believe this, then in some natural way, things will work out, whether we call it a career or simply a life, it’s no doubt a life worth living.
Many poems in “Somewhere Else” deal with homage to your grandmother or “Tata.” How do you balance writing intimately about family without crossing into sentimentality and still maintaining a strong cultural message?
MS: In many ways my works engagement with people, whether it be a grandmother or whomever, always carries with it a duality. In the specific case of my grandmothers, both of whom I’ve referenced in my work, it’s less about the individual and more a larger symbolism and stature, namely the place of elders. The idea of elders is very important to me as a way to connect the past with the present, as a way to carry forward knowledge, to keep alive the idea of a continuum. Elders should be venerated and celebrated and I try to do this whenever I can in my work. In terms of avoiding sentimentality, my work does this in part by not engaging so deeply in the personal. The personal is always present, it must be, but poetry must also be about more than one thing and for me, I’ve always been far less interested in ideas of individualism and more in the larger ideas of communalism. So, whenever a grandmother or other familial character enters into my work, it is often about recognizing relationships more than individuals. There is something so deeply complex about the way we as humans interact and intersect with one another and at least at this point in my life, that’s where much of my work leans.
Some of your poems employ internal rhyme (“Prayer for my People,” “Language,” and others) reminiscent of the reggae epigraphs throughout both books, leaving audiences to speculate that this music has inspired you. Has it? And what, in addition to sound and the history of Egypt, inspires your poetry?
MS: Music is crucial to me. I am one who believes that poetry is a form of music. I see little separation, conceptually, between the two. The significant difference in poetry is that language is the note and the breathe is the instrument. So, naturally, musical instrumentation, rhythms, melodies, etc feed a great deal of my work. I often hear language first and the rhythm and sound of language are just as and in some cases more important to me than the meaning. I am also inspired by music as an art form and always have been. I fell in love with music and music lyrics long before I ever discovered poetry and it has never left me. Reggae in particular has been a staple soundtrack throughout my life. There is a nexus in reggae music where the spiritual, the political and the sensual all come together that, to me, is unmatched in any other genre. This continues to be my greatest aspiration, it’s a blueprint for an incredibly full human expression that I seek to emulate in my work. In terms of inspiration other than Egypt in my work, I’m inspired by a great many things. I happen to have written largely about Egypt because it is part of a series of explorations for which I have been deeply engaged. I generally write in terms of book projects and it so happens that both my books so far have explored issues surrounding Egypt, which are both personal and endlessly fascinating to me. However, my work also engages a great deal with ecology, which I have always been very deeply inspired by, both in its most natural state and in its intersections with human culture. I suppose I am inspired most by the larger notion of what it means to be human and the ways we choose to live, the societies we shape, the ideas we propagate and most importantly the way we relate to one another and our larger environments, so I guess I am most inspired by people and the ways in which we shape culture.
Your poems rarely use to the first-person “I.” What is thematic or stylistic purpose of this?
MS: In many ways I’m not sure this was ever intentional, at least consciously. But because I often write in service to a larger exploration of ideas, cultures, communities etc., I never saw the “I” as being central. Also, as I mentioned a bit in the previous question, I am, at least at this point in my life, far less interested in ideas of individualism than the larger ideas of multiplicity. In fact, I’m not even convinced that the individual is what we say it is and certainly I think the largely western focus on individualism is to the greater detriment of society. I have always been interested in things that are perhaps seen as a bit “messy” and no doubt the idea of the “we” or the collective is far more messy than the idea of the “I” or the individual. Perhaps I feel that the “I” is too self absorbed or perhaps this particular “I” (me) is not that interesting to write about.
“Seasons of Lotus, Seasons of Bone” touches on cultural preservation and the idea of how knowledge works across generations. How do you see art (or your work particularly) as mending the division between the ancient world and modernity?
MS: In many ways, I think I touched on this previously, but for me it’s not so much about mending the division of past and present as it is about understanding it and learning from it. I feel that too often we have ignored the past, perhaps quite arrogantly, as a result we’ve not really moved on from it, even though we feign to have done so. I also find so much of the engagement we do have with the past is dishonest and often rushed, in an effort to not “rehash the past” or to “get over it.” These are all ways of ignoring and not truly engaging who and what has come before us. And because I believe that all things require context, knowing the past is an essential part of understanding the present and learning to live more fully. I suppose, in part, I believe that we’ve not reached anywhere near our potential as a human race and that we’ve restricted ourselves, that if we were to more honestly and directly engage the past, explore it, understand it, debate it, connect to it etc. we’d be able to create a far richer present and certainly a more peaceful and nuanced set of relationships between us.
Do you have any advice for aspiring poets who might be trying to break out into publishing or are struggling to find their poetic voice?
MS: The first thing I tell all young writers is that they must read and read and read and read! I suppose continuing on with the idea of engaging the past I am reminded of something James Baldwin once said, “If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go.” This is a critical idea for any young writer. We write in the context of a much larger body of writers and it is essential that a young writer not only know the works of the past, but the works of their contemporaries in the broadest sense possible. It is essential in relation to the idea of “finding a voice” that any young writer be able to locate themselves in the society they are writing in. We must, as writers, step outside of ourselves and engage a larger conversation. To me, this is a central part of publishing. The other advice I have is to live! It’s essential that you have a life outside of literature as well, that one is a fully engaged citizen in their world is a necessary part of the generative process of making art. As for publishing, it’s a tough process no doubt, but I have always believed that the work must come first and all else will follow. It’s dangerous to conflate the idea of publishing with the idea of writing. If you write a book or a poem and no one wants to publish it, you should no doubt keep at it if you believe in the work, but at the same time you must, absolutely must, keep writing!