by Lauren K. Alleyne
Matthew Shenoda’s poems are personal and cultural cartographies of the African diasporic experience. Through deft maneuvers of mode, myth, and masterful imagery, he conjures for readers simultaneous experiences of rootedness and loss, stillness and movement, permanence and ephemerality. It is a poetry that inhabits a space “somewhere between home and home,” as in “The Calendar We Live,” claiming simultaneously that “there is never a place where we cannot begin” and that “There is something inside / each of us / that scurries toward the past,” as in Somewhere Else (Coffee House Press, 2005). The poems stage the diasporic realities of displacement, disenfranchisement, and dispossession, making it plain in poems like “Dispatches from the New World Order” that “it is clear that we have lost something / in this space of translucent snaking and palm shadow adaptations.”
However, even as the poems catalog loss, they are more than mere lamentation. The poems are also acts of reclamation and agency, lifting up through language and into light people and experiences that exist otherwise in the shadow of the margins. In “After the World Trade Center Is Destroyed, America Waves Its True Flag, the Crimson, Brown Men’s Blood,” he writes, “I will reclaim your face / from down in this valley / and bring it wrapped in myrrh / to your children who wear it well.”
Here too is a poetry, both ancient and contemporary, that reaches through time to bring into the present the wisdom of what has come before — a poetry, as exemplified by these lines from “Survival,” that instructs us to “remember your name / your marrow / and by whose blood you survive.” No struggle is new, and with this conviction, the poems offer memory as a way forward, history as a map to the liberation that titles his third collection. In Tahrir Suite (Triquarterly, 2014), through the voice of a recast Isis, Shenoda writes “God gave you agency / that you may one day discover it.” The future hinges on the gifts of the past, which gives the mythical and cultural references infused throughout Shenoda’s work even more potency.
While the poems commit to cultural recovery and empowerment, it is not at the expense of a commitment to craft. Sometimes spare, sometimes thick, Shenoda’s poems offer images that incite both urgency and wonder. Lines such as these in Tahrir Suite — “if unshackling were a song / I’d slide my palm on skin / and watch it trail to air” — give the yearning for liberation sensory and embodied life. Others such as this line from his poem “Relics” in the collection Somewhere Else — “I am the fingers of a woman whose knuckles live beneath a flower box” — jolt us from the sludge of familiar language.
In the fall of 2017, Matthew Shenoda and his co-editor of the anthology Bearden’s Odyssey (Triquarterly, 2017), Kwame Dawes, were featured poets in the Furious Flower reading series at James Madison University, and I interviewed them both for The Fight & The Fiddle. What follows is a transcript of my conversation with Shenoda, which has been lightly edited for clarity.
Tell me about your history, particularly as it relates to poetry: How did you come to poetry?
Well, in many ways I came to poetry through a couple of avenues, primarily through music, having grown up not being an avid poetry reader as a young child, but being very deeply into music and into lyricism in particular, and then later on, probably around high school age, discovering various poets and seeing the links there. I’ve never had a great aptitude for musical instruments, so I started to lean towards poetry.
But in many other ways poetry has always been a part of my life, even if not explicitly so. I grew up — I am — Coptic, one of the indigenous groups of people from Egypt, and I grew up in the Coptic Orthodox Church, so the Book of Psalms and many of the liturgical prayers were a very central part of my upbringing, and in that is a great deal of poetry. So the idea of lyricism, I think, has always been part of my consciousness.
For me, thinking about the way that the line breaks down musically is just as important as other forms of craft and content.
You mentioned music, and something I picked up from the poems immediately is that they’re really heavily musical. I feel a drawing on blues, jazz, and I could hear a deep ancestral music. How do you translate that into your own line? What are some techniques you use to infuse the poems with that musicality?
You know, I think that music and poetry are in many ways one and the same. I hear poems first, often, and I compose in my head before I begin writing, often, and for me there has to be a kind of meter and rhythm to the work for the line to carry through. Because music is a very central part of my life in general — I listen to a lot of music — I think that language always forms in that way first; if something doesn’t sound right, then in the revision process that’s an immediate red flag for me.
I also believe in the oral element of the art form as well; its ability to be spoken and read is really important. For me, thinking about the way that the line breaks down musically is just as important as other forms of craft and content.
What’s your relationship to form? What’s your favorite form to write in? How do you think about form when you’re composing?
I often think about it in relation to the specific poem. So Tahrir Suite is a book-length poem about the Egyptian Revolution, and I began that poem in actually a much more stringent form than it appears in the book; I created a 10-stanza form that was based in part on the composition of a Nubian musician by the name of Hamza El Din. He has this beautiful piece called “Water Wheel,” and I kind of roughly translated some of the musicality of that composition into various lines and created this repetitive form, and initially had written the book entirely in that form. But it became too repetitive, so I went back and began to break it up. But you still see certain elements of that in there. So his composition in many ways feeds into that. I’m very strongly engaged in roots reggae music in particular, and so there are elements in some of those offbeat rhythms in there as well.
I’m still in the 10-stanza invented/collaborative form that you transposed. So is form, for you, a part of the composition? Is it in the revision? Does the poem kind of demand its own form? How?
I think each individual poem does certainly. I don’t consider myself a formalist poet; in this case, that piece of music was a really compelling work in relation to the content and the subject matter of the book. So I actually translated some of the musical composition into syllabic counts based on the musical foot in that particular piece of music. But in general, I think the form generally ends up deciding itself as I move through the piece. I think form becomes important in the ability to reflect content in various ways.
The books are thick with a sense of space and place. Talk a little bit about what it means to write “home,” and maybe about how home shifts?
Well, I think this is an unending question, but I think there’re several things that I’m somewhat fixated on: history, or ancestry, is certainly one of them. The idea of home and what that means and how that shifts, I think, is a theme in everything that I write. But also, thinking about how culture moves across various boundaries: I think all of my work engages in a kind of — I don’t know if “definition” is the right word — but in an exploration of diaspora and how that works on both sides of the Atlantic, so to speak.
The idea of home and what that means and how that shifts, I think, is a theme in everything that I write.
My first book, Somewhere Else, dealt very much with the idea of being within an American context; it’s very Diasporic in that way. My next book, Seasons of Lotus, Seasons of Bone, actually takes the Egyptian papyrus, Ani, the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, and takes some of the themes in that and recasts them in a contemporary Egyptian frame, but also at times moves across the Atlantic in various points, although many poems in there are geographically based in Egypt and the Nile River Valley.
What are some things about poems of home and from home in contemporary American or classical American poetry that you find compelling, and that you try to use in your own work?
I think it’s like I said: I think it’s a kind of unending question. I don’t think any of us understand home, and I think home is constantly shifting in so many ways. And I think there is memory, and how we remember things, which I also am very interested in. There are ecological shifts that I think change the way that we think about home, there are various immigration patterns, and then there’s nostalgia and the way that we cast home as something that doesn’t quite exist in the 21st century.
And I think that, for me, becomes really interesting, and the book I’m working on now deals a lot with both personal and, in a broader sense, notions of loss, but as they engage with ecology. And so I’m very interested in how the landscape shifts culture and how culture shifts the landscape.
What moves you in a poem? What do you go to a poem for, both in writing and reading?
To put it in the most simple terms, I suppose I want poetry to shift my perspective, whether I’m writing it or reading it. I want to enter into a poem and come out of it seeing the world a little bit differently. Even if that’s a very small shift, I want it to open up my way of seeing the world a little bit differently than when I began reading that poem.
Who are some poets that have shifted you? Who are some of your poetry ancestors?
I think there have been so many, and they change, and I can never answer the question of my favorite poem. There are a great many contemporary poets that I admire a great deal.
When I was younger, a lot of poems of the Black Arts Movement were very influential in my thinking, and they kind of give a sense of permission to engage in certain subject matter, to explore culture in more nuanced and sometimes more blatant ways. So that was a big piece.
And then there are a whole lot of poets around the globe — a lot of African writers, a lot of Palestinian poets, Mahmoud Darwish and others — who explore many of these issues in very rich and complex ways. But I think for me, I turn to certain poets depending on what I’m seeking in that moment, and they span the globe, certainly.
A global pantheon of poets.
Sure, I mean I think it’s really important to read very widely, not just within one’s generation or within one’s cultural context.
Do you read in translation? Or do you read in the original language?
Generally in translation, which obviously is a mediating factor. But the more I’ve gotten into various elements of a kind of global poetics, the more I realize the English language is incredibly malleable. So I see a lot of really interesting work happening in translation, which, whether or not it’s definitely true to the original language, begins to do something really interesting in the English language. This is an area that I find very, very fascinating, especially with Diasporic poets in the United States and in North America and in other English-speaking countries who are taking multiple linguistic roots and multiple traditions and recasting the English language in various ways.
Everything is political, right? And so the idea of not engaging in something is a political act.
You mentioned the Black Arts Movement, and Sonia Sanchez introduced your first book. This is a totally non-serious question, but were you so psyched? (Laughs.)
Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, she is one of the kindest, most generous human beings, and someone who I looked up to a great deal. I reached out to her and she … it was immediate. I mean, she just immediately responded positively, and I had this wonderful moment.
She didn’t use, and still probably doesn’t use, email at the time, and so she faxed the handwritten introduction to me, and then called me on the phone and said, “I’m gonna read this aloud to you so that you can make sure that you can read my handwriting.” And so that is still an incredibly memorable moment for me, on the other end of the telephone, hearing her read the introduction; it was just a beautiful moment.
What a gift! So tell me a little bit more about your publishing journey. How have you shifted in your writing across the books? What’s changed? What’s been a challenge? What is the experience of moving across projects?
I tend to think about each of them as individual projects in many ways. I’ll often start working on a series of poems, and at some point, when it starts to culminate in my mind as a book, there is a kind of thematic and project to it.
I think my first book — and I think this is true of many writers of color in particular — is a more explicit identity book. I think it’s an introduction to the world of who you are as a poet and as a human being. And then I think moving from there, one begins to define one’s aesthetic a bit more.
So my second book, I think, engages in a kind of lyricism and helps define my aesthetic a little clearer. And then the Tahrir Suite book, which is a project about the Egyptian revolution, was really spurred by that moment, and seeing my home country go under some pretty radical change, and trying to think through the possibilities of what that might mean and how that also begins to shape the idea of home, and how home is a constantly shifting thing.
So, in that way, I think there are similar themes in all of the works, but each project, I think, compels its own kind of aesthetic and its own kind of craft and form.
I am about, I don’t know, three quarters of the way or so into a new book of poems right now, that is probably the most personal book that I’ve ever written, more intimate, in a way, and I think that it also has to do with life, right? And how we grow and evolve in our own personal lives.
Tahrir Suite talks about the Egyptian revolution. Talk to me about the risks and challenges and opportunities for poetry to engage contemporary conversation. To engage the political, the social, the cultural?
Yeah, well, I mean it’s a big question. I think you know, obviously, everything is political, right? And so the idea of not engaging in something is a political act. My work has often been framed by others as “political” though I’ve never quite viewed it that way explicitly; I think about it as writing about things that are of concern and that are compelling to me as a human being, that are reflective of my own culture and history and background and the communities that I’m engaged in.
In a contemporary American climate this is often framed as political. But that’s not for me as a writer, the initial instinct. I don’t think, you know, I need to write some radical poem that’s gonna shake things up. I generally don’t work that way. It’s about the things that I’m already thinking about and engaged in and the things that I feel are important to help extend our humanity, which I think is a central part of the work of poetry.
I think it is about, for many of us, a reclamation of our humanity, and also a way to share that humanity with a larger audience. To give more nuance. And for many groups of people, you know, many people of color in particular, but for many groups of people, they have been cast in such a limited light that poetry and all art, I think, is really an opportunity to broaden the way that we are viewed and the way the world understands us.
In addition to teaching creative writing, you are Dean of Academic Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Specifically thinking of antiracist work, how can a poet, how can poetry, be activated in that work? And I think you just started to answer that, but can you think about that a little bit more?
Yeah, so I came to that work in an interesting way. I spent about a decade of my career as a professor, early on, as a professor of ethnic studies, and so I taught creative writing and literature, but I focused also on a lot of post-colonial theory and a lot of contemporary work on race. And so there was an opportunity in my life a little later after that stage to begin doing some of this work formally, in an administrative capacity.
And I still to this day, in my new position, think of it in this way: as an experiment to see if a lot of the theory and the things that we study and think about and talk about and write about as scholars and artists can actually translate into systemic reform. And so I think art is absolutely a piece of that, but my fundamental interest in that work is a transformation in the curriculum that we deliver to students, and rethinking notions of what is canonical, thinking about myriad traditions from around the world and the systems that feed into those traditions, and how that curriculum then can change.
And I work in a predominantly art- and media-centered college, so I’m always thinking about how we can bring various points of view to the table and help shape a young person’s art as they emerge into whatever art form they’re engaging in, whether it’s dance or theater or poetry or whatever it might be. I think the poet plays a role in this, in that the kind of language of economy that exists in a poem often, if done right, can condense and solidify many of these ideas in ways that can then be translated, I think, into other art forms. So that’s a really central interest to me. And again, I see it as an experiment.
So this is a question that’s always around: Can you teach creative writing? Can you teach art? Is this something that’s teachable? How do you respond to that as a teacher, and also what do you try to give to students who are trying to work in these fields?
I think it can absolutely be taught; otherwise, I wouldn’t be trying to teach it. You know, I think that what we often miss … I think there are a couple of things, and this is also I think a really interesting debate and hard question.
I think, first, there is the notion of the artist as a kind of human being who lives outside of the frame of the average human being. I don’t buy into any of that. I think we all certainly have talent, have various callings and ways that we approach the world and perspectives that help shape how we do that. But in every art form there is a craft, and poetry and fiction and the rest are no different. So I think first and foremost is teaching the craft of writing, and helping students figure out how to create whatever content they’re interested in — the best way to do that.
There are good ways to write poems, right? And if you get a group of editors, for example, even radically different editors together, and you give them 10 poems, the chances are the majority of them will gravitate towards a few of them and say these are the poems that have some promise. Now they may have very different aesthetics, very different views on content and so on, but what they’re seeing there is craft.
And so I think it’s really important as professors that first and foremost we stress that: that this is a labor and you have to work at it, right? It is not manna from heaven; it’s not the inspired individual sitting in their studio who just does something brilliant. There’s hard work in this, you know? And it’s complicated because content obviously is important, right? So that’s a piece that maybe can’t be taught, but the skills and the ability to do it, like any kind of craftsmanship, frankly, I think can be taught. I think there are ways to get folks to focus on how a poem comes together, what makes a poem successful, and so on.
I’m interested in that idea of labor. What’s your poetic practice like? What is the making of a poem look like for Matthew Shenoda?
I also write a fair amount of essays, and for me it always starts with an idea. So I’ll be thinking about something and become compelled. We have many ideas in our lives, right? Some don’t compel me to write, and others do. From there I begin to kind of figure out the form and the piece.
With poetry, like I said, it often starts to formulate in my head. And it’s usually a line that kind of comes into the forefront of my mind and from there I start building other lines and so on. But there are other issues that I want to unpack, and an essay is really the way to do that and so for me the labor is about doing the work in whatever form on a regular basis.
So daily? Routinely? Longhand?
Sometimes, and not long hand — well, in any hand. I write in whatever way I can, wherever I am. If there’s a computer in front of me, which there often is, that’s what I use. If it’s my phone, if it’s a pen, to me that doesn’t matter so much.
Time is my most difficult challenge these days. I have an administrative job, I have three young children, so I live a relatively busy day-to-day life. But I think by the end of every given day I’ve written a few scraps here and there. I also write pretty fast, so oftentimes I spend a lot of time thinking about something and then sit down to write it quite quickly. And with essays in particular, things that I often think about for a while, I will sit down and write at least an initial draft usually in one sitting.
I learned long ago that I can’t be precious about this. I have to find ways to do this work within the confines of life. I have to work. I have to raise children. I have to be a decent husband. I mean I have all these other obligations in my life, and this has to fit in. And so this idea of, you know, quiet space and, you know, my cup of X tea and all of this stuff, you know, to have a few hours every morning; that’s not the life I live right now, so if I wait for that I will do nothing.
You talk about writing essays. Do you ever find you begin in one genre and morph into another?
No. I actually, I don’t know if that’s ever happened. I mean, I think poems are much clearer to me in certain ways. And I think that there are subjects that I tackle in essays that I know a poem can’t be successful in. I write a lot of essays around issues of race and stuff. Not that poems can’t be successful in that, but when you want to dig into certain intricacies of those conversations, the poem often is not the right space, at least for me, to do that, because things require certain amounts of explanation and exploration, which I think you can do in prose in a different way. And that also has to do with my aesthetic as a poet. I move towards the lyrical, so there is a way that that formulates itself in my head that, say, an essay might not.
What are some things that you find sustain the poetry outside of poetry?
Sustaining the poetry outside of poetry, huh. Well, life, right? You’ve gotta live. I mean, I tell this to my students all the time: You have to live a life; you can’t simply engage in the world of creative writing. That’s an incredibly limiting world. You have to explore the world. You have to do things, you know? Whatever that might be, whatever your passions and interests are outside of writing I think have to be engaged.
I mean, for me, I’m very interested in wilderness and ecology, and I spend as much time as I can outdoors. Engaging with other human beings, doing community-based work, these are all things that have all been of interest to me that I think feed and sustain the work.
But the other piece is reading, which I actually think is a form of living. I believe that. It’s a form of traveling, even if you can’t physically move from where you are, and for me that’s crucial. I read an extraordinary amount, and in every genre, as much as I can. I’m always reading multiple books, and I think that that’s critical. I tend to read far more than I write, and I’m perfectly happy with that. It’s really important to understand the context that you’re creating work in.
Then, of course, I’m fairly interested in visual art and music and other things, so engaging in those art forms as much as I’m able to is also, I think, really helpful and inspiring to the work of writing.
But I often find that — more so than perhaps for other people — where a certain moment in life happens and someone thinks I should write a poem about that, that’s generally not my instinct. I’m often most inspired to write poetry when I read great poetry.
Who are you reading now?
Let’s see, I’ve just read Evie Shockley’s new book semiautomatic, which is a gorgeous, gorgeous book. I’ve just taught Camille Dungy’s Trophic Cascade, which I also think is a beautiful book. I’m teaching next week Aracelis Girmay’s The Black Maria. Let’s see, Kwame Dawes’ City of Bones. I’ve read it before, but I’ve just reread it again, and I think it’s an incredibly compelling book. Ishion Hutchinson’s book, House of Lords and Commons, yeah. Um, what else… DéLana Dameron has a book [Weary Kingdom] that I recently read, which I’ve enjoyed. There’s always a good stack of books. And I’ve just started reading Toni Morrison’s Norton Lectures, [The Origin of Others], which was published by Harvard University Press, which is a really, really beautiful series of essays that in many ways kind of traced the narrative of Beloved through her own life and through history in really interesting ways.
Are there poets that you that you go back to, that you like teaching specifically?
On occasion I do if there’s a specific topic to the course. But in general I teach pretty contemporary work; I often actually like to change my syllabus every semester and teach new work, and almost always I’m teaching very recent books. I teach a craft seminar every now and again on global poetics, so in those moments, because we do a lot of work from translation, there are certain touchstone texts from various parts of the world that I’ll have the students read, but often the focus is on new work.
I want my students to see what’s happening around them, and oftentimes, just given the demographic of students I teach and so on, I’m introducing them to work that they otherwise wouldn’t be aware of.
There’s always a sense of the mythic, of myth making and myth challenging and myth engaging in your work. What’s your relationship to myth?
Well, I’m Egyptian. (Laughs.) So mythology is very present. You know, as I said, my second book in part — well, entirely — dealt with the Egyptian Book of the Dead and trying to recast that mythological narrative into a contemporary space. So myth, although I don’t know if I always think of it as myth — old stories are always present in my work in various ways, and I think shape the way that I think about the world. And however that is created, whether it’s through religious texts, whether it’s through creation stories, or more fictional mythology, I think that these are really important touchstones in our mapping of our own humanity in various ways.
And I think every writer in some way is dealing with mythology, whether we call it that or not. There’s something about the way we often think of ourselves that’s a bit too definitive, rather than as individuals who are in fact creating a larger kind of narrative that is far more than just ourselves. I mean, there are many mythologies going on around us right now, though, for better or worse.
What are some of the mythologies that you think are being engaged right now, for good or other …?
There’s so many. The one that I think is probably most pertinent in my mind these days is the mythology of America, which I find to be a fascinating one, and a narrative that I think has existed since the inception of this country. I think every nation-state has a mythology that is often in part quite fictional, and I’m very interested in that.
Aspirational or fictional?
I think in some cases it’s quite fictional, and in some cases it’s aspirational, but I’m interested in how that seeps into daily life. And to this day we see all of what’s going on around the world with race relations and, you know, our current president and all. Much of this is based on various myths. I mean the entire campaign of Donald Trump was based on an American mythology: this idea of “making America great again.” I mean, that is a mythological narrative. And so how we grapple with those things is really interesting as artists.
And powerful, I’m still on myth just because, you know, these stories we tell ourselves wield immense power.
Talk about the African Poetry Book Fund and that work and your journey to it, what you’re hoping to do.
In many ways I see this as an extension of my work that I do as a dean and so on. I mean part of my interest has always been to help shift systems and create things. Not for myself, but for others and for a future; we have to take some control over these narratives. We have to actually do something to shift the world around us; we can’t just sit back and say this is a problem. We know it’s a problem.
The publishing industry is a problem; most systems in America are a problem for people of color, in particular, so this is our small way of trying to influence that and shift it and get these voices out into the world that we know exist, that are doing compelling and amazing work, and help change the conversation, even if in a small way.
So for me it is about a systemic reform that helps, hopefully, shape — at least in a slight way — the way the next generation engages in this work. And that was done for us, right? I mean I mentioned earlier the folks in the Black Arts [Movement] who were significant in shaping the way that contemporary literature in this country was known and understood so that by the time I came up as a young poet they had already created a space that didn’t exist a generation before me. So I think what we hope to do is our small piece of that.
If you could go back and tell young Matthew something that would help or shape or change him, what would it be? When would you go back to, and what would you say?
I would probably go back to my early teenage years and I’d tell him to stop screwing around so much and focus a little more. I think I came to this work a little late. A lot of writers have these stories of being small children under the blankets with a flashlight reading books all night. That was not me. I wasn’t doing any of that, so I came to it later and came to it pretty aggressively and there are, at least, internally within myself, certain deficiencies there that I always feel like I’m catching up.
What suggestions do you have for the readers of The Fight and The Fiddle who want to write, who want to do this work, and want to engage with poetry in a meaningful way?
I think my first suggestion is always to read. I think it’s so important to read and to see what people are doing around you, and to then begin to find out why the work is compelling to you. People like to pretend that being a writer is somewhat glamorous, but it really isn’t. I think this is true for most artists that are compelled in some manner to this work.
I’m never that interested in giving advice specifically to writers. My interest is for young people to find whatever their calling is and to do that as actively and intensely and in as engaged a manner as they can. But if I am to give some advice to writers aside from reading, it’s to make sure that your work steps outside of yourself. To really push yourself to transcend only yourself and to see your work as engaging something larger than you.
Thank you so much!
Lauren K. Alleyne is Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle, Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and Associate Professor of English at James Madison University. She is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014), Honeyfish (New Issues Press April 2019 & Peepal Tree Press, July 2019), and co-editor of Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry (Northwestern University Press, 2020) Photo credit: Erica Cavanagh