Writer’s Block: Interview with Matthew Shenoda

by    /  January 27, 2020  / Comments Off on Writer’s Block: Interview with Matthew Shenoda


In this Writer’s Block, recorded and taped in the summer of 2019, Matthew Shenoda discusses his teaching, and the art of slowing down, and how influential Cave Canem has been. 

Interview by Rosa Williamson-Rea and Maggie Medoff. Editing by Kriti Sanghi and video by Alexis Jabour.

Q & A with Matthew Shenoda:

What does it look like inside your imagination when you are writing? 

What it looks like in my imagination… I think it depends on what I’m working on. I think I’m always trying to find the interior life of whatever project I’m working on. So, if there are human beings in it, which there generally are, I’m trying to figure out how they would think and behave and act and move through the world. But a lot of it is very imagistic for me, I think. I would say that there are a lot of elements and things that I’m writing where I’m seeing places and thinking about a lot of really nuanced details of physical, geographical spaces. So, perhaps, the interior of my imagination is a little quieter and a little more like the natural world than a heavily populated space. 

What are some projects you’ve worked on recently that you wouldn’t have been able to explore in the past? 

I could probably argue any project I’m working on would adhere to that. I think that there’s a very natural evolution as a writer both in terms of the ways that I write, but also — probably more importantly — the subjects and things that I engage that come with life, and learning from previous projects and so on. I tend to think in projects, so I’m often not just writing individual poems. I begin that way, but very quickly I’m usually thinking of a larger scope of a book, and I think that naturally comes as an extension of my life at the moment. So I think there’s a very organic evolution with that. I would never write the first book I wrote right now— that would make absolutely no sense. 

In what ways has poetry shattered paradigms for you? 

That’s a great question. Poetry has taught me a lot about the interiority of humanity. I’ve learned a lot about people through not just poetry, but reading literature in general, which is reflected with real human engagement and a lived experience. I don’t think it’s just on the page, but it does do something to illuminate the way that we pay attention to one another, the way that we listen to people, the way that we interact with each other. Poetry has been hugely instructive in my life and in that kind of an engagement — it certainly made me a better teacher, and I would hope, a better partner and father and all of these things. One of the things that poetry does is slow us down and makes us pay attention, really engage in certain details. A lot of the work that I gravitate towards pays attention to very small detailed things, so I tend to then model that in my own engagement with people and with life in general.

How has Cave Canem helped form a sense of community for you as a writer? 

This is an interesting question for me because in some ways I formally sit outside of Cave Canem. I’ve not been a Cave fellow, and this is my first formal engagement with Cave Canem at the retreat and as an organization. However, virtually all of my closest community members have had a relationship with Cave Canem. I’ve been around those folks more or less since the inception of Cave Canem, so I’ve lived a parallel life with it, and have seen what it has done for community—and not just for the individuals, but what it has done for the poetry landscape — which I find hugely admirable, in many ways, in terms of the cultivation of individual people’s work, giving them a place to refine their craft and get their work out into the world. It’s also fundamentally changed the landscape of contemporary poetry, and for myself, as someone who works in academic institutions, the way that Cave fellows have populated the professoriate has been a significant way to shift the conversations happening, not just in the literary world outside of academe but within academe as well. It’s one of those beautiful things that came out of a necessary impulse and a desire to do something that felt like the right thing to do, but it has taken on this incredible life of its own that I don’t know anybody would have imagined. 

Matthew Shenoda is a writer, professor, university administrator, as well as author and editor of several books. He has been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize and his work has been supported by the California Arts Council and the Lannan Foundation, among others. He is the author of three poetry collections: Tahrir Suite: Poems (winner of the 2015 Arab American Book Award); Seasons of Lotus, Seasons of Bone; and Somewhere Else (winner of the 2006 American Book Award, and named one of 2005’s debut books of the year by Poets & Writers Magazine). Shenoda began his teaching career in the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University, where he taught for nearly a decade. Currently, he is the Associate Provost for Social Equity and Inclusion and Professor of Literary Arts and Studies at Rhode Island School of Design. 

About Writer’s Block: The Writer’s Block is an ongoing video series of interviews with visiting writers at City of Asylum/Pittsburgh. In these Q&A’s, conducted on Sampsonia Way, writers sit down with us to discuss literature, their craft, and career. View all previous interviews →

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