How did you get started in the field of poetry? What drew you to this field and what is your research topic?
My primary area of focus is in poetry and poetics, foremost as a writer and practitioner of the art, but also as an editor, essayist and professor who teaches literary arts. A secondary area that has always paralleled my work is Ethnic Studies, specifically an engagement on race and racism in the African diaspora as it relates to institutional structures and individual lived experiences as expressed through art and scholarship. I first came into this work as an emerging writer in poetry and through a desire to deepen my own knowledge and study of the art coupled with a yearning to more critically interrogate my own and others’ lived experiences as member of the African diaspora, specifically in the United States. I came into poetry in general through a deep love for language and the lyric that was likely the influence of both many musical forms I have been engaged with as well as liturgical and other narrative influences stemming from the Coptic Church and community that have been foundational in my life.
What is your poetry about? What is its broader significance?
I mostly write books of poetry and have at this point written several, the latest of which will be published this coming fall. It is a collection entitled The Way of the Earth which is described by my publisher as “A lyrical collection examining the quotidian beauty that surrounds us despite deep loss and climate crisis.” This particular book is interested in examining the human condition, specifically around notions of grief and loss. I explore this through a personal lens in what has been for me an ongoing desire to illuminate and give texture to the lives of people like myself who have grown up in diaspora and/or who have been part of the long trajectory of being “subjects” in colonial and other subjugating spaces and institutions. My consistent desire is one of a counter-narrative around how we have been most often framed and understood. And poetry makes space for the kinds of nuances that embrace those complexities, contradictions and realities and give us small, but I think necessary, windows into life.
In thinking through your positionality, how do you define your relationship to the populations you study and what responsibility do you have in sharing their stories?
As a working writer primarily, I do not see myself as someone “studying a population” as much as I see myself as someone of a community attempting to help expand and express the various ways we can understand ourselves and perhaps be understood by others. In this way I see my work as relational and in many cases personal, not in an attempt to codify or define the lived experiences of Coptic people, but to use my own experiences as one possible thread to a larger collective sense of who we might be. I think in this way there is immense room for many stories and ways of coming into an understanding of who we might be as a people. I resist the idea of any hegemonic understandings of community and the notion that any individuals or works are “defining” in that sense. That said, I think in writing and in having a public presence there is always a kind of power at play and so the issue of responsibility is one I take seriously in always recognizing that there is multiplicity in any community and one expression cannot be totalizing of another.
As scholars, what sort of impact do you believe we should have in an increasingly xenophobic and nationalistic global climate?
The question of impact is a difficult one to answer as it is often out of the hands of the individual doing various works. How it impacts people is so often mediated by outside structures and systems and issues of time, place, access, and so on. However, I think the intent and responsibility of scholars and artists is another matter. I personally believe that our work, collectively and individually, should seek to undo much of the simplistic, wholly uncritical and often white supremacist and stultifying understandings of who we are, where we come from, and what we desire and believe. For too long, and too long still, we have continued to grapple with this outside “gaze” framing how we are known and represented and unfortunately, in many cases we too have internalized these things and have uncritically perpetuated them. The role of the scholar or artist is to complicate this, to bring to the fore the complex and nuanced realities of who we are and to allow for the messiness and contradictions often inherent in that work to come to fruition. We have to embrace what Langston Hughes once called “the beautiful and the ugly too.” Unfortunately, I feel like we are too often working from a reactionary space against the forces that we are attempting to counter. This leaves them at the center of our thinking and continues to define us in relation to how we are understood by whatever force or group we oppose.
Considering the state of Middle East Studies more generally, and research on Egypt and Coptic communities more specifically, what topics and issues would you like to see addressed?
This is a very big question that I think has myriad answers, but I will say, from my vantage point that we have not done enough in engaging the arts and humanities as broadly defined. We are still too often engaged in social science framings and studies “of” Egyptians and Copts etc. While these studies are certainly important, in many ways they often leave out other forms of deeply necessary work. We still too often frame people and communities as subjects rather than make the space for them to define the narrative of who they are. I will also say, as a Copt, that much of what I have seen in terms of scholarship on Copts misses fundamental understandings of core theological, historical, communal, and personal beliefs that shape many in the community and this is often a result of disciplinary boundaries that seek to study one part of a human experience without fully grasping its whole. Finally, I am in many ways admittedly not the best person to speak to the field of Middle East Studies, I have not been steeped in what we would call Middle East Studies for the majority of my career. I have largely worked much more firmly in the world of Africana Studies which I have found far more enriching to my own work and understanding of self as I firmly reject the colonial idea of partitioning Egypt from Africa or, on the other hand, an attempt to totalize Africa into a limited cultural framework. I have always believed there is an expansiveness in what we can frame as Africana Studies that embraces incredible connections and synergies as well as differences and contradictions.
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Matthew Shenoda is the author of the poetry collections Somewhere Else (winner of the American Book Award), Seasons of Lotus, Seasons of Bone, Tahrir Suite and the forthcoming The Way of the Earth. Along with Kwame Dawes he is editor of Bearden’s Odyssey: Poets Respond to the Art of Romare Bearden. He is Professor and Chair of the Department of Literary Arts at Brown University. Shenoda is also a Founding Editor of the African Poetry Book Fund.