“To innovate … students need to have a proper foundation and have a deep, diverse understanding of what others have already written.”

Matthew Shenoda

English and Creative Writing

This award-winning poet is shaping the identity of creative writing at Columbia.

“I became a poet because I couldn’t be an international reggae superstar,” jokes Matthew Shenoda, professor of Columbia College Chicago’s English and Creative Writing department. Yet the award-winning poet doesn’t stray far from the strong influence music has had on his writing. He continues to be drawn to the distinctive aesthetic of reggae music, which engages the political, spiritual, and sensual.

Shenoda views poetry as an extension of music—the breath as instrument, the language as notes—and rejects the idea of a separation between language, music and art. He embraces not only the lyrical and conceptual aspects of poetry but the way language economy and intellectual discourse can bring clarity to complex issues.

The author of Somewhere Else, Seasons of Lotus, Seasons of Bone, and Tahrir Suite, Shenoda is also the editor of Duppy Conqueror: New & Selected Poems by Kwame Dawes and was founding editor of African Poetry Book Fund. In 2006, Shenoda was an American Book Award winner, and he was twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

Inviting prominent writers with a global perspective to teach and to do readings also places a renewed emphasis on the connection between genres, and between writer and the world. Through these channels, Shenoda furthers the idea of an engaged and intentional community of writers, bridging areas of rigorous academic practice and the individual creative artist. Here he talks about poetry's place in society, the highs and lows of teaching, and the importance of writing programs.

On the role of poets:

Like all writers, poets influence culture and society, but we also work with those intangible aspects of art that give us a more intimate, intricate expression of the human spirit. Poets/artists in any society should also take an active role in articulating the narratives and sub-narratives that exist within the larger systems in which we live. It is our job to elucidate.

What’s great about teaching:

I love being challenged by students who look at literature in a different way than I do. I especially enjoy when a student comes into his/her own and develops a clear voice and aesthetic.

What’s not so great about teaching:

The lack of literacy is a deeply American problem, and too often, students who want to write don’t read enough. In order to innovate, to experiment, students need to have a proper foundation and have a deep, diverse understanding of what others have already written.

What writing programs can accomplish:

There’s a natural tension between the academy and the artist. Writing workshops in academia can sometimes stifle a writer by adhering to a staid methodology or practice of “polite feedback.” A truly engaging, passionate and critical process is more essential for a writer to truly grow. If this is practiced in the classroom, students will have some of the fundamental tools that will allow them to succeed in any form of writing and in any career they choose.

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