English and Creative Writing
The award-winning poet shapes the identity of creative writing at Columbia College Chicago and beyond.
Matthew Shenoda has three roles at Columbia. He is a Professor in the English and Creative Writing Department, Special Counsel to the President, and the Dean of Academic Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, an office that is committed to "creating policies, programs, and opportunities that will ensure that diversity, equity, and inclusion thrive and are at the center of all that we do [at Columbia].”
As busy as he is, the award-winning poet and editor manages to find to time to consider what initially brought him to poetry. “I became a poet because I couldn’t be an international reggae superstar,” he jokes.
Shenoda’s approach to poetry has its roots in reggae—especially in its engagement with the political, spiritual, and sensual. He also sees the myriad ways poetry—with its precision to language and its attention to music and the intellect—can bring a different kind of clarity to many of today’s complex issues.
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 and 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 their own and develops a clear voice and aesthetic.
What all writing students can improve on
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.
Shenoda is the author of poetry collections Somewhere Else, winner of the 2006 American Book Award, Seasons of Lotus, Seasons of Bone, and Tahrir Suite, winner of the 2015 Arab Book Award. He edited Duppy Conqueror: New & Selected Poems by Kwame Dawes and co-edited, with Dawes, Bearden’s Odyssey: Poets Respond to the Art of Romare Bearden. Shenoda is a founding editor of African Poetry Book Fund, whose mission is to advance the poetic arts of Africa.
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