Orion poetry editor Camille T. Dungy spoke with poet Matthew Shenoda about the intersection of culture and ecological landscape, personal and collective grief, the memories that shape us, and his new collection The Way of the Earth, and the power of a sparse poem.
Camille Dungy: We’re here to talk about your new book, The Way of the Earth, which is lovely and moving and grounded in a way that I really needed. I sat down to read the book to prepare for this conversation, and was grateful for the peace it offered. Thank you for that.
Matthew Shenoda: I like grounded. We need it. And you know, you are an idyllic reader, for me. So, this is nice to hear.
CD: Why is that?
MS: Because I think you’re concerned with a lot of the similar things that I’m concerned with. I mean, obviously from different perspectives, but I think the general ethos of a lot of the things I’m fixated on and trying to unravel, and engage with are things that you also find necessary and valuable in your own life and work. I think there’s a little bit of a kinship in the sense of thinking about things at the cultural, human, and ecological levels and the ways that they’re intertwined.
CD: People often ask me, Why are you always connecting social justice and environmental justice, or looking out at the landscape while thinking about what’s happening in your family? And I’m like, you don’t? But you also do. Was there time that you started doing that consciously? Do you feel like this was always in you, and if so, from what well is that drawn?
MS: It’s a really excellent question. I think some of it has always been in me and some of it has to do with upbringing. Growing up on the west coast and California in particular, I spent a lot of time outdoors and in various spaces, whether on the coast or in the mountains, taking walks out into the world and being given, I think, a sense that I should be engaged and appreciative of the larger ecological world. But I think the other piece of it is that colonialism in many ways, and other fissures in history have separated us from the larger ecological world. We’re all agrarian people at some level, at least most Africans, in some way or another. We all come from village-centered antecedents and I think that kind of separation feels very Western and very much a part of the elements of modernity that I don’t care for. We’ve ceded the ecological world to whiteness in a way that I find really troubling. I think about growing up in in Southern California, seeing people surf right? And myself as well, being in the ocean all the time, but surfing somehow being seen as a white thing. A sport whose entire history comes out of the South Pacific and Polynesian cultures, right? It is an incredibly Indigenous activity in many ways.
And of course, there are all the ways people have been relocated, red lined, shifted into certain spaces. We’ve come to accept those as the core of who we are, and they kind of define us in a way. So, I think that’s all a piece of it, but part of it too, for me, is that I prefer those spaces over heavily urbanized areas. I prefer a kind of middle space where humans and the larger world of the wild intersect and intermesh with one another more regularly. It’s too difficult for me to fully breathe and figure myself out as a human being moving through the world in those kinds of very urban spaces.
But it’s in all aspects of life. I think about the food I eat pretty consciously and seriously, and that gives me a kind of rootedness to space. I think about the air that we breathe. Like you, I’m a parent. I watch how my children interact in wild spaces versus urban spaces, and it’s a radically different engagement. There’s an ability to be free in a different way, even physically, just to be able to run to engage that wider world. I grew up that way, so it’s never felt like a foreign thing to me. I’m endlessly fascinated by the worlds of plant life, animal life, all of it. There’s so much to learn and I don’t see us as separate from it. I think that’s the ultimate answer to this: that we have created such a deep binary and kind of fissure between “us” and “it” that it just doesn’t make any sense. Humans could not survive without that kind of larger world. So why wouldn’t you be curious about it? Why wouldn’t I want to engage it?
Finally, I think I often need a little peace in my life. Like you, I’m out in the world doing things, pushing as you’ve mentioned social justice issues, fighting institutions in various ways, dealing with a lot of the very sticky, thorny, complicated issues that we humans have created for one another. And I need some relief sometimes. And the larger wild world is where I find it.
CD: There’s some really deep grief in your newest book, The Way of the Earth. The loss of a father. Loss of a child. But the telling feels measured. It resists self-pity. And it also seems to resist revelations constructed in a kind of confessional let me tell you this horrible thing that happened mode. Often, the moments of observation about the realities of these experiences of grief are grounded in your observations of landscape, or the water, or some aspect of the greater than human world. I’m hearing you say from the end of that last answer, that turning outside yourself is a way of reaching for peace. Is this also a way of reaching toward honesty?
I was trying to think about what it means to be a human on this earth, and what our lives mean in their totality, which for me is beyond just our physical presence on the earth. What does it mean for a father to carry something on to a son?
MS: Yes, I think that’s an accurate way to describe it. I also think there’s an intertwining in all of this. These things are connected to one another, right? The cycle of life for humans is also mirrored in the cycle of life for other living things. I heard somebody say recently that you know death is assured by birth. Because I don’t see us as fundamentally disconnected from nonhuman things, they come together in my mind. I also think the issues of grief and loss that find their way into the book are deeply personal, as you’ve mentioned, the loss of my father, of my second child, and so on. But there’s a thread running through the book of a grief over the loss of the ecological world that we inhabit. I think about this in particular as a father. There are wild spaces that I’ve hiked out to in the middle of nowhere, that are no longer there. In my own lifetime these places have disappeared. The impact that we have caused the larger world is something we ought to grieve because much of it is a direct result of our foolishness.
I think that you’ve hit on another piece. I’m not particularly interested in the confessional, and so this was a very difficult book for me to write. There was this loss and grief I went through as a human being, but as a writer you’re naturally engaged in your own life. Perhaps it was unavoidable that I would write about it, but I didn’t want to do it in a confessional manner, in part because it’s just not central to the way I conceive of the world. I tend not to write highly individualistic, and I-centered poems in general, but I also believe that all grief is part of a collective grief. Even though it’s personal, it’s a collective grief as well. Not just collective in terms of my own family and people within my community, and those who have endured that loss in their lives, but for all of us. I’m not the first person to lose a father or a child. This is a long, long, long human tradition, and I think that is comforting in many ways, and a necessary thing to think about. This is not just something that “happened to me,” that I’m suffering in some way, but it is part of a collective—I don’t know what the right word is, but it—it’s part of a kind of collective experience that humans have faced for millennia, and I think it’s important in moments of grief to have some sense of that. I say, in one of the poems that I’ve lost a child, “but not at the hands of another.” I think those distinctions are important. That’s a different kind of grief. Right? I lost my father, who I was very, very close to, and of course there’s grief there, but I also had an incredible life with him and a wonderful relationship, and a lot to celebrate which not everyone can say. There’s a duality to all of this for me. It’s never just the one-sided thing.
CD: We began a conversation as if it were one that had been going on for quite some time, which feels like how I felt when I entered your book. I opened it and was immediately carried along into its deepest ideas. But I’d like to hear how you describe The Way of the Earth. What are your hopes this book? And how is this similar or different from some of your other collections.
Memory connects me to a collective, connects me to a set of antecedents. It reminds me that others have come before me, that others have stood on this ground, have been in this place, have experienced this kind of thing. And that there’s a wisdom in that.
MS: I think I try to let a book go into the world and do what it does. But as I said, it’s a book I had to write because it’s part of the life I’m living, and these were things that were so impactful and had such a significant shaping in my life at the moment the book was written, that I had to engage in some way. I’m interested in a kind of contemplative space of how we think about the totality of our humanity—given all of the various factors that shape it– culture, history, the things we call political, issues of race, gender, all of these things. I was trying to focus in on a few key elements, to try and encompass that, and I think it differs a bit from anything else I’ve written in that it’s the most personal book. If you look at my earlier collections, I actually avoid the pronoun “I” quite a bit. It’s fairly rare in my work, but that couldn’t be done in this book. My work tends to talk about much larger issues, and of course they’re personal in many ways, certainly, but not at the kind of individual level in the way that this particular book is. How people receive that, how they read it, who knows, that’s really up to them. But for me it was a necessary thing to put into the world.
CD: Here’s a small section from the poem “Our Returning”:
The way of the earth
is to wither and return to itself
and we too will go this way.
But we are not like the earth,
we will not return to ourselves.
Perhaps we return inside memory
to a time before ourselves.
That, I assume, is where you derived the title for the book, or maybe you had the phrase before?
MS: I’m trying to think where it came from. There’s something from scripture which first triggered at least an element of that title. I think the verse is “Now the days of David drew near that he should die, and he charged Solomon his son, saying: I go the way of all the earth…” The piece that you’ve read from that poem I think, is part of that thinking around both the way we mirror and are similar to the earth, and different from it. There’s a theological thread that runs through a lot of this work that maybe we don’t so explicitly talk about, but that poem is getting at. I’m Egyptian, so we think a lot about the afterlife. Our physical bodies return to the earth, but our spirits do something entirely different. They carry on through others and most importantly through memory. I was interested in trying to think through that in some way that wasn’t particularly didactic. I’m not sure I’m finding the language for this, but I wasn’t trying to engage this in some definitive manner, hence the “perhaps” in the poem. I was trying to think about what it means to be a human on this earth, and what our lives mean in their totality, which for me is beyond just our physical presence on the earth. What does it mean for a father to carry something on to a son? What does it mean to live past your physical life through other people’s memories? And of course, there are myriad traditions and beliefs as to how this works and for me that’s important, especially when you’re dealing with loss and grief and these things. One’s view on what happens to the human spirit, if they believe that at all, hugely shapes how they think about life and grief and for me I don’t believe that it’s a definitive end. I think the book had to make a nod toward that in some way, as I was exploring this loss and grief and trying to celebrate these lives. They’re not over.
CD: In one poem there’s a kind of magnified possibility of existence. But in the same poem you talk about beloved animals that are raised for slaughter, for feeding the family during communal celebrations. There are questions about culpability and responsibility. Questions about complicity and the weight of knowledge. And those questions oscillate between thinking about human community and thinking about humans in relationship to landscapes and animals. It doesn’t seem like there’s an answer to this question. But I feel like it’s one of those questions that’s always at the forefront of my mind, as somebody who tries to live on the on the earth as lightly and as communally as possible. But I have to eat. What am I doing for the good and what I am doing that may not serve other living beings? When you’re writing, how consciously do you find yourself asking these questions and pushing yourself toward complicating the responsibilities of knowledge and our moral stance?
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MS: I don’t know how consciously I’m thinking about that in the writing of particular poems, but I’m regularly, consciously, thinking about that in my daily life. I think it’s really complicated, and for me it’s a both/and. I don’t believe that we can return to some idyllic state. I don’t believe that we are or were ever necessarily occupying an idyllic state. I think that we are complicit in many ways. I think we are entangled in really, really complicated ways through so many elements of history, and through so many things that we as humans have done, some of which have been marvelous, and some of which have been absolutely horrific. In our day-to-day lives we embody these things simultaneously all the time. I don’t take a strong dogmatic approach (at least with others) to say, you must do X, Y and Z because the earth is in peril. And if you don’t do these things, you’re a terrible person—because I also don’t believe that the individual will fundamentally shift this. The totality of ecological degradation is driven by major systems that are well beyond the individual. That does not mean that the individual has no responsibility. I think we each do have responsibility, but I also don’t think that if we all recycle, everything’s gonna be fine.
We inhabit the earth. We are fundamentally a part of it. This doesn’t mean that we have to take a kind of supremacist or domineering stance, but it also doesn’t mean that we have to be subservient to the larger world. We are of it just like everything else. And so, if we need to eat, which we do, then we need to eat. There is a more responsible, ethical way to think through that. But I don’t think that we should fully deny ourselves these things. I think that there is actually a much more balanced relationship, and even a celebratory one in our engagement in this way. For example, I’m not a vegan. You know, though I eat a vegan diet here and there. I’m not a vegan in a strict way. I don’t think that it’s wrong to eat other living beings. But I do think that there are ethical ways to do this and I think that becomes about a relationship like anything else. Relationships can be healthy or unhealthy. I think it depends on myriad factors, including where you are physically in the landscape. What kind of abundance there may or may not be in a particular place that you occupy. All of these things factor in. I don’t know that I’m really answering the question, but, as you said, I don’t think there is an answer to it. As I tell my students, when we engage in talking about colonization and decolonization, if you don’t embrace the contradictions of history that each of us embodies, you will drive yourself mad.
That there are contradictions that we just simply have to sit with, that we simply have to accept. And we can’t talk about any of this stuff without talking about all of the other totalizing kinds of social categories that exist. Including first and foremost issues of class and race. If you make a certain income, and so on, you are eating certain kinds of food. Access to these things is limited by your income. To judge that in some ways is hugely problematic; the problem is the system that doesn’t allow, say, access to, healthy, clean, ethically grown and cultivated foods to all people. I can’t think about these things in simplistic ways. I can’t say oh, this person is eating at McDonald’s, I’m not into McDonald’s, they’re terrible for the world. Well, it may be all they can afford or all they have access to.
CD: You’re living in Rhode Island now, though you spent much of your childhood in California. There is a lot of California directly referenced in this book. Egypt is present too. Texas shows up. What about these different landscapes, these different cultures, helps them be entry points for your poems?
MS: Yes, they’re all pieces of myself. There are also elements of Rhode Island in there, too. They’re a little more subtle and quiet because it’s still somewhat new to me, but a lot of landscape in particular, in a lot of my work, is triggered by memory. For example, almost all of the poems in relation to my father are California-centered because it’s where I was raised as a child and it’s where he lived at the time of his death. I generally think in a somewhat visual and geographical manner. I remember things in part through landscape. So very often, very sharp images of a kind of topography, geology, or whatever will pop into my head when I’m thinking about something. These places have had central impact on my own kind of thinking and being. Though it’s been a while since I’ve lived on the west coast, it’s fundamentally implanted in me. Even though I live in a very different environment right now, I’m still constantly having memories, engagements, with particular places on the Pacific coast that are central parts of my life. I think they’re the places that gave me the most significant appreciation for the larger ecological world. They’re places of wonder. They’re places that really help me to understand my relationship with the landscape.
I kept noting how often memory showed up and how often it seems like memory was a foundation for resistance and a foundation for hope.
CD: Everything you say makes a lot of sense to me. I find myself frequently comparing almost anything to the landscape of my childhood, which is essentially the core landscape of my experience. I go to other places, and I see them through the prism of that Southern California experience. I was in Marrakesh, Morocco, in January, standing on a rooftop over the Medina. Despite the ancient, deep history of that place, I was like, This reminds me of LA in January. I mean it’s in a in a bowl, a valley, and the slightly smoggy sky gorgeously filtered the light, and the soft heft of the air and even much of the vegetation felt similar. I have to resist this impulse because it’s a diminishment of the totality and fullness of the places where I am actually standing. At the same time, memory is such a powerful foundation. Particularly when it is for the most part positive memory. It’s a powerful foundation for moving forward in strength and moving forward with a sense of connection. I was reading your book, and through your landscapes, I kept noting how often memory showed up and how often it seems like memory was a foundation for resistance and a foundation for hope. It seemed like you could go into a space of memory and get the power that you needed to face difficult things. But you could also go into this memory and get the power you needed to make some kind of change.
MS: Yeah, all of that resonates very deeply with me. I do exactly what you said in terms of the comparison. In fact, I’ve been actively trying to stop doing that. It’s a really interesting thing, but it also begs the question of what it means to be from a place and how engaged, and how long you have to be enmeshed in a landscape for it to be something intrinsic in your thinking and your being. I don’t have an answer to that. I’ve lived in certain places that I could talk about, I could describe, I could speak to their beauty and so on but they never come up when I think about who I am as a person, and where I exist in the world. I think that might just be a product of time. Having just not spent enough time in those spaces for it to really resonate. I think it’s interesting, that you said Marrakesh reminded you of LA in January—there’s something about that, too, that you understand a place through seasons, and I think that takes a certain level of steadiness and engagement, and paying attention, and being in a place to really begin to understand how it works seasonally, to understand the fullness of it
I’m obsessed with this larger idea of memory. It’s not a secret that everything I write is an engagement with memory. I really love the way that you put it—that there’s a kind of resistance and a hope in it. That’s a beautiful reading of it, and it strikes me as a very accurate way to reflect on how I think about memory. Part of that is I am very disinterested in the idea that I’m somehow a unique human being who has experienced something for the first time. Memory connects me to a collective, connects me to a set of antecedents. It reminds me that others have come before me, that others have stood on this ground, have been in this place, have experienced this kind of thing. And that there’s a wisdom in that. There is something I can learn from that to help move myself or the community I’m engaged with forward in some way. I think part of the root of our problems around ecological degradation is that it’s completely divorced from memory. It is as if we don’t know that people have existed in these spaces before. Some years ago it was all about this idea that mono-cultural agriculture was problematic, and that you should plant things that are diverse in various ways, and that work in a kind of symbiotic relationship with one another. Well, we know this is one of the most ancient agricultural practices! For centuries people all over the world have been doing this. But we seem to have forgotten this, willfully or not, and so I think there’s an active way in which memory is a part of resistance, and is a part of actualizing the future. When I think about any kind of futurism, I’m immediately thinking about memory. There is no looking forward without looking back. I have no interest in being a human who is divorced from the past. It is actually a horrifying idea to me. I come from a community and a culture and a history and a space that is incredibly rich, that has cultivated knowledge for centuries in really significant ways. And the more I look back, the more I learn, the more it helps me to move forward. And it’s not just at a cultural level, but I think at an individual level, a familial level, parents, grandparents, there are those things they instill in us. They trace themselves back in ways that are really important for a forward trajectory. We know memory is a thing that’s being made constantly. It’s always happening. And so almost always when I’m sitting down to write, I’m not writing about the exact moment that I’m sitting at the desk, or whatever, I’m writing about something that is occurring in memory.
CD: Related to this idea of connection to memory, and not wanting to live disconnected to the stories and lessons and narratives of the past, your book has a lot of references, quotes, allusions to songs and visual artists and writers, all of whom, by my reckoning, represent the African diaspora.
MS: It wasn’t conscious in the sense that I said, oh I have to find this reference. These are the things that I am most engaged with, that I embrace the most. I mean, you know this about me, I’ve been a fairly staunch Pan-Africanist for the majority of my adult life. I think about the kind of diversity and breadth of the African diaspora in many ways. It’s the community I feel, or communities I should say, that I feel most connected to. So those are points of most prominent resonance for me.
When I think about any kind of futurism, I’m immediately thinking about memory. There is no looking forward without looking back. I have no interest in being a human who is divorced from the past.
CD: I hope that the readers of this will know Romare Bearden and Bob Marley and some of your other references. I hope that those will be recognizable names, and if not, I hope people will go ahead and Google them. But I also would love to hear about your contemporaneous community. Who are you reading or listening to, or looking forward to reading who may not be as frequently seen in a space like Orion or on (often white American) environmental reading lists?
MS: I read widely and I’m a fairly voracious reader, so I’m always reading a lot of different things. At the moment, some books that are existing in and around me: Evie Shockley’s newest collection, Suddenly We, I’ve read before in manuscript form, and I’ve been rereading. I’ve just started reading Roger Reeves’s forthcoming Dark Days, which is a really beautiful collection of essays, and Matthew Zapruder’s new nonfiction book, The Story of a Poem. I am constantly reading a huge number poems and manuscripts from young African writers in my work as an editor for the African Poetry Book Series. Sitting next to me right now is a book that came out some years ago from a scholar named Scott Trafton called Egypt Land: Race, and Nineteenth Century American Egyptomania. It’s part of some thinking I’m doing around the possibility of a new book that digs into the way America has been obsessed with Egypt—what he calls Egyptomania—on multiple. I’ve been reading Christina Sharpe’s newest book. Dionne Brand’s latest collection of poetry has got me completely riveted. Ama Codjoe’s Bluest Nude is a recent book I absolutely loved, and I’ve just started Saltwater Demands a Psalm by Kweku Abimbola.
I listen to a ton of music, but I tend not to love a lot of new music. I don’t know if this is a sign of getting old or what, but I listen to a lot of roots reggae, that’s a staple, but I also listen to a lot of other music from around the world, too. I’ve been really into various Tuareg and other music from Mali and parts East and North Africa, a lot of instrumental stuff. Tinariwen is a band I really love. I always return to Hamza El Din and Mariem Hassan, and lately have played quite a bit of Rhiannon Giddens.
CD: What’s the benefit to you of that kind of seemingly, incredibly eclectic, almost chaotic, diverse experience of other people’s minds?
MS: I think the benefit is huge. I cultivated this very intentionally many years ago, and I think I did so as a teacher. I think my initial impulse was that if I’m teaching a bunch of different folks, I have to understand a bunch of different stuff. I began reading very early on really widely and engaging even in things that I wouldn’t necessarily gravitate toward. But I know that I’m going to have students and others who are interested in it. It set a kind of pace in my own intellectual life that has allowed me to really see the benefits in a lot of different work, and it keeps me on my toes. It keeps me thinking. For example, I’ll read a book that is completely wild, and I’m totally engulfed in intellectually, but I have no interest in writing like that. Subconsciously I’m learning a lot as a writer in how people are using and shaping and working with language. But I’m also somebody who’s just interested in a lot of stuff. The poet is full of fragmented knowledge. I’m a curious person in general. I like to see what people are up to. We are a part of these communities, and I want to know what my community is up to.
CD: I find it so interesting that you don’t necessarily mimic what it is that you’re reading in your own writing. Your poems are spare, pretty taut, often three-line stanzas. I didn’t see anything that was longer than a six-line stanza. And most of them are pretty short. There’s a radical compression in your poems that feels different than the way of your conversation. To you, what’s the difference between Matthew Shenoda on the page as a poet, the ways that you have practiced being the person you are on the page, versus this person who is a professor and an administrator and an editor.
MS: I think talk is talk. I think in talking one can be verbose, and while you can do that in poetry, it’s not my interest. My interest in poetry absolutely leans toward a kind of compression. I think that’s a central part of my thinking aesthetically. I’m very interested in the kind of tightness of the poetic line, and how it works both linguistically and musically to try and maximize whatever impact I’m aiming for in the briefest kind of space. I tend to feel like a certain verbosity of language is best left to prose. It doesn’t work as well for me in poetry, at least in my own writing. I’m very driven by the ear and the musicality of the line at a kind of singular level. It’s often about cutting out the things that are disrupting the music. I’m also interested in how poetry can express so much in so little. That’s one of the things that made me fall in love with poetry. I think about poets like Lucille Clifton, who, in a matter of five to ten short lines, completely and utterly upends my life. I’m drawn to that, to cutting away what I deem to be superfluous. There are things that happen in the natural world in these incredibly small microcosms that do so much. I’m endlessly fascinated by the smallness of things that represent so much. I look for that in a poem. How just a few words can do so many things.
Matthew Shenoda is a writer, professor, and author and editor of several books. His poems and essays have appeared in a variety of newspapers, journals, radio programs and anthologies. His debut collection of poems, Somewhere Else, was named one of 2005’s debut books of the year by Poets & Writers Magazine and was winner of a 2006 American Book Award. He is also the author of Seasons of Lotus, Seasons of Bone, editor of Duppy Conqueror: New & Selected Poems by Kwame Dawes, author of Tahrir Suite: Poems, winner of the 2015 Arab American Book Award, and with Kwame Dawes editor of Bearden’s Odyssey: Poets Respond to the Art of Romare Bearden. His latest book is The Way of the Earth. He is professor and chair of the Department of Literary Arts and affiliated faculty in Africana Studies and the Brown Arts Institute at Brown University. Additionally, Shenoda is a founding editor of the African Poetry Book Fund and both the African Poetry book series and On African Poetry book series.