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Lecturer receives American Book Award

October 25, 2006

Image of the front cover of "Somewhere Else"Matthew Shenoda, poet and American Indian studies lecturer, won a 2006 American Book Award for his first collection of poetry titled "Somewhere Else" (Coffee House Press, 2005). Established in 1978 by the Before Columbus Foundation, the American Book Award recognizes outstanding literary achievement and acknowledges the excellence and multicultural diversity of American writing. The award will be presented at a Dec. 15 ceremony in Oakland.

The poems in "Somewhere Else" draw heavily from Shenoda's Coptic Egyptian heritage. Both of Shenoda's parents immigrated to the United States from Egypt. The Coptics, a pre-Islamic, non-Arab community that practices early Christianity, are today a minority in Egypt, making up 8 percent of the population. Though Shenoda grew up in Southern California, his childhood memories are rife with images of his father's homeland on the Nile River Delta, which he has visited several times since he was a very young child. As a result, many of Shenoda's poems weave images and thought from American, Coptic and Egyptian cultures.

"Transnational identity and diasporas are major themes in my work and a central part of my identity," Shenoda said. "I live in two worlds at once and this forces me artistically to create a third space -- not quite Egyptian, not quite American. This is my way of reinventing the world through the word."

Shenoda, who received a master of fine arts in creative writing from University of Arizona, said his interest in writing poetry began in adolescence when he explored the literature that emerged from the black arts movement in the 1960s.

"Their political and cultural identities are at the forefront of their work and they utilized the language of their daily lives," Shenoda said. "This debunked for me the notion of poetry as a high art of and for the elite." One of these influences, poet Sonia Sanchez, wrote the introduction to "Somewhere Else." She calls Shenoda's poems "convocations of shimmering truths sequestered on our feet. Hands. Eyes. Blood."

The music of Bob Marley also influenced Shenoda. "I don't separate music and poetry," Shenoda said. "To me they are really the same form." He performs his poetry often while improvising with musicians.

Prior to joining the faculty at SF State, Shenoda was on the marketing staff at Copper Canyon Press and Heyday Books in Berkeley. He taught poetry at Tucson (Ariz.) High School, in various Poets in the Schools programs and at East Oakland Community High School. He considers his work with ethnic studies students at SF State a source of inspiration. "They learn that poetry is a matter of social discourse and a way to understand what's going on around them," he said.

Shenoda said that, like most poets, he writes "to find new ways to evaluate the contemporary world. It's clear looking at the world around us that we have to create a different way if we are to continue to survive on this planet."

In addition to teaching Introduction to Ethnic Studies and Arab and Arab-American Literature this semester, Shenoda will continue to promote "Somewhere Else" throughout the United States. For more information about the book or upcoming appearances, visit the Coffee House Press Web site.

-- Denize Springer


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Last modified October 25, 2006 by University Communications