Brunel International African Poetry Prize – Shortlisted Poet: A Dialogue With Sherry Shenoda
Sherry Shenoda is an Egyptian-American poet and pediatrician, born in Cairo and living in Los Angeles. Her work is on the intersection of human rights and child health. She is currently serving as a pediatrician in a non-profit health center caring for children in the community and who are transitioning out of homelessness. Her published works appear in the journal Pediatrics and center on policy related to the effects of armed conflict on child health, on which she has briefed the US Senate. She is working on her first collection of poetry and has recently submitted her first novel for publication.
BY NKATEKO MASINGA
This conversation took place between South Africa and the United States via email.
Nkateko: Sherry, congratulations on being shortlisted for the Brunel International African Poetry Prize. What does being on this shortlist mean to you?
Sherry: Nkateko, what an honor. Thank you, and thank you for your time. Being on the Shortlist has been a humbling experience. In medicine, as you know, there are objective measures and milestones to let me know that I am more or less on the right path, or at least a path of some sort. This is one of the first objective measures I’ve received as a poet, and I am so grateful.
Nkateko: Your poem, “Alms”, reminds me of a part of Kahlil Gibran’s “On Work”, which says “And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.” In your poem, I was struck by your description of the living begging on behalf of the dead, who are denied a dignified burial. The in-service begging for the lives not only of those we serve but the ones they love, to “plead on behalf of your patient’s brother” because you know your patient’s wellness depends on it, spoke to me. How did that poem come about?
Sherry: Yes, Nkateko, that is one of my favorites of Gibran’s “Prophet,” and I try to work in a way that is “love made visible,” as he writes. The poem is based on an encounter I had with a patient’s family, and it happened just that way, unembellished. The brother was shot in gang violence and the sister had missed her appointment the month before. If I hadn’t asked why she missed it she and her mother would have gotten the medication refilled and left without telling me. I remember asking and then sitting with them in my office, sharing mute shock and grief, before calling the funeral director.
The man begging at the side of the road for funeral donations is becoming a more common site in the United States. It is not only expensive to die, but families often inherit only debt when a family member dies, and thus aren’t given time and space to mourn, caught as they are between the details of life and the details of death.
Nkateko: How can we ensure that none are beggared of love? Can we find grace in the “graceless space” you speak of? Is your writing a way of reaching towards the ideal (of working with love) in a less-than-ideal world?
Sherry: That line for me is about loneliness and connection. One of the ways I am surviving this graceless time in US politics is to look for ways to make personal connections and humanize every encounter. To treat every person as “God after God” as Evagrius wrote, or to see the divine in each person. We know that loneliness negatively affects health, and makes us feel unseen. Emily Dickinson called loneliness “the horror not to be surveyed.” I try, with my words, to see. Sometimes people approach with a fist, but I believe that behind a fist is often loneliness and disconnection. At our own door, at our own soul, we can, at the least, not beggar those who come knocking. For me, this is the beginning of creating gracious space.
“I try, with my words, to see. Sometimes people approach with a fist, but I believe that behind a fist is often loneliness and disconnection. At our own door, at our own soul, we can, at the least, not beggar those who come knocking.“
Nkateko: You speak of milestones and objective measures that tell you that you are on the right path, and that reminded me that sometimes, even when you have done what you can, things can still go wrong or not go your way. What does the process of refining your work look like for you, particularly when working towards a deadline?
Sherry: Poetry for me is a connecting space, where I can reach out, make connections, and have people connect with me and my humanity. About a year ago I was reading about the life of Emily Dickinson and the image of her rolling up her poetry and putting it in a drawer struck me anew. We have such little time, and I want to read the rolled-up bits that people hide away. Those are the most precious, the most intimate parts, the ones that would enrich the lives of those around us, and our own lives immeasurably, if we could find the courage to share them. I’m a private, introverted person and have been writing since I was six and have only recently begun sharing any of my poetry, trying to be courageous, to connect.
The most important outcome measure of my poetry for me is to create connection. If one person reads this and takes what she has written and held close in disconnection, and instead shares it with the world, I will count my sharing a success.
Nkateko: “I want to read the rolled-up bits that people hide away.” This resonates very deeply with me because I search for those bits too. For instance, my first encounter with the work of Sylvia Plath came at a time when I was struggling with my mental health and I wrote a message to my then-partner saying, “I’ll be Plath and you’ll be Hughes. Let my love not rot from disuse”, and then started sending him poems which I instructed him to share with the world in future, lest I not be alive to do so. I realise now what a heavy burden that was for him and I later reclaimed those poems, grateful that I had archived them somewhere (I had not saved them anywhere else). I would never share some of those, and I pray he doesn’t either, but I do think there is a fascination with the private lives of others, especially those dealing with mental illness, that I am not immune to because I want to know if others are similarly afflicted. So last year when I read Plath’s daughter’s reflection after finding her late mother’s letters to her former psychiatrist, I wondered if Plath would have wanted those letters to be public knowledge if she was still alive. I wonder also if there is any benefit in our sharing of pain? What do we gain, especially when sympathy often comes as an afterthought, posthumously?
Sherry: Thank you for sharing your very personal experience. Consent is the essential question, isn’t it? I too struggled with my mental health, dealing with depression, working out how much was my private conversation between my soul and spirit, and how much I was willing to share, to perhaps ease the way for others. I think the poet is under no obligation to share, and what is shared is in a sense a public trust, an opening of the door to allow people inside. Whether the sharing is for the poet’s own release or on the chance that it might “help” someone else struggling with something similar, I think is impossible to say because it is so personal. I suspect there are as many answers as there are poets.
Why did Emily leave the poems rolled up in her drawer rather than burn them in a lit fire in her grate? As an adolescent my sense of privacy was bitterly offended on her behalf, yet I couldn’t make myself look away from her poetry, because it resonated so deeply for me. As an adult my heart says she wanted them shared. As to Sylvia Plath’s letters to her psychiatrist, my instinct is to say that those should have been kept confidential, due to their nature. I don’t know that there is any benefit in sharing our pain for sympathy, either alive or posthumously. For me, the benefit is in the writing itself, the worrying of the sore tooth with the tongue.
Nkateko: I agree that “behind a fist is often loneliness and disconnection” and I wonder how we can navigate that in the current digital era when all of us are hiding behind a screen, sometimes approaching others with virtual fists. I once came across an article on The Guardian about a “social media camp” where teenagers can be taught how to be social media “influencers” through a program which aims to deepen their immersion in online platforms. Shortly after that, I read about a friend who had just returned from a silent meditation retreat and was sharing the benefits of this “immersion in silence” with others on social media. I wonder if there is a right or wrong way to engage with the world in the era of social media? As a “private, introverted person”, how do you deal with the pressure to be present online?
Sherry: I give what I can online, and at this point in my life, it is limited. I find that social media is useful as a tool when it helps me connect in a more meaningful way with people, either by leading to an in-person encounter, or to a wider community. I read about the Brunel International African Poetry Prize on Twitter, for instance, and I would have missed out on reading so many incredible African poets if I hadn’t engaged in that way. At the same time, I think the wholesale projection of our lives into the social media marketplace doesn’t allow for the kind of silence and stillness many of us need to truly create. Creating for me is a spiritual work, and I find it difficult to serve the work in obedience and humility when I’m in the online noise. I find that writing on paper helps me slow down, to be intentional, and to sit with my loneliness, the brokenness and the beauty of the world and the needs of my fellow sisters and brothers. Emily is on my mind today, and I use her line “the soul selects her own society, then shuts the door,” as my credo. Naomi Shihab Nye also articulates how I feel in her poem, “The Art of Disappearing” when she writes “When they invite you to a party/remember what parties are like before answering…If they say we should get together/say why?/ It’s not that you don’t love them anymore/You’re trying to remember something too important to forget.” I’m actually rather optimistic that we, as a society can figure out the role of social media in our lives in a healthy way. In the meantime, I don’t feel much pressure about the little I’m able to offer online. Maybe one day it will be more. For now, I’m focusing on the creating, on remembering the things that are “too important to forget.” Maybe one day the focus will be more on sharing and connecting. What I don’t offer online now are the “rolled up bits” if you will, that I choose not to share, and no one can feel badly about them, because they don’t know they exist. It comes back to consent, doesn’t it?
Nkateko: I agree, it does come back to consent, to the “society” of the soul’s choosing, as Emily said in her poem. If we can learn to master the next bit, to “on her divine majority/obtrude no more,” with the understanding that everything beyond what has been shared is the “private conversation between soul and spirit” as you have described it. I share your optimism that we can figure out how to navigate this virtual space in a healthy way.
Thank you so much for having this conversation with me, Sherry. I have learnt so much and will put into practice the much-needed lessons on focusing on the spiritual work of creating, learning to “slow down” as you say in the last line of “Race Against Time.” All the best with the Brunel International African Poetry Prize and with everything you plan to do this year and beyond.
Sherry: Nkateko, I’ve learned so much from you as well, both from your poetry and from your inspiring TEDx talk. It’s been a true pleasure. Thank you!
Nkateko Masinga was born in Pretoria, South Africa. She is a writer, performance poet, publisher, TEDx Speaker, 2018 Mandela Washington Fellow, World Economic Forum Global Shaper and 2019 Ebedi Writers Fellow. Her written work has appeared in Brittle Paper, Kalahari Review, U.S journal Illuminations, UK pamphlet press Pyramid Editions, the University of Edinburgh’s Dangerous Women Project, and elsewhere. She is the founder and managing director of NSUKU Publishing Consultancy. Her work has received support from Pro Helvetia Johannesburg and the Swiss Arts Council. She is currently a Contributing Interviewer for Poetry under Africa In Dialogue’s Internship Program.