Poet Fatemeh Shams came to Penn four years ago with a mission to rebuild the Persian studies program. As an assistant professor of Persian literature in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, she became the first standing faculty member in the discipline in more than two decades.
That spring of 2017, her first book of poetry in English translation, “When They Broke Down the Door,” was published. This spring, her first academic book in English, “A Revolution in Rhyme: Poetic Co-option under the Islamic Republic,” was published. She will begin working on her second book project during a 14-month fellowship in Berlin starting in May.
An award-winning author of three books of poetry, Shams is known for her writing about the intersection of literature, politics, and society, as well as exile, refugees, loss, and women’s rights.
“A Revolution in Rhyme,” drawing on a long-lasting bond between poets and patrons in Iran, analyzes the role of state-sponsored literary institutions in promoting state-sponsored literature.
“Her book exemplifies her merits beautifully. Written in clear, even beautiful prose, it shows what a great communicator she is. Exhaustive and detailed, it shows what a determined scholar she is,” says Paul Cobb, chair of Penn’s Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department in the School of Arts & Sciences.
“It is a subject—poetic production in Iran since the Islamic Revolution—which benefits tremendously from her view as both an insider, as a poet, and an outsider, as an exile,” he says. “Someone needed to write this book, and I am incredibly grateful that the someone turned out to be Fatemeh Shams.”
Shams has been giving talks about the book, virtually, including a book launch sponsored by Penn’s Middle East Center, a conversation sponsored by Princeton University, and a podcast by the University of Oxford.
Shams has also been writing poetry. Her poems are featured in two recently published volumes, “The Penguin Book of Feminist Writing,” and a new bilingual edition of “The Mirror of My Heart a Thousand Years of Persian Poetry by Women.” A new poem, “Electrocardiogram,” was published in A New Divan alongside other leading poets. Another new poem will be in the summer issue of Poetry London.
All the while she has been building the Persian Language Program at Penn, creating classes, organizing events, inviting speakers, and advising students.
“A recognized poet in her own right, a hard-working teacher of language and literature, and a scholar with a serious, long-range research agenda,” Cobb says. “It was hoped that she would revive the study of Persian literature at Penn after the retirement of her predecessor William Hanaway in the 1990s. And, boy, did she ever.”
A life in exile
After graduating in 2004 from the University of Tehran with a degree in sociology, Shams went to London, to study at the Institute of the Study of Muslim Civilizations at Aga Khan University, receiving her master’s degree in 2008. She then began her doctoral studies in Oriental studies at the University of Oxford.
The 2009 election and government crackdown in Iran led to her family being imprisoned and forced her into exile. She has not been able to return and continues to live, work, write, and publish in exile. “I am still stateless,” she says.
The idea for the book grew out of her doctoral dissertation. It is based on poets featured in school textbooks and government television programs over the past four decades.
“It was unbelievable to me that while people were out at night in protests in 2009, the state-sponsored poets spoke in such a well-engineered style on television during the annual poetry nights with the leader of the country as if nothing was happening in the streets,” she says. “It was a disturbingly peaceful and carefully controlled environment, poets sitting and reading in conversation with the supreme leader, in response to those protests.”
The same thing happened during Iran-Iraq war, which lasted for eight years, with state-sponsored poets playing a key role in the discourse of resistance and martyrdom, she says. She found little research on the topic and decided to pursue it herself.
“In Iran, poetry has become a way of responding to political crisis, to the lack of legitimacy in the government,” she says. “And the fact that the leaders were putting so much emphasis on poetry for me as a poet was especially interesting.”
Born in Mashhad, Iran, in 1983, Shams journey to becoming a poet and scholar began when she was a young teenager. She found her mother’s hidden poetry books, banned by the government, and realized these poets were not included in her studies at school.
“I remember very, very vividly that I took those books to my bedroom and then I would just read them and read them over and over again,” she says. “I memorized them, and they shaped me and my poetic imagination without me knowing it.”
One of her favorites was written by a woman, poet Forugh Farrokhzad, who continues to be an important literary and cultural icon in today’s Iran. “The fact that I couldn't find her poems with school textbooks was a mystery when I was coming of age,” says Shams, who started writing poetry at age 14. “Digging into her poetry was a game changer.”
A high school literature teacher played an important role in bringing forbidden books to her attention. “She would wrap them in newspapers and bring them to school to me and pass them on to me after the class,” Shams says. “I felt so important and so special for receiving those books, with the responsibility to read the work and then bring it back. Those were important formative days.”
When she was 17 years old, Shams was awarded the silver medal in the National Olympiad of Persian Literature. And she was selected as one of only 18 Persian literature students, from thousands across the country, to go to the Capitol.
“For the first time, I felt I was recognized merely for my literary knowledge,” she says. “I was exposed to a different of crowd, the first time sitting in a mixed group of boys and girls in one classroom to study literature and to read and discuss poetry.”
It was then, she says, that she realized there are dichotomies, that there were poets who were recognized and promoted and safeguarded and poets who were not.
“There are like many layers of complexities when it comes to the literary life in Iran," she says. "There are so many embedded shades of color in between that are not seen and not understood and that are not discussed."
Poetry and patronage
In “A Revolution in Rhyme,” published earlier this year by Oxford University Press, Shams examines the works of 10 poets who were sanctioned by the government. At its core, she reflects upon her experience growing up under the Islamic Republic and the government-controlled literary production and categorization.
During the book launch sponsored by Penn, Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, professor and founding director of the Center for Persian Studies at the University of Maryland, said the book’s form is “glorious,” and the scholarship “a boon to our analysis of poetry.”
In May Shams will travel to Berlin on a Humboldt Foundation Fellowship to join Forum Transregionale Studien through July 2022 to write the companion book to “A Revolution in Rhyme.” This second book will focus on those poets who did not conform to the government ideology and did not receive patronage. Imprisonment and exile will be the two main themes of her new book.
“My interest is the idea of patronage and poetry, and power and politics, and that is still very much part of the second book. It just has a different focus this time, one which I hope complete the other half of the image that I’ve already sketched in the first book” she says. “It’s an overview, an analysis, of the experience of imprisonment and exile Persian literature. I also want to write about the experience of women writers, which was not possible in the first book.”
Rebuilding the Persian program
Shams was a teaching fellow in Persian at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies and Somerset House when she decided to come to Penn. She had completed her studies at the University of Oxford, earning her Ph.D. in Persian literature in 2015.
From the start she has formed connections with scholars across departments at Penn and across academia throughout the country. “She has been an indefatigable supporter of Persian culture on campus, making the best use of Penn’s resources to bring scholars and poets to campus and to spread the word about Penn’s own strengths in this area,” says Cobb.
“We are reaching out and trying to make Penn known again as a place to study Persian literature,” Shams says. “I basically had to create everything, all the courses, everything from scratch. And that was the real challenge.”
Working with colleague Mahyar Entezari, coordinator at the Persian Language Program, she has created six content courses, including Iran contemporary media and culture, advanced seminars on Persian poetry and the Persian novel, and advanced-content language courses.
The program has increased its advanced language students from one to five in three years, she says. Shams is working with two Ph.D. students on their dissertations, and students from other disciplines on their undergraduate honors and master’s theses.
She has organized nearly a dozen events on campus, many with Kelly Writers House, the Weitzman School of Design, and the Middle East Center, including a reading by author Amir Ahmadi Arian, a panel on contemporary Iranian fiction in translation featuring author Moniro Ravanipour, and a reading by novelist Salar Abdoh. She moderated the Levin Family Dean's Forum with the author Marjane Satrapi in 2019, “definitely a highlight of these four years,” she says.
Shams was featured in a February panel, “Existing In-Between: Spatial Precarity in Literature and Art,” on the idea of belonging, exile, displacement that included guests from Iran, Israel, Kashmir, and Afghanistan, sponsored by the Office of the Provost Excellence Through Diversity Fund.
‘Penn is unique’
She will return to Penn in 2022 after the Humboldt Foundation Fellowship and continue to pursue U.S. citizenship with the help of her colleagues.
“Penn gives me that independence, that individuality, that support to be a scholar, one that I want to be rather than the one that I must be or am expected to be. Penn is unique in this sense,” Shams says.
“Academics and intellectuals at risk who have experienced censorship, persecution and displacement know how much these qualities matter. Having that freedom, I think, has allowed me strive in all of these different directions,” she says. “It’s rewarding in the sense that I feel, at least I’ve been able to do what I really love and what I’m really passionate about.”