Associate Professor of Comparative Literature
Ballantine Hall 919
A child of America’s Middle West, I have been reading the poetry of the Middle East for some thirty years now. This encounter began during my undergraduate studies at the University of Chicago. I came to Persian through historical linguistics and an interest in the interactions between a prestige language (such as French or Arabic) and a marginal vernacular (such as English or Persian), a phenomenon I would later learn to call “hybridization.” As an avid reader of poetry in Spanish and English, I was also dimly aware of the rich literary tradition of Persian and was coming to realize that for me linguistics was a means rather than an end and that my true avocation lay in literary studies.
By coincidence, I began studying Persian in 1979, the fateful year of the Iranian Revolution. After receiving my BA in Linguistics, I worked for Social Security in Chicago and volunteered at a local Iranian community organization. The influx of Iranian refugees gave me ample opportunity to cultivate my language skills and to learn about the central role that poetry plays in Persian culture and self-identity. After two years, I returned to the University of Chicago for doctoral studies in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. There I studied Arabic and Turkish, while immersing myself in the thousand-year tradition of Persian literature. For my dissertation, I turned to the poetry of the early modern period (the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries), when Persian was the language of trade, administration, and high culture throughout Persia, India, and Central Asia. The resulting book, Welcoming Fighāni: Imitation and Poetic Individuality in the Safavid-Mughal Ghazal, examines the development of the Fresh or Indian style—the “Persian Baroque”—through the poetics of imitatio and intertextuality.
I joined Indiana University in 1994, and since 2000, I have held a joint appointment in two departments. In Central Eurasian Studies, I direct the Persian language program, teach Persian literature, and run the Persian film series. In Comparative Literature, much of my work focuses on translation. After completing my first book, I embarked on a major translation project, Farid al-Din ‘Attar’s Memorial of God’s Friends, one of the fundamental works of Persian mystical literature from the early thirteenth century, which will be published by the Paulist Press in its series Classics of Western Spirituality in early 2009. Drawing on my training in linguistics and literary theory and my experience as a practicing translator, I now regularly teach a seminar on the history and theory of translation. In my course on the poetics of mysticism, I explore the problem of “speaking the ineffable” in Neo-Platonism, Sufism, and American Transcendentalism. I continue to translate from Persian into English and am currently preparing translations of the lyric poetry of the Indo-Persian poet Amir Khusraw under contract with Penguin India.
Since joining Comparative Literature, I have also taken up studies in comparative arts. Research fellowships in Cairo in 1989-90 and in Iran in 1998 and 2000 first sparked my interest in the urban topography and architecture of the Islamic world. One of my current research projects investigates the intersections of architecture and literature. In recent articles and papers, I have been examining how early modern Persian poetry depicts buildings, both real and imagined, and how architecture and architectural metaphors are used in poetry and fiction to structure narrative and the immaterial worlds of emotion and cognition. This research draws on theoretical studies in architectural semiotics, ekphrasis, ecocritism, and cognitive poetics.
My other on-going research project returns to the surprisingly modernist poetics of the Baroque. With readers from Istanbul to Delhi, Sā’eb Tabrizi (d. 1676) was probably the best-known poet in the world during his lifetime, and his poetry provides a starting point for a broader comparative study that is gradually reaching out to the roughly contemporaneous poetry of the English “Metaphysicals” and Spanish Golden Age poets such as Quevedo and Góngora. The uses of metaphor and metapoetic themes in this poetry also resemble developments in twentieth-century poetry, suggesting a regular recurrence of what we call “modernism.”
All work and no play would make Paul a dull boy. My wife, Arzetta, and I enjoy living in rural southern Indiana with our small herd of cats and walking through its rolling, wooded hills. I listen to music of all kinds, from Madlib to Mahler, with a special taste for the music of Jamaica, “the loudest island in the world.” My wife and I are also big fans of the Cardinals and White Sox and enjoy visiting Cincinnati to watch the seemingly hopeless Reds and take in the local club scene.