Ajam Podcast #39: Persianate Verse and the Poetics of Eastern Internationalism

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In this episode, Belle interviews Samuel Hodgkin, Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Yale University, about his recent book, Persianate Verse and the Poetics of Eastern Internationalism (Cambridge University Press, 2023).

Hodgkin’s book (and our podcast episode) covers vast literary and political landscapes. From what we now know as Iran, to Armenia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, India, Turkey, and Soviet Russia, Hodgkin weaves together evidence across many linguistic, ethnic, and generational divides to show how Persianate verse informed and was transformed by what he terms “Eastern internationalism” over the twentieth century. In this episode, Hodgkin discusses the poetry, film, letters, and speeches by women and men that were imbued with the “durability” and “reverberations” of classic Persian poetry across Soviet Central Asia, the Caucasus, Anatolian zones, and South Asia. He explores Persian poetic conventions and forms throughout moments of revolution in the Turkish, Iranian, and Soviet contexts, arguing that Persianate verse remained a crucial part of the region’s political imagination and practice, and was central to social and cultural transformation in the twentieth century.

Activists and revolutionaries, many of whom became literary bureaucrats in the communist bloc, were the “cement that glued together the edifice of communist internationalism” as they “linked together the communist bloc, the multinational and international communist bloc, with anti-colonial and national activists in what the Soviets called the near abroad.” Persian had been a common language of culture and the court across these spaces which many literary scholars now refer to as the “Persianate” world, but the “East” was an intentionally cultivated zone of political solidarity. Much of this solidarity was created through the shared historical tradition of Persianate verse, and its rearticulation in various contexts – a sometimes strange collaboration between past and present.

In the podcast episode, we discuss the concept of adab –“good form” or etiquette – previously discussed on the Ajam podcast. Adab transformed into adabiyat, or “literature” in a more western sense, around this period, which we’ve also discussed. However, Hodgkin argues this transition from adab to adabiyat was not as clear cut in this particular context. For example, Persianate literature and form was still used in diplomatic and cultural contexts across the Eastern international, especially given its history as the language of culture and governance across many of these geographies. Though the intended audience did not always understand the nuances of the poetry (listen for a funny story about Stalin missing the purpose of a poem!), Hodgkin notes that it remained an important part of expressing the desires and ideas of activists, revolutionaries, and bureaucrats.

The episode ends with a reading and discussion of a poem by Zhala Isfahani, an Iranian woman who was both a poet and translator. Hodgkin emphasizes the importance of language and translation throughout his work, and also how men and women as poets, translators, and bureaucrats were integral in shaping Eastern internationalism.



Samuel Hodgkin

Samuel Hodgkin is an Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Yale University. He is a literary scholar and cultural historian of medieval and modern Eurasia, and he is interested in classical Persianate poetry and its afterlife in modernist literature and literary institutions across Central and South Asia, the Caucasus, and the Middle East. His first book, Persianate Verse and the Poetics of Eastern Internationalism was published in December of 2023 by Cambridge University Press, and his work has appeared in Comparative Literature Studies and Iranian Studies amongst other journals.


Belle Cheves

Belle Cheves is an editor at Ajam Media Collective and a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Bard College. Her research focuses on the history of family in Qajar Iran, specifically on how transformations of marital practices and affective perceptions of gender, race, and ethnicity shifted understandings of kinship, enslavement, and domestic service over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.



Episode No. 39
Release Date: 14 March 2024
Recording Location: New Haven, CT
Recording Date: 6 February 2024
Produced by Belle Cheves
Audio Editing: Belle Cheves and Nicholas Gunty
Music: Yavaran (Intro: “404 day in heaven;” Outro: “Har Chi”)
Cover Image: Photograph of embroidered panel, “Pioneers”, 1928, The National Art Museum of Azerbaijan. From Togrul Efendiev, Azerbaijan Carpets (Baku: 2005). Text on red banner at center reads: “Ready first, ready always” (a Pioneer slogan); on cream-colored scroll at center: “The 15th anniversary of October” (i.e., of the October Revolution); on red banner at left: “The first collective;” at bottom left: “1928, Zakiye Vahabzade.” 

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