Accepted paper:

Bold innovation or vulgarity? Accounting for creative choice in a Persian literary field


Zuzanna Olszewska (University of Oxford)

Paper short abstract:

This paper takes up the panel’s theme in relation to innovation in literary genres, specifically in Persian poetry, based on ethnographic study of contemporary Afghan poets in Iran.

Paper long abstract:

This paper takes up the panel's theme in relation to innovation in literary genres, specifically in Persian poetry. Benefiting from extensively documented accounts of continuity and change over a millennium of Persian literary history, I explore the additional insights offered by the ethnographic study of contemporary poets, linking their creative choices to their social contexts. Placing such poets in a field of cultural production, as Bourdieu did for French writers—insisting on the necessity of understanding the multifaceted relationship among genre, audience, patronage, criticism and political economy, among others—gives us a partial explanation for the trajectory of a particular poet's oeuvre, and can help us understand the conditions in which innovation is either resisted or welcomed. It can even help us understand why some daring departures from convention are naturalised into 'tradition' while others are vehemently denounced as mere vulgarity. But how are we to account for the sometimes radically different creative choices of poets from broadly similar social backgrounds working under similar conditions? On the basis of ethnographic fieldwork with Afghan refugee poets in Iran, I argue that the creative work of a poet lies not just in composing verses, but in 'composing' sympathetic audiences and carving out a channel between her own imagination and theirs—a task involving numerous contingencies, including the poet's unique personality (shakhsiat).

panel P30
Creative horizons: steps towards an ethnography of imagination