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Persian Poetry Reading Group gives space for students, staff to discuss Persian language

Held in collaboration with Cambridge, group provides participants community, cultural exposure

Before teaching Persian at the University, Michelle Quay, visiting lecturer in language studies, spent several years working on a Persian poetry group at the University of Cambridge alongside Annabel Keeler, an affiliated researcher at Cambridge. Hoping to recreate this experience on College Hill, Quay began to consider how she could create a similar space for Persian literature exploration on campus.

During the spring, Quay officially brought the Persian Poetry Reading Group to the University. The group, which meets online four times throughout the semester, is held in collaboration with Cambridge and is open to both university communities, according to Events@Brown. The group invites students with an interest in the Persian language to read, translate and discuss Persian poetry and verse.

“It hasn’t even been a full year yet,” Quay said. Since its incorporation at the University, Quay and Keeler have worked to grow the group and make classical Persian poetry and literature more accessible to students in an international context.

According to Quay, the group hopes to help students develop their ability to read Persian poetry so that they can combat inaccurate literature translations. Most students are new speakers looking to connect with their culture, which Quay said “gives us a motivation for why these texts are so important.”


The group, which is also open to staff affiliates of both universities, provides a “community building aspect” that Quay said creates a more natural environment for language learning. As a group that builds off of each other, incorporating native staff speakers into the group “exposes students to this totally different worldview” — an authenticity that she emphasized is difficult to find anywhere else.

Kanha Prasad ’22.5, a participant in the group, feels that it has helped those looking to connect with their culture and family or simply better understand Persian literature.

“Given that there aren't yet any regular courses at Brown which focus on Persian poetry, I think that the group has allowed many people to begin getting their feet wet with this very important tradition,” Prasad wrote in an email to The Herald.

“Many of the people who come to the meetings aren't necessarily from humanities backgrounds,” he added. “Many of them are members of the Iranian diaspora who want to be able to communicate with their families in a richer way.”

The group focuses on readings from renowned Persian poets Shams-ud-din Muhammad Hafez and Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, which help develop participants’ language and reading skills while also engaging with contemporary topics, including love, Prasad explained.

Prasad recalled the “divine love” that poets write about in their literature and how even today you can find lyrics “with words like saaqi, the mythical dispenser of ecstatic wine, or divaneh, someone who has lost themselves in rapturous love, to refer to one's beloved” — phrases that some may know but not understand the meaning behind.

The participation of graduate students and university affiliates at both Cambridge and Brown has helped deepen the community learning aspect of the group. 

“Many of the participating members from Cambridge tend to be graduate students and faculty with at least a couple of years of engagement with Persian poetry,” Prasad wrote. “One can learn a lot just by listening to them.”

From Cambridge, Keeler has played a significant role in helping the group learn more about Persian verse. With a PhD in Islamic studies, her knowledge is instrumental, as “the mysticism that she has is extremely important to the group,” according to Quay.

“She works in this field, she translates (and) she researches,” Quay said. Keeler thus does not only bring linguistic knowledge to the group but also important contextual knowledge of the literature.


The group held its second meeting of the academic year Oct. 25. The meeting was run primarily in English to accommodate the varying Persian comprehension levels of its participants. Throughout the session, Quay and Keeler instructed students to read verses in Persian and then interpret what they had read, breaking down the poetry both linguistically and analytically.

Much of the lesson focused on the idea of interpretation over translation, as suggested by a staff affiliate. With this approach to the reading, students offered multiple conclusions about what they had read and the true meaning behind the literature.

Quay said that in the future she hopes to open the group up to more Persian speakers on campus and make it more of a natural environment for those wishing to learn about their language and culture.

“Persian speakers are pretty proud of their poetry so — even if they can’t attend (the group) themselves — they are so happy to hear that we’re running it,” she said. The group acts as a form of “community building that also serves actual student needs which is hard to do otherwise.”

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