Robyn Creswell is a critic, translator, and scholar specializing in Arabic literature and comparative modernisms. His dissertation is a historical critique of Arabic modernist poetry, a movement that flourished in Beirut between 1955 and 1975 and which radically redefined the parameters of Arabic poetry.
“At a time when newly independent regimes all over the region were trying to establish control over their respective national cultures, and when poets were mobilizing under the banners of one or another political ideology, Arab modernists fought for poetic autonomy,” Creswell said. “Their magazines, translations, and anthologies form a systematic critique of what was going on elsewhere in the Middle East. They wanted, perhaps quixotically, to turn their backs on politics.”
Creswell’s initial interest in his field grew out of his readings of other modernist writers — mostly American and French, including T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Saint-John Perse. “Then, when I encountered a movement that was in some ways recognizable, though in other ways deeply unfamiliar, I had enough of a toehold to think I could orient myself in this new landscape,” he recalled.
Among the writers whose work Creswell is particularly drawn to studying is Syrian poet Adonis, a founding member of the modernist magazine Shi’r and perennial favorite to win the Nobel Prize in literature.
“I find Adonis’ poetry very challenging,” he said. “I suppose I’m one of those readers who likes difficult texts, who likes trying to figure out puzzles, and Adonis is like that. He’s difficult by design. I’m sort of sadomasochistically attracted to that kind of poem, though I have nothing against straightforward poetry — assuming there is such a thing.”
Creswell received a B.A. from Brown in 1999 and earned his Ph.D. in comparative literature at New York University in 2011. He published a translation, from French, of Abdelfattah Kilito’s novel The Clash of the Images (New York: New Directions, 2010), and has written reviews and essays for Harper’s Magazine, The New York Times, n+1, and Modernism/Modernity. In addition to teaching at Brown, Creswell will continue to serve as the poetry editor for The Paris Review, a post he’s held since 2010.
Currently, Creswell is hoping to finish a novel and will soon be working on a text for the Library of Arabic Literature, an NYU Abu Dhabi project to publish translations of the great works of classical Arabic literature. He will be translating Fusul al-Tamathil fi Tabashir al-Surur (Copious Figures on the Harbingers of Happiness) a ninth-century text about wine, poetry, and hangovers.
Twelve years after finishing his undergraduate studies at the Department of Comparative Literature, Creswell is looking forward to his return and potential collaborations between comparative literature faculty and the creative writing department. “As an alum, it’s exciting to be working with people that I already admire. And I know that Brown students are motivated and smart — a really superlative bunch.”