"I was in a library in Oxford when I was a PhD student, reading poems and trying to think about what they meant, and it occurred to me that the person whose work I was reading was alive – and so why don’t I just ask him? That started the process of embedding interviews into my research and feeling like the contemporary was a really exciting field because the ground was ever-shifting. "
Dr Yasmine Shamma teaches in the Department of English Literature at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. She specialises in 20th–21st century literatures, offering modules and seminars on poetry, Women's Literature, American Literature, and Postcolonial Literature and is published on these topics.
Yasmine is interested in questions of home, space, place, ecoglobalism, feminism, and form. Everything that she teaches is informed by her research, which tends to focus on the poetry of place, and ranges across regions - from New York City to refugee camps.
Yasmine’s key research areas are:
- New York School of Poetry
- Spatial theory
- Ecocriticism and
- Refugee studies.
What connects them is her interest in space – the literary shapes of things, and marginalised voices talking about home:
I talk to refugees about home, about how they nest, what they need in a space to feel at home and that’s something that poetry does particularly well. A poem after all is made up of stanzas and ‘stanzas’ etymologically means ‘rooms’. Poems are ‘houses’ in that way. Poems house feelings; poems house ideas.
Research informing teaching
Yasmine teaches a variety of different modules and the benefit for her students is that her research feeds into daily teaching. For example, she invites students along to events and talks that she organises such as international symposia on the New York School, and she brings into class discussion the outcome of her interviews and up–to–the–moment conversations that she has with key literary figures, for example, Anne Waldman.
One feature of the Department of English Literature is the wide choice of modules. Of those that Yasmine teaches, she cites two as being particularly popular with students:
- #MeToo: Women's Writing as Resistance
"#MeToo is a very popular module because it’s such a contemporary issue. It’s a really exciting module to teach because students know the issues on a surface level and they know how to read and think on a critical level. You can be a literary critic in the world – not just in what you find in a book. We look at social media posts, media, blogs, documentaries. We approach them as literary in the first instance. [The students] are already engaged with the topic because it’s one that is affecting their lives – new and now."
- Routes and Roots: Migration in Contemporary World Literature
Yasmine’s migration research developed out of a concern about what can often be perceived as the ‘insularity’ of literary studies. Regarding refugees:
"I remember reading Bernard O’Donoghue’s article on Paul Muldoon’s poetry – he said: ‘Paul Muldoon […] learned a trick about humour which is what poetry mustn’t do is talk to itself’ – and I feel that way about literary studies. It’s been a great push for me to talk out – which is why there is so much community engagement and outreach in my work.
"Migration is a huge contemporary and ever-unfolding issue. I am hoping that my students by taking my modules become citizens of the Humanities – not just scholars but engaged subjects who feel the possibility of ever–evolving global issues, being better understood through their own work, and also perhaps changed, even if only by the millimetre."
Working with refugees
As well as research and teaching, Yasmine has initiated projects researching the refugee experience through oral testimony and creative writing:
- Making Home Away: ‘Lost and Found’ Refugee Stories
“So I sat them down and told them: the five of us are here, me, you and your father, wherever the five of us are, that place should be your heaven.”
Yasmine is the Principal Investigator for the Making Home Away project: a digital archive featuring refugee stories of homes lost and remade. The initiative has led to an international conference and a collection of essays on the ‘lost and found’ theme, and is funded by the British Academy's 'Tackling the UK's International Challenges' grant scheme. Its objective is to enhance international understanding of the Syrian refugee crisis while encouraging policymakers to rethink policy reform, within the UK and beyond.
- When we talk about home: testimonies, oral histories, and poetry of migration
Yasmine’s project reads interviews with refugees and displaced subjects of recent migration crises against poetry that addresses such human movement. The project is part of her 2021–22 Leverhulme Research Fellowship:
"…everybody has a home or hopefully everybody has a home, everybody knows the meaning of home or the need for home. When we talk about home we take away all of our differences and we are all home seeking people. It’s a neutralising asset."
- Poetry Sanctuary: Creative Writing Workshops for Refugees
Poetry Sanctuary in its first incarnation as The Haneen Project was a collaboration with Jude Haste, Theatre Director and Integration Manager of Reading Refugee Support Group. Yasmine launched creative-writing workshops focusing on the reading and writing of poetry, for local Arabic speaking refugees. ‘Haneen’ is Arabic for "longing," "craving," "yearning," and or "nostalgia." The haneen that refugees tend to express is for their mothers and homes.
Yasmine has been visiting refugee camps since 2016 and when the pandemic subsides she will start travelling again to offer Poetry Sanctuary workshops to refugees in the camps.
The benefits of creative workshops
When asked how the local refugee community or wider world will benefit by the delivery of these workshops, Yasmine replied:
"I am hoping to shift public opinion. That’s my ultimate end goal with my work on refugees and migration to sympathise western audiences to the plight of the refugee as one of perpetual displacement.
"It’s often easy when you see the news or pictures in newspapers to think of migration as an ‘event’, but it’s actually a ‘structure’ and it pervades the displaced person’s life, and those of generations that come after.
People view refugees often as number problems: ‘How will we accommodate 20,000 new refugees into the UK?’, for example. They are more than numbers: they are human beings."
Yasmine also teaches on the Department of Languages and Cultures MA Migration and Intercultural Studies.