Chat Transcript: Coleman Barks on Rumi

The translator discusses his movie cameo, the heart of Rumi's message, and whether whirling makes him dizzy.


Beliefnet talked with Rumi expert Coleman Barks on May 24, 2001, on Yahoo.

Beliefnet Ellen: Welcome to Beliefnet's chat with Coleman Barks, premier translator of Rumi's poetry. Coleman will be talking about Rumi's passionate "love poems to God." His upcoming collection, "The Soul of Rumi," will be available in September 2001 from HarperSanFrancisco.

Beliefnet Laura: Coleman, welcome! Thanks for joining us. Can you tell us briefly who Rumi is and why he's so popular?

Coleman Barks: Rumi was a 13th-century mystic. He is an artist, a poet--in the Islamic world, he is as honored as Shakespeare is in our world. The central event in his life was his meeting with Shams Tabriz. I've worked with scholars who know Persian and they have helped me to translate Rumi's poems.

Question from blueblueface: Mr. Barks, welcome! We are so glad to have you...Mr. Barks, how much of the poems' success is Rumi, and how much is Barks? I mean when we get that "Rumi shiver."

Coleman Barks: Blueblueface: I have no idea. There is some kind of a dance going on between my personal self and this enlightened being. Whatever shiver of connection there is, is Rumi's fault.

blueblueface: So many of Rumi's poems are like a dance. How difficult was it for you to translate not only the words but the feelings he evoked, into English?

Coleman Barks: Evidently, his poems were spoken spontaneously as he was in motion, in a turning motion. So the poems--at least in Persian--sure have that body-knowledge in them, that sense of being a conductor. I hope that some of that comes across in the English. It's only a hope. His poems do feel like songs and also like they have the motion of a body in them.

Question from Kris_Tina_819


Dr. Barks...I was in your Creative Writing class at UGA in '90 or so. I just wanted to let you know I am teaching now and when we study poetry, I always introduce my students to Rumi and to YOU. They love you both.

Coleman Barks

: I appreciate that.

Question from blueblueface: Rumi seemed to have spent a lot of time in seclusion with his "friend." What were they doing? Was he gay?

Coleman Barks: This question always comes up. My sense is that the connection between Rumi and Shams was not sexual. They met in the heart and in the soul--and the conversation that they had, and the nature of it, is what we get some sense of from the poetry, but it remains a mystery.



Mr. Barks, I heard you have a cameo role in an upcoming movie that stars several "Hollywood Sufis." Could you elaborate?

Coleman Barks

: I have a very small part, but it is a speaking part (for about 30 seconds), in the upcoming movie "Big Bad Love," starring Debra Winger, Arliss Howard, Angie Dickenson, Roseanna Arquette, and others. It's from a Larry Brown book. I play a cliché-driven preacher at a Mississippi gravesite under a tent in the rain. I was born for this role. :)

Question from dharmabuns: Many of your books were published by your own press. How did you get the idea to do the "Essential Rumi" with a larger publisher?

Coleman Barks: The small-press books were selling so well that it seemed necessary to get a larger collection out to a larger audience.

Question from thammond64


This may be kind of a silly question, but what exactly is a Sufi mystic? For those of us that have a preliminary grasp of the concept.

Coleman Barks

: There is a lot of talk and a lot of argument about the term "Sufi." I like to be simple about it and say that it's just the "way of the heart"-- which is actually not so simple. One could spend one's life trying to figure out what love is, the nature of it, and how the heart opens.

schubird123: Why is it that a poet who lived eight centuries ago sounds so contemporary?

Coleman Barks: That might be the phrasing as I try to put Rumi's densely rhymed poetry into unrhymed American free verse. It's the Whitman tradition--which is a democratic one--that feels that the subject and the rhyme of poetry should be open to everyone, in a language that everyone can understand.

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