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.
: 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?
: 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.
: 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.
: Your poems used to be pretty free form. In your last book, each stanza had only two lines. Why have you changed your "line style"?
: In the last book, "The Glance," I tried to mimic the two-line--the couplets--of the ghazal,
while still retaining the free-verse sound. This is all an experiment. I keep trying to find new ways of making Rumi's wisdom available.
manjusura: Mr Barks: Do you trust the spiritual-marketplace aspect of US culture? What do you think Rumi's response might have been?
Coleman Barks: One has to watch out about following trends of sales. I'm sure Rumi would not have worried about how many books were being sold or where he was on any best-seller list. He simply wants his poems to open individual hearts. That's the whole point of it.
: If Rumi felt God was ineffable and told us to "close our books," why did he let his poems be written down?
: (Laughs.) Someone once asked Rumi why he talked so much about silence. He said, "The radiant one inside of me has never said a word."
manjusura: Was his relationship with Shams of the nature of discipleship?
Coleman Barks: I don't think we have words to describe how they were in their friendship. The terms for mentor and disciple, the terms for lover and beloved, and the words for friendship do not include all they lived within. What they did was bring into mysticism a new path. Call it "the way of unfolding friendship."
andrew975: Have you ever heard the song "Arc of Your Mallet"? It uses one of your poems for its text...
Coleman Barks: I may not have heard it. Is it by Alludin Mathiu? [note: This participant did not follow up.]
rumifreak: How do you go about translating Rumi's poetry if it is in Farsi? Do you speak Farsi?
Coleman Barks: Dear Rumi Freak--No, I do not speak Farsi. I am innocent of all languages except this mother tongue. I work with scholars who know the original, and I must rely on them. I hope I do not distort this great mystic. mr_brown_the_dog: What is one thing Rumi did to be happy that we could do?
Coleman Barks: He loved to watch the animals. He watched the dogs and the birds and the ducks and the camels. He saw the way the animals moved as a kind of scripture revealing the Divine.
Coleman Barks: Not by any means. I will die before I finish.
: Is there any chance that your "book of odd words" will be re-released?
: Thanks for asking. That strange little book, "Xenia," is still available. http://www.maypopbooks.com/
mackie37: Mr. Barks, how do you respond to people who say you need to know the poem's language (Persian) thoroughly?
Coleman Barks: Well, I just came upon this late in life, and it seemed to be mine to do. I feel that if you are going to be a poet in the language, you have to hear the language in the cradle, and English is the only language that I can be a poet in. So I have to work with scholars. Ideally, one day Rumi will be translated by a poet who knows both English and Farsi from the cradle.
chutzpah23000: Do you have a particular favorite poem by Rumi?
Coleman Barks: It is usually the one that I am working on at the moment . :) blueblueface: Mr. Barks, do you feel that when you do the translation, that you are in a way "channeling" Rumi? or that his mind resides within yours?
Coleman Barks: I am uncomfortable using the word channel. I think enlightened beings like Rumi remain available to us after they are dead. I have no special connection.
: Are you familiar with the Polish composer Szymanowski's work, which includes a vast symphony on the poetry of Rumi? In its original language, does Rumi contain the sense of "liquid music" so necessary to successful musical settings? I believe Szymanowski's 3rd symphony treats the "Song of the Night" in a Polish translation.
: Wow! I didn't know about this. I need to hear this music. Is he a 20th-century composer? I presume he is.
ibnaswadin: Did the Sheikh observe Salat and fast Ramadan?
Coleman Barks: I think the evidence is that he did, from the poetry and the discourses.
: I love your work. Have you received any negative feedback about your translations?
: Sure! I sense the most devastating probably is that "
Coleman has nothing to be faithful to," that is because I don't know the original. I don't know when I am off. That would probably be the most devastating. And of course, it is true.
: There are many sacred utterances that are included in Rumi's text. Is it profane to invoke some of these sounds in spaces that are not "sacred"?
: I don't want to offend anyone, but I have a different view of what a sacred text is.
Ever since I read in college Thomas Wolfe's great novels, J.D. Salinger, and e.e. cummings, I have felt that sacred texts are everywhere. They are not limited to what are called the Bibles of the world. Cormac McCarthy, Rilke, and Shakespeare are chapter and verse just as much as John 8.
Kris_Tina_819: Are you still doing any live poetry readings, and if so, where?
Coleman Barks: Yes. You can consult my website, maypopbooks.com, for upcoming events.
mr_brown_the_dog: Does Rumi say a spiritual mentor is crucial? What if you can't find one?
Coleman Barks: My understanding is that guidance can come from the teacher inside of you, who may be triggered by the teacher on the outside as well as by the humbling events of your life. brian881b: What was it like for you having Philip Glass write music based on your poetry?
Coleman Barks: I love Philip, and I love his music. It was a great honor to listen to the music he made for voices and the piano.
: What do you think Rumi saw in God that most people don't?
: I think that he saw the Divine in every small detail of human conduct. No matter what we do, no matter how silly or arrogant, he held that conduct up to the light to use it as a lens to look into the soul's growth. I think that's one of the techniques that he has given us.
: Rumi's work comes into contact with the divine. Is there any danger in lay people who don't have a background in Sufi practice to get so...close?
: I would say that Shams opened a way that has no clergy or structures. There is no Sufi church trying to stay with the group.
: Could you recommend a good biography about Rumi?
: There's a new book out by Annemarie Schimmel called "Rumi's World." She is the grand dame of Rumi scholarship. We should listen to her first.
: Which poems have people responded to most?
: I think probably numerically it would have to be the short poems--quatrains-- the ones like "Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing there is a field. I'll meet you there." Poems like that seem to have the most currency.
: What originally caught your interest about Rumi, and where did you begin to learn to translate him?
: Now this is a long story. I'll give you a short version.
I began in 1976, at the instigation of the poet Robert Bly, to work with scholarly translations of Rumi, trying to make of them free verse poems that were valid as poems themselves.
Coleman Barks: When I first read Rumi, I felt a great spaciousness and longing that kept me working.
: Do you recognize Rumi in the work of other translators, like Jonathan Starr or Andrew Harvey?
: I'm sorry to say, and it's probably shameful of me, but I don't read the other Rumi translations. I assume that Rumi requires a lot of translators, and I wish them all well.
mr_brown_the_dog: Would you mind sharing with us your own spiritual leanings? Was discovering Rumi a spiritual awakening for you?
Coleman Barks: In a way, my beginning to work on Rumi seems to have brought me to the teacher Bawa Muhaiyaddeen. After I began working on Rumi, I had a dream on May 2, 1977, in which Bawa came to me.
A year later, through a series of coincidences, I met him in Philadelphia and realized he was the man in the dream. I asked him about this Rumi work, and he said, "It has to be done, but if you work on the words of a Gnani (an enlightened master), you should become a Gnani." I have not done that.
But any validity that the work I do has comes from my being in the presence of that master who was on the same level of awareness as Rumi. He even sang spontaneous songs. My only credential for working on Rumi is that I sat in Bawa's room four or five times a year for nine years.
Coleman Barks: I haven't really, but I have translations of the Qur'an close by and friends who are devout Muslims--who scold me from time to time because of my translations. thammond64: Why do you think Rumi has become so popular now? Is it because America seems to be embracing spirituality as a whole, or do you think it has to do with good poetry?
Coleman Barks: It may be that part of the ecstatic material in Christianity was expunged at the Council of Nicaea, in the 13th century in Southern France. Rumi's poetry may be filling that long-felt need for ecstatic communion and the ecstasy of ordinary life. manjusura: Surely you've read Bly's translations?
Coleman Barks: It's true! He reads them to me constantly. I can't avoid them. rezausa: How much of Persian culture is assimilated with the Sufi way and Rumi's poems? And do we need to understand their culture before we start the poems?
Coleman Barks: No, I don't think so. I don't think Rumi belongs to any particular nation or religion. He is available to everyone.
: Years ago, I read the closing lines of one of your translations, which ends with the phrase "not the sad sound of surf, but the sound of no shore." That still haunts me.
: Thank you. It may be that I stole that from Wallace Stevens' "Idea of Order in Key West." (Or just my own feeling of melancholy at the beach.) :)
worldpeace7860: What do you think of Middle Eastern culture in general?
Coleman Barks: worldpeace--There is such a deep heart in that culture. When I see someone from Turkey or Iran or Iraq, it makes me want to touch my heart and bow to them. It's a very ancient, deeply compassionate culture, and I'm very grateful to them for the gift of Jelaluddin.
: Can you tell us about whirling dervishes and if you have ever whirled?
: It makes me dizzy! It was originated by Rumi as a moving meditation, in concert with the galaxies and the molecules and everything that moves in a spiral, which connects the center with the periphery.
The turn I see as an emblem of the balance between surrender and discipline. Evidently I haven't found that balance.
worldpeace7860: what do you think of western pop stars trying to hijack Rumi's poetry? Muslims want these stars to leave the Sufis alone.
Coleman Barks: I'm not sure who you are talking about. There is a great generosity I feel in Rumi that can include a lot, but I wouldn't want "wisdom" made into generic jargon. I hope nobody uses the word "bliss."
: If Rumi had one central message that permeated his writing, what would it be? And how do you suggest we, in this day and age, live that message?
: There is no reality but love. There is only love. Open your heart and explore the mystery of union. I am so grateful to be able to do this. I have no idea why it is me.