Making life more spiritual: an interview with Coleman Barks

Coleman Barks is a poet and translator. His translations of Jalal al-Din Rumi—a 13th century Sufi poet–are the best selling poetry books in America.

I had a chance to speak with Barks about how poetry can make life more spiritual.

Gene: Your translations [of Rumi] remind me of Buddhist writings.

Coleman: There was a strong Buddhist influence in Afghanistan in the 13th century. Rumi’s father’s school has lotus motifs on the columns, which means that they were big into meditation. Coming down the Silk Road, Buddhism, Sufism, Hinduism, Judaism and Christianity met and produced this very beautiful, flexible form that Rumi worships within. He did not divide people up into religious groups. He sees everyone as being part of a single family.

Gene: Have you been to Afghanistan?

Coleman: I have. In March of 2005 the State Department sent me over there.

Gene: What was that like?

Coleman: It was exciting! I didn’t know where I was—meaning that I just didn’t acknowledge that there was danger. But there was. Everywhere that I went there was an SUV with automatic weapons in front and an SUV with automatic weapons behind and I was in the middle. It was amazing. I found myself in the Afghan Ministry of Culture reading a poem of Rumi’s and everybody in the room – all of the cabinet ministers – were saying the poem in Farsi as I said it in English. They knew that poem so well. It was a magnificent cultural experience. I’ve never been in a culture that honors poetry like the Persian-speaking world does. It feels like home to me.

Gene: Why is it that Americans don’t have this appreciation for poetry?

Coleman: We haven’t found the use for it that they have. It comes up in conversation. They have chunks of it memorized. That’s an unusual thing for the United States… For grown men to recite poetry to each other.

Gene: In a culture where poetry is pervasive, how does that change the culture?

Coleman: It gives them a soul place that they can meet…That is a meeting place that we don’t have.

Gene: What do you think Americans are looking for when they pick up a book of Rumi?

Coleman: I don’t know why Rumi has been so popular over the last 10 years. My translations alone have sold over 500,000 copies, which is amazing in the poetry world. As for why that has been happening, there is some kind of place where we have been lonesome for a certain kind of human being. He’s an aesthetic and he is wise and he has a kind of gentleness… those qualities come through and I think that that nourishes the psyche.

Gene: What do you think people look for when they pick up your poetry?

Coleman: Gee, I don’t know. I had a humbling realization once, numerically. Rumi sells 100 copies a day. My poems sell 12 copies a month, worldwide.

Gene: It seems like, in a lot of your poems, people are not alone. There is always more than one person in the poems. Does that go back to waking up on the cot by yourself in school? [Referring to a poem in which a young Barks wakes up alone having slept longer than his classmates]

Coleman: That kind of emptiness that I felt in kindergarten was profound. I think that friendship is a beautiful thing, but the deepest truth is that we are alone. And that aloneness is absolute.

Gene: That reminds me of a Rumi poem that you translated.[You thought union was a way / you could decide to go. / But the world of the soul follows / things rejected and almost forgotten.]

Coleman: The mystics say that love has to fail… [Rumi’s friend] has to leave Rumi alone so that he knows that the friendship is not the deepest knowing. It’s one of the great human enigmas that somehow on the other side of our love there is something that is even deeper than that.

Gene: How important is spirituality in your everyday life?

Coleman: It’s the whole thing. I love that old story about a theologically inclined bunch of fish who schooled together and discussed the possibility of the existence of the ocean as they swam in it. They divided up into study groups as they tried to figure it out… I’ve felt that mystery my whole life.

Gene: What draws you to a poem?

Coleman: I guess it’s an image that comes to me first. The first poem that I was drawn to write was about an image of laying back in a river, so that your ears are under water and your eyes are out of water. You have an underwater world that you can listen to and an out of the water world that you can see. The underwater world seems to be further away. You can hear around the bend. You can hear a motorboat coming. That way of being in two places at once is an image of how it feels to be me. I feel like my ears are underwater most of the time!

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About genemyers

Gene Myers is a New Jersey poet, music journalist and columnist who learned to walk twice. His weekly column is called The Joy of Life. He was awarded first place in Arts and Entertainment Writing by The New Jersey Press Association.
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