Features and Occasionals

Interview: Ecstasy and the Beloved

By Melissa Bond

Whether or not you remember his name, you’ve likely heard the words of Rumi — declared “the most popular poet in America,” by the BBC in 2007. Also known as Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, he was born 806 years ago in Central Asia. Rumi was a Persian Muslim, jurist, theologian and Sufi mystic.

Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

Start a huge, foolish project, like Noah…it makes absolutely no difference what people think of you.

Forget safety.

Live where you fear to live.

Destroy your reputation.

Be notorious.

Whether or not you remember his name, you’ve likely heard the words of Rumi — declared “the most popular poet in America,” by the BBC in 2007. Also known as Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, he was born 806 years ago in Central Asia. Rumi was a Persian Muslim, jurist, theologian and Sufi mystic. His words captured the ecstasy of being human, and explored the twinned joy and grief of our self-aware longing for connection with the divine.

His works would reach across centuries and across religious and national boun­daries to touch the hearts of countless millions. Rumi’s fame in the West can be traced to 1976, when the author Robert Bly challenged 39-year-old Tennesseean poet Coleman Barks to release Rumi’s poems from their “cages” of academically literal translation, and a new amanuensis was created to give wings to Rumi’s spirit.

On February 28, the Jung Society of Utah along with the Two Arrows Zen Center (formerly Boulder Mountain Zendo) is bringing Barks to Salt Lake City to perform readings of Rumi, gracefully accompanied by Grammy-award winning cellist David Darling. 

In spite of the fact that Barks does not speak or write the Persian language, his interpretations of Rumi’s works are regarded as some of the most beautiful and accurate available to the English-language reader. He was awarded an honorary doctorate from Tehran University in 2006 in consideration of his work. Barks has compared his interpretations to “trying to translate Shakespeare into Chinese,” and says that Rumi’s poetry rightfully deserves “hundreds of translators” in deference to its importance and profundity. Local poet and “CATALYST 100” honoree Melissa Bond sat down with Barks to chat telephonically about his experiences with Rumi and with his own poetry and life. 

MB: What is your process when you are distilling the translations that are mostly from English?

CB: I look at an English translation, a scholarly translation, and I try to feel into what information, what spiritual information is coming through in the poem—it’s almost like sensing a presence of someone—and then I try to let that take me. I don’t add images. Some poems pick up various things that are difficult for an English reader, an American reader, to deal with, like Koranic references. Not always, but sometimes I will put them in a note and say this whole poem is a gloss on a certain passage in the Koran, which they often are. I didn’t grow up reading the Koran. I didn’t even hear Rumi’s name until I was 39. I never had this great literary education at Baylor or at Chapel Hill. Over here, it’s a great blind spot in our culture. We don’t know the Koran and we don’t know this magnificent 12th, 13th, 14th-century poetry in Persian, the greatest in the world. 

MB: Reflecting back on my own education, I had never thought about the fact that Rumi wasn’t part of my education at St. John’s.

CB: I never taught him; I taught American poetry. I never taught a class in Rumi, except this one I am teaching now.

MB: So there are people out there who will not have heard of Rumi. Going back to the beginner’s mind, what first drew you to Rumi when you first read him? Did you think that this would become a life work?

CB: It was actually a suggestion and an assignment, by Robert Bly. It was a writing exercise and I just kept on doing it. It felt so deeply relaxing and sublimely invigorating. It felt like a new, but very familiar, kind of voice that Rumi was speaking in. All of his poems, you know, are spontaneous. They were just spoken. He had scribes to write them down. 

MB: What do you think Western culture can learn from ecstatic poetry? What have you learned? 

CB: Well, you can learn something about the opening of the heart, which is what Rumi said was the work of his Dervish and learning community. All the poetry, too, was about the opening of the heart; so some kind of generosity can be learned, and compassion. He said when you do things from your soul, you feel a joy, a big joy that is moving like a river through you. When you feel that, you feel it with Rumi. It is a vast feeling of something coming through him. It might be the presence of his teacher and friend Shams-e Tabrizi, actually. It was deep love. It was in the heart, it was beyond mentoring. It was maybe just a mystery we just don’t have any words for just yet. Whatever it was, it comes through the poems.

MB: I’ve thought a lot about ecstasy and states of ecstasy and how it can help us to move outside of ourselves; and also about the darker side of human experience, like grief and sadness. What does Rumi say about the dark standing alongside the light?

CB: There is an ecstatic dimension to grief too. They say that Rumi’s and Emily Dickenson’s poems are both full of ecstatic grief. There’s a wonderful Rumi poem: “Grief saw me drinking a cup of sorrow and Grief asked, ‘it tastes sweet does it not?’ He said ‘you’ve caught me and you’ve ruined my business because how can I sell sorrow when you know it’s a blessing?’” In that dimension, I guess, the ecstatic can be more normal and it can be more like in simple daylight. It was just this weather they walked around in, a part of their ecstasy. It wasn’t a sudden state. It’s not just the sudden beauty of the bride when she is unveiled; it is the living of the man and the woman together over a lifetime. It’s both of those things, but it can be a station as well as a state.

MB: I was really curious about this man that you mention meeting in Philadelphia whom you said you had dreamt about, who later became your teacher. Would you mind talking about that?

CB: Jonathan Grenoff, who later became a friend of mine, was in law school Camden Law School at Rutgers. His teacher was a friend of mine, Milner Ball, and I had sent Milner some of my rephrasings of Rumi poems, real early ones. He read them to his law class. He was not prepared that day, I guess! So he read the poems and Jonathan came up afterward and said, “Who did those?” Jonathan began writing to me and he said there was this Sri Lankan teacher I had to come and see.

In 1979 I met this teacher with Jonathan. He was the same man from a dream I’d had on May 2, 1977. Later he would come to me in dreams. I would visit him in Philadelphia afterward and tell him the dream and he would say “You don’t have to tell me, because I was there.” I don’t know how that works. I am not able to do it myself, but it did happen to me. Other people can believe it or not. I don’t have the luxury of disbelief, because it happened to me. He died in 1986. He’s come back in dreams a few times since then, not in about 10 or 15 years or so, but I still think he is a part of my consciousness. 

MB: I’ve had dreams that feel like teaching dreams of some sort, but I have not met the people that were involved. They’ve stayed in the dream life. 

CB: Have you had precognitive dreams?

MB: What would you describe as a precognitive dream?

CB: I mean something that happens in a dream and then happens in real life two weeks or two years later in actual life.

MB: I’ve had that happen in my writing, where I am describing an aspect of myself or of someone I’m going to meet. There was a poem I wrote for my son before he was born. describing things about him and what he was going to teach me. It was the most accurate thing I think I have ever written—and then my son was born, and he has Down syndrome, and there was this certain fire of identity and love that exploded inside of me in learning this new person. I look at that poem now and wonder, how could I have known that? 

CB: I think consciousness can go ahead in time and back in time; we are not separate things. We are not asleep. We overlap all the time. 

MB: I love having those places where I am reminded of that.

CB: Rumi’s metaphor is that we are all in an ocean. We are just waves of various heights, but we all connect in the ocean. We are all one, just as a tree connects with the roots.

MB: I’m interested in your choice of a cello accompaniment when you recite Rumi. I honestly find the cello one of the most beautiful, erotic instruments I can think of. 

CB: I’ve tried a lot of different instruments—the piano, the violin; the flute is pretty good, depending on the flautist. Some drums are really good, with just the hand on the stretched skin. The cello is such a human sound, glorious and wailing; ecstasy and majesty at the same time. 

MB: How do you decide what you are going to read?

CB: Do you know David Darling? He is just the essence of spontaneity. There is just no telling what he is going to do. He doesn’t even know what he is going to do. He is so fun to hang around. He is like some kind of Taoist master of music. We do plan some things out. We’ve been working together for 25 years. We do four or five events a year at least. 

MB: It sounds like a really fabulous job. I don’t mean to reduce it to a job, but oh my gosh… Translating Rumi and traveling around with a cello….

CB: It is pure play. 

Tickets available at http://rumislc.brownpapertickets.com/ | 801.581.7100 | Coleman Barks’ books will be available for purchase and signing at the event.

This article was originally published on February 1, 2013.