I woke to the sound of rain, which was more than heavy fog, and now, the sun is pulled out of bed and the sky is blue.
Jane and I spoke this morning. We are in the process of developing a parallel blog, one that will contain two voices, Jane and mine. We have named it Connection Well. She is leading the way. I am a well-placed stone on the path.
I wrote of suicide this morning, trying to allow a place of understanding in myself, so I can be support for those who are here and suffering.
Coleman Barks is interviewed in the Finding My Religion column in the Chronicle today. I love this guy and his work with Rumi. Rumi's 800th birthday was yesterday. His candles must have made quite a blaze.
Here is the interview by David Ian Miller.
Whether it's about God or the pangs of earthly love, the poetry of Rumi is often startlingly modern, partly due to those who have translated his poems from 12th century Persian into many of the world's languages.
Coleman Barks, the world's best known translator of Rumi's work, is credited with helping make Rumi one of the most popular poets in the United States — Barks' 18 books of Rumi poems have sold more than 750,000 copies. His newest book, "Rumi: Bridge to the Soul," in honor of the 800th anniversary of the poet's birthday, came out Sept. 18.
Rumi, born on Sept. 30, 1207, was a theologian and follower of Islam's mystical tradition of Sufism. He founded the Mevlevi Dervish Order, also known as the whirling dervishes, and wrote thousands of poems, many of them ecstatic expressions of the Sufi notion that all things can be seen as manifestations of the divine.
Barks, 70, a warm, open Southerner who describes himself as "just one of God's funny family," spoke by phone last week from his home in Athens, Ga., about Rumi's ageless attractions and how much of Coleman Barks makes its way into the Rumi poems so many of us have read.
I was surprised to learn that you don't speak Persian. How do you "translate" Rumi's work, then?
I didn't discover Rumi until I was 39 years old. I'd had this wonderful literary education at Berkeley and at North Carolina, Chapel Hill, but I had never even heard the name of the greatest mystical poet that ever lived!
At that point — and I'm lazy, as a matter of fact — it was hopeless to try to learn Farsi. So I depend upon scholarly translations and living scholars to give me word-for-word translations, and then I work with the English, trying to be as faithful as possible to the images that come through the words and the spiritual information coming through those images. But I don't try to reproduce any of the musicality of the Persian. I translate it into American free verse.
So the word "translator" doesn't exactly describe what you do?
It's often called a second translation. Someone brings it from the source language sort of halfway to a literal translation and then someone else takes it from that stage to a poem in the English language. Scholarly translations don't try to do that.
How much of yourself is in these poems, and how much of it is Rumi, do you think?
Well, of course, the way I approach these poems has to be filtered through my own experience. He (Rumi) is an enlightened being, and I am not. And so there must be some distortion resulting from that.
The great Sufi master Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan told me once: "Coleman, when you first started translating these in the 1970s, I heard a lot of sexuality in them." I said: "Well, there was a lot of sexuality in me." (Laughs.) So it (sex) was getting in there. Gradually, as I've sort of understood these poems more and more, I hope they don't lose their sensuous delight in the universe, but there is less of a sexual feel to them.
I've heard several of your Rumi readings. Some writers don't particularly enjoy reading their work in public, but you obviously do.
I hope so. I think that's partly because he (Rumi) had a great joy in being alive. He said that just being sentient and in a body is cause for rapture. Whitman had that sense of wonder, very close to Rumi's, I think. And so did Emily Dickinson.
Does it seem remarkable to you that so many people today have an interest in this Persian poet from 800 years ago?
Yes, and I don't completely understand it. The poet Robert Bly says that in terms of Western culture, the Council of Nicaea in 325 expunged the ecstatic material out of the New Testament — the scenes where Jesus was dancing. And he thinks that loss is being filled now by Rumi's poetry and that we have, for a long time wanted someone with an ecstatic vision, a mature human being.
Is that what you think, too?
I do. I think that's why people delight in him so, because he is showing us a vision of the world that we have wanted to have a spokesman for. And it's full of grief, too. You might even call it ecstatic grief — it's deeply grieving poetry but also delighted in the moment-to-moment story of our lives.
Of course, it isn't just Christians who gravitate toward Rumi. As you point out, he appeals to people from a wide spectrum of religious backgrounds.
Rumi is known as the dissolver of boundaries in the history of religions. He was beyond religious doctrine. He says, "If you think there are important differences or divisions between Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims, then you are dividing yourself, between your heart — what you love with — and how you act in the world."
That's a radical thing to say.
Yes. It was dangerous to say then, and it's dangerous to say now.
You were in Iran not too long ago. How did that thinking go over with people you met there?
They said, "We all should be family, friends, of course!" That's on a personal level, but when you get to the political level that isn't necessarily the case. I didn't talk to a whole lot of mullahs or ayatollahs, but I did talk to one who told me he was OK with these ideas. He said, "We should not kill each other over different ways of saying how the world is sacred."
Maybe I'm narrow-minded, but that's not what I'd expect to hear from an Iranian mullah.
The Iranians, good Lord! They are like goofy French intellectuals. They are so well educated, so well read, and they laugh so easily. They are just waiting for that whole mullah thing to be over! They're like a European nation out there in the Middle East.
You've written that Rumi's poems are "just what they are, nourishment for the soul." How do they nourish your soul?
When I first started on this thing, in 1976, I was teaching a lot of classes — three a day, which seemed like a lot to me, a lot of time to stand up and be smart. And I would go down to the Bluebird Restaurant in Athens, and I would read these Rumi translations — scholarly translations — and try to rephrase them, and it felt like such deep relaxation. It was beyond the mind. That's what I mean by nourishing my own soul.
How did you get involved in working with Rumi's poetry?
I was attending Robert Bly's Great Mother conference, which is about poetry, music and mythology — and just whatever Robert has been reading lately. At that point he had been reading translations of Rumi, and he had a stack of these that he gave to me, and he said in his Lutheran Minnesota accent, "These poems need to be released from their cages." And so I began doing that, just on my own for seven years.
Every day I would sit with A.J. Arberry's translations trying to feel the interior of the poems and to rephrase them. I never thought of publishing them. I just let them pile up. And seven years later, I showed some to Kabir Helminski up at Threshold Books in Putnam, Vt., and he published a little book called "Open Secret," which won the Pushcart Writers Choice award. That little book has sold more copies every year since 1984.
And then in 1995, I published a bunch of little books at small presses, and I made a selection of them called "The Essential Rumi." It was published in San Francisco, by Harper San Francisco in the same week in 1995 that Bill Moyers did an hourlong interview with me. About 26 million people saw that interview, and the marketing people at HarperCollins could not believe it. They sold them in piles at the airport.
I read that you met your spiritual teacher first in a dream and then in the physical world. Can you tell me about that?
I wouldn't have believed it if someone else had told me the story, but it did happen to me.
I keep a dream journal and have ever since my parents died in 1971 within six weeks of each other. Their deaths sort of opened up something in me, I don't know why, and I began to dream a lot — magnificent, mythic dreams. So I started writing them down. I often get images for my own poems from dreams. Whoever it is that's in charge of dreaming is a whole lot smarter than I am!
On May 2, 1977, I had a dream that I was sleeping outdoors in a sleeping bag on the bluff above the Tennessee River, where I grew up. I grew up at a boys' preparatory school just north of Chattanooga, Tenn. My father was headmaster there for 40 years, and my brother after him.
So I was sleeping in the dream, and I woke up — I woke up inside the dream. And I looked out over the Tennessee River, over Williams Island, and a ball of light just rose up off the river. It hovered right above me, and there was a man with a white shawl over his head, sitting there inside of this ball of light. And he just raised his head with his eyes closed and his head bowed, and he said, "I love you." And I said, "I love you, too." As I said that, the whole landscape of that curve of the Tennessee River felt like it was soaked with dew, as of course it was, naturally. But it felt like the dew, itself, was love. That whole wetness of Tennessee in the evening was love. Then, a year and a half later, I met this man that was in the dream. Of course, nobody can prove that, I mean, I can't, but I know it's true because he and I were there! And he would come to me after I met him up in Philadelphia. He was a Sri Lankan Sufi named Bawa Muhaiyaddeen.
He would come to you?
He came to visit me in dreams several times. And I would go up there to Philadelphia and visit him four or five times a year for the nine years that he was alive when I knew him. Sometimes I would tell him about the dreams, and he would say: "You don't need to tell me. I was there!" One time I said, "Well, what did it mean when you were teaching me to take tiny little sips of water?" He said, "That means you want to be wise too quickly. You want to take big gulps of wisdom. Just take a little sip, assimilate that, and then move on."
How long was he your teacher?
Nine years, until his death on Dec. 8, 1986. I happened to be there the night he died. They buried him the next morning. About 700 people came, and we dug a hole and put him in it. He was just laying down on his side. We took him out of the box and laid him in the ground with a little handful of earth against his cheek. It was a beautiful, rainy December morning, and there was this amazing light in everybody's eyes. Unbelievable!
Many Sufis believe in reincarnation. Is that your view?
I have no idea. It's one of those things ... I don't have any experience of that. I have a strange connection with certain cultures. I don't know whether I've lived within them or not. Some people claim to have specific memories (of past lives). I don't.
Do you think of yourself as a Sufi?
I wouldn't call myself a Sufi, no. As Bawa would say, "I'm just one of God's funny family."
What religious tradition were you raised in?
I was raised a Presbyterian. But mostly I was a river mystic. I had a place I went to down by the river and would sit. Everybody in our family did, actually. It was perfectly all right in that family and on that campus to sit down by the waters of the Tennessee and just drift off somewhere.
What happened down at the river for you?
(Laughs.) Well, you would go into this amazing meditative state. I feel like it just was a great sense of some vast presence moving by. Have you ever sat down real close to a large river?
Not in a long time. But I do remember how lovely it can be.
It feels pretty good to get down close to where the flow is going. You see the details of the driftwood and the Canada geese and the herons, and it's just amazingly alive down there. And then you make that leap of getting out on the river in a canoe or something, and that's pretty good, too. So, anyway, that was just a reminder, I guess, of inner life of some depth of brimming peacefulness and vitality, whatever that is. I still love it. I love Mark Twain's "Life on the Mississippi," which is all about that.
It sounds like a kind of silent meditation, which reminds me of Rumi. I know silence comes up in a lot of his poetry.
It does! He almost always says at the end of the poem — where the tradition is that you mention your own name — that he gives the poem back to silence. In other words, he says, "This came out of silence and is being authored by silence." It's as if he's making a beautiful claim of not authoring the poems. Somehow these poems came through him.
Do you spend much time in silence yourself?
Gosh! I wish I could claim I did. I have a cabin up in the north Georgia mountains, and I used to go up there by myself a lot more than I do now. I've just gotten way too busy.
What changes in your own life have come from immersing yourself in Rumi's work?
Well, there's just been a lot of friends, all of these people that I would not have met if I had not tried to do this work. And I think it's calmed me down and made me less manic, maybe, maybe less ambitious, too.
It feels sort of like some great generosity has been given to me — some gift — and I just want to give it away too. Whatever I've been given you can have. (Laughs.) At least I hope that's true. Yeah, I think it's opened my heart.
Do you have some favorite lines from Rumi?
There's a little quatrain that's sort of famous, it begins:
"Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing
There is a field. I'll meet you there.
A soul who lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase 'each other' doesn't make any sense."
The Iranian community in the United States several years ago took out a whole page in the New York Times and put just those first two lines as a way of inviting the Americans to meet the Iranians in a place where there is no judgment, out beyond political right and wrong, and moral right and wrong. Let's just meet in a place where the soul likes to lie down.