Poet Coleman Barks’ translations of Jalal al-Din Rumi—a 13th century Sufi poet–are the best selling poetry books in America. Here I continue to speak with Barks about poetry and spirituality, as well as some politics for good measure.
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.