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Talking Mowlavi with Coleman Barks Wednesday, 20 August, 2008

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Press TV – Talking Mowlavi with Coleman Barks.

Mon, 18 Aug 2008 12:57:47 GMT
By Tamara Ebrahimpour, Press TV, Tehran

American poet, Coleman Barks

American poet, Coleman Barks was born in 1937 in Tennessee. He attended North Carolina and California universities, and taught poetry and creative writing at the University of Georgia for thirty years.

Barks is known as a translator of works by the mystic Persian poet, Mowlavi and has been a student of Sufism since 1977. He received an honorary doctorate from Tehran University in 2006.

The Hand of Poetry, Five Mystic Poets of Persia (1993), The Essential Rumi (1995) and The Book of Love (2003) are among his translations of Persian poetry.

The following is Press TV’s exclusive interview with the renowned American poet:

Press TV: You have written a letter to President George W. Bush about the US-led invasion of Iraq. What made you write such a letter? Can you tell us more about its contents?

Barks: In March 2003, I wrote a letter/poem to President Bush proposing a kind of whimsical alternative to war. I read the poem in the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, on March 15th, three days before the US tank battalions crossed over into Iraq.

The poem got a standing ovation from the large crowd there. Evidently, it gave voice to a universal feeling of weariness with the idiotic cruelty of war as an instrument of foreign policy.

Surely, we can devise ways of conflict resolution other than those that involve the killing of our young people. I am naive enough to think that we (human beings) can change in this regard. I may well be wrong, but, as the old peace march song begs, could we not just this once, Give peace a chance? There are arts of peacemaking we have not tried yet.

My suggestion to Bush was that instead of spending billions a day on occupying Iraq and deposing Saddam that we instead take a year or two or three and 1) quadruple the inspectors searching out weapons of mass destruction, and 2) flood the country (Iraq) with well-meaning peace activist volunteers from all over the world, people sick-to-death of war and its hideous casualties (Every war has two losers, says the American poet, Bill Stafford.)

The peace activists would be flown roundtrip from assembly points all over the globe. Hostels would be built around Iraq for those peace tourists. Five Arabic translators for every twenty activists. All expenses to be covered by the US government.

Each peace activist would stay two weeks and would spend at least $1001 US of his own money in the country. Places of interest would include the mosque where Abdul Qadir Gilani is buried and the mosque on the spot where al-Hallaj Mansour was martyred. Also the grave of Rabia, if that is known. In these spontaneous hostel communities there would be pickup soccer games, cookouts, and much improvisational festivity.

Good, even great, musicians will be flown in, lots of them, to participate in nights of experimentation with the Sufi practice of sama, the deep listening that happens when poetry is spoken with music and movement.

The entire University of North Carolina undergraduate gospel choir will be flown in, as well as the Berlin philharmonic. Yoyo Ma will be on hand, and Gordon Bok singing sea chanties.

My friends and fellow collaborators in such event, the Iraqi Oudist, Rahim al-Haj and Persian singer and musician, Reza Derakshani, must be there. And surely the magnificent father-son Nazeris.

All of this may sound expensive, but it is only a fraction of the cost of one Bradley fighting vehicle, or one A-6 fighter plane. You get a lot of musicians for the price of a tank battalion.

The idea is totally cost effective, so let us try something different. The United States killed about three million Vietnamese (and 56,000 Americans), exploding more ordnance than was exploded by all sides in WWII, and what was Vietnam about? The domino metaphor is my guess. If Vietnam goes communist, then there goes Indonesia, the Philippines, and Australia. One can hardly be more naive than the domino theory.

When I was in the beautiful city of Isfahan in May 2006, I was told that 300,000 young men from that city died in the Iraq-Iran war. Someone who knows will have to tell me what that was about.

I am just suggesting that we try out another way or two, or at least talk about the possibilities. I have four brilliant grandchildren, as does everybody that need not die for anyone’s foreign policy decisions, those ephemera that change every two years, every two weeks. Woody, Bryan, Keller, and Tuck, my buddies are so much more valuable than these entities we call nations. Put the flags away.

Press TV: To what extent do you believe literature can bring different nations and cultures closer to one another?

Barks: I hold that the shared inwardness that comes as we read great literature is a truer companionship. The worlds of Hafez, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Basho, Balzac, Garcia-Marquez, Faulkner, Mark Twain, these readerships meet in a strong worldwide community.

The pleasures we enjoy, together, in the company of genius, we do have that powerfully in common, do we not? Rumi (Mowlavi) is a planetary poet, who grew from Persian soil. Like the peach and the pomegranate, if I am not mistaken.

Press TV: Did your interest in Mowlavi lead to your interest in Sufism or was it the other way around?

Barks: My interest in Mowlavi began (on one level) when I first heard his name in 1976. I was 39 years old. It is a commentary on the deficiencies of the Western educational system that I had had a good literary education (University of California, Berkeley, and U. of North Carolina) and I had not even heard of Rumi.

We in the West have been so stupidly blind for so long to the great beauties of Middle Eastern and Islamic cultures. It is getting a little better now, slowly. But to answer your question: As I began working on Mowlavi’s poetry, as a daily practice, I had a dream that put me in contact with a Sufi teacher.

On May 2, 1977, I woke up inside a dream. I was lucid, but still asleep. A ball of light rose off the Tennessee River and came over where I was sleeping. It clarified from the inside out and revealed a man sitting cross-legged inside it with a white shawl over his bowed head. He raised his head and looked at me. I love you, he said. I love you too, I answered back.

Immediately, I felt how the landscape was drenched with dew, as it naturally would be at night, and I knew that the dew was love. A year and a half later, in the fall of 1978, I met the man in the dream, Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, a Sri Lankan Sufi. I have no way of proving this, of course, and you may believe it or not. I do not have that luxury. It happened to me, and I am stuck with it. Thank God. He told me that the Rumi work had to be done.

My connection to Bawa Muhaiyaddeen is the only credential I have for doing this work. I do not know Persian. I work with word-for-word literal translations that Persian scholars give me. I bring Rumi over into the free verse tradition of American English, which is our strongest poetic tradition, the one that comes down through Whitman, Williams, Bly, and Kinnell.

I am not a scholar, but I do claim to be a free verse poet. If I had not sat in the presence of an enlightened man four or five times a year for nine years, I would have little sense, probably, of the heart-work that Rumi’s poetry was doing in his community in the 13th Century, and now with the larger world community.

Press TV: Have you read works by other Persian poets? Which style of Persian poetry do you prefer modern or classic? What are the major differences between English and Persian poetry?

Barks: I am sorry. I am not well-read enough to have opinions in these matters that would be worth anyone’s reading. I just feel so lucky that I can sit here in the coffeehouse down from where I live in Athens, Georgia, and communicate with an audience in Iran.

In May of 2006, I was privileged to travel for two weeks to Tehran, Isfahan, and Shiraz. The people I met were magnificently literate and courteous and kind. I dearly love your country and your culture.

We must promote more person-to-person, people-to-people, contacts, which are so much more real than the foolishness going on at the governmental level. We must wave and wink behind their backs.

Press TV: You are best known for your brilliant translations of Mowlavi. What attracts you to his poetry?

Barks: I feel it was the wild presence of Shams Tabriz that I sensed flowing through the poetry. That vitality and freedom felt new and reviving and somehow familiar. The friendship of Rumi and Shams keeps unfolding for me. After thirty-two years, I am not at all tired of that ecstatic flourishing on the contrary.

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