Coleman Barks’s translations of Sufi poet Rumi’s work have sold more than half a million copies since 1984. He began translating the thirteenth-century mystic’s work in 1976, and his book The Essential Rumi has become a best-seller. Barks taught poetry and creative writing at the University of Georgia for 30 years before retiring to Athens, Georgia. We caught up with Barks last spring in Mount Vernon, Washington, at the Skagit River Poetry Festival.
Yoga Journal: How do you account for the popularity of Rumi’s poetry?
Coleman Barks: It’s not a fad. It’s filling a need in the Western psyche that craves nourishment. Robert Bly feels the West has a hunger for ecstatic art. Most of the ecstasies were expunged from the New Testament. This has created a longing in Christian and Western cultures for ecstatic vision. It’s an interesting theory, but it’s still a real mystery why so many people have been carrying my books around, into boardrooms, corporations, airports.
YJ: How do you transcend your busy daily life to work on the poetry of Rumi?
CB: I have two kinds of work, my own poetry and my work with Rumi, and I try not to get distracted. The poems get done as a daily practice. I used to work on them after teaching. That is, I would look at scholarly translations, not the original Persian, and try to make sense of what was trying to come through.
YJ: Do you consider your work translations or transliterations that take greater liberties?
CB: It could be called many things, but I call it collaborative translations. I try
to create valid English free verse in American Englishalive, not archaic or dead language. I try to be aware of what spiritual information is trying to come through. Rumi was an enlightened being, and it was an enlightened being, the Sri Lankan Sufi master Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, who told me to do this work.
YJ: Oh, so you’re on a mission from God, like the Blues Brothers?
CB: Yeah, Elwood. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen lived in a scholarly community, as Rumi lived. For nine years, I was in his presence. He lived as Rumi did, and his spontaneous poetry was taken down by a scribe. There are a lot of similarities between Rumi and Bawa Muhaiyaddeen. Both lived their lives in an ecstatic state. Rumi is like a teacher for me. He helps me to know my own identity as something more and vast. My daily work on his poems is like an apprenticeship to a master. Rumi’s definition of enlightenment is full awareness; the longing for the universe or a creative world; a place, or a life, surrounding the universe of the world. These values are found in Sufi poetry: loyalty and hard work. Be loyal to your daily practice, keep working, and keep knocking on the door. It’s like yoga, sitting, meditation, or whatever. My practice consists mostly of listening to Rumi’s art and tasting his awareness to his art.
YJ: What got you started?
CB: In 1976, I went to a conference held by Robert Bly, and we started reading scholarly translations of Rumi. Now, I have degrees from the University of North Carolina and the University of California, Berkeley in American Literature and English Literature, but I had never heard of Rumi. One afternoon, I was looking at scholarly translations from these poems and rephrasing themtrying to make them valid English poems. The minute I started I felt like I was being freed; I felt the presence of his joy and freedom.
YJ: What are your thoughts on integrating Rumi’s mystic qualities into daily life?
CB: Rumi celebrates the mystery of dreams, the release, the magic of being enlightened while we are surrendered in this state. In Rumi’s poem, “Omar and the Old Poet,” the old poet who lives in the cemetery needs new harp strings and prays for them. Then Omar, the Second Caliph of Islam, is told to take 700 dinars to the cemetery and give the gift to this old man sleeping there. The poet then realizes what he wanted was not an improvement in his art, but a connection with the grace of the gift.
YJ: How does Rumi’s work affect the poetry you write?
CB: While working on my personal poetry, my shame, joy, and jealousy get in the way. Rumi is larger than my personal soap opera. It sounds schizophrenic, doesn’t it, but I like the balance of it. By keeping involved in my art and being taught by this larger being, that seems to be my work to do in the making of consciousness that is going on with this planet.