About Coleman Barks
A noted American poet in his own right, Coleman Barks is widely credited with having made Rumi’s poetry accessible to the Occidental world. Born and raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Barks does not read or speak Persian – the language of Rumi’s poetry.
Despite this, over decades he has worked painstakingly with scholarly translations, succeeding in freeing Rumi’s corpus from the realm of academia. Numerous awards and honorary degrees have been bestowed on Barks in both West and East – including an honorary doctorate in 2006 from the University of Tehran, in recognition for his contributions to the field of Rumi translation.
1. How did you first come across Rumi’s work?
My academic training, at Berkeley and Chapel Hill, was in modern literature. I wrote a dissertation on Conrad and taught twentieth-century American poetry courses and creative writing at the University of Georgia in Athens for years. I had never even heard Rumi’s name until 1976, when Robert Bly handed me a copy of A. J. Arberry’s translations, saying, ‘These poems need to be released from their cages.’
2. What was the initial effect on you?
How any translator chooses to work on one poet, and not on others, is a mysterious thing. Some attunement must be there. I felt drawn immediately to the spaciousness and longing in Rumi’s poetry. I began to explore this new world, rephrasing Arberry’s English.
3. Do you feel a kind of special connection to Rumi and his work?
At age six I was a geography freak. I memorised all the capitals of all the countries in the 1943 Rand McNally Atlas, which I still have. I grew up on the campus of a boys’ school in Chattanooga, Baylor. My father was headmaster, and the teachers there were always testing this odd expertise of mine. ‘Bulgaria,’ someone would call out from across the quadrangle. ‘Sophia,’ I’d answer. I could not be stumped until the ecstatic trickster James Pennington went down into his basement Latin classroom and came up with a country that had no capital, on his map at least. ‘Cappadocia,’ he called. The look on my face, he laughed, what I didn’t know, named me. From then on I was called ‘Cappadocia’, or ‘Capp’. To be more precise, Pennington called me that, but he did it loudly and often.
I almost fell down a few years ago when I remembered the nickname and realised that the central city of that Anatolian area was Iconium, now Konya, where Rumi lived and is buried. Rumi means ‘the one from Rum, the part of Anatolia under Roman influence’. I don’t mean to claim a special relationship with Rumi. Mevlana’s poetry has been a large part of my life for more than forty years. It has brought many friends and wonderful opportunities. The synchronicities that introduced me to Rumi continue to delight and exfoliate in wonderful ways.
4. Can you comment on the way in which Rumi’s writing is so effective?
No one can say what the inner life is, but poetry tries to, and no one can say what poetry is, but let’s be bold and claim that there are major streamings in consciousness, particularly in the ecstatic life, and in Rumi’s poetry: call them fana and baqa, Arabic words that refer to the play and intersection of life with the divine… By letting these two conditions, fana and baqa, flow and exist simultaneously in his poetry, Rumi is saying that they are one thing, the core of a true human being, which he was and out of which these poems are spoken. This is how alive his model of the human psyche is, where the secular and the sacred are always mingling, the mythic and the ordinary, dream vision and street life.