Vicki Goldsberry Colker
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Interview with Robert Bly and Coleman Barks
Why do you think Rumi is so popular these days, especially in
the West? Is it spiritual hunger? What do you attribute that to?
There's an old Persian joke:
"My mother decided when she was 65 that she should
walk 5 miles a day. And now she's 90, and we
haven't the faintest idea where she is."
Well, it's a little more complicated than that.
There's a sort of tradition of connection of
religion with the Beloved which was
well known in the Middle Ages and the Catholic
Church basically got rid of that. So, just to
rephrase what you've said, so that we've been
missing that for five or six hundred years and
when Coleman began to do Rumi, then all that
answered again. So that's one reason.
The second reason is he's a great poet. I mean,
he's unbelievable! The staggering imagination he
has is unbelievable. And there's of course the
fact that underneath all the sorrow comes forth
some kind of joy.
Bly:"Right. So... he could be called the opposite
of... of... who is the one out west? the poet out
west??? Never mind."
Bly: So those are three reasons why. And another
reason would be that Coleman... I did a little
blurb for his last one coming out... I said, "It's
a mystery how heart can come into apparently
So other people have translated Rumi... and we
just forget it. But there's some mystery in
Coleman's ability to bring heart in.
Farid: I have a concern... none of these people
Bly: Oh, he was a Muslim. Sure he was. They
were naughty Muslims, but they were Muslims.
No, no, no...he was a Muslim, but he also
loved Zoroaster. He's just lucky he didn't get
We just came from a poetry festival... the
Dodge Festival... 20,000 people were there...
that's amazing... last week. So, Coleman and I
were doing Rumi this time...and it's amazing how
astounded they were to hear the Rumi... but
America is sliding downhill very fast culturally.
Vicki: I was going to ask you about that...when
you had your literary journal, The '50's, you said
the mood of the country was one that wanted to be
rebuilt, and was eager for that. I'm wondering
what the mood of the country is today.
* * * * * * * *
Do you remember the night when Abraham first
To the stars? He cried to Saturn: "You are my
How happy he was! When he saw the Dawn Star,
He cried, "You am my Lord!" How destroyed he was
When he saw them set. Friends. He is like us:
We take as our Lord the stars that go down.
We are faithful companions to the unfaithful
We are diggers, like badgers; we love to feel
The dirt flying out from behind our hind claws.
And no one can convince us that mud is not
Beautiful. It is our badger soul that thinks so.
We are ready to spend the rest of our life
Walking with muddy shoes in the wet fields.
We resemble exiles in the kingdom of the serpent.
We stand in the onion fields looking up at the
My heart is a calm potato by day, and a weeping
Abandoned woman by night. Friends, tell me what to
Since I am a man in love with the setting stars.
* * * * * * * *
So, that's also written in the ghazal form, so
it's a little bit of the Muslim world in there.
Vicki: Did you find it liberating to write in that
Bly: Well, it's imprisoning. Every form is
But still, it's fun to be imprisoned -- if you've
chosen it yourself.
I never liked the sonnet, cause I felt that the
English had put me there, you know. In my
magazine I used to have a little thing that said,
"The Sonnets are a place where old professors go
when they die."
(laughter all around)
And so I did free verse. But when I found this
one, I felt that I wasn't condemned to this. I
found it, and I enjoy it.
Vicki: Well, James Wright quoted you as saying that
poetry is the most formal thing in the world, but
the form comes from within everyone's own life.
Could you elaborate on that?
Bly: I don't know, if Jim said it, we've got to ask him.
Well, everybody has a lot of forms. But there is
a question of whether, where we want the form.
And it's interesting that with a lot of those
people in Rumi's time and so on, in love they
wanted the form in the relation to the Beloved.
And in the way the woman had agreed to be the
Beloved, and then we would agree that we love her,
and then her parents would agree to hate us.. you
know, that's a form. And it's... it's beautiful!
Bly: Don't you think so? Of course it is a form.
Barks: Yeah.. a lot of poetry comes out of that.
Well, surely your first poems were to women.
Bly: Yeah.. or to grass, I couldn't tell them apart.
Barks: Are you talking about marijuana?
Bly: (more laughter) No, just ordinary grass,
What would you say about form, if someone said to
you, "Is form natural to us? Why is form in
poetry a beautiful thing? What would you say?
Barks: Well, I've never tried it, really. I've
never tried the sonnet form or these other forms.
I seem to veer back and forth between some kind of
an ecstatic poetry which I guess has the form that
one's joy has. What is that? And then another
kind of poetry at this point that is kind of
apocalyptic poetry, which is trying to do
something, trying to help out. And I don't know
what form that takes. Some of my poems seem to
take the form of a lead up, lead up and then
almost like a joke at the end...there's a little,
a little thing.. at the end... an explosion or an
exclamation or something that ends it. (turning
to Bly) I know you don't like that kind of poem..
I think the first letter you ever sent me said,
"Don't make a joke at the end of the poem."
C/Oasis Poetry Editor with Coleman Barks
Bly: Well, I put out a new issue of my
magazine...called the thousands... cause it had
been the 50's, the 60's, the 70's... and I
couldn't call it the aughties... so I called
it the thousands. So I gave a domestic
globalization award for the group that best
fulfills the principles of globablization, which
is to provide ready-made objects that destroy
native culture. I said I'm giving that to the 256
writing programs in the United States.
So, therefore, in terms of poetry...much
more poetry is being written. But partly because
of the writing programs it's of lower quality.
And too many books of poetry get published. So
that's one thing that's happening.
But I have a conference next year that I'll do and
it will be called Poetry in An Age of Cultural
So, you know what we're experiencing is kids that
can't even write a sentence, teachers that have
given up trying to teach anyone who was ever
called great in the past, I mean it's a disaster!
So, capitalism is very carefully producing tv
programs that emphasize everyone's greed,
everyone's lack of intelligence, everyone's lack
of culture, hmm? It's unbelievable. So, the
Iranians in charge couldn't have done it better,
Vicki: So, do you think there's any poetry of
vitality that's being written now?
Bly: Oh, certainly. But over 1400 books of
poetry are being published every year. Oh, my
God! So, how can ... you know, that... the good
poems get stuck in the middle of that...
I have a singing group ... about 15 guys...
and we meet once a week, and we sing a lot. And
we're doing a song of Rumi now, which has been
sung by Sharam Nazeri. And it's this kind of
Go crazy go crazy, go crazy now! (laughter)
(He sings in Farsi...)
So, it's fun to learn those in English, cause
we've been putting them in English words, but it's
fun to get them in the song form too.
Vicki:All right, so thank you for this.
(At this time, Coleman Barks entered the room and gave Bly a hearty
and genuine hug)
Barks: What are we talking about? Shall we read you a
Bly: So this is a poem called "The Night Abraham Called
to the Stars." and it's interesting, Time Magazine
has Abraham on the cover, and it talks about
Abraham for the Jews, Abraham for the Christians,
Abraham for the Muslims. So... this poem comes
from the tradition in the Koran that that moment
when human beings realize that the stars were not
Read more of the Bly interview!
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