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Poetry Editor
Vicki Goldsberry Colker

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Interview with Robert Bly and Coleman Barks

Robert Bly

Coleman Barks Vicki: Why do you think Rumi is so popular these days, especially in the West? Is it spiritual hunger? What do you attribute that to? Bly: 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. Vicki: "Right." Bly:"Right. So... he could be called the opposite of... of... who is the one out west? the poet out west??? Never mind." Vicki: "Okay." 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 simple English." 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 were Muslims. Bly: Who? Farid: Rumi.... 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 hit. 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.
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 Disaster. 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, you know? 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 thing: 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 poem? Vicki:Please do. 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 God.

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Do you remember the night when Abraham first called To the stars? He cried to Saturn: "You are my Lord!" 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 stars. 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 night. My heart is a calm potato by day, and a weeping Abandoned woman by night. Friends, tell me what to do, Since I am a man in love with the setting stars.

* * * * * * * *
Barks: Beautiful. 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 form? Bly: Well, it's imprisoning. Every form is imprisoning. 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! Barks: Courtship. 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. laughter Barks: Are you talking about marijuana? Bly: (more laughter) No, just ordinary grass, Norwegian 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."

Read more of the Bly interview!

If you want to submit poetry send 2-5 poems in the body of an e-mail message and send to Vicki at poetmuse@swbell.net

The newest poet at C/Oasis is Tom Sheehan

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