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Vicki Goldsberry Colker

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Interview with Robert Bly and Coleman Barks

Robert Bly

Coleman Barks

* * * * * * * *

Vicki: Mr. Barks, can you tell me how your studies of Rumi have changed you?

Barks: Well, it seems to have brought me a lot of friends that I wouldn't have had otherwise, you know and into communities that I wouldn't be part of... if I'd just stayed in a normal academic life. So I'm very grateful to Robert, always, and to Jalaluddin Rumi, for living his life in such a way that was free of the forms of organized religion... I think.. I think he was free of that. He didn't want anything that separated us, you know, into God clubs... he didn't care about that. He says "Love is the religion, and the universe is the book." So, your life as you're leading it is your text, is your sacred text. And maybe text and books too that have... I love the way that they studied. Rumi and his teacher would go off and take Attar and just go off for 40 days. And they would read him and just totally get absorbed in what was coming through that poetry... wouldn't that be wonderful to do? Just go off with someone in a cave, you know, have our meals brought in?

Bly: Yeah...


Barks: And cases of wine...

Bly: Well, you know, that relates to the ritual of solitude too, you know? Did you know that? Every Muslim should spend 40 days alone, talking with no one... and 40 days of solitude. It would have been in a cave, surely.

Barks: Rumi said he would do one, and then he'd just do another. "This is fun, let's go for it!"

Bly: That's how to get American poetry better... not to have writing workshops!


Barks: Did they have a limestone system in the cave?

Bly: Well, you know Omega built a new building there, kind of a chapel... about a year ago... and they finished it, and for the first one they gave it to David ---, who is a musician... so they offered it to him for his first ritual of solitude...but there was one mistake.

Barks: What?

Bly: He went in on September 10th.

Barks: Oh!

Bly: On the 11th they knocked on the door... isn't that terrible?

Barks: Wow...they should have left him up there...

Bly: Exactly!

Barks: ...the only one on the planet...

Bly: That's why they didn't do it...

Barks: Because he would be interesting to talk to when he came back... wow...

Bly: But I believe that deeply, what Coleman is saying, the blessing here that comes from the....

Barks: It's a kind of a company that you join...you know...

Bly: um-hmm...

Barks: and we all long --- writers, now -- long for a community, and we don't have one, really, except in the reading of books of friends, you know.

Bly: I mean, Rumi says it too...he says something like, "Heart and soul are born for ecstatic conversaions..."and if that doesn't happen, then heart and soul are not all that good...

Vicki: Well, you're speaking about the need for a community of writers, what would be your suggestion for that?

Bly: They'd all have to be like Rumi... otherwise


Bly: We would call our writing workshop a community of writers, but it really isn't...

Barks locates a poem that Bly asked about...

Barks: This is a conversation between a mouse and a frog... the mouse being the body, and the frog being the spirit.

A mouse and a frog meet every morning on the 
They sit in a nook of the ground and talk. 

Each morning, the second they see each other, 
they open easily, telling stories and dreams and 
empty of any fear or suspicious holding back. 

To watch and listen to those two 
is to understand how, as it's written, 
sometimes when two beings come together, 
Christ becomes visible. 

The mouse starts laughing out a story he hasn't 
thought of 
in five years, and the telling might take five years! 
There's no blocking the speechflow-river-running- 
all-carrying momentum that true intimacy is. 

Bitterness doesn't have a chance 
with those two. 

The God-messenger, Khidr, touches a roasted fish. 
It leaps off the grill back into the water. 

Friend sits by Friend, and the tablets appear. 
They read the mysteries 
off each others foreheads. 

But one day the mouse complains, "There are times 
when I want 'sohbat', (Barks:conversation) 
and you're out in the            
jumping around where you can't hear me. 

We meet at this appointed time, 
but the text says, Lovers pray constantly. 

Once a day, once a week, five times an hour, 
is not enough. Fish like we are 
need the ocean around us!" (Barks:  I love that!) 

Do camel bells say, Let's meet back here Thursday 
Ridiculous. They jingle 
together continuously, 
talking while the camel walks. 

Do you pay regular visits to yourself? 
Don't argue or answer rationally. 

Let us die, 
and dying, 

Bly: Wow......gorgeous....gorgeous.

Vicki: Do you find a particular poignancy in Rumi's popularity right now?

Barks: Hmmm... it is strange, isn't it, that the one of the great poets of that area of the world that we're bombing is also loved over here, so that the two cultures, beneath the politicians, are meeting in the heart, where we love Rumi's poetry... yeah...that's encouraging, very encouraging.

Vicki: Do you think poetry is responding to corporate ethics problems and the increasing military unrest of the last several years?

Barks: Well, Robert seems a little gloomy... (laughs)...

Bly: I did a poem which I read:

Please tell me why it is 
that we don't raise our voice 
and cry over what is happening. 
Have you noticed that the 
plans are made for Iraq 
and the ice cap is melting? 

That's how it begins... and want to hear the rest of it?

So, I think it's a disgrace that more of these kinds of poems are not being written... and it's a huge shock for someone like me who remembers the time of the Vietnam War when we were out on the street...

Shall we do this poem?

Call and Answer 

Tell me why it is we don't lift our voices these days 
And cry over what is happening. Have you noticed 
The plans are made for Iraq and the ice cap is melting? 

I say to myself: "Go on, cry. What's the sense 
Of being an adult and having no voice? Cry out! 
See who will answer! This is Call and Answer!" 

We will have to call especially loud to reach 
Our angels, who are hard of hearing; they are hiding 
In the jugs of silence filled during our wars. 

Have we agreed to so many wars that we can't 
Escape from silence? If we don't lift our voices, we allow 
Others (who are ourselves) to rob the house. 

How come we've listened to the great criers-Neruda, 
Akhmatova, Thoreau, Frederick Douglas-and now 
We're silent as sparrows in the little bushes? 

Some masters say our life lasts only seven days. 
Where are we in the week? Is it Thursday yet? 
Hurry, cry now! Soon Sunday night will come. 

Bly to Barks: Is that the right way to end it? What do you think? 'Cause I could repeat "It's Saturday night....soon Sunday night will come..."

Barks: No, I like the other one...

Bly: Okay... did you get my little pun with the bushes?


Bly: "You tell me you've listened to the great criers -- like Neruda -- and now you're a sparrow crying in the little bushes."

Barks: I didn't get it at first...

Bly: "It's Saturday night and you still haven't cried."

Vicki: (to Barks) But now you do?

Barks: I do... when he points it out, I can get it...


Bly: Yes, there's a somnolence in the American public, some fear, too many television shows, too much money, too many falling stock options, too much, too much, they can't concentrate...

Vicki: Mr. Bly, in 1976 you said our society is blind and spiritually bankrupt. I was wondering if there are poems available to heal us now?

Bly: Umm... one problem is who is "us"?

Vicki: Well, that is always the question, isn't it?

Bly: What do you think, Coleman?

Barks: I think poetry has to be really important now, put us back and remind us of our center, where we look out from and see beauty... now there's something behind that looks out and knows, the soul...and poetry can remind us of that part of our being.... it seems like it always has... that's its job, to see from that place, and then help the reader see from there. So, the great poets... just go back to Whitman and Emily Dickinson and Robert Bly...James Wright... Galway Kinnell..Donald Hall...and read them.

Bly: There's a wonderful detail when that Israeli poet --- no, the Palestinian poet -- was being taken in... and so they brought him to the border, and they said, "Where'd you find this man?" "Oh, he's quite a famous poet... and here's his photograph.. he's going to the Dodge Poetry Festival." "Oh, oh! Where did you find this man?" And they put him in the top of the line... But he spoke for a minute, and he said, "You know when they ask me, 'Are you hiding something?' I lied. I was hiding Whitman in my heart."


Bly: And that's exactly what you're saying... and that's why it's such a blessing that we had Whitman... we still have him.

Vicki: Mr. Barks, what led you to follow the Sufi way?

Barks: Well, I don't know that I follow in the Sufi way. I have worked on rephrasing scholarly translations into what I hope are American English free-verse poems. I used to do that every afternoon, after I finished teaching. I'd go into a restaurant and work on poems, have some tea. And work on those... from 77 to 84, there's seven years when I wasn't even thinking about publishing. So that was a kind of a practice I did, to do this attunement thing that we're talking about. So I wouldn't say... I don't claim to be... I don't use that word... because it's one of those things that divides us, I think... it just says, it's the way of the Heart... the way of the Heart is in every religion. St. Francis carries it for the Christians...and then the Indian sub-continent has a bunch of them... Kabir... and Mirabai... and maybe among the Zen monks, maybe it's Basho...

Bly: You know, your publisher asked me for a blurb, you remember, and I did this little thing, "It's a mystery how heart can come into apparently ordinary English." So... and I'm thinking of translations of yours like...well... "I would love to kiss you..." but also, that one..."out to the orchard in Spain, with wine and sweethearts and pomegranate blossoms... if you do not come, these do not matter. If you do come, these do not matter." Now, some heart enters right in the last two lines...

And how does that happen? How do you understand that? I mean, I say it's a mystery...and when academics try to do it, the ear is there, the image is there, nothing is present. How can that be?

Barks: I don't know. Sometimes I don't know if it's there until I read it aloud to a group, you know, which is good to do.

Vicki: So, do you feel your work is guided by a force outside your intellect?

(much laughter)

Bly: "If you do not come, these do not matter. If you do not come... it's relaxed...

Barks: Right...

Bly: "These do not matter."

Barks: "If you do come..."

Bly: "*These* do not matter."

Barks: Yeah...you see how the stress is different, isn't it..?

Bly: Yeah, it is...the vowels are simple...but clear, they're open vowels... "If you do not come, *these* do not matter. If you *do* come, these do not matter." It's gotta have something to do with the vowels. It's gotta have to do with the relaxed tone, like the southerners, all somnolent...

Barks: Uh-huh...(laugh)

Vicki, to Barks: Maybe that's why you're so good at it...

Bly: That's right...

Barks: Right... I'm writing in my sleep...

(much laughter)

Bly: Don't you think that's possible? Of course, you have to have a good literary sense...of language...

Barks: Yes... something about the... motion of the vowels moving...through... and then, we don't know anything about that...

Bly, to Barks: Have you got the little book called "The Mystery of the Seven Vowels"?

Barks: No.

Bly: I've got it with me. There's a very eccentric guy... and I'm going to go now to Martine's...and he asked me to do sounds this year.

Barks: Oh, good...

Bly: So, what we do, what I'll do with them is to say, I'll get a whole bunch of people and I'll give the vowel "O"..."O"... what does your body want to do... with "O"? "O" will tend to enclose... more and more... "O"... and then, these are all traditional ones... "Ahhhh"...if you leave people doing "Ah" for 15 minutes, gradually their hands will raise. "Ahhhhh..."

Barks: That's interesting.

Bly: And the traditional one for "E" is really funny... here's the one for "E"... "EEEEEEEEEEEEEEE...." (he moves his arms around)

(much laughter)

Bly: But that's a nice way of teaching, in which you're bypassing intellect entirely, and you're just letting your body... it's the body that enjoys the good poems.

Vicki: We were discussing inspiration...there's a popular book out about the Muse in literature, and that tradition. I wondered what both of you think about that concept... the Muse.

Barks: Makes a lot of sense. There's a lot of waiting that goes on, if you're a poet. You just wait...for the next... or you sort of court.. the Muse...with ideas in the notebook, you know...and... I'm just waiting now...for the next call... (laughs)... I thought I might write something... the Shakespeare sonnet, I've always loved "The expense of spirit ...

Barks and Bly together: ... in a waste of shame is lust in action...

Barks: Try re-phrasing that...Lust in action is...

Bly: Fucking.


Barks: is a waste of... is good... is very expensive...

Bly: (laughing) Yes...that's right...

Barks: And is...it seems, a waste of time.

(much laughter)

Barks: So I was just going to try to go through that and re-phrase it... I feel something sort of kicking in...in my head... and I think that maybe that should lead somewhere...I mean, it's just going to be a kind of wild commentary on that sonnet...and of my own experience of lust in action, and the expense to the spirit...so, I think I'll have to do it, but I'm going to stop talking about it...see?

Vicki: Or we'll hold you to it.

Barks: What happened to that poem?

Bly: So, I don't know about the Muse. It's a bad word. It needs to be a different word. But it does testify that there's a feminine energy or power of some kind, some kind of feminine personality that's floating around... it can't be gotten rid of... but your behavior toward this spring would seem to be important... your courtesy toward this spring...

Barks: Right...

Vicki: You know with Rumi's teachings, you might have received some criticism for that, from people who are threatened by that teaching of connectedness...

Bly: Is that right? Have you gotten any criticism?

Barks: Well, the whole... the Taliban hates Rumi. But... well, there are some people who want to claim him for that area of the culture... and there's some truth to that... he did come out of it... he transcended it... but not really strong criticism... I sort of act like it's more dangerous than it is...you know, Rumi says that if you think that this is important... distinction between a Christian, a Jew and a Muslim, then you're making a division. If you think that's true, then you're making a division between your heart --- what you love with --- and the way you act in the world. So, that's such a dangerous thing to say...in the 13th century, and even now it seems that way. In certain groups to say that, you are asking for a fight.

Bly: Did anyone ever say to you, Coleman, why don't you do this kind of thing with St. John of the Cross?

Barks: Oh, yeah.

Bly: What do you say?

Barks: I don't have enough time.

Bly: But that seems so rigid and up there that we can't connect with St. John of the Cross... yet we can connect immediately with Rumi.

Barks: I wish Francis had written more.

Bly: Yea...

Vicki: Perhaps you'll put that on your list, along with the Shakespearean sonnet...

Barks: Okay. I've got a table, with folders on it. Every morning I come down and do the one that draws me. One of the folders is my will.


Bly: I did that too. You know, there's going to be a conference on Attar in London...

Barks: Oh, you told me about that. I'd love to go.

Bly: And so the other day I did two little ghazals of Attar.. .and they're not as elaborate as Rumi... not as flowing... but still, he's a genius...

Barks: Oh, absolutely...

Bly: So I was interested, and it's being supported by rich Iranian businessmen in New York. And I said to them, "Is there any government involved?" Nope, not at all. They offered to send them on their planes... but they didn't want the government. They didn't want any connection with the Iranian government right now.

But I hope we can learn more.. I mean, the number of people they have is just staggering. So, it's a joy just to meddle around in there... I've got a whole bookcase next to my bed that's all these wild Iranians...

Barks: Is that right?

Bly: Yes!

Barks: That's good...

Bly: Well, the only thing I'm afraid of is that if we keep this up, pretty soon the Iranians will take over everything in literature...


Bly: ... and they'll claim us!

Barks: There's nothing like that string of poets that they had then...nothing like it in world literature.

Bly: We'd better stop, I think... we have a lot of things to do today.

Vicki: Thank you very much for sharing with us. Could we have another poem from each of you?

Barks: This is a poem about the nature of poetry.

Bly: Give it to us.

Barks: It's called "Purring."

The internet says science is not sure how cats purr, 
     probably a vibration of the whole 
           larynx, unlike what we do when we talk.  Less 

likely, a blood vessel moving across the chest wall. 
     As  a child I tried to make every 
           cat I met purr.  That was one of the early 

miracles, the stroking to perfection.  Here's something 
     I've never heard:  a feline purrs in 
          two conditions, when deeply content and when 

mortally wounded, to calm themselves, readying for the 
     death-opening.  The low frequency 
          evidently helps to strengthen bones and 

heal damaged organs.  Say poetry is a human purr, vessel 
     mooring in the chest, a closed-mouth 
          refuge, the feel of a glide through dying:  one 

winter morning on sunny chair inside this only body, 
     a faroff inboard moterboat sings 
          the empty room, urrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrhhhhhhhhhhhhh 

Bly: Good....

Barks: Do "Country Roads."

Bly: This is one of these little poems called "Country Roads." (an excerpt here) "So many times this week I've felt like weeping. / It's natural, like the cry of Canada Geese / Who call to each other over the darkening reeds // In my early poems I praised so many lost things. / The way the crickets' cries in October carried / Them into the night sky felt right to me. // Every way of knowing is blessed by bootleggers. / Because the government does not allow delight / To be sold, you have to find it on the country roads."

Bly: Well...every way of knowing is bootleggers! So we're bootleggers! Thank you all...

Vicki: Thank you very much.

Read the 1st half 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

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