Wordslingers 2008 brings a modern message from the 13th Century | TheUnion.com

Wordslingers 2008 brings a modern message from the 13th Century

What could a poet from 13th-century Persia have to say to 21st-century Americans in Nevada County?

The answers can be found at Literature Alive!’s Wordslingers 2008 on Sept. 13 with poet, Coleman Barks. Dr. Barks, poet and professor emeritus of the University of Georgia in Athens, has gained worldwide acclaim as the primary English translator of the mystic poet, Jalaluddin Rumi.

If this all sounds a little lofty, relax. Barks’ good humor, effervescent truth-seeking and homey, southern charm coalesce with the ancient’s timeless truths about love, longing, and spirituality in a voice that today’s listeners can relate to their own experiences.

Barks is at home talking about little league championships as easily as the teachings of the great mystics. At a time when the division between the people of the East and West seem wider than ever, the intimate messages of Rumi seem the perfect bridge between us, and Coleman Barks the ideal guide across it.

In a very special performance accompanied by renowned musicians Barry and Shelley Phillips, Barks will read from his collection of Rumi’s inspirational and moving words and will also treat us to his own poetry.

Since 1977, Barks has collaborated with scholars of the Persian language to bring the poetry Rumi into American free verse. Barks explains that Rumi’s original teachings were delivered orally and captured by scribes.

“It was all very spontaneous like, sublime jazz, that lends itself to American free verse which is very conversational. It’s also hypnotically musical.” Barks notes that he has merely arranged the words so that they flow in English more poetically than literal translation. He has retained all the mystic’s imagery and strives to stay true to Rumi’s rich messages of love, longing, and transcendence.

Barks’ translations of the stories and poems of Rumi, including the best-selling Essential Rumi, have sold over three-quarters of a million copies and have made Rumi the most-read poet in the United States.

When asked what drove him to translate 700-year-old Persian poetry into English, Barks gives an easy laugh and with his rich baritone and a gentle southern sway in his voice replies, “Now that’s a story.”

Born in 1937 in Chattanooga, Tenn., translating Persian poetry may seem an unlikely path for Coleman Barks who didn’t even hear Rumi’s name until he was 39 years old. In 1976, American poet, Robert Bly read some of the literal translations of Rumi’s poems (all that was available at the time) and said to Barks, “These poems need to be released from their cages.” And free them Barks has. With thirty-three books to his credit (nineteen are Rumi translations), Coleman Barks has proven himself a worthy custodian of Rumi’s work.

After experiencing a transformative dream in 1977, and entering deep study with spiritual mentors, Barks collaborated with Persian language scholars to explored Rumi’s enormous volume of work. “It was beyond the mind. It couldn’t be explained,” Barks explains. When he read Rumi’s words, Barks reports that he felt as though he was “being apprenticed to a great master.”

Rumi lived at a time and a place of religious convergence in 13th-century Persia (now known as Iran and Afghanistan). He gained a great following among scholars of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and other religious groups. Stories about Rumi are carved over the doorways of the largest Christian church in Iran. “Rumi dissolves boundaries between religions,” Barks explains with great fervor. “Rumi showed that the costumery of religion is not important. Rumi said, ‘I see one altar.'” This spirituality without boundaries is exemplified by what is perhaps one of Rumi’s most familiar bits of prose. “Out beyond our ideas of right and wrong, there is a field. I will meet you there.”

Many believe that it is the unifying messages in art, poetry, music and dance that remind us of what is common among us. Barks finds that message in Rumi’s words. “There is a core of longing in every human being,” Barks says. “At this core we are all something that is true love. What we long for is this love and this makes us all the same.”

Barks is the recipient of the Juliet Hollister Award for his interfaith work. In 2005, the U.S. State Department sent him to Afghanistan as the first visiting speaker there in twenty-five years, and in May 2006 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Tehran.

Asked what audience members can expect from attending this reading at Wordslingers 2008, Barks says he hopes for audience member to gain, “inspiration to connect to your own deepest, limitless, pure joy. That’s one of the messages of Rumi.”


Betsy Graziani Fasbinder is a local writer and leadership consultant. She serves as a member of Literature Alive! (a program of the Center for the Arts) and co-hosts the quarterly Women’s Writing Salon. Contact the Center for the Arts Box Office in Grass Valley at (530) 274-8384, ext. 14, for tickets or go online at

http://www.thecenterforthearts.org. This event will be held at Grass Valley Veterans’ Hall, 255 South Auburn Street, Grass Valley.

From “Open Secret,” a book of Rumi poems translated by Coleman Barks

Quatrain 511

The clear bead at the center changes everything.

There are no edges to my loving now.

I’ve heard it said there’s a window that opens

from one mind to another,

But if there’s no wall, there’s no need

for fitting the window, or the latch.


“The Essential Rumi” by Coleman Barks, HarperOne, will be available for sale at the event and is at most local booksellers, including Words on Paper in its new Grass Valley location; this is Literature Alive’s official event bookstore.

A community becomes alive when it has a story . .

Literature becomes alive when it has a community.

– Gary Snyder

Literature Alive! of Nevada County

If you support the concept of keeping literature alive in Nevada County, you might want to learn more about this organization and what it can do with your help and for you as well (discounts, special readings and author receptions). Located in Nevada City at 228 Commercial St., #200, the group’s membership details may be procured by e-mailing info@litalive.org or by going online at http://www.litalive.org.

-The Union staff

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