A Man



An interview with Coleman Barks

Poetry writing isn't for "Momma's boys" according to famed translator and poet Coleman Barks.

"Forget about feeling safe when you write," he asserted. "Forget about finding shelter and step out! Let's get in the ocean - dive into the dangerously deep part of life!"

Barks discussed his newly released book Rumi the Book of Love from his home in Athens, Georgia. He laughed readily and heartily, full of passion and emotion, as he talked and challenged many traditional notions about love.

He spoke about a love for truth and beauty. "Feeling beauty is a necessity for truth telling," he declared. "I don't think you should write unless you feel the beauty of truth and the truth of beauty."

To some people, the words may appear like a riddle. To Barks, who popularized Jalaluddin Rumi - the 13th Century Sufi poet known world wide for his mystic expressions of ectasy and love, it is a way of life.

"Love in the Western World [reference to Denis DeRougement] is straining toward the lover - the separation toward it," he explained. "Rumi spoke of love as an annihilation of the personality into something larger that has no name. It's like a dew drop going into the ocean."

Trying to keep up with Barks' references and images was like attempting to understand the entire mystical world of Rumi in one reading.

"Western love is like the ache of leaving at the Russian train station - it's identifying with an idea that can't quite be consummated. It's Romeo and Juliet. It's the lived-out love that doesn't quite get shown."

Rumi writing must be "felt as a salt breeze traveling inland," Barks writes in The Essential Rumi. "And, some resonance of ocean resides in everyone."

There are many who have felt that "salt breeze" with Barks having sold more than half a million books of Rumi translations.

Continuing the metaphor, Barks said that we "metabolize" each other's truth when we pour our individual truth into the "general flow."

Like the whirling dervish community where Rumi began, interacting with Barks is a constant moving and flowing experience. He's full of vitality and exhuberance. It's obvious he strives to "connect there with an open heart, and follow the oceanfrog if he starts for home."

The path toward "anhilation" by love is much like a man's initiation or "turning point," he said. Rumi's life changed in his late 30s after he met his mentor Shamsi Tabriz.

"Tabriz told the young mystic to put away his books and experience personally what he had been learning," Barks noted. "It's like walking back down into the mountain ... after the drunkenness comes the sobriety that embodies love and allows for a true human being ... one that still has anger and jealousy inside ... like guests in a house. You know Rumi's THE GUEST HOUSE?"


This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

According to Barks and Rumi, all emotions are present within love, including fear and longing.


Longing is the core of mystery.
Longing itself brings the cure.
The only rule is, Suffer the pain.

Your desire must be disciplined,
and what you want to happen
in time, sacrificed.


Everyone can see how they have polished the mirror
of the self, which is done with the longings
we're given.

Not everyone wants to be king!
There are different roles and many choices
within each.

Troubles come. One person pack up
and leaves. Another stays and deepens in a love
for being human.

In battle, one runs fearing
for his life. Another, just as scared, turns
and fights more fiercely.

Unfortunately for the state of the world today, the true soulful fighting warrior has turned into gangs of "Monster Boys," Barks said. The lack of initiation for young men leaves them "standing around street corners wearing black coats, smoking and looking mean. They're trying to initiate themselves by grotesquely covering themselves with tattoos. The tattooing is a howl for initiation."

Barks said he believed there are two initiations - one from Teenager to Warrior and the other from Citizen to Elder. The gifted writer/translator appears to have achieved the rightful title of Elder, having co-written a collection of poems with his granddaughter entitled "Club."

In "Tentmaking," his own book of poetry, Barks writes about a young man in "Luke and the Duct Tape" that the author believes may have been lost without the hope of initiation into manhood.

"He had that broom - the broom is a symbol of knowledge - but he and I didn't quite make contact, and he's gone suddenly. His life wasn't there. There is a lost connection between younger men and older men."

During his time teaching English and poetry at the University of Georgia, Barks would often encourage his students to challenge themselves with writing exercises. He directed them to write about something shameful in their own life experience.

"The writing gets more real and more vivid," he said. "It's more interesting, and you can feel the vitality from the words and sentences when one confronts things of shame. It takes courage to tell the truth. I used to have them tell about a time they stole something.

Everybody's stole something!"

Barks' ability to tap into the soul of Rumi is less like stealing and more like offering a blessed gift to those who read not with the mind but with the heart. This vibrant poet and educator has the unique talen of touching something divine and yet he still holds humbly to his own mortality.

"It's just the human condition, and I'm glad we have some glory as well as the mud," Barks said. "The point is to tell the truth and not lie about the self degradation. We have to tell them both. I know they're both in me."

Barks suggested that the following poem he wrote may be of interest to an audience of men:


Our game is to lower a fluffing riffle of
dictionary pages held
dangling by the front and back covers, its

fingertip toeholds slowly up and down and across
my erect penis pointing
to the ceiling to see what word its tip

nudges into notice: pathos! The ache that suffers
through the fingers, then
pendulous. Your breasts take hold and words

go blurry inside the smoor of where they point.
And I can't help claiming
we have found a way to honor at one time

two loves, for language and for the body,
though clearly more
research is indicated.

(Editor's note, challenged by Barks: I discovered Rumi writing during my first divorce. I believe it saved my life, if not my soul.) These are a few of my favorites from Barks' recent book:


The soul is a newly skinned hide, bloody
and gross. Work on it with manual discipline,
and the bitter tanning acid of grief.

You'll become lovely and very strong.
If you can't do this work yourself, don't worry.
You don't have to make a decision, one way or another.

The Friend, who knows a lot more than you do,
will bring difficulties and grief and sickness,
as medicine, as happiness, as the moment

when you're beaten, when you hear Checkmate,
and can finally say with Hallaj's voice,
I trust you to kill me.


What sort of person says that he or she wants
to be polished and pure, then complains
about being handled roughly?

Love is a lawsuit where harsh evidence
must be brought in. To settle the case,
the judge must see evidence.

You're heard that every buried treasure
has a snake guarding it.
Kiss the snake to discover the treasure!

Don't run from those who scold,
and don't turn away from cleansing conflict,
or you will remain weak.


Love comes with a knife, not some
shy question, and not with fears
for its reputation! I say
these things disinterestedly. Accept them
in kind. Love is a madman,

working his wild schemes, tearing off his clothes,
running through the mountains, drinking poison,
and now quietly choosing annihilation.

A tiny spider tries to wrap an enormous wasp.
Think of the spiderweb woven across the cave
where Muhammad slept! There are love stories,
and there is obliteration into love.

You've been walking the ocean's edge,
holding up your robes to keep them dry.

You must dive naked under and deeper under,
a thousand times deeper! Love flows down.

The ground submits to the sky and suffers
what comes. Tell me, is the earth worse
for giving in like that?

Don't put blankets over the drum!
Open completely. Let your spirit-ear
listen to the green dome's passionate murmur.

Let the cords of your robe be untied.
Shiver in this new love beyond all
above and below. The sun rises, but which way
does night go? I have no more words.

Let soul speak with the silent
articulation of a face.

© 2005 Reid Baer

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The fame you earn has a different taste from the fame that is forced upon you. - Gloria Vanderbilt

Reid Baer, an award-winning playwright for “A Lyon’s Tale” is also a newspaper journalist, a poet with more than 100 poems in magazines world wide, and a novelist with his first book released this month entitled Kill The Story. Baer has been a member of The ManKind Project since 1995 and currently edits The New Warrior Journal for The ManKind Project www.mkp.org . He resides in Reidsville, N.C. with his wife Patricia. He can be reached at E-Mail.

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