Let’s get to know Coleman Barks, who deeply understands Rumi:
‘’We grew up right next to the Tennessee River, and the beauty of that going-by gave me, early on, a truer sense of the sacred. I had a place I would go to be by myself, and feel that living presence inside me. It is still there. I was, and am, a river mystic. A riparian, riverine aesthetic flows in my writing much more vitally than any Christian influence. The shining reaches are downriver, upriver, under, and spread out into the sky all at once, a definite place, and a station of awareness too.’’
Born and raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee, poet and translator Coleman Barks received a BA from the University of North Carolina and an MA from the University of California, Berkeley, before returning to the University of North Carolina to earn a PhD.
In 1976, poet Robert Bly introduced Barks to the work of 13th-century Sufi mystic poet Jalaluddin Rumi. Barks has since translated more than a dozen volumes of Rumi’s poetry, including The Illuminated Rumi (1997) and The Essential Rumi (1995), often in collaboration with Persian scholar John Moyne. Barks’s translation work was the focus of an episode of Bill Moyers’s PBS series The Language of Life, and he has collaboratively produced his Rumi translations with music and dance ensembles including the Paul Winter Consort and Zuleikha. In 2004 Barks received the Juliet Hollister Award for his work supporting interfaith understanding, and in 2006 the University of Tehran awarded Barks an honorary doctorate in recognition of his contributions to the field of Rumi translation. Barks’s translations are noted for their accessible lyricism.
Barks’s own poetry, influenced by Wordsworth, Whitman, and Rilke, is lyrical, meditative, and steeped in his native Southeastern landscape. Barks has published numerous original poetry collections, including Winter Sky: New and Selected Poems (2008), Gourd Seed (1993), and The Juice (1971). Awards for his poetry include the Guy Owen Prize from the Southern Literary Review, and the New England Review’s prize for narrative poetry. In a 2007 conversation with Gibson Fay-LeBlanc for Guernica magazine, Barks addressed the relationship between his translation work and his original poetry, noting, “It’s like being in an apprenticeship to a master […] [W]ith the Rumi work, I try to get out of the way and disappear, and with my own work, I try to get in the way. I let my shame and ecstasy and disappointment come in, all my emotional states, whereas with Rumi they’re more spiritual states.”
Barks lives in Athens, Georgia, and is a professor emeritus at the University of Georgia. In 2009 he was inducted into the Georgia Writers’ Hall of Fame.