Coleman Barks Interview
An Ache of Wealth
Amy Wright: You can tell a lot about a poet from his or her favorite joke. Rod Smith’s, for example, is “What does a snail say, riding on the back of a turtle?...................Wheee!” What’s yours?
Coleman Barks: Two caterpillars walking along talking. A butterfly comes along overhead. One caterpillar turns to the other, “You’ll never get me up in one of those things.”
AW: How does your writing process look different than your translation process?
CB: My two or three writing processes all look the same. They happen in these little unlined sketchbooks. I begin everything in there, poems, translations; dreams are recorded, list of to-do things, phone numbers, it all starts there. Then a poem, say, might go to a loose piece of copy paper. Then to be typed up on the computer and printed out. Then it gets a folder with its name. I put that in my blue sack and carry it around, for months usually, fiddling with it.
AW: Anais Nin called her father Old Oak, a tease born of a sentimental letter he once wrote. Has anyone nicknamed you?
CB: My nickname in college was Cloudy. People usually say, yeah, I can see that.
AW: Reading your Rumi line, “Not now Husam. I don’t know how to make words make / sense or praise,” I notice that the contribution is entirely yours of the phrase preceding the line break, which highlights the sense that one doesn’t in fact ever know “how to make words make.” It serves as a kind of embedded commentary illuming Rumi from an angle as if inside or within the body of the poem. It’s a very rewarding effect of translation—for the reader. What’s the most rewarding effect of translation for you as a poet?
CB: To feel something fresh and alive has come. I feel gratitude for that, when it happens.
AW: There is that “ache of longing” Rumi expresses in your translation of Quatrain #320 as a kind of wealth. Surely mulling and absorbing Rumi’s lines as only you have must have led to an ache of wealth. If longing is a hidden wealth, what does a wealth of poems hide?
CB: Good question. That hidden wealth metaphor comes up a lot in Rumi. When you demolish a building (the ego), there is a chance that you will find two jewels in the rubble of the foundations. The hidden wealth in poetry might be a feeling of being more intensely alive, feeling the longing more clearly and sharply. A man told me once that when that happens, you have a chance for a friendship with someone as wildly alive as Shams Tabriz.
AW: Your poems are so alive with story, reportage, bearing. To listen is to witness. To talk is “valuable and necessary.” Today at the grocery store, the clerk hammered my ego in self-checkout efficiency. She is one of my regular teachers because she is perfect in her timing, confronting me repeatedly with my own impatience. Do you know anyone who’s perfect at something?
CB: My granddaughter Keller (11) is a perfect point guard. She sees the whole court in front of her, all possibilities. Then she acts without thinking like an animal, no pre-thought, no regret. Very beautiful.