Rumi: Festival of the Soul Benefit Concert 

Old-Fashioned Love Songs: Coleman Barks and company celebrate the poetry of 13th century mystic Jelaluddin Rumi

Rumi: Festival of the Soul Benefit Concert
w/Coleman Barks, Marcus Wise, David Whetstone
Sat. Oct. 13
7 p.m.
$100 (orchestra seating, includes Persian soiree), $45 (reserved seating), $30 (general admission)
Sottile Theatre
44 George St.
(843) 953-5623

"All of Rumi's poems were meant to be a part of his community," says author, teacher, and orator Coleman Barks, one of several featured performers at this weekend's Rumi: Festival of the Soul event at the Sottile Theatre. "The work going on there was the work of opening the heart, whatever that means. His poems and music are meant to do that ... sort of like country music, you know? It's all love poetry. We're going to speak it and tell the stories of it and tell the background of it."

click to enlarge Author Coleman Barks is an acclaimed translator and presenter of Rumi's poetry
  • Author Coleman Barks is an acclaimed translator and presenter of Rumi's poetry

It's a big weekend for Charleston's Sophia Institute as they present a special reading and performance at the Sottile on Saturday. Musicians David Whetstone (sitar) and Marcus Wise (tablas) accompany Barks as part of the Saturday event from 7-9 p.m. The trio have been performing Rumi's works on stage together for decades.

"I've tried it both ways, with and without music," says Barks. "After you've been reading things with music — with the feeling of how the music takes you deeper into the heart — when you try it without it, something different happens. It's almost a bare, sort of naked vulnerability."

A Persian soiree continues afterward for the performers and certain ticketholders at the 58 George St. Courtyard. Additional lectures and readings from Barks, Mark Nepo, Ann Igoe, and Marjory Wentworth take place on Friday evening and Saturday at the Institute's studio at 293 East Bay St. Proceeds from the events help fund the institute's seminars and concerts.

"On Saturday evening, we'll be reading poems by Rumi, the 13th century mystic, whose poetry was always performed with music ... and movement, too," says Barks. "The moving meditation he originated was called 'the turn.' He was the original whirling dervish. But we won't have any of that because it makes me dizzy [laughs]. We'll be doing a lot of Rumi's poetry, and some of my own, and some stories and jokes. Mostly, it will be in the mystical realm of his teachings."

Rumi reaches his 800th birthday this week. He was a serious scholar who started composing love poems after an encounter with a "wandering dervish" named Shams of Tabriz. Their relationship is considered by many as one of the great love affairs of the ages. Rumi's poetry has been celebrated in the Islamic world for hundreds of years. He was celebrated by Christians, Jews, and Buddhists, as well as by Sufi Muslims, who claim him as a part of their tradition.

click to enlarge Marcus Wise
  • Marcus Wise

"It's so important to have the connection between the two cultures," says Barks. "You can't really translate Shakespeare into Chinese, but you have to try. It has to be done, the same way you have to try to translate Rumi into American English. The two cultures need to be in contact — the Persian and American, particularly now."

Born and raised in Chattanooga, Tenn., Barks studied poetry and literature at the University of North Carolina and the University of California at Berkeley. He's taught poetry and creative writing at the University of Georgia in Athens for over 30 years. He is the author of numerous Rumi translations. His work with Rumi was the subject of an hour-long segment in Bill Moyers's Language of Life series on PBS, and he is a featured poet and translator in Bill Moyers's poetry special, Fooling with Words.

The author first felt a genuine connection to Rumi as a student in the 1970s through guidance of the late Sufi teacher Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, from the island of Sri Lanka. Muhaiyaddeen belonged to the Qadri order of Sufism. He came to the United States in 1971 and established The Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship of North America in Philadelphia.

"A feeling of being in the region of the poetry that felt very free, with something new and familiar at the same time," he remembers. "It was something I wanted to explore. As I began doing this work, I met a Sufi teacher. He told me I should do this work. That's the only credential I have of being able to work on the great poet of the Islamic world. It's just a huge presumption for a Chattanooga Presbyterian to do this [laughs]. It's almost ridiculous."

click to enlarge David Whetstone
  • David Whetstone

While he jokes about his unorthodox craft, Barks' body of work is seriously impressive. He's spent decades translating and recasting the poems of Rumi in fluid American English. His translations have sold more than a quarter of a million copies. He admits the toughest challenge of translating the words, tone, and spirituality of Rumi's poems (originally written in Farsi) involves plenty of guess work.

"The spiritual information is a challenge," he says. "Whatever it means to be enlightened — that is a state of consciousness, and I'm not in it. Rumi and Shams of Tabriz are in it. Jesus is in it, and Buddha is in it. The discrepancy of not being in the state of what these poems come out of is the ... embarrassing thing about working on this. I'm trying to speak with words about a state of awareness that I'm not in. The possibility for distortion is there. Of course, we all have a taste of this state, but unless you're living within, you don't produce the poems or the translations of the poems. We have to fail and produce translations that don't quite bring it all over into English and then try it again."


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