Coleman Barks
Coleman Barks

By Franklin Abbott

Coleman Barks will be featured at the 70th anniversary celebration of The Georgia Review which will take place at this year’s Decatur Book Festival. Barks, who taught English for 30 years at The University of Georgia, is a celebrated poet who is best known for his translations of the 14th century Sufi poet Jelaluddin Rumi. Barks own poems have been published widely and a new collection is on the way. Some of his new work is featured in the Summer issue of The Georgia Review. He will be reading on Saturday at the Marriott Conference Center, Ballroom B, at 3 p.m.

Barks writes and translates in the free verse tradition of Whitman. He says he writes, “long leisurely wandering poems that go wherever they want to.” His self-described “goofy whimsicality” is invoked both from things that spontaneously occur while he is on a walk or reading other authors. He finds space to write at night and stays up late. He likes to sit and wait on his porch in the summer or by his fireplace in the winter. One of his muses is a creek near his cabin in the woods. He eschews the computer for writing preferring to write out his poems in longhand on loose sheets of paper.

He brings his style of writing to his renowned translations of Rumi. Barks studied Sufi spirituality under Bawa Muhaiyaddeen. He says, “if I hadn’t sat in his room for nine years” he would never have known of or understood the 14th century Persian mystic. Barks came to Rumi when he was thirty-nine, “too late to learn a language.” He relies on word for word translations by classical scholars and then molds the words into the same free verse style that is characteristic of his own poetry. Rumi in his native classical Farsi Persian) is full of rhymes. Sometimes he rhymes 9 0r 10 words in a row. Barks says this is impossible to convey poetically in English. He adds, “after the third rhyme, its a limerick.” Barks says he doesn’t add images to Rumi but sits with Rumi’s words until “spiritual information comes through.”

Rumi is still deeply loved in Afghanistan where he is called Balki, the land of his birth, and his poetry is often broadcast on the radio.

Barks travelled to Afghanistan to where he spoke at literary gatherings at university and at the Harat Literary Society. He found a vibrant intellectual life in Afghanistan and compared the people he met to “goofy French intellectuals.” He found people who were tremendously educated in multiple cultures. He said it is a grave mistake to judge Afghani culture based on the current violence that occurs there.

“Soul Fury: Rumi and Shams Tabriz on Friendship” is his newest book of translations. It focuses on the deep spiritual friendship between Rumi and Shams of Tabriz, a wandering mystic, who brought Rumi to deeper levels of spiritual ecstasy. Barks says one big difference in Western and Middle Eastern cultures is that in the West romantic love is extolled and in the Middle East, the depth of love the comes out of friendship is seen as paramount, . The story of Rumi and Shams is explored in Barks’ newest work.

Barks came to poetry through grief. His first poems that appeared in 1971 came from the grief of losing his parents who died within six weeks of each other. His collected poems are published by The University of Georgia Press, “Winter Sky: Poems 1968-2008” and “Hummingbird Sleep: Poems 2008-2011.” “Rumi: The Big Red Book” was published in 2010 and is a compilation of all Barks’ translations of Rumi’s ghazals and rubai.

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Alexander Chee

Alexander Chee, whose latest novel “The Queen of the Night,” has received high praise, will be bringing together a range of writers paired to explore provocative subjects. Sponsored by MailChimp, “Alexander Chee Selects,” is an important component in this year’s Decatur Book Festival. Chee has curated writing series before including the Dear Reader series at Ace Hotel in Manhattan. Joining Chee at the Decatur Book Festival are Rebecca Traister, Garrard Conley, Idra Novey, Rumaan Alam, Samantha Hunt, Alex Mar, Kiese Layman, Sunil Yappa and Tyhimba Jess. Chee will be joined by Kaitlyn Greenrige in a discussion on alternative history on Saturday from 1:45 to 2:30 p.m. in the First Baptist Decatur Sanctuary.

“The Queen of the Night” is the story of opera singer Lilliet Berne whose celebrity is not unlike Jenny Lind. Chee says the story is not about Jenny Lind, “she has her own legend,” but about another woman whose fame brought independence in a time when women rarely had it. He says that for his heroine (or anti-heroine depending on perspective) fame came with a “viscous price” and “a keen sense that it is all going to go away.” He explores opera plots as part of his narrative. Chee places Lilliet inside a plot that is both “hilariously bizarre” and real for her. She lives in a time of the Franco-Prussian War, the Paris Commune and the oppressive government of an emperor who is on his way out. Her Paris is full of spies and real estate speculation. The press is muzzled and the sex lives of female celebrities are front page news.

Chee spent 10 years writing the novel which he describes as “an old fashioned picaresque novel.” He says he could tell it was done “when the character stops visiting you.” He describes his relationship with Lilliet as a long conversation that had an element of the Mermaid’s Kiss. Like the enraptured sailor who is lost to the depths of the ocean, it was difficult for Chee to stop pursuing Lilliet. He’s also working on a book of essays, “How To Write An Autobiographical Novel.”

Inspiration comes to Chee from various sources. He reads widely, follows the news, studies mythology and music and says, “the ideas find you.” He says he used to write all the time but now that he has a partner he writes one to three hours a day. The Jungian notion that “we are all who we agree to be with each other” gives energy to his writing process. He says, “fiction is a way of using all of yourself, including the rejected parts. Literature is a catalog of rejected thought.” His next writing project is what he calls “speculative fiction” which is contemporary with lots of historical references. He says his topic once scared him and he kept pushing it away. Chee says “you grow the brain you need” to write the story that compels you.

Franklin Abbott is an Atlanta psychotherapist and consultant, writer and community organizer. 

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.