Friday, June 9, 2023

On Mawlana Jalaleddin Rumi with Brad Gooch

In an interview Brad Gooch, an American biographer, weighs in on his latest project on Mawlana Jalaleddin Rumi.

On December 6, Hamshahri-Javan, a weekly journal, carried an interview with Brad Gooch, an American author, about his latest project on Mawlana Jalaleddin Rumi. The interesting content of the interview by Salar Abdoh initially prompted IFP to have it translated. However, after contacting the journal, it kindly provided our website with the English version of the interview. IFP extends its deep gratitude to Hamshahri-Javan for helping it find the original text. IFP regrets to say that because of some constraints on the text size, it could not post the interview in its entirety. The following features only parts of the chat:


Brad Gooch
Brad Gooch

[…] When Brad Gooch, who was just then researching for his book, Godtalk: Travels in Spiritual America, asked if I could take him to a mosque with me. I ended up taking him to a mosque in the Tribeca district in lower Manhattan. I liked the imam there. He was a soft-spoken man and open to ideas, and the mosque itself was next door to one of my favorite bookstores at the time specializing on Sufi texts and Middle Eastern history.


But by that time, a few months before 9/11, Gooch had already written a definitive biography of the remarkable mid-century American and New York School poet Frank O’Hara. The new book that he had come with me to the mosque for, Godtalk, was exactly what its title suggested, a delving into the essence of spirituality and belief in its various forms across the United States; while the next biography he went on to write a few years later would cover the life and times of the major Southern writer, Flannery O’Connor.

No wonder then that when I heard about Gooch’s new mission, a comprehensive biography of Rumi, along with a separate translation project of his poetry, I was curious but not surprised. In retrospect, it seemed that Gooch always – from the very beginning, from the days when he was seriously considering becoming a monk, to his book about spirituality, his biographies of O’Hara and O’Connor, the special course that he teaches at William Paterson University in New Jersey on the writers of the Beat Generation […] had been moving, inevitably, towards Mawlana Jalaleddin. It was, in a way, destiny. And so, this was the first question I put to him:


Is it safe to say that your journey in the writing of biographies, your passionate interest in poetry, and also your dedication to writing about religion and spirituality seem to have, quite logically, brought you to Rumi, at last?

Well I do think that if you put Frank O’Hara and Flannery O’Connor together you would wind up with Rumi (though that personal equation rarely makes sense to anyone else.) Rumi shares with Frank O’Hara a spontaneous manner of writing poetry, often in public settings, and often writing occasional poems. Also their poetry in both cases reflected their friendships. O’Hara changes style according to his predominant friendships of the time. While ghazals poured out of Rumi following his separation from Shams, many of them turbulent to the point of surrealism. When he next became involved with Salahuddin as his friend, he wrote much calmer ghazals. At the request of his third main spiritual friendship with Hosamuddin, he wrote the more didactic, and wise, Masnavi. His poetry, like O’Hara’s, was finally quite personal.


What, if anything, do you think of how everyone wants to appropriate Rumi for themselves? What may be the impetus for that?

At its best I suppose it shows that his universalist message is indeed universal. He manages to be both religious and romantic, or romantic about the spiritual quest. […] When I was in Konya for the Whirling Dervish ceremony in honor of the anniversary of Rumi’s death, the [then] Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan arrived to give a half-hour address, and I kept running into heavily armed military guards around every corner of the auditorium. Tajiks claim Rumi; Afghanis as well; Iranians stress his Persian language and culture; Turks think of Rumi as Turkish; many American think Rumi is Indian; and so it goes.


Let’s talk a bit then about the travels you’ve had to do for this book – the places Rumi lived and your impressions of them.

I’m one of those biographers who unfortunately believe that you need to actually visit and eyeball and experience the locations where your subject lived. The map of Rumi’s life spreads over 4000 kilometers, from Tajikistan to Turkey, so that involved much traveling, but was certainly helpful in finally helping me to understand the importance of Central Asia, or the Greater Khorasan as the liveliest corner of Persian culture at the time, and its influence on Rumi’s views and language. He always spoke a dialect of Khorasani Persian (including using some Khorasani curses) that reflected his origins; the earliest manuscripts of his Divan-e Shams were verified by their use of the Khorasani spellings of Persian words rather than the Anatolian spellings (similar to the difference between English and American spellings.) […]

I’ve visited Iran twice while writing this book—traveling to Mashhad, Shiraz, Esfahan, Tehran, Qom, Tabriz. I did fall in love with the energy, color, vibrancy, youthfulness, busyness, and complexity of the country. Surprisingly in its wonderful cuisine, historical cities, and lively population I was reminded of Italy. I was also struck that seemingly everyone was avid for discussions about politics.

In your research, what are some of the aspects of Rumi that you find especially curious and interesting? What do you think of the scholarship that came before now?

Well, Rumi certainly qualifies as a genius, simply as an artist. Without any special training or even much apparent ambition in poetry, he wound up, mostly triggered by his intense friendship with and separation from Shams of Tabriz, to write thousands of ghazals and rubaiyat, and then a six-book epic Masnavi. His poems are not only seductive in their imagery and their messages, but, according to his great Iranian editor Foruzunfar, they are among the most technically varied in terms of meter of any Persian poet. Foruzunfar credited this eruption of virtuosity (most of the poems were written in the second half of his life) to his talent as a musician. For instance, he custom-made a rebek (a kind of kamanche) to get a timbre of the sound that he preferred.

I am also fascinated by his curious ability to have survived as both a sort of genius and a sort of saint at a very tumultuous time in history, while balancing great demands put upon him by his extended family and by the madrase that had been left in his care by his father Bahauddin. As Rumi evolved from a traditional preacher and jurist into a mystic absorbed in “sama,” or meditation using music, dance, and poetry, he was always skirting “fatwas” from medieval religious jurists, but he also seemed to be protected by his ties with the Seljuk ruling class of sultans and viziers. He struggled to maintain his distance from the world, yet he was always maneuvering through competing worldly responsibilities.

Where then would you put Rumi in context of the rest of Persian literature, and especially in relation to the other giants of Persian poetry?

Rumi sets up his own lineage. He claims that he is descendent of Sanai and Attar, and he quotes, and alludes to them often. These were poets who took the lyric and epic Persian poetry of Rudaki and Ferdowsi, which was mainly practiced in royal courts, and adapted the forms to religious and spiritual messages. Rumi differs from a poet like Hafez by not just going after beauty, but in trying to convey meanings. He is trying to be sermonic as well as suggestive.


Now then, besides this monumental biography you’ve undertaken, you’ve also set out to translate quite a large body of Rumi’s poetry. There have been a lot of translations of Rumi already. How do you approach the translation of Rumi?

Interestingly, I’ve discovered that even sloppily free mistranslations, or stodgy precise academic translations, all seem to convey some essential feeling and tone that is quintessentially Rumi. I can’t begin to say why or how that magic works.

In very important ways, Rumi’s poetry lends itself to the modern American idiom: he purposely uses rather simple language; he relies heavily on imagism, which at least since the Surrealists and Rimbaud has been the essential motor of much European and American poetry; he has a kind of epic intimacy of tone that reminds me of Walt Whitman. The challenge is that he was using rhyme, and with rhyme and repeating “radif” was able to make music that is hard to reproduce. Also, even though his language is clear and simple, his ideas can be mind-bending, especially when he is working with some abstruse medieval Sufi concepts. […]

Yet regarding translation, I am still curious how you actually go about translating him. You mention that Rumi is quite translatable. […]

I hope I didn’t say that Rumi is easily translatable. Firstly, of course, I have Maryam Mortaz helping me with language and connotation and denotation. I think what I was trying to say is that Rumi actually uses simple understandable words, conversational, musical words, and repeating imagery: candle, sun, star, cloud, heart.

What is elusive is the music, which can only be approximated, and then only in obvious poems with radif and such. And in spite of the simple vocabulary, Rumi bends into subtleties of thought and spirituality and philosophy and religion and psychology that are often mystifying – I would think even in the original, and certainly at one remove in translation. And in some ghazals he is positively and bizarrely surreal.


[…] How you feel about Rumi now – what would you say?

Well your final question is a little more difficult only because I have yet to finish the biography. I’m one of those writers who doesn’t know what I think until I’ve written it. So I find summing up to still be out-of-reach. I suppose as his biographer some dimensions of Rumi’s life are now clearer to me, and I find a personal connection – insofar as you can feel “connected” to such a larger-than-life personality and force as Rumi. I am struck that he was going through a practically metaphysical version of a mid-life crisis. So I am interested how a middle-aged man, with many responsibilities to work and family, navigated such a radical rupture in his life and psyche, which was triggered by the entry of Shams of Tabriz into his life.  I also feel that Rumi became almost more radical than Shams in the latter half of his life (which I’m just confronting now in my research). He pushed the envelope with his “religion of the heart,” his almost romantic spirituality, and his dance and music. Not every Sufi mystic of the period was given as much leeway as he: he was fortuitously protected by the Seljuk elite, and obviously had tremendous personal charm.

I’m interested in him, too, because when people nowadays are talking spirituality vis-à-vis religion, they are thinking often of Rumi; he is the poster saint, and he obviously struggled to find his own balance betwixt and between.


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