Born in 1207 near Balk—modern-day Afghanistan—as Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, Rumi’s family eventually moved to modern-day Turkey, where his transformation from a renowned scholar and preacher to a poet occurred. During his life, his practice of spinning around building columns while reading poetry inspired the mystics the Whirling Dervishes. And his illuminations have inspired countless generations thereafter.
Continuously revered in the Middle East, he’s gained increasing popularity in the West over the past two decades. Rumi’s lyric poetry, mystical musings and scholarly lectures have remained relevant because they transcend issues of daily life and worldwide catastrophe.
For this reason, there’s a small, impassioned following locally with the Rumi Poetry Club. The poet and his work also became a major focus in Kathleen Cahill’s The Persian Quarter, Salt Lake Acting Company’s current production.
“His constituency is the human heart, which therefore transcends his own century, culture and language. His path and poetry is that of love, but it’s not limited to a give-and-take relationship between two individuals,” says Rasoul Sorkhabi, Rumi Poetry Club founder. “[It’s] love resulting from a deeper sense of oneness of all humans and existence and the joy contained in this co-existence, this journey and sharing.”
The club was founded in 2007 on the 800th anniversary of Rumi’s birth. Since then, it has held an annual community event, which includes music, poetry and lectures, as well as monthly meetings at the Anderson-Foothill Library in Sugar House.
The reason for launching the club is simple: “Rumi’s poetry of love is like food to eat and to share with others. In fact, he has a line that says, ‘We eat love,’ ” says Sorkhabi, adding that it’s only proper etiquette to share, a process that has elegant links of understanding among people.
Each meeting, held on the first Tuesday of the month, begins with a thematic lecture by an assigned speaker, followed by poetry readings and discussion. For starters, Sorkhabi recommends reading The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks. While Rumi is their icon, the readings are not limited to his work and also include Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Rilke, Basho, Kahlil Gibran, Hafiz and more. The number of attendees ranges from 10 to 40; their age varies widely.
The club hopes to appeal to younger generations, or people who think poetry too abstract, confounding, nonsensical or irrelevant. Even if it’s impacting in a small way, that’s useful and joyful, Sorkhabi says. March’s topic is scheduled to be Shams, Rumi’s master and friend. “He was an old man, a wandering dervish, who was responsible for the transformation of Rumi from scholar and preacher to poet [after a chance encounter in 1244],” says Sorkhabi.
The atmosphere is one of reverence for spiritual poetry—“the perennial wisdom of humanity”—and respect for each other’s values, without being New Age-y. It’s scholarly and collaborative at times. Sorkhabi has published papers on the poet’s life and work and has translated many poems himself. Those translations inspire his wife, Setsuko Yoshida, a painter. Her watercolors (“Blown by the Wind” is pictured) are not direct imagery, but interpretations.
Three years ago, playwright Kathleen Cahill saw a little card advertising the club in the Sweet Library, and attended three meetings. At the time, Rumi was a puzzle piece she kept trying to fit, to varying degrees of success, into her draft of The Persian Quarter. Eventually, she wrote a sketch of the club—albeit much different—into the play’s second act, where protagonists Emily and Azadeh meet. They bring wounds nurtured from three decades of personal affliction, by their parents’ wounds, and by political turmoil between Iran and the United States.
That’s where Rumi, who also ended up serving as the play’s de facto narrator, fits perfectly: the wise voice in the nightmare of their histories. “During the whole horrible experience, there’s Rumi and he’s always saying there’s another place, there’s another place,” Cahill says. “The two ‘enemies’ are being consoled by the poet [in both acts, across generations].”
This “another place” is from one of Rumi’s most famous poems, which Cahill uses as flavor and to strengthen her theme: “Out beyond ideas, of wrongdoing and rightdoing/ there is a field. I’ll meet you there/ When the soul lies down in that grass,/ the world is too full to talk about/ ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’/ doesn’t make any sense.”
RUMI POETRY CLUB
First Tuesday of the month
1135 S. 2100 East