Speaker: Haleh Liza Gafori

The Alchemy of Love: Translating Rumi and Timeless Poetry

“Haleh Liza Gafori’s ecstatic and piercing translation has lifted a veil, bringing Rumi closer into the quick of our present. Each poem is a divine invitation. Free your mind. Drown in love.” —V (formerly Eve Ensler)

With black curls twirling across her shoulders, Haleh Liza Gafori — a poet, translator, vocalist, and educator — stands on a stage, performs a poem of Rumi that she translated into English, then bursts into song in Persian. As her voice echoes across the room, she evokes the divine ecstasy and vision this great mystic poet is known for — expressing in an intimate manner entirely her own. For well over a decade, Gafori has inspirited and taught the poetry of Persian poets across various universities, festivals, museums, and institutions.

A bicultural woman of Persian descent raised in New York, Gafori’s ears are highly attuned to both American poetry and the Persian text. As a child, she listened to her parents recite Rumi’s Persian poetry. “It’s very common for Iranians to memorize poetry,” she explains, saying she would hear these words but not quite understand. But the energy the lines carried, and their effects on the listeners made an early, indelible imprint on her. 

As an adult, she began reading Rumi in English. “It was interesting that American translators kind of pointed me back to my roots," she says. For Gafori, Rumi’s words offer ancient wisdom pertinent to our current time: What do his poems tell us about ego death, compassion, greed, generosity, selflessness, soul, and the cultivation of ecstasy? What is his liberating take on death?

Then she began singing in Persian, and eventually, translating these same poems. “As someone who can look at the Persian and look at the English,” she reflects, “one can see, oh, we don't have these lines here, we're missing these lines, or wow, this is a great, well done translation here, or oh my God, what in the world was happening here? It's a mixture. It's a mixed bag.”

Her new book, Gold, is a fresh selection and translation of Rumi’s poems — its title a reference to Rumi and other Sufi poets being alchemists, transforming mental states and feeling states into “the deepest love, the deepest generosity, the most expansive consciousness that we can touch, the ecstatic.” Former Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets Marilyn Hacker describes Gold as “the work of someone who is at once an acute and enamored reader of the original Farsi text, a dedicated miner of context and backstory, and, best of all, a marvelous poet in English.”

Gafori explains that the book is a collection sourced from the Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi, a sprawling text of over 40,000 verses. Each poem here had to be cut from this endless cloth, reshuffled, styled with modern enjambments, and, finally, translated. Perhaps it’s more accurate to think of Gold not as a translation of one medieval mystical poet by a modern poet, but as a collaboration between two equal poets that spans centuries.

I saw myself sharp as a thorn.
I fled to the softness of petals.

I saw myself sour as vinegar.
I mixed myself with sugar.

An aching eye seeing through pain,
a stewing pot of poison,
I was both.

Reaching for the antidote,
I touched compassion.
I touched mercy.

After a BS in Biological Sciences from Stanford University, Gafori received an MFA in creative writing from City College of New York. Her thesis — comprised of original poems, as well as translations of Persian poets like Sohrap Sepehri and Omran Salahi — earned her an Academy of American Poets Prize and the Goodman Grant for Poetry. She has been featured at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Fetzer Institute’s Gathering on Love and Forgiveness, Bowery Poetry Club, and Verses of Hope hosted by the Marginalian (formerly Brainpickings). For the poetry journal Rattapallax, Gafori served as a guest editor of the New Persian Poetry section.

In addition to her gifts as a poet, Gafori is also a musician. For current and past musical projects, including Haale (former spelling of her name, “Haleh”) and The Mast, Gafori toured across the US and Europe, including stops at One Note at Carnegie Hall, the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival, and the Bonnaroo Festival. Her albums have received critical acclaim, and her songs have appeared in the NBC’s series “Life” and the CWTV’s series “The Originals.” In 2018, she translated, composed, and performed in a collaborative multi-media project, “Ask Hafez,” supported by the Queens Council on the Arts.

Like the poems she translates, Gafori’s voice is timeless, and her offerings are perhaps best observed or listened to. We invite you to find a quiet space to sample one of them here.

Please join us in conversation with this gifted poet and musician who infuses new vitality into ancient love and wisdom.

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