Haydn Reiss on Rumi & Stafford
Two Documentaries on Poets of Peace
BY TONY ELLIS
Filmmaker Haydn Reiss
The moral dilemma most often thrust in the face of those who oppose war goes something like this: What would you do if the lives of your loved ones were being threatened right in front of you? Would you not grab any weapon available in order to protect them? So why not fight to defend your country?
National Book Award-winning poet and World War II conscientious objector William Stafford (1914-1993) wrote in his journal: “The question, ‘Wouldn’t you fight for your country?’ begs the real question which is, ‘What is the best way to behave here and now to serve your country?’ So the real answer would be, ‘If it was the right thing to do, I would fight for my country. Now let’s talk about, what is the right thing to do?’ ”
This was one of the quandaries I discussed recently on the phone with Haydn Reiss, producer and director of Every War Has Two Losers: A Poet’s Meditation on Peace, a thoughtful and beautifully crafted documentary based on the writings of Stafford, and Rumi: Poet of the Heart, a previous work about the life of the Sufi mystic poet. Both films feature comments from a number of well-known poets, writers, and thinkers, including Robert Bly, Coleman Barks, Michael Meade, Alice Walker, Huston Smith and Deepak Chopra.
Reiss, a self-confessed “producer for hire,” has been involved in a range of visual media from Hollywood features (JFK and Jacob’s Ladder) to TV shows, but it is obvious his real passion lies in his work about these two poetic masters, separated in time by more than 700 years, and the potential of their words to move the hearts and minds of men away from conflict.
Reiss believes Stafford, like many of his fellow conscientious objectors, was no starry-eyed idealist. He accepted that conflict is always a possibility in the course of human affairs, says Reiss. But Stafford didn’t believe war was inevitable or even advisable. In Stafford’s view the consequences of war are rarely, if ever, beneficial to humanity. He encouraged everyone to consider the motives of those who urge us to war before getting caught up in the fever of victory. “How do we know war is the answer?” asks Stafford in his journal. “How can there be a nation we don’t like? That’s a fiction put onto a million different people. It has been created by interests you might well do to analyze.”
“It would be very satisfying to think,” says Reiss in an interview on the film’s website, “that after viewing the film you would ask yourself, at a deep level, what you really believe about war. And the follow-up question of ‘How did I come to believe that?’ ”
“I think we have been very successfully indoctrinated into accepting that war is a given, it’s what human beings do,” Reiss continues. “The distinction is, and I think this is what Stafford is saying, is ‘Yes, we do and can make war. But what else can we do?’ The undiscovered possibilities in human behavior are what we should pursue. The die is not cast; imagination and creativity are not in short supply. That this is the real, pragmatic work of the world.”
We live in such a culture of violence that sometimes it is hard to imagine how the actions or words of one person can be heard above all the clatter. Stafford believed peace is achieved gradually, created one person, one small step at a time. “Artists and peacemakers are in it for the long haul,” Stafford writes in his journal. “Redemption comes with care. Here’s how to count the people who are ready to do right: 1 . . . 1. . . 1.”
His chosen medium was poetry. In a poem entitled “A Ritual to Read to Each Other,” composed in Iowa City on June 23, 1953, he wrote:
For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
In Every War Has Two Losers, Stafford’s friend Michael Meade comments, “Something very deep in the human heart wants beauty, love, and relatedness more than it wants destruction, war and violence.” This theme is further explored in Rumi: Poet of the Heart, a tender and insightful portrayal of the life and work of Sufism’s most cherished poet. Reiss is a big believer in the power of poetry to take us to deeper understanding. “It’s alchemical,” he tells me, and quotes from William Blake’s poem “Jerusalem”: “I give you the end of a golden string, only wind it in a ball, it will lead in at Heaven’s gate built in Jerusalem’s wall,” a theme I discovered Stafford often used in his lectures. “Poetry can take us to a place where nations and newspapers are not so important as what is happening out in the fields and the birds and the wind,” says poet Coleman Barks in the film. His soulful translations of Rumi’s poems have made them famous worldwide. Deepak Chopra suggests that if more poetry was read to children we could substantially change the world for the better.
Stafford wrote a poem a day after rising before dawn and spending time in contemplation and reflection. “I have an appetite for finding the perfect language to describe the experience of life you’re having right now,” he once said. “Every now and then I break off a piece of that and call it a poem.” Rumi poured out thousands of lines of exquisite verse as he struggled to deal with the devastating loss of his friend and mentor, Shams of Tabriz.
“Rumi’s poetry emerged from grief, which we do our utmost to avoid,” comments Robert Bly when interviewed. It is as if his heart, in being broken open, became a container for an immense divine love. “I am so small I can barely be seen,” wrote Rumi. “How can this great love be inside of me?”
Rumi’s message of love described by Rumi: Poet of the Heart is so profound and essential it has the power to touch the soul within each of us. “Everyone loves Rumi. He has no enemies,” someone comments in Reiss’s film. “I fly with Rumi. I forget I am on the earth,” says another. It is a wonderful and revealing irony that in this time of widespread “Islamophobia,” Rumi, an Islamic mystic, should be the best-selling poet in America. He touches a universal nerve. The lesson to learn is this: if we can reach into our hearts and see the world through the eyes of a poet like Rumi, we can form bonds that unite us, whatever our culture or religion. Peace is the natural by-product of this experience. War, on the other hand, thrives on fear and division. “If loving everyone is too much to ask,” says Reiss, paraphrasing Kurt Vonnegut, “at least we should respect each other and maybe occasionally it will turn into love.”
“Love is the religion. The universe is the book,” says Coleman Barks, quoting a Sufi master. Stafford wrote on behalf of “the unknown good in our enemies,” comments one of his friends in the film.
Can the actions of one individual or a few well-chosen words really make a difference in this large chaotic world? Reiss believes so. On the website for Every War has Two Losers, he includes this quote from Stafford: “Every thought re-orders the universe.” And at the end of our conversation, he passes on this gem of wisdom from folksinger Pete Seeger. Seeger would say that life is like a seesaw and each of us is a grain of sand. It’s important which side of the seesaw you put your grain of sand. You never know which grain will be the one that tips it in the right direction.
Haydn Reiss will be visiting Iowa in spring 2010. Watch for upcoming announcements of his talk and film screenings.
To read more of William Stafford’s writings visit http://williamstaffordarchives.org/.
Tony Ellis is a Fairfield-based writer and poet. He blogs regularly at www.iowasource.com. To read more of his work, visit www.tonyellis.com. This article appears as the cover story of the December 2009 issue.