Rumi’s Caravan nurtures a ‘community of the spirit’ — but not quite the type the poet likely wanted

Rumis Caravan/Courtesy

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On Saturday, Rumi’s Caravan of poets filed through the gray stone horseshoe of the entrance to the First Unitarian Church of Oakland.

It wasn’t the first time the travelers had made their way into a wholly new venue, unsure of what to expect, nor will it be the last. For nearly 20 years, the group has ventured far and wide from its base in Sebastopol to build a sense of community through the recitation of memorized poetry. The event follows no predetermined order or script; instead, speakers stand when moved to do so and recite poems they’ve committed to memory.

The church abounded with flowing gray locks allowed to grow out, billowing pants and jangling bracelets. The space was overwhelmingly white in terms of both audience and performers, which felt rather inappropriate for the celebration of an oral tradition predicated on the works of a renowned Persian poet. To the Caravan’s credit, the speakers carefully strayed from appropriation and worked toward appreciation, acknowledging the source material of each poem that was fully read.

Clad in an ornate blue shawl, Maya Spector served as the closest the show came to having a host for the night. Spector introduced the event as, in Rumi’s words, “a community of the spirit.” She proceeded to explain the mission of the Caravan in ambiguous words, casting ideal types that carried a mystical quality but lacked grounding or a comprehensible direction. The Caravan aims to “restore the soul of the world by bringing back the oral tradition,” she said, smiling.

While at times deceptively so, the Caravan’s gleaming promises did occasionally find grounding in the pure and abundantly evident reverence of its performers for their material. Doug von Koss, a longtime member of the Caravan, provided some of the most heartfelt renditions of the evening, the words slipping from his lips as easily as if they were conceived on the spot.

In addition to selections — including picks from Juan Ramón Jiménez (“I Am Not I”) and Rumi — von Koss related two original pieces: “True North” and “Poetry Body and Fender Repair.” The former expounded gracefully upon the theme of finding direction, as begun by other performers who tapped into such pieces as William Stafford’s “Allegiances” and Annie Dillard’s “No One But Us.” “Say, thank you for this unfolding,” von Koss lilted gently.

The latter provided an air of self-awareness and comedic relief at just the right time, when the layering of inspirational picks began to verge on indulgent. The piece tells the brief tale of a faulty poem: “My poem has a slow leak,” von Koss grinned.

Besides von Koss, the underacknowledged star of the show was Oakland-based cellist Suellen Primost. Primost provided seamless accompaniment to the readings, switching without hesitation from her cello to a variety of other instruments (including, at one point, a branch with leaves, which she rustled for dramatic effect) to match the mood set by the speaker. It was easy to forget that Suellen was there, so naturally did her crescendos match the meter of the central performers. Yet she provided the foundation for the magical moments.

Neither viewer nor performer knew what was to come next (though, in 20 years of performing such shows, one expects they’ve assumed a more regular rhythm than the artists may have let on), encouraging the audience to sit back and allow the poetry to take its proper course. This provided an atmosphere ripe with the potential to disrupt paradigms, to —as Louise Erdrich writes in “Advice to Myself” (recounted during the evening) — find a poem that “destroys / the insulation between yourself and your experience.”

The prospect of charting new territory, however, met an impasse in the narrowness of the Caravan’s demographics. For a show striving for inclusivity, the performance provided minimal points of entry for audiences who are not elderly white people, having been curated and deemed significant by precisely that bracket. The show failed to represent many of the cultural traditions from which the poems themselves arise.

Sufi dancer Chelsea Rose marked the midway point of the event. Embraced by the flowing, white layers of her floor-length dress, Rose closed her eyes and spun in circles before the audience, never once pausing for affirmation that her somewhat unorthodox performance was resonating. For many, it very well might not have been. But when she finished twirling, standing remarkably steadily, lips upturned slightly, and took a final bow, everybody clapped appreciatively. “We may not have understood it,” the applause seemed to say, “but at least it was new.”

Contact Ryan Tuozzolo at [email protected].