Conference of the Birds is a graphic novel, retelling the medieval Sufi allegory of thirty birds in search of the enlightened Simurgh [Persian phoenix]. The original medieval text, entitled منطق الطیر‎, Manṭiq-uṭ-Ṭayr, also known as مقامات الطیور Maqāmāt-uṭ-Ṭuyūr; 1177) is a Persian poem by Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar, commonly known as Attar of Nishapur. The title is taken directly from the Qur’an, 27:16, where Sulayman (Solomon) and Dāwūd (David) are said to have been taught the language, or speech, of the birds (manṭiq al-ṭayr).

Matt Blumberg and Ava Salzman in Conversation with Kythe Heller.

Edited by Grace Jackson.

KH: I’d like to ask each of you, Ava and Matt, about your backgrounds and what got you interested in this medieval Sufi allegory of The Conference of The Birds and making a graphic novel out of the story itself?

MB: I just love stories first of all, and in particular, teaching stories and stories as instruments of personal growth. The Conference of The Birds is one of the great examples of that in world literature. So, for me the motivation to work on this is a chance to study the story in a deep way.

AS: I have a similar passion for stories, but I was especially attuned to this type of story based on the year that I had with the COVID pandemic. I'm a sophomore at Harvard and last year all of us went online. In my first year, I was pretty set in what I wanted to do with my life. I felt like I was on a straight path. Then, all of a sudden the path became completely open and we all entered this period of liminality, and I realized that I really didn't know who I was or what I wanted to do at all, and that the way that I thought I knew the world no longer existed. I was feeling very lost at the beginning of last semester, but two things changed the way that I thought about it. And those were two classes. One was The Garden, an arts practice class, which was newly offered last year. The other was a folklore class called The Folklore of Emergency, which dealt with the ways that people use stories to cope with crisis and great cultural upheavals. Both of those experiences helped me to realize that maybe the reason I felt so lost is because I didn't know what the stories of my creation and the stories that I live by really were. Over the course of the semester, I shifted my art practice and my academic focus to discovering what those stories were and how they work, and how I live by them. By the end of the semester, I realized that stories, especially stories like The Conference of The Birds can empower people during times of great instability and uncertainty. I feel like it's been a phoenix year for me. That’s why I’m so excited to be working on this project now.

KH: Those were such beautiful answers. Thank you.

MB: What about you, Kythe?

KH: I've been haunted by this story for a really long time. I remember years ago when I lived in Portland, Oregon, I would spend a lot of time in Powell’s Bookstore, which is this enormous bookstore in downtown Portland, which took up an entire block. I remember actually tripping over this book and just picking it up. It was almost like in one of those magic childhood stories where a book sort of finds you. I read it for the first time then, and it has always stayed with me, like an echo in the back of my mind. Then a few years ago I started Vision Lab, which is this collective of people who kind of don't fit in anywhere. They don't fit into the boxes that they're supposed to be in. They don't fit neatly into the arts or science or technology or spirituality or social and environmental justice, yet they care about all of these things and are really passionate, interesting people. I wanted an excuse to make things together with these really wonderful extravagantly gifted friends. So, we started making things together and at a certain point during the COVID pandemic a couple of things happened. One is that it became really meaningful to build out this supportive community which was only able to happen online, with people far-flung in many different parts of the world. The second is that I had a dream about a flock of birds made out of light that were passing from one corner of the screen of my vision to the other. They were all beating their wings very rapidly in full exertion. And each one of them was like a little point of light and I felt the power and I felt the fragility of that image. It was also at night, so there was this sense of moving through an unknown space together. I had a strong feeling that all these people I loved who were creative beings were also, in a deeper way, light bearers and that they were part of a flock of birds. I thought about The Conference of The Birds story and about a book of poems I had written was based on the phoenix. So, all of these things converged and it became clear that that was the journey that we were all on, whether we knew it or not. There are these deep cultural myths that we re-enact again and again. They provide maps for spiritual growth and advancement and evolution, and they kind of remind us of who we have been in the past and who we can be, and we can take elements and recombine them and live them out. So, in a certain way, I feel like I'm living out all these different possible myths, but that I get to have a certain amount of willed independence to choose the myths that I want to live out depending on my state of consciousness. So, I feel like there's a potential with The Conference of The Birds, not only to tell the story or to depict it in drawing, but also with this group of people, potentially as a model for a new way of being human and relating to each other. That maybe this flock of birds going on a quest to find itself is not a bad way of thinking about the potentiality that we could call into being.

I wanted to know what you each think about the phoenix. Does the phoenix have a particular meaning in your own lives? Maybe you could extend that question and talk about any sort of visionary energies or ideas you would like to pursue in the future?

MB: Well, in the sixth grade I was the drummer in a rock and roll band named Phoenix. I made a drawing of a phoenix and taped it to the bass drum of my drum kit. That was the first time I tried to be an artist of any description, whether visually or musically, so, in some sense, I’m hearkening back to that now.

AS: For me, the idea of the phoenix being reborn in fire really resonated, because over the past year I've been looking into what I called in the folklore class my personal creation story and my family history. What I found is that in every generation of my family, there are similar narratives of collapse, usually from something related to fire, and needing to cling to or rebuild one’s own identity.

It all started five or six generations before me, with my first ancestor on the Chinese side of my family in the United States, who was a transcontinental railroad worker. In every subsequent generation, something occurred with the Chinese American community. In the 1880s, one generation of my family was displaced through arson, when a white nationalist group burned down the San Jose Chinatown. Then, my great, great, great grandparents survived the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, which destroyed San Francisco’s Chinatown. With everything that happened last year, I feel like I’ve relived that creation story. Once I encountered the story of the phoenix, which is a story of finding oneself within environmental collapse, I immediately latched onto it.

MB: Another way I think about the phoenix, particularly after seeing Ava's and Annie's drawings, is as a fiery preacher. It reminds me of the story of the burning bush. One way I like to look at that story is as a figure of knowledge, right? The idea that knowledge burns, but is never consumed—you can use your candle to light another candle, and the first candle isn’t consumed. I like to think about the phoenix as the personification of knowledge, as a character in a story. I have a notion from Sufism that knowledge is considered a living thing that comes and inhabits the minds of people as it wishes. I like the idea of a story of people pursuing this personified knowledge and hopefully finding it, because that’s an allegory for life itself, fundamentally.

KH: For me, it's a personal story. So many people have their own experience of this, but I feel like I've died and been reborn within this lifetime a number of different times. What I mean by that is, various traumatic events that people experience. I've been blessed with the experience, several times, of everything in my life being razed to the bone. It ends up being miraculous or deeply surprising that I could survive. I'm not going to go into details, but I think it's an experience that many, many people have had. There’s this almost secret sense in society of something that allows someone to survive when there's really no reason why they should. What is it within them that they draw on, to find their way back into life and to reinvent themselves after very traumatic events? We're seeing so many things in the world now… deep racism and police killings, all these different ecological disasters with people losing their homes and their livelihoods and jobs. All of these are deaths, deaths of ways of life, deaths ways in which we thought we understood ourselves. The incredible blessing that one receives from having terrible things happen is that if you do survive, like there has to be some kind of deep rearrangement of the idea of your personhood. And so you get to see that personhood itself is flexible and that you're not actually the person that you think you are, at all. You get to become something else and you actually have to invent yourself. There's an incredible creativity involved in that practice, which is carried out under duress. So, for me, this image of the phoenix is the only thing in folklore that really captures that sense of a life being burnt down to the ground and then emerging from seemingly nothing, and the miraculousness and gratitude and wonder of that.

OK, my final question is: having been part of Vision Lab, what kinds of visions are you carrying with you into the future?

AS: This project is one strand in a general pathway of storytelling and art making that I want to keep pursuing. I’ve been inspired by how stories can empower people to approach life, which can be unpredictable and destructive, in a way that's restorative and regenerative. I want to keep investigating stories of creation that people continue to relive across cultures and historical periods. I’m still pretty early in the process of determining my academic pathway, but whichever way that goes, I'm looking forward to continuing this strand of thought.

MB: One vision that’s common to everything I do is aspiring to see the patterns that connect things, and how these patterns are often part of larger patterns and contexts. So, for instance, a core preoccupation of mine is that people think of a mind as being something that’s inside your head, and consciousness as something that you have. But, really, consciousness is something that you participate in, because there's a broader system in which we're embedded, socially and ecologically and so on. So, in any situation, the visionary step is to try and perceive the larger context. For instance, I read a great description somewhere of what comprises good design and the person said, well, you designed the chair for the room, you design the room for the house, you design the house for the neighborhood, right? This is what makes design good—an  awareness of broader context and purpose. To me, being visionary and being a designer then are kind of the same thing.

Ava Jinying Salzman is a visual artist and writer studying Folklore and Mythology at Harvard College, at which she is a sophomore. She has been writing and illustrating graphic novels since high school, and is always exploring the world for stories to tell that can restore, empower, and move others, drawing from her interests in folklore, ecology, and archaeology. She became interested in the concept of phoenix stories and the story of the Conference of the Birds after a semester of online learning during COVID, in which she met Kythe Heller in an art course called The Garden. Together with Matthew Blumberg, they collaborated over the common belief that one sometimes needs collapse and destruction in order to build oneself back up again by reliving their creation stories. Their collaboration on a graphic novel retelling of the Sufi tale Conference of the Birds is in progress, some of which can be viewed here. 

Matthew Blumberg is a researcher and developer of “tools for minds”, i.e. technologies for thought and collaboration. He is currently Executive Director of GridRepublic and Co-Founder of Charity Engine, two large-scale distributed computing services. He is also founder and CEO of Find.

Kythe Heller is a poet, multimedia artist, and scholar whose work re-imagines art-making as a practice of consciousness: In what ways can our work become sites of evolution, realizations of new social, technological, and ecological relationships, by considering how to use language and media to radically change our ways of being in the world? She is author of the poetry collection Firebird (Arrowsmith), two chapbooks, critical studies in philosophy of religion and poetics published by Cambridge UP and Akron Series in Contemporary Poetics, and essays and poems. Her performance and multimedia work has been staged at the Harvard Film Studies Center, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, SEEDS Festival, Sonoma State University, WAXworks (NYC), BAX (NYC), Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and elsewhere. Currently she is completing a doctorate at Harvard University in Comparative Religion and Art, Film, and Visual Studies/ Critical Media Practice. She founded VISION LAB in 2017.