INTERVIEWED BY EVAN SCOTT
the 13th of September in 2006, a Wednesday night where the summer heat
maneuvers for retreat, the poet John Balaban gave a reading at the
Deusenberg Recital Hall from his newest book of poems, Path,
losing species, we are losing words,” Balaban
commented before reading his first poem out loud, and he meant not only
is the appreciation for poets — and words — diminished, but also their
place in society. Balaban is of the Vietnam generation. He was in
Vietnam teaching, as he conscientiously objected to fighting. He went
back to Vietnam to gather ca dao, the folk poetry of the people. He
belongs to that other, smaller army of passionately engaged writers of
the times, writers against the insanity of war.
authored eleven other books of poetry and
prose, earning himself several awards, nominations, and
fellowships — among these, the Lamont Poetry Prize from the Academy of
two nominations for the National Book Award, and a John Simon
I sat down
with the poet the next afternoon to talk
about the state of words in America.
Evan Scott Bryson:
At the reading last night, and in several of your poems, you describe
the state of American poetry to be a strange business, a funny
business. And in reading these poems, it also seems like a really sad
business — why is this? And has it always been that way?
Well now, no — certainly not a hundred years ago it wasn’t that way. As
the twentieth century closed, it certainly became strange. Fewer and
fewer people read poetry. It almost became estranged from its
You can almost imagine a date when poets threw up
their hands and said, "I’m not gonna write for anybody anyway — only
myself, or for the few people I know who will read this." So, for a
whole host of reasons that lots of people have written well about,
poetry just seems to have drifted away from the other six lively arts,
at least from the grasp of the average and intelligent reader.
So who is reading it is small — poetry has small
readerships. A good run, or an average publication run for a book of
poetry, is like one thousand books. If you sell more than a thousand
books of poetry that’s a fairly amazing thing. That makes it strange.
You hear poetry pretends to say great revealed truths. But nobody can
read it anymore — or cares about it much to find out.
You haven’t thrown up your hands, have you? Seems like in a few poems—
No, haven’t thrown up my hands. I think for the people who really are
invested in writing poetry there’s not much choice about it, so there’s
no choice about giving up on it. Although you would think clever poets
(I’m not very) might.
Teachers I had when I was in school like you, they
saw that I had a writing talent and were always very polite about
this — but you could tell that they were hinting, just a little bit,
I was wasting time writing poetry. There wasn’t much of a readership
for it, and I think, of course, they were right in their way.
On the other hand, you have poets who still put
their noses up, as the early Modernists did, like T. E. Hume . . ..
that prose is the museum where the old weapons of poetry are kept. So
they can do things, be difficult — but it’s inaccessibility is an issue
that poets should be more concerned about.
I work awfully hard in my poems to make them
readable. I was real worried last night, looking at the average age of
my audience, and knowing how that audience got into the room — probably
because an instructor said you have to go — that, uh, that I could
on some misunderstanding . . . And I thought, in reading the very first
poem, “The Lives of the Poets,” halfway through it, I realized, aye,
this isn’t going to work at all. Even if the audience just stipulates
that these names belong to poets, they’re going to feel like they don’t
know what this world is about.
When you were reading off the names, I felt it was a small assault on
this generation — on quiet Americans sitting around complacently while
there’s a war going on overseas. I was wondering, what the role of a
poet — especially a poet coming out of the Vietnam War — is nowadays?
Again, poets — they aren’t going to make the evening news, are they?
I mean, it’s a pretty rare thing. I think they did recently. And
actually with the current war in Iraq, Laura Bush had this event, or
was about to, where she invited writers to the White House. Poets, she
was going to have poets. Her innocent — or at least naïve — view
that poets would be good guests, because they’re artists and not
political, right? But in fact, it was my editor at Copper Canyon Press
who organized a huge work-protest. He was gonna go, I think, and talk
about the war. And then it became a protest, and the whole event was
called off because it was clear it was going to be an embarrassment.
And it became a movement. There’s an anthology that came out called Poet’s Against the War.
Enough money was donated to it that we could
afford an ad on the editorial pages of the New York Times. It became a
Still, what the poets say is probably less important
to the public at large than what rock-stars or celebrities have to say.
I mean, I don’t pay much attention to their views on things. But
somehow poets get through. Like with this brilliant book very much
about this war by a young Iraq War veteran, Brian Turner, Here,
Bullet — fine book of poetry. You know the old saw that poets
unacknowledged legislators of the world — and I’m not sure if Shelley
really believed that . . .. But despite their marginalization they
seem to come through, or at some moment of importance get to speak up.
They’re feared. And you would think that anything as
marginalized as poetry wouldn’t be a bother to anybody in office or
government or in control, but in Eastern Bloc countries of the former
Soviet Union, poets were considered such a possible source of trouble
that they were compromised in these writers unions. And basically the
function of a writers union was to keep them in line. Keep them
comfortable enough so they didn’t dare risk their comfort, and have a
service that minded their behavior in prose or poetry. I think there is
always that latent fear that they will say something . . ..
That people actually believe . . .
You translate Vietnamese poetry. How many other languages do you know?
In college I studied Latin, a little Greek, Old English, some
French and Vietnamese. But I wasn’t ever very good at making them
stick. I mean, this makes me sound like I’m a polylinguist — but no, I
just fumbled around in a lot of different languages.
You have in your collections of poems a Bulgarian friend that you hang
out with, and this whole transnational poetry circle. How does that
influence your writing?
I think it widens it, opens it up. American poetry has sort of
drifted into two realms, or so it seems to me, that aren’t good for it.
One is sort of abstract, pseudo-philosophical discourse. I’d rather
philosophy from the source, you know, than poets sort of making their
attempts with it. And the other would be a very private little poem
about going out, and this is what I saw today, and this is what I think
it means. So, those are not the habits of poets in Eastern Europe, in
Asia. There’s a lot to say for what American poetry accomplished in the
Modern period, with the early Imagists for instance; or, in terms of
political realm, the way poets like Robert Lowell are political but
successful at it — where they can make fairly large logo-poetic
statements and manage to make them work. So, looking around the world
and looking towards what goes on in other countries has obviously
influenced my own sense of what to do in a poem.
Influences . . .. Who are your influences? Who do you consider to be
None of them are my contemporaries — for instance, Maxine Kumin is
old enough to be my mother. Robert Lowell, who I met briefly when I was
at Harvard. William Carlos Williams, who when I was your age looked at
some of my poems. Those poets influenced me. Eleanor
Wilner — contemporary poet.
One of the great things about poetry is you get to
hear other people and make comparisons. Every college should be able to
do what happens here at Valparaiso. I heard just recently Ted Kooser, a
Nebraska poet. You say the phrase “Nebraska poet” — right away, you go,
oh no, oh dear. But he’s incredibly smart, incredibly funny, incredibly
Who else? Ah, Europeans poets — the poets in
in the Slavic tradition of high formalism, they’ve influenced me as
well. Vietnamese poets, with their intense repertoire of images, and
images that move through their poetry. It’s hard to find a Vietnamese
poem that doesn’t begin with an image, even the folk poetry does.
Sometimes the image will have nothing apparently to do with the rest of
the poem, but it just starts us off, puts us in a world, a place.
How do you write and how often?
Ah, not often enough and as best I can. Since I teach at a
university and always have, I hardly do any writing in school. It’s
usually when I can get away from school.
So no set schedule? Wake up, write a poem—
No, and I’ve always wished I’d developed that. I’d be happier if it
happened that way, but no, it’s never been like that. For me it seems
like a whole different state of being to be working on a poem. I
started a poem over this summer and went into lots of different
versions, ended up emailing a friend whose whole manuscript I’d gone
through — so I knew it wouldn’t be a big favor. And asked him, saying,
“This is a work, got any ideas?” And continued to work on it. But as
soon as school started up I just put it away, I knew I wouldn’t be in a
state of mind to address the work intelligently. I’ll pull it back out
How important is community to you when writing?
As far as emailing someone, or asking for help . . ..
I’ve only done it a few times. Maxine Kumin, did it once with her
with a poem in a book. And I really got great help from a young woman
named Aliki Barnstone, who’s really interesting. She has this great
book of poetry, Wild With It.
And she’s just brought out from Norton
translations from the Greek of C. P. Cavafy. And I had this poem, it
was more or less in the shape — it’s content was more or less there, it
just didn’t seem to work. She said to break it into stanzas. She
suggested the breaks were already there, I just wasn’t paying attention
to them. So that was a huge gift because the poem just changed its
identity. I don’t think I changed much of anything, except making the
stanza breaks where she suggested. And the whole poem changed shape.
That was like a little magic wand over it.
So every now and again. I think Carolyn Kizer,
I’ve asked her, once. She read a few of the translations I’d done. I
asked her because she’d done a lot of translations of Chinese and knew
the form the Vietnamese use as well. She gave me some good advice, and
also made a few suggestions about diction, which were right. But I’ve
never had a friend I’ve regularly written to.
How about the public reception? Getting in front of large groups and
reading your poems?
Oh, I enjoy it. That seems to be the best part of the whole thing.
The poem really comes alive again for you, you can be absolutely tuned
to the audience. I think preachers have the same kind of thing with
congregations. Up on the stage you get a sense of breathing, you get a
sense of muttering, a sense of restlessness if it’s there; you can read
people’s eyes; you know exactly, pretty much, how well it’s going over.
That’s an interesting thing, especially when it’s going well. The other
night was a nice audience, a polite audience, but awfully passive — not
quite sure why they were there and when it would be over.
I believe that was a lot of people’s first poetry reading.
Probably is. But that’s especially important — you want that reading
to be really good. I never bring anybody to read anyplace I’ve ever
run, if I haven’t heard them before, myself. Because there are poets
who can’t read their poetry, or who can’t talk, and you don’t want to
lure young people because those experiences turn them off.
How important is criticism to you?
I take it seriously. This book
has gotten some good reviews, partly
from what you observed — how it roams around the world and takes in
larger than usual perspectives, both geographically but also back in
time. One thing I got out of studying Greek and Latin was a knowledge
the classical world. The classical world and the contemporary world
aren’t that different. These ironies of the classical world are sort of
always in front of you when you read the newspaper. So, what was your
question? I’ve forgotten it already.
[laughing] How important is criticism to you?
Oh yeah, my book got a real crappy review by one of the poets in a
North Carolina local newspaper. Because he thought it was “grandiose” —
believe was the word. You know, that it took on these large themes.
And, I thought, “What a stupid viewpoint.” I mean, if it took on large
themes and failed it should say that in the review, but you can’t
criticize it for taking on large themes. It wasn’t behaving like a
familiar North Carolina, regional, southern poem, talking about farm
and family, and the usual things, nor had I ever intended to. There
are other people who do that and do it well, but I’m not interested. In
the same review, he discussed a book that did do that sort of thing.
That book he belaboured because it was too close to small, little
winsome North Carolina. So he wasn’t being nice to anybody.
And then, ironically, I got a starred review in Library Journal, which
I guess is important, for poetry, because if
it’s starred that means libraries across the U.S. will buy it. And that
review praised it for being grandiose, and ambitious, and for what it
tried to take on.
So, yeah, I take it to heart. Sometimes I believe
the criticism, or at least I understand why the person said it. I don’t
know if it’s going to change anything I do.
You threw out this statistic last night—
Oh yeah, I was wrong about that.
I got corrected later on. Shakespeare used 34,000 different words
in his works — which is astounding by itself. Contemporary Americans
have about 10,000 words in their vocabulary.
And that is only going down . . ..
That’s going down, yeah.
What does that mean for our culture?
That means trouble. It means a whole loss of nuance and subtlety
and thinking in an argument. It means clumsiness in talking to one
another and citizens about important topics — you want precision. I
think, in Iraq, for instance, the whole confusion about who the
terrorists are, and who our enemies are, and what clear and present
danger means, all those issues which allowed for the confusion, from my
view (well, it’s not just my view), of the Bush administration
attacking the wrong country. I mean, from my view they quite rightly
attacked Afghanistan in trying to eliminate Al-Qaeda. I had no problem
with that at all.
There is no reason . . . they just misunderstood the
situation, misread it, or wanted to misread it, but their vocabulary
when they talk about Iraq is just totally muddled. They lead an
imprecision of language. And it may be that they are clever men who
know that this — the more vague and imprecise they are with the
public, the more likely they can get their way with that public.
Though, I think if you just listen to George Bush he is genuinely a
person who has difficulty speaking. And if you connect speaking with
thinking, the supposition is (and it may be wrong), he may have trouble
thinking. He may have problems with making clear distinctions. And
human lives are lost as a result.
At this point, I don’t know if we’ve killed more
Iraqis than Saddam Hussein — but the war has. The war that we
And today, there is a rebellion in the Senate. Republicans voted
against Bush’s notions on the Geneva Accords, his rhetoric of torture,
and there is so much muttered speech about the Geneva Accords, and what
they mean, and it stems from imprecise language.