Issue 1 – Winter 2001 – John Balaban (Interview)

November 6 & November 14, 2001: John Balaban


FV: I wanted to start off by acknowledging the inescapable–the events of September 11th. Your work returns again and again to war and violence. What, for you, is the relationship between poetry and violence? Does the poet, for you, have a responsibility to address violence? 

JB: I don’t know if it is the relationship between poetry and violence — but poetry and warfare. There’s an age-old connection there: Dante says the proper subjects of poetry are love, virtue and war. So why would Dante say that the proper subjects are love, poetry and war? I’ve wondered about that. I wonder if it was just a medieval, antique notion of the proper subjects because of the classical and neoclassical heritage. But I think there’s an abiding truth to it in that it’s the same topic. In warfare people are naked, and you see things more deeply and more honestly…by chance than you might understand the usual disguises of civilized behavior, so in the violence of warfare, you discover love and you discover virtue, and you discover human nature in a ready and immediate way.

FV: Does poetry, for you, have a special capacity to address the violence of war? Clearly you’ve written fiction, but it seems to me the bulk of your career is the career of a poet returning again and again to those signal themes.

JB: It does and it doesn’t. The ability of poetry to catch up with warfare as warfare becomes more complex and awful isn’t as great. One thinks of the poets of World War I and the great lengths, say, that Wilfred Owen went to find a medium that would carry the message and his inventiveness for instance in using slant rhymes because he wanted to have the rigor and the pleasure of form that comes with fully rhymes but here he was using slant rhyme couplets in many of those poems that were dealing directly with events of World War I that become allegorical and they become poems that try to deal with warfare without the glory of warfare that he, and his whole class, would have been obliged to believe was there. And since then it’s been very difficult to imagine any poet glorifying warfare at all since World War I, especially. Then in the complexity of wars that have taken place since World War II, it’s even more difficult, except that poetry has this vast ability to conjure images and those images of warfare can be mixed with images of domestic life, and the civilization which may be prosecuting the war but is inured to it, or immune from it: poetry can do that. On the other hand, there are things that are written about in poetry that poetry seems–at least in my version of it–insufficient to handle, and in that case, I’ve turned to prose. There’s a novel called Coming Down Again that I wrote dealing with the same people and the same characters but the advantages of prose are obvious: dialogue, plot, character, setting — very hard to carry that across purely in the tropes of poetry. And then I even went to nonfiction. I gave up with –I didn’t give up, I just didn’t think all that I had to say about certain people and events that occurred in Vietnam were completely said –so I went to creative nonfiction and wrote a memoir and had another way of looking at it.

FV: Do you feel that if you hadn’t addressed the violence in war, the Vietnam war, as a poet that you would have been abdicating some responsibility? Or for you, does it just come from a more internal compulsion?

JB: Such as?

FV: I guess I’m thinking of poets like yourself who very self-consciously and determinedly take on the burden of addressing that kind of violence and the ramifications of it…and yet there are other poets who don’t. I’m interested in your thinking about that issue of responsibility — if you feel that it is an issue?

JB: Well, first of all, my engagement with the war, and my feeling about any obligation to write about it took place a long time ago. 

FV: Right.

JB: And I’m sure the young man who went to Vietnam in his early twenties — mid-twenties — had all sorts of sense of obligation. Some of them were moral, and some were political. I was opposed to the war, and I was engaged in the war as a teacher of linguistics at a Vietnamese university. That seemed like a fairly useless occupation. In fact all I was probably doing in effect was taking some Vietnamese instructor out of the classroom and putting him or her –him– on the battlefield. Then I went to work for a group that treated war-injured children, and I was the field representative for them and helped evacuate children who were so badly injured they could not be treated in Vietnam so we evacuated the hospitals in the United States and then my job was to return them, sometimes years later, after many, many surgeries. So having done that, and having been wounded in the Tet Offensive myself, there wasn’t really much choice about it. It wasn’t like it was a conscious decision. 

FV: Because of the intimacy of the violence?

JB: Yes; you don’t witness whole villages being cut to pieces by cluster bombs and then actually encounter in the hospitals children who were the survivors of that village, and then learn their family histories as part of your job, and then see them onto airplanes through a maze of bureaucratic paperwork that the Saigon government put down, and avoid it; it becomes your entire consciousness, an obligation, I suppose, and I was aware, maybe falsely, because, as it turns out, there were a number of other very bright, very clever writers in Vietnam — Tim O’Brien, Steven Wright, and some good poets too, like W.D. Erhart — but I had the sense of myself as maybe the only one with any literate ability who was witnessing what I was seeing. That seemed to me a very special obligation. So I think I might have had some moral and political impulse or obligation. And then the question was, how do you tell the tale without preaching. How do you tell the tale without simply telling the reader what the reader already expects. Of course it has to do with poetry and the way poetry works. What does Owen say? “The pity is in the poetry”…

FV: Let me read you a quote. It’s from John Berger. He addresses the relationship between violence and poetry by saying this: ” Poetry can repair no loss, but it defies space that separates, and it does this by its continual labor of reassembling what has been scattered.” 

FV: Would you agree with this?

JB: That’s good. I wish I had thought of it myself [laughter]. There’s an ancient magic to poetry. There’s that old Scottish poem: “Nine times he walked around her head. Nine times around her feet.” It’s a poem that has to do with magic, with incantation, and reassembling, to use Berger’s phrase, of things that have been driven apart, fragmented and broken and making them whole through the power of words to do that. So yes, there’s that process. I guess I shy away, and always have, shy away from that sense of poetry as a healing process — though, of course it is — because in the egoistic culture of Americans it sounds so much like the self-help therapy thing. Poetry then becomes a tool for people to enhance their egoistic little lives and I guess I don’t want it to be that. It’s bigger than that. It may in fact heal, but it’s not a tool for healing. It’s not like buying the Atkins Diet book. 

FV:Yes, I think Berger believes that too. In the part of the essay that preceded this particular quotation, he’s looking at poetry’s relationship to violence, say, in relation to torture and war and he seems to be emphasizing the idea of poetry as a symbolic defiance. It brings together, makes intimate, what violence would rend asunder. 

JB: You know the poet who was most conscious of this was Denise Levertov. There are very few American poets who wrote about the Vietnam War with any convincingness, it seems to me. Although one admired their endeavors, and were glad for those endeavors, and the books that came that way. But Denise Levertov actually went to the trouble of actually going to Vietnam, which is not an easy thing for her to do, especially when the war was going on, and she was in difficulty with the State Department because passports were not authorized for travel to North Vietnam, and actually saw the place, and seeing the place she was able to enter into this reassembly. There’s a great poem of hers about building altars in the streets, these very frail things which were bulwarks against the mindless violence of that war. 

FV: That reminds me of a poem of hers — “What They Were Like” ? — does that ring a bell ?, that’s a poem based on a series of questions and then answers. The premise of the poem is that, essentially, Vietnamese culture has been obliterated by violence and the speaker poses questions about Vietnam in an innocent way, and there’s a kind of violent lyricism, very understated, in the response. But let me pick up with the question of thinking of your poetry as a whole, not merely of Vietnam, but the poetry that situates itself, at least in part, in America. It seems to me to gravitate towards extreme environments — deserts, jungles, highways that are often associated with the unpredictable and the violent –or extreme situations, situations that are defined by violence — domestic violence (as in “Words for My Daughter”), of course war, atomic threat, peculiarly American forms of frontier violence — I’m thinking here of “Hitchhiking and Listening to my CB Walkie-Talkie” — bar-room brawls, racism…it seems to me that your poetry is as much fascinated by violence as it is offput by it. To me, much of your poetry is unimaginable without violence or the threat of it. Is there an ambivalence here?

JB: I think you’re probably right in noticing –especially with that list of poems — how much violence is entertained in them. But that’s not an accident of habit or accident of mind. It’s purposeful. When I came back from Vietnam in 1970, I wasn’t so sure that I could even live in this country. I was just stricken by an American sense of violence. And I wasn’t the only one. I remember being at the Third Field Hospital in Saigon when they were showing “Straw Dogs” and just finding it unbearable. I mean I had to leave; I couldn’t watch the movie because I couldn’t watch the violence. That film was just too much for me. And still if you’re going to come home and you’re going to make a home and a profession in this country I think you just can’t just blind yourself to it, pretend it’s not there. So in fact, I’ve got out looking for it. Not exactly like going out and picking a fight, but hitchhiking across the United States seemed like a perfectly reasonable thing to do, but only to someone who had been in Vietnam. I’d hitchhiked across to see the country, to see my fellow Americans, and see what they were up to…because if all they were up to was what they visited upon Vietnam, it was very clear to me it was not a place that I could live. But in fact, in all of those poems, as well as the violence, there are moments of beatitude, there are moments of kindness, and that’s what I was looking for — not the violence, but the antidote to violence. Those poems, that’s what they were about. I think if Vietnam had not occurred, and I hadn’t gone there on my own free will as a conscientious objector, then I think I would have written a very different kind of poetry. I have no idea if I would’ve even liked it. But my interests were in the classical world. I would’ve written a poetry that would’ve been imbued with a transfer of culture, of Spenglerian senses of cultures rising and falling; I studied Latin and Greek and Old English as well, and by that time, I was filled with a sense of those things. And I was filled with a sense of the pastoral. And that’s a backdrop to almost all those poems, those hitchhiking poems as well, the sheer pacifying, comforting beauty of the place.

FV: I want to return to that question of antidote in just a moment, but I’m interested in following up on this sensitivity to violence. Did Vietnam sensitize you to peculiarly American forms of violence — you know, Williams’ “The pure products of American go crazy…”?

JB: Oh yeah. Despite having read Williams before I went to Vietnam, I don’t think I understood quite what that meant. He did — because he was a pediatrician and he worked the poor neighborhoods of Rutherford, New Jersey. I did — because as a utterly idealistic college graduate, someone whose favorite books at the time were Meister Eckhart and Christian mysticism and pacifism — suddenly, I found myself in this bath of ignorance and stupidity and random violence. My first weeks there I met a young Navy medic who wanted to show me ears that he had collected in jars. It was like being a kid and someone wanted to show you his frog. He was real proud of this. He wanted to be friends. He wanted to show me something special that he had. And, you know, driving along a highway and seeing something lying out on the dusty road and it turned out to be a human head, God knows where from or how it got there. Moments like that streak across your psyche in a very real way. Yeah, I was aware of an American violence, and also it unleashed it in me as well. I got back from Vietnam and got in fistfight after fistfight. I never in my life picked fights. When I was a kid, I’d throw up if I saw a fistfight, I was so horrified by that kind of violence. But somehow, in Vietnam, pacifist though I was, I came back with a huge, huge anger towards the country at large, and that’s what I had to resolve, that’s what the hitchhiking was about. Finally, I got arrested for assault. It was very embarrassing. Here I was, a professor at Penn State, and there in the local newspaper, there was a headline, “Professor Beats Up….” [laughter] didn’t look good at all. But somehow having come close to being killed and having being around so many people who were, I had a sense of a real instruction in violence, and I think I must have held some kind of primitive resentment at the comfort of people my own age who escaped it, yet had violence done in their name every day, every night of that war. 

FV: Did that sensibility stay with you?

JB: It stayed with me a long time. I had this sense of invulnerability, physical invulnerability, for a long time, which I think maybe a lot of soldiers had too…they had been to Vietnam: what could they do to me? What can happen to me? Some of those fights were preposterous…going after somebody who had a knife and not hesitating. It’s crazy. Then gradually, common sense returned to me and I’ve been redomesticated in a way. But I had this sense of being something that went out and came back strange, and had to be re-introduced to the culture and that’s what the endl lines of that poem “Words for My Daughter” are about…

FV: “the helpless tribe”?

JB: Yes, “the helpless tribe,” which is a phrase I stole from William Meredith, he used it actually in a quite different context. He was talking about Robert Lowell, their working together on libretti, and Lowell was in one of his manic states and his language was becoming more and more preposterous and unwieldy, and Meredith was seeing this whole project go hopeless and at one point Lowell showed him a passage he had just written, and Meredith said to him, “Robert, I think you need to come a little closer to the language of the tribe.” And so the sense of our being a tribe, and having the habits of a tribe, seem to me appropriate in that poem anyway. So it’s the little girl that is the infant in the poem who is the passport for the speaker of that poem to come back home.

FV: Which brings us to this question of the antidote. Could you talk about the function of the place of innocence in your poetry? Many of your poems seem to search for a principle of innocence or wholeness, or some embodiment of it. There’s the daughter in the poem “Flying Home.” Sometimes that embodiment of innocence or wholeness seems to be found in the figure of a beloved or in recurring images of gardens or nature. What is innocence? Does it exist at all? And if it does, how does it survive in a time of violence? You know we were talking about Vietnam but your poetry makes it clear that the American obsession, commitment to violence, has extended well beyond that. 

JB: For us, it’s a quicker solution than it is, I think, to other societies. Right now, in the wake of September 11th, the debate about the war in Afghanistan — which I support — but also I know maybe as well as anyone what that means to say you support the war in Afghanistan because I’ve worked in the hospitals where the so-called “collateral damage” appears and you get to know the little girl whose arm is burned off and if she survives, she’s never going to lead a normal life again. You can look at the newspapers or hear the news and simply expand that notion and it becomes a horror, but then one weighs it against another horror and you’re in this strange kind of mathematics where you’re weighing horror on the one hand against horror on the other to try to come out with something that’s humane and rational. But against all that, against not just the American, but a general human willingness to mayhem and violence and to simple solution, there is, it seems to me, an abiding innocence and goodness in people that part of a poet’s function is to see. See and identify and recognize wherever it might occur, whether it occurs in one’s ordinary goings about, or wherever. I don’t know if that’s an answer…

FV: Yes…I’m wondering if at times it seems in your poetry that innocence is embodied, and at other times it seems as if your poetry pulls back from that and upholds innocence as an ideal that is poignantly elusive.

JB: “Poignantly elusive” doesn’t mean you can’t grasp it. If there’s a distinction to the violence in the poetry it is that it is an undeniable violence in that I’ve inculcated the reader with the imagery that they’re not going to forget, perhaps, and it’s important that the innocence and beauty that’s in ourselves hold out against that violence, so that it seems to me that it’s important to juxtapose the two. That in the poetry they both exist: it’s not a poem purely of gratuitous violence, like “Straw Dogs,” who filmed that”?

FV: Peckinpah

JB: Yes, Peckinpah. Well, I could see nothing redeemable; it was sort of a display and an indictment. So if there’s a display and an indictment in a good many of the poems, sometimes right up front, sometimes hovering in the background, there’s also something redeemable as well in human nature, I’d like to think.

FV: You used the word “antidote” which suggests a kind of counter-measure, perhaps even a prophylactic. For you poetry has that kind of potential?

JB: Well, yeah. There’s a poem in there, in Locusts at the Edge of Summer, called “Thinking of Chinese Poets” or something like that, and here we have in Tu Fu in the eighth century, a poet who despaired in poetry about the enduring value of poetry when societies fall apart and violence reigns. And yet no one remembers the emperor of his time, particularly. And those events have long since passed a thousand years, but that poem remains. The poem is a thousand years old and it’s been translated dozens and dozens of times into English, and that seems to me the enduring thing. It’s a perfect antidote. Even in the poem despairing of the power of poetry to be an antidote, the very existence of the poem is antidote, in evidence to the contrary. Vietnamese literary culture has been instruction to me for thirty years now. You think of what endures there and it’s not great monuments in stone, like Ankara Wat with their Khmer neighbors, it’s something much more delicate, but something actually which seems more enduring. The folk poetry, which has never been written down, an oral folk tradition which they’ve been singing for two thousand years, that’s still going on…

The reed of poetry, as it were…

JB: Yes. 

FV: Part I of Locusts at the Edge of Summer is titled after Nabokov’s memoir, Speak Memory. It seems as if it is partly a dialogue with different ghosts. Of course, the ghosts of memory, the ghosts of friends who died in Vietnam, the ghosts of the past generally. I mean “ghosts” literally, not just as metaphors. In other words, it’s possible to think of the kinds of relationships you had with individuals or events as continuing past the life of those individuals, or even past the temporal dimension of that time and place. How do you consort with those ghosts now?

JB: We stay the same. That’s the strange thing about ghosts. My friend John Steinbeck, there’s a poem in that first section about him. He will always remain forty-eight years old, because that’s how old he was when he died. All those people will remain that way. But you yourself, the person remembering, moves on. I suppose those poems are always — this must always go on with the memory of people you are fond of who are gone and will never return — you’re always remembering the distance. Remembering them as they were. But they don’t seem to change. And then you do. And there’s this increasing distance over the years and years. And then as your thoughts return to them, you realize how powerful forces they are when your mind returns to them. I think that’s why you speak memory. Nabokov has this sense, to go back to your Berger quote earlier, that to remember every detail of events that might have happened forty or fifty years ago even is to save those things from being extinguished forever, to keep the love of those people alive, and to keep therefore those people alive, so that’s the function, I think, of remembering people in poems. There’s that section, it’s notably the first in that book, I was looking at it just now, it’s a well-made book. I looked at it again and I noticed the epigraphs that I was using, that section ends with an epigraph from the Aneid: “Forsan et haec olim meminisse juvabit” where Aneas is saying to his crew after the Trojan War, and they’re thinking back on the war, he says “Someday, perhaps, it will help to remember these things.” He’s not even definite that it will help, but someday it may help to remember these things. And then the next section is called “Riding Westward, which is a section, a kind of journal in poetry, of those years, quite a number of them actually where I returned mentally to the country and traveled a great deal and re-introduced myself to my countrymen. And there’s an epigraph from John Donne’s Good Friday poem called “Riding Westward,” which is obviously what I was doing, riding westward, he was too, and he was doing it on Good Friday, a day of solemnity and a day in which a spiritual intercessor might return, or appear at any rate. “Hence, is’t, that I am carryed towards the West/This day, when my Soules forme bends toward the East.” There’s this punning in that for me, since my soul’s form’s been bending toward the east ever since the Vietnam War. But then there all these poems that are filled with the oddities and eccentricities of Americans and also the absolute beauty of the place that we’re lucky to live in. Then the third section is called “The New World Order,” obviously a section in progress. It begins with a poem called “Viewing the New World Order” and I was struck by the Bush Sr. administration coining that phrase; I don’t know why but it strikes me as a dangerous phrase for them to have latched upon, but they did, and there were always trying to figure out what it meant, and I guess we still are trying to figure out what it meant. One superpower has since emerged as the dominant force in the world, what else falls in or out of place. And I guess now we’re having a bitter sense of that. 

FV: So for you poetry is a testament, as elegy, as eulogy, an evaluation: I took from that title “the new world order” a kind of irony that Bush Sr. probably didn’t intend.

JB: Right. Peggy Noonan, or whoever wrote the phrase for him…but it’s also a re-assessment of yourself, especially in those poems about dead people that you are fond of that are gone. It re-instructs you in who you are yourself. And I had friends who simply knew more about music than I ever could ever on my own and would say, “you got to listen to this,” and I’d listen to it, but really wonderful music. Steinbeck was a great friend in that way. He had this wonderful ear for contemporary jazz, for instance, and New Age music — things I would’ve never have heard of otherwise. He hung out with musicians and I don’t think it was an accident for him: his mother was a nightclub singer and he must have had a good ear for it. Once you get past your twenties the thought of having a real good friend that you can do things with retreats. That just doesn’t happen as much. One is taken up by earning a living, by your family, and there simply isn’t as much time to go off on adventures and become great pals with somebody the way there once was. And also your recklessness is diminished as well; it would be really unlikely for me to take to the highway now, hitchhiking across the United States. Once when I was newly married I had my wife’s trepidations to contend with, but on the other hand she’s a brave soul herself, and she dropped me off on Route 80 in Pennsylvania. I think I was still on crutches at the time –not a great way to hitchhike across the US so you’re putting yourself at the mercy of the place because I couldn’t even run if I had to run. But now I have a daughter; I couldn’t think of endangering myself because I worry about her. I don’t make friends anymore like those friends I had thirty years ago that’s over, and they’re disappearing…[laughter] I don’t see how you’re going to make this into an interview!

FV: I’m using the word “ghosts” not in the spooky, or supernatural — but almost in the honorific — sense: how have they changed or made your poetry what it is?

JB: One thing they did: they kept me from fully believing I belonged at a university and reduced whatever academic component might have entered into my psyche. Because all those friendships occurred outside the university for the most part, I guess for all of them. They occurred in extreme situations where the worth of a friend, the true horror a friend, just shone out. Or somebody just flamed out, and you never wanted anything to do with him again. But that was the case with most of these people. I think soldiers have this sense too — people that they risk their lives with — those people stay very, very close. 

FV: There’s a sense for me in Michael Herrr’s Dispatches that Dispatches couldn’t have had the idiom that it has without the kinds of interactions that Herr had with soldiers in particular, but others as well. I’m wondering about the idiom of your poetry, and maybe this isn’t the case, maybe those ghosts haven’t inflected your idiom, I don’t know…

JB: What do you mean?

FV: Well, ways of speaking, sense of music, sense of voice — have those voices insinuated themselves at all into your work? 

JB: That’s because of my prior-to-Vietnam education, my love of poetry, of music, and not having much interest in a poetry of declamation, on the other hand, there’s a poetry of straight speech that’s accessible that interests me as well, storytelling as well. Hovering in all those lines is an iambic tetrameter somewhere: there’s some metrical form that I’d like the poems, if not to express, then at least to echo…

FV: Ghosts of an iambic?

JB: Ghosts of an iambic. I don’t know about idiom. The idiom that I ascribe to in poetry is probably that of William Carlos Williams, where there’s a standard American speech that he seems to embody in poetry. I mean he’s deceptive about that because he’s very, very clever about choosing the most ordinary words, but in fact choosing the most perfect, ordinary words so that’s something extraordinary. 

FV: In rereading Locusts at the Edge of Summer I was struck by a number of poems that were “found” poems, like “Story” — or nearly “found” ones — like your translations of Vietnamese poems, proverbs, folk sayings, and so on. What is your attraction to this genre, if we want to think of genre in this way? Does it say anything about your aesthetics that you’re working in that vein? 

JB: I’m trying to think: there’s a passage in John Barth’s work, it may be in Floating Opera or Lost in the Funhouse where the character observes that the world ” winks at us with significance.” I think found poems are like that. There’s a huge amount of irony where you think that you’ve found something already made perfect, as if it were some part of a bracelet or something that fell off on the ground and you found the stone. I think the first one I found like this was found in a typewriter. A Vietnamese prostitute had visited a friends’ place in Saigon — this was during the war — we were both looking for him and he wasn’ t there. He lived in this place where it was pointless to lock your door because someone could break in anyway, so he just left his door open all the time and he had his typewriter there and she was fascinated and she was bored and got fascinated by the typewriter (she probably never seen one before ) and she wrote this very funny poem, inadvertently. And I came in and I found the poem, so I took the poem out of the typewriter, and it strikes me every now and then that nature winks at you with significance and you find these things. And then there’s some things where, as in that poem called “Story,” where you’re really repeating something that you heard and you hope that that’s the attractiveness of it, that it sounds like something taken right off the street, in a space taken right out of a conversation in a car, as well as hitch-hiking across the US. There’s some subterfuge, fictional subterfuge in the telling it, but everything that’s in quotes, with the huge, three-hundred pound driver talks to the person telling the poem, I think those are true quotes, I think I tried to keep that right. And I even thought of sending that to him after the poem was printed but he was such a strange creature and his talk about money was so consistent that I thought he’d ask me for money and wouldn’t understand the world of poetry and not know that there’s no money in this enterprise whatsoever, but think that somehow since I used his story I owed him some money so I never sent him the poem. Cowardly act. But if you could, I guess this would be the aesthetic principle, that you would hope for, that if you were a truly realized human, and if you really could see the world around you in a lyric way all the time, that everything would be a found poem, and all you had to do would be to take note of it, take a kind of dictation, as it were. But, of course, that’s not really true, at least not for my state of realization. 

FV: I was struck by that tension in your work between poems that seemed to me embedded in the Romantic tradition, or at least have a foot in the Romantic tradition, where the poet is the seer and the creator, and these found poems which suggest that meaning is already there, and you just uncover it.

JB: Well there are two poets who influenced me a lot when I was starting out, and that was William Carlos Williams and Robert Lowell. And so you can see one, a jeremiah, not exactly Shelley, in his instincts about construction and prophecy and the role of the poet, and the other, you picture someone going out accidentally with a Polaroid box camera and taking pictures and finding satisfaction in that. Both of them were strong influences. Both of them have truthful ways of gathering poems.

FV: Could I turn our discussion to Spring Essence? You just mentioned William Carlos Williams, which is fortuitous because I was going to mention him. Locusts at the Edge of Summer won the William Carlos Williams Award. It seems to me that there’s a stronger line of filiation between William Carlos Williams and Spring Essence than a lot of the poems in Locusts at the Edge of Summer. Could these eighteenth-century Vietnamese poems have been written, in the way that you’ve done, without William Carlos Williams? They seem to me to have the restraint and fastidiousness of imagistic poetry…

JB: They are imagistic, but it’s a kind of second locution in that Williams got his interest in the power of the image, as we all know, from his instruction from Ezra Pound, who got those instructions initially from Ernest Fenellosa, who got those instructions from Japan, which got its instructions in the power of the image in its use in poetry from China. Which is where Ho Xuan Hu’o’ng gets her instruction as well, so you know finally I think the first Pound translation that had great power was that river merchant’s wife poem, after Rihaku. Pound’s first stage of knowing about Chinese poetry was the name; he didn’t know that that was simply the Japanese transliteration of Li T’ai Po. For Ho Xuan Hu’o’ng, this Vietnamese woman I’ve been translating, the origin of her prosodic instruction is in the same period as Li Po, but with his slightly younger contemporary, Tu Fu, who favored the regulated verse form more. And that form became the great classical tradition for East Asia, moving into Korea, into Vietnam, in Japan as well. And Vietnamese poets are writing in that lu shi ,or “regulated verse” tradition that was made classical by Tu Fu as late as 1920. I think the last great practitioner was then. That tradition is a tradition is a tradition of telling things through pictures: “no ideas but in things” Williams would say, and the Vietnamese would concur. It was an instruction they took essentially from the same place that Williams indirectly took his. 

FV: You choose to write these poems in couplets. In looking at virtually any page of Spring Essence you can see the ideographs of the Nôm script. Knowing nothing about Nôm script, it still looks as if these columns are organized along a model of the column, although the column is vertical. Were you attempting to create, or recreate, some of the symmetry of that columnar form in a horizontal axis in writing these poems in couplets?

JB: I think you’re right that that’s an effect of putting them in couplets, but in the original, they actually progress, thematically, couplet by couplet, and if you’re translating them, you have a choice of replicating their appearance in the original, or trying to in English, and that would mean, simply, that you have an eight-line poem, seven syllables to every line, if you’re really absolutely strict about it. Eight lines goes by awfully quickly in English; I think the actual reading of the characters slows down the process for the reader who’s reading the calligraphy. So what I wanted to do, and I worried about this –and I asked another translator, Sam Hammill, who has lots of experience in translating the lu shi form — I said I’m thinking of breaking these into couplets and he said, “oh yeah, lots of people have done that” and he said, for the very reason that I was worried about it, he said a lot of people have done it because it slows it down a bit and in any case, the poems in the original in Chinese — he said I don’t know about the Vietnamese — move by two-line progressions in any case. And then the result is that it kind of mirrors — visually — the structure of the original as well, so it has that fortuitous attribute as well. 

FV: Much of your poetry before Spring Essence, not all it, but much of it, is a poetry of mass. Here, as we’ve seen, you’re writing in a couplet form. Do you write poetry differently now as a result of translating Ho Xuan Hu’o’ng?

JB: What do you mean by a “poetry of mass”?

FV: Well, if you look at the actual form of the poems in Locusts you haven’t favored couplet forms with space between the lines; it’s a poetry that’s massed on the page, so I’m wondering about the possible effects of this on your own writing as a result of this translation. 

JB: In my own writing there’s a sense of universals in poetry that I might not have had otherwise. The things that were latched on to by the early Imagist poets because of their exposure to Asian poetries, I think are universal things that are important to poetry and the way that it works. Given the fashion of the day, I think I might have drifted into a more abstractly argued poetry, where philosophical concerns might have been taken on — a more abstract diction — had I not run into that poetry in Vietnam, not just the written poetry, but also the oral, folk poetry which strikes you even more as a poetry of pure discourse, never written down, yet it moves by progression or suggestion of images and their symbolic values. So that, I think, has had an effect on me and in some cases I’ve tried to imitate some forms. Vietnamese, for instance, love palindromes and they go on quite amazingly. They’ll be a poem that’s a lu shih with all the rules –eight lines, seven syllables — the lines rhyme on the first, second, fourth, sixth and eighth lines, syntactic parallel structures in the middle four — and yet, you can get to the last syllable and read the poem backwards and get a different poem. Some of them are so extraordinary: a lu shih when you start backwards from the left syllable, it changes language and becomes a poem in Chinese. You can do that because of borrowing habits of the Vietnamese. So I tried a palindrome: there’s a poem called “Palindrome for Clyde Coreil in Saigon.” So there has been influence, but most of my poems, I suspect at this point, after this new and selected [book], puts a kind of career more visibly in front of me. They’re narrative: they tell a lot of stories, and so they will probably continue to be, as you say, massed on the page, until the story comes to an end. Lyric poems moving along with full confidence that images are still the most powerful connective: you can reach more deeply into a perfect stranger’s mind by concrete imagistic phrasing than you can by abstract assertion. 

FV: Maybe your interest in found poems is related to your exposure to these Vietnamese traditions…Spring Essence is apparently one of the best-selling — the best-selling? — collections of poetry in the US right now?

JB: It was; it’s been alive now for a full year and it’s sold to date, 16,000 copies, which is a lot for poetry. I’m sure there are books of poetry that have sold better. I wonder about Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf and books like that. But I don’t know. It certainly surprised everyone, including me. Here’s a Vietnamese woman dead for two hundred years and she is on these poetry best-seller lists from places like Book Sense and Barnes and Noble, Library Journal, right up there in the top 10, including all books translated and written originally in English this past year, so that was a delightful surprise. I think she is in fact a world-class poet. I think her very existence is so startling — not to mention what she writes, the audacious way she writes about her world, seems very much alive today. 

FV: Is that how you would explain its success — the way it’s struck such a chord in the US

JB: I’ve thought about it a lot and I don’t really know the answer. Yeah, I think so. I’d hear these stories from people that I would not have heard from otherwise; someone, I think at the Smithsonian wrote to me and said that a friend of hers had urged her to read Spring Essence, not knowing that she knew me, or that she knew the book well. And she said the interesting thing is that this person never reads poetry and has no interest in Vietnam whatsoever. But there was something about the woman and the poetry she wrote which was exciting. A surprising biographical figure taking on the world in a way that we thought only contemporaries could, and here she’s doing it around 1800, under far more threatening conditions, conditions that would have caused her loss of life if she had played things badly. Her husband, in fact, was beheaded, so political reprisal for her indecency and audacity were ready at hand. So I think that excites people. And I think they’re good translations [laughter]. To some people, some curiosity has to do with the Vietnam War and here we see evidence of a Vietnam well beyond the war, further back in history, than even American consciousness could have of Vietnam. Our country was barely formed when she was writing her poetry. But I hear wonderful stories: someone was telling me she had a relative who took off years ago, and just sails around the world in a sailboat. She said people like that have bookbags, dufflebags full of books they read while they’re gone for long stretches, and they often drop them out on docks and he was in the Marquesian Islands and he was trading books — and this was less than a month after Spring Essence came out — a month after it came out it was being traded. So it’s had a success that’s been surprisingly strong. 

FV: I’m wondering, too, if a water-color lyricism and a salaciousness…

JB: That’s a great way to put it…

FV: …is at work [in its success]? I can’t think of too many contemporary poets who combine both.

JB: No…someone asked me, “who is she like”? And I was thinking, well she’s like Sappho and Anne Sexton [laughter]. And maybe Emily Dickinson as well. There’s this combination of surface and the salacious: everyone of her poems is a double-entendre, and part of her seduction of the reader, and her trickery of the reader, is to paint this absolutely beautiful [world] as if done with delicate colors on a silk landscape — and then reveal something else beneath it. 

FV: In Anne Sexton you get the frankness and you get a sense of despair…

JB: Yes, there’s no pastoral beauty that ever appears. Brilliant insights from an incandescent mind — that’s the power of her poetry and also the prosodic control that she had from the very beginning, even maybe more so in the beginning, although I think those last poems like “The Transformation” poems are great. And Sappho, I guess, the delicacy about sexual matters…although [laughter], in fact, Ho Xuan Hu’o’ng isn’t very delicate, once you realize what she’s talking about, in her second meaning, it’s shocking. When she’s talking about eating a snail; when she refers to tail in Vietnamese, it’s actually more obscene than the way I translated it. I think my last line is: “Take care not to poke up into my tail.” In Vietnamese, it’s “asshole” — “Take care not to poke into my asshole.” When she’s using noi lai, or tonal echo with a pun implied in it, some of it’s just downright obscene. 

FV: So what led you to make those somewhat more delicate choices? 

JB: Well you wanted to be as rough on the English ear as she was on the Vietnamese ear — and if you said “asshole” in English…

FV: It would sound like Bukowski or something?

JB: Yeah; it wouldn’t sound like her. In fact, she’s being clever at the moment she’s saying that because there’s a lot of other things happening around it to soften the shock of what she’s talking about — including that water-color beauty that is in the poems as well. She never says anything directly to the reader; it’s always by indirection. You often get the vulgarity, which is intended, but by tonal implications. For instance, she can use the word deo, which is a cliff face, and there’s one poem about three cliff faces coming together, and she knows that the Vietnamese listener will immediately be aware that if you change the tone on deo to deo, a high-rising tone, that it means to have intercourse. So she says in the first line of one poem “a cliff face, another and still a third.” But she’s really saying, one fuck, another and still another. 
But if you translated it that way, it would be…

FV: Too one-dimensional?

JB: It would be too one-dimensional. Translating her, and this is a sign of her skill, I think. Vietnamese do that. Vietnamese themselves may try to translate her: either [they] become obscene or you never become aware of the sexual innuendo at all. 

FV: Spring Essence is inflected with Buddhist beliefs — or her version of them. Has Buddhism influenced your poetry at all?

JB: Yeah, more than anything I brought back from Vietnam, a Buddhist sense of things. So absolutely. She is actually very mainstream in her Buddhist beliefs. I think if you don’t pay attention to them, then you’re reading her purely for dirty laughs, but when you understand that there’s a Mahayana concern in those poems, it changes their value, I think, and their usage, their cultural usage. There’s a poem, the very last one in the book, where she’s talking about…there’s a tonal echo; she’s punning on the word for “dust”, ai, and she changes the tone to ai [high-rising tone], gentleness or love, and so she’s saying something out of this one syllable. It’s really brilliant. The notion of the samsaric world, the world of beautiful change, where nothing remains permanent, is the world — in conventional phrasing — of worldly dust. Here she has the syllable which says “dust” but if you change the tone on it, it means “love.” So immediately, the samsaric world, if you look at it in a different way, becomes a world of compassion. And I think that in fact is the instruction that is underlying the poem. A good deal of — I hate to use the word feminist — but I think it applies (obviously, she’s two hundred years before the term and living in a different cultural sphere), but at least female rage at the essential decay and destruction in society in male hands. And she’s playing a male game in her poetry, but she’s better at it, she must have been very conscious of how much better at it she was than most of the men who were writing poetry in her time in a culture which apprised the writing of poetry as the fullest sign of strong character. So here, by all cultural standards, she would’ve been at the top of the culture, yet, she was a concubine, even though she was an aristocrat. 

FV: Alongside that sense of compassion and tolerance, perhaps what you also get from her assimilation from Buddhism is a willingness to call the thing what it is, to identify it straight on; that too, perhaps, plays into the erotic — or scatological — elements of her poetry.

JB: Yeah, there’s no romanticism about sex in her poetry. There’s a hunger for something the Vietnamese call duyan, a very romantic notion of love. She’s always looking for that moment where worldly dust is transcended into something greater in love, in corporeal love as well. But she’s very, very plain about what it is. 

FV: In my last question, let me ask you to jump forward from eighteenth-century Vietnam to twenty-first century America. I’d just be interested in getting your impressions of contemporary poetry. How do you see contemporary American poetry?

JB: Oooooooh [laughter]. You can get that “oh” in my comment. I don’t say it’s not interesting, because some of it really is. I heard Galway Kinnell. He’s as good as ever, if not better. There’s a gentleness that seems to have come into his poetry. Last night, Alan Dugan won the National Book Award for poetry and I was delighted to hear that. The philosophizing that has sort of crept in, with all the obscurantism that we associate with philosophy when we took it in college, I don’t know where all that will lead, finally. Maybe lead somewhere interesting. A kind of self-reflexive poem where the poet thinks his or her duty is to really record what happened just then, and record it to the world — that seems less and less interesting to me. You could easily go, as some people do, making fun of M.F.A. programs, when in fact they seem more and more the haven for words, for savored words. So I have my skepticism about them as well, still, I think they have a place of value in this culture where at the very, very beginning the place of poetry was tenuous. If you go back as far as 1772, there was this wonderful valediction speech by Philip Freneau, the so-called “poet of the American Revolution” gave and he was talking to his classmates upon graduating from Princeton, and he suggested that poetry would never have strong roots here in America and it would be far better to go be “an honest carpenter or sail to the Caribbean,” work the trades, because it would be a hopeless thing to try to become a poet in America. This was an America that didn’t even exist as a country yet. You know, we were talking happily about 16,000 copies sold of this book in one year; that’s not even a good print run for a nonfiction book. That would be a failure for most novels, I suppose. But poetry has its readers, and as I travel the country reading, I’m surprised by how wonderful they are, and how widely they are dispersed across these “colonies,” but there are just too few of them. It just strikes me as a dangerous weakness. I mean this in a political sense. When Confucius was asked what he would do if he were given a country to rule, control and manage, he said “correct language.” His disciple, who had asked him the question, thought he had misunderstood him, and he repeated it. Confucius supposedly said, “Pay attention. When a gentleman hears something he doesn’t quite understand, he maintains an attitude of reserve.” Then he went into a long disquisition on how if what is meant is not said, and what is to be effected can’t be accomplished, and he then went into this connection that if this happens and that happens, or doesn’t happen, then society generally falls apart. And I think poetry exists — the best words in the best order — I think if we lose our communication with each other at that level, we’ve lost all the lower levels as well — political discourse, the terribleness of the reporting that goes on in the news now, the emptiness of it. We’ve gone from Gary Condit and Chandra Levy to the World Trade Center destruction and the same kind of speech habits, along with a good deal of jingoism and sentimentality, seem to be the only thing that newscasters are capable of reaching. Or, if they’re capable of more themselves, which they assume that the American public can’t embrace… maybe it’s true, but if it’s true, we really are in trouble. But I hold out that it’s not true. That’s why I write. 

FV: John Balaban, thank you.

JB: Thanks.

Interview by Jon Thompson