Balaban, John B. 1943–
Balaban, John B. 1943–
Born December 2, 1943, in Philadelphia, PA; son of Phillip and Alice Balaban; married Lana Flanagan (a teacher), November 27, 1970; children: Tally (daughter). Education: Pennsylvania State University, B.A. (with highest honors), 1966; Harvard University, A.M., 1967.
Pennsylvania State University, University Park, instructor, 1970-73, assistant professor, 1973-76, associate professor, 1976-82, professor of English 1982-92; University of Miami, Miami, FL, professor of English and director of Master of Fine Arts Program, beginning 1992; North Carolina State University, Raleigh, currently professor of English and poet in residence. Fulbright senior lecturer in Romania, 1976-77; Fulbright Distinguished Visiting Professor in Romania, 1978. Has given poetry readings at colleges and universities throughout the United States and abroad, as well as on radio programs. Member of board of directors, Columbia University Translation Center, 1981—. Poetry judge for Academy of American Poets, 1978—, Pennsylvania Counci of the Arts, 1979, Poetry Society of America, 1980, and National Book Award, 2005. Military service: Instructor in literature and descriptive linguistics, International Voluntary Services, University of Can Tho, South Vietnam, 1967-68, and field representative, Committee of Responsibility to Save War-Injured Children, 1968-69, as alternative to military service.
PEN American Center, Association of Asian Scholars, Association of Literary Translators, Poetry Society of America, Vietnamese Nom Preservation Foundation (president, 1999).
Woodrow Wilson fellowship from Harvard University, 1966-67; Chris Award at Columbus Film Festival, 1969, for Children of an Evil Hour; Fulbright-Hays travel grant to Vietnam, 1971-72; National Endowment for the Humanities Younger Humanist Fellowship, 1972; Pennsylvania State University Faculty Research fellowships, 1974, 1977, 1984, and 1986; PEN American Center and Columbia University Translation fellowship, 1974; Lamont Award, Academy of American Poets, 1974, and National Book Award for poetry nomination, 1975, both for After Our War; Translation Award from Columbia University Translation Center, 1977; National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, 1978 and 1985; Steaua Prize from Romanian Writers' Union, 1978; National Endowment for the Humanities grant, 1980; Vaptsarov Medal from Union of Bulgarian Writers, 1980; Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Creative Writing fellowship, 1983-84; 2001-04 National Artist, Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society; William Carlos Williams Award, Poetry Society of America, 1998, for Locusts at the Edge of Summer: New and Selected Poems; John Simon Guggenheim fellowship, 2003.
Children of an Evil Hour (film), Committee of Responsibility Inc., 1969.
Vietnam Poems (chapbook), Carcanet (South Hinksey, England), 1970.
(Editor and translator) Vietnamese Folk Poetry, Unicorn Press (Greensboro, NC), 1974.
After Our War (poems), University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1974.
Letters from across the Sea/Scrisori de Peste Mare, Dacia Press (Cluj, Romania), 1978.
(Editor and translator) Ca Dao Vietnam: A Bilingual Anthology of Vietnamese Folk Poetry, Unicorn Press (London, England), 1980.
Blue Mountain (poems), Unicorn Press (London, England), 1982.
The Hawk's Tale (juvenile), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1988.
(With Geoffrey Clifford) Vietnam: The Land We Never Knew, Chronicle (San Francisco, CA), 1989.
Words for My Daughter, Copper Canyon Press (Port Townsend, WA), 1991.
Remembering Heaven's Face: A Moral Witness in Vietnam, Poseidon (New York, NY), 1991, published as Remembering Heaven's Face: A Story of Rescue in Wartime Vietnam, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 2002.
(Editor, with Nguyen Qui Duc) Vietnam: A Traveler's Literary Companion, Whereabouts Press (Berkeley, CA), 1996.
Locusts at the Edge of Summer: New and Selected Poems (poems), Copper Canyon Press (Port Townsend, WA), 1997.
(Editor and translator) Spring Essence: The Poetry of Ho Xuân Huong, Copper Canyon Press (Port Townsend, WA), 2000.
(Translator) Vietnamese Folk Poetry, Copper Canyon Press (Port Townsend, WA), 2003.
Path, Crooked Path, Copper Canyon Press (Port Townsend, WA), 2006.
Contributor to several poetry anthologies. Contributor of poems, translations, and reviews to periodicals, including Sewanee Review, New England Review, Southern Review, Nation, Poetry Now, College English, Translation Review, America Scholar, New York Times, Ploughshares, Triquarterly, Harper's, New York Review of Books, the Atlantic, and Life.
Ca Dao Vietnam: A Bilingual Anthology of Vietnamese Folk Poetry was filmed as Ca Dao Vietnam: Vietnamese Folk Poetry in 1982.
John B. Balaban draws upon his experiences as a conscientious objector who worked in Vietnam as a university instructor and hospital field representative to write nonfiction, fiction and poetry. As Ronald Baughman explained in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "Balaban's central subjects and themes emanate from his moral belief in taking decisive action to oppose human violence, particularly war."
Balaban's poetic work includes original poems and translations of Vietnamese folk poetry. His original work often revolves around his beliefs about American violence and is centered on the Vietnam War of three decades ago. In his memoir, Remembering Heaven's Face, Balaban described his own perspective to be "a moral witness in Vietnam," a perspective he maintains throughout his written work. The collection Ca Dao Vietnam: A Bilingual Anthology of Vietnamese Folk Poetry gathers together examples of a Vietnamese oral poetic tradition that stretches back several centuries. "I saw collecting these poems and translating them as the only sensible political act I could perform," Balaban explained in Remembering Heaven's Face.
Speaking of Balaban's first collection of poems, After Our War, Baughman noted that the poet "employs classical allusions to demonstrate the corruption of contemporary figures compared to their more heroic, classical models." One of Balaban's images, Baughman wrote, is of four "American generals on horseback who, like the biblical Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, personify the evils of war." In a more recent collection, Locusts at the Edge of Summer: New and Selected Poems, Balaban finds America to be a land of violence in which, "Late at night, when radio waves skip across States, / you can hear ricochets from Maine to L.A."
Balaban's skill as a poet, dexterity with language, and familiarity with South-East Asia all contribute to making his first novel, Coming down Again, a success. The novel, an adventure story set in Vietnam toward the conclusion of U.S. involvement in the war there, tells of two Americans who are captured by a warlord for smuggling hashish, and the efforts of their friend John Lacey to free them. Lacey's "personal creed of moral action," noted Baughman, "leads him to rescue his friends and their bisexual Vietnamese lover, Mai. With the aid of a mountain warlord, Lacey engineers a prison break." The book was praised by a New Yorker reviewer, who called it "a Conradian novel, with a Conradian theme of integrity, a novel rich in language of action and of description." In the Birmingham News Philip D. Beidler also called Coming Down Again "Conradian" and applauded Balaban's vivid depiction of the novel's setting. "The novel is alive with the strange, garish beauty of the landscape," he wrote. "The air is dense with the smells, the sounds, and, perhaps most arrestingly of all … the language." Los Angeles Times contributor Douglas Sun commented favorably on the "unusual evocative power" of Balaban's prose.
"Balaban was introduced to the work of the late-eighteenth-century woman poet, Ho Xuân Huong, while recording folk poetry in the Mekong Delta," Donna Seaman revealed in her interview with the poet and translator. Xuân Huong was an aristocratic concubine. Her writings have won her the reputation as the premier female poet of the Vietnamese language. "Astonished by her ‘exquisite cleverness,’ audacity, and political acumen," Seaman explained, Balaban "spent years researching her life and translating her provocative poems, a sustained effort that has resulted in the groundbreaking volume, Spring Essence: The Poetry of Ho Xuân Huong."
Xuân Huong's poems—made accessible through Balaban's translations—are important additions to world literature, declared Camille-Yvette Welsch in Foreword magazine. "They have an elegant simplicity in wording and structure, a longing for things eternal, and the suggestion that this writing is merely part of an ongoing poetic conversation…. On the other hand, they also read powerfully as sexual poems, employing sensual double entendre." Since Vietnamese words can change meaning depending on context and inflection, the two meanings can coexist simultaneously. Her "nimble, teasing, sexy, and wise protestations and philosophical observations," Seaman stated in her Booklist review of the volume, are "manifest in poems that transcend time, geography, and culture with startling directness, relevance, and verve."
"Balaban's poetry and prose," Baughman concluded, "collectively form an important statement of one who is committed to clarifying, as best he can, the painful morass of the Vietnam War. His convictions about opposing the war led him to act with a moral purpose. Perhaps his most important act, however, is to inform his readers … of what he saw and did, to examine the worst possibilities, and yet, through an ongoing moral struggle, to achieve some measure of good."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Beidler, Philip D., Re-writing America: Vietnam Authors in Their Generation, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1991, pp. 145-205.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 120: American Poets since World War II, Third Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.
Jason, Philip K., editor, Fourteen Landing Zones: Approaches to Vietnam War Literature, University of Iowa Press (Iowa City, IA), 1991, pp. 49-66.
Birmingham News, July 28, 1985, Philip D. Beidler, review of Coming down Again.
Booklist, October 1, 2000, Donna Seaman, review of Spring Essence: The Poetry of Ho Xuân Huong, p. 313; May 1, 2006, Donna Seaman, review of Path, Crooked Path, p. 65.
Cortland Review, February, 2007, David Rigsbee, review of Path, Crooked Path.
Harvard Review, December, 2004, Kevin Bowen, review of Ca Dao Vietnam: Vietnamese Folk Poetry, p. 164.
Library Journal, February 15, 2006, Michael Kriesel, review of Path, Crooked Path, p. 119.
Los Angeles Times, August 9, 1985, Douglas Sun, review of Coming down Again.
New Yorker, August 26, 1985, review of Coming down Again.
Publishers Weekly, January 15, 1996, "Vietnam," p. 457; April 28, 1997, review of Locusts at the Edge of Summer: New and Selected Poems, p. 72; September 25, 2000, review of Spring Essence, p. 108.
Raleigh News and Observer, January 28, 2007, Peter Makuck, review of Path, Crooked Path.
Eclectica, http://www.eclectica.org/ (April 8, 2008), Gilbert Wesley Purdy, "Excursus."
Foreword, http://www.forewordmagazine.net/ (April 8, 2008), Camille-Yvette Welsch, review of Spring Essence.
Jacket, http://jacketmagazine.com/ (April 8, 2008), Gilbert Wesley Purdy, "We Redeem What We May."
John B. Balaban Home Page, http://www.johnbalaban.com/ (April 8, 2008), Donna Seaman, "A Conversation with John Balaban," and author profile.
New Pages, http://www.newpages.com/ (April 8, 2008), review of "Ca Dao Vietnam: A Bilingual Anthology of Vietnamese Folk Poetry."
Nom Foundation, http://nomfoundation.org/ (June 11, 2008), Nom Foundation Web site.
North Carolina State University, English Department Web site, http://english.chass.ncsu.edu/ (April 8, 2008), author profile.
Public Broadcasting Service Web site, http://www.pbs.org/ (April 8, 2008), Elizabeth Farnsworth, interview with John Balaban.