Interviews | June 19, 2020

John Balaban is the author of thirteen books of poetry and prose, including four volumes that together have won the Academy of American Poets’ Lamont prize, a National Poetry Series Selection, and two nominations for the National Book Award. His Locusts at the Edge of Summer: New and Selected Poems won the 1998 William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America. In 2003, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 2005, he was a judge for the National Book Awards. His new book of poetry is Empires (Copper Canyon Press, 2019). In addition to writing poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, he is a translator of Vietnamese poetry and a past president of the American Literary Translators Association. In 1999, with two Vietnamese friends, he founded the Vietnamese Nôm Preservation Foundation. In 2008, he was awarded a medal from the Ministry of Culture of Vietnam for his translations of poetry and his leadership in the restoration of the ancient text collection at the National Library. This interview took place in October, 2019, at John’s home in Cary, North Carolina, and a month later in November during the Miami Book Fair. 

Joe Walpole: Your most recent book of poems, Empires, is very much concerned with the decline of what we may call the American empire. Is it a departure, a new direction, from your previous work?

John Balaban: The scope is different, but the direction has always been there. I’ve always been more interested in public issues than in personal complaint. What’s different in this book is that in the first part, the issues are largely global and cultural regarding the rise and fall of empires and those moments where a shift occurs that might not be perceptible at first, but nonetheless the change is complete and done. Sometimes the shift happens and we don’t know it. Other times, like the World Trade Center bombing, we know right away that something’s changed in our lives forever. And these things have gone on not just recently but ever since humans built empires. Empires have a youth and vitality to them and they have a maturity and then they start to decay. My notion is that ours is in that period of decay.

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