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John Balaban

Poet for change


In the fall of 1971, a solitary young man walked the fields and rivers of Vietnam with his tape recorder. War raged around him, though he was not at war. At the end of each day, he asked fishermen and farmers a simple question, "Would you sing your favorite poem?"

He collected love laments, lullabies, riddles and melodies about birds, beasts, war and whiskey. This audio collection, Ca Dao Viet Nam, by John Balaban, has just been published by Copper Canyon Press. On the original tapes, a pagoda bell and mortar and rifle fire dot the background soundtrack as lone voices share an oral tradition.

A resident of Cary, Balaban is currently poet-in-residence at N.C. State University, where he speaks enthusiastically about teaching creative writing with Angela Davis-Gardener, John Kessel, and Wilton Barnhardt.

Balaban is an award-winning poet and translator, who is also currently researching a novel set in Romania, and translating a 3,254-line 19th-century classic Vietnamese poem. He was recently awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship.

I asked Balaban where he got his energy, and he laughs, "Energy. Wish I had more!" then proceeds to talk about yet another project of his, a foundation to preserve a 1,000-year-old Vietnamese script, and to make it available for libraries around the world and on the Internet. (See page nine for Balaban's Front Porch).

The Independent: The image of you walking the Vietnam countryside--tape recorder in hand--during wartime is very compelling. Those tapes are now treasures. What do you remember of those days?

John Balaban: I am still amazed that Vietnamese even talked to me. I must have seemed very peculiar if not threatening, alone in the countryside with my bookbag and tape recorder. I have often thought what would have resulted if a young Vietnamese had done the same thing during the war ... walked up to American farmhouses and asked people to recite their favorite poems.

What I remember most from those days was the kindness of the singers, the overwhelming beauty of the countryside, and of course the danger, for I was out there by myself, taking public buses to river towns, crossing branches of the Mekong by public ferry, and then by little skiffs, and then on foot. I was an easy mark, but no harm ever came to me.

It wasn't unusual at a ferry crossing to hear a voice start up in song somewhere in the distance. What I was hearing was the oral folk poetry known as ca dao--brief, lyric poems sung unaccompanied in a tradition more than a thousand years old.

While the war was still nattering on, I walked up to farmers and fishermen and women working old Singer pedal sewing machines, and asked them to sing their favorite poems into my tape recorder. It was the most fabulous year of my life. A whole cultural universe opened up to me in those sung poems.

What were you traveling with? What was in your bookbag? What were you listening to and reading in that fall of 1971?

I carried my passport, a bit of money, a little towel, my Sony tape recorder and a .38 Smith and Wesson that my brother had given me, and which I threw into the Saigon River a few days before I left. I was wearing a monk's outfit, my hair was down to my shoulders. Once when I was traveling on a big Vietnamese riverboat out on the Mekong, we were fired on by a U.S. Navy patrol boat and then boarded. I wasn't even recognized as American. When the sailors, nervous and with guns drawn, spotted me, they thought they had found one of the fabled Russian advisors to the Viet Cong. I gave the young sailor my passport, which disappointed him terribly.

That year, I was struggling to read Vietnamese literary and cultural criticism and I spent most of my time at that. I read almost nothing in English. Just Vietnamese and French. Every now and then I'd find a Newsweek. I was totally out of touch with the United States of America and the Western World in general.

I was stunned by the Rolling Stones who I first heard hitching a ride with GI's.

You've been an anti-war activist all your life, from being a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, to staging poetry protests against the war in Iraq. Will you talk about the evolution of your beliefs?

I have been against a number of wars, but not all. With some hesitation, I was for the first Gulf War and I supported our first war in the former Yugoslavia. So probably I am not entitled to wear the Activist Brigade Ribbon. I also was something of a failure as a pacifist. During the Tet Offensive, before I was wounded myself, I took up a machine gun to guard an operating room in a civilian hospital that was in the midst of a battle for the city.

When I was in college at the end of the '60s, it was hard to be a thinking person and not be burdened by the thousands of deaths, American and Vietnamese, wrought on our name by a policy that made less and less sense.

In Vietnam, I ended up as the field representative for the Committee of Responsibility To Save War Injured Children. The scenes that I witnessed in that hospital under siege--whole families ripped up by the razors of cluster bomb flechettes, children burned by white phosphorus--gave me a special perspective on going to war and on the acceptability of what we now call "collateral damage." More civilians were killed than combatants of either side, perhaps as many as two million civilians in South Vietnam alone.

Tell us about the Poets Against the War movement that you and Sam Hamill have waged. How's Laura Bush taking it?

Last February 12, there was supposed to be a convocation at the White House hosted by Mrs. Bush, "The White House Symposium on Poetry and the American Voice." You'll remember that this was the period of little public dissent and almost no debate in Congress about the looming war. Some White House staffer made the mistake of inviting Sam Hamill, the editor of Copper Canyon Press, and an ex-Marine, turned conscientious objector. Sam got his invitation and, overnight, organized Poets Against the War calling for submissions for a book of poetry on the subject and for readings against the war. Four days later, he had 1,800 submissions, including mine. News services from around the world were calling him up. Laura Bush's press secretary announced the event was cancelled. Poets across the USA held anti-war readings. As you know, we even had a sidewalk reading in Durham.

I think the lightning rod aspect of Sam's call surprised everyone. I don't know what Laura Bush thought of all this, probably dismay at her well-intentioned blunder. I always kind of liked her. How can one not like a librarian?

I'm a fan of librarians, too. Any future plans for a White House poetry celebration?

Not likely in this administration.

You're N.C. State's poet-in-residence. What's the first lesson you teach to your students?

I try to get them to listen and to see in a fresh way. What makes poetry pleasurably different from good prose is its distinctive rhythm, whether that rhythm is created by formal or free verse. After that, it's the immediacy of the image.

I ask students to read, to read, and read. Sometimes I mention the Six Principles of Hsieh Ho: Find the right rhythm, Paint the bones, Find the form, Apply color, Compose the scene, and Know tradition. EndBlock

Contributing Writer John Valentine can be reached at

Excerpt from: Highway 61
Summer was flooding the city highways
bathing sycamores below the savage tenements,
leafage flushed green, almost obscuring
the plastic grocery bags snagged in branch tops
flapping in the roadside wind, in the whine
of semis and buses and cars and vans
plastic shreds fluttering, prayer flags of the poor,

as rackety apartment ACs hummed an AUM chorus
in the June cement heat, and I sped by, heading out
once more for the heart of the heart of the country
rolling down Highway 61, heading West and South,
lighting out again, away from fanfare and drumbeats,
the couples holding hands in their slow motion leaps
from the skyscraper windows billowing smoke.

In midwestern farmlands rustling wheatcrowns,
spreading out with alfalfa and sorghum, sprouting corn,
I thought I was lost, in the crickets and songbirds,
but tire whine and bumper glare kept me on course
and when I picked up the soldier mugged in the bus station,
teeth kicked in, wallet taken, hitching back to base in Waco
to his tank repair unit readying for another Iraqi war
I knew I was on the right road, running like a lifeline
across the palm of America.

In Texas, I heard voices.
In the dead-ugly creosote basin of Midland-Odessa
where--all across the hot mesquite horizon--oil jockeys
pumped crude from the sandy wastes, and a billboard
boasted "Home of President and Mrs. George W. Bush."
I had a powerful urge to pee and pulled off the highway.
Taking my whiz at an Exxon, then gassing up again,
I looked around when I heard a voice calling "Help me."
Calling softly, "can you help me?" I looked around
and saw an elderly man in a battered Honda, door open,
big shoes planted on the greasy cement, looking at me.
"What do you need?" I asked, thinking maybe a few bucks,
but he wanted me to lift his legs into his little car.
Wooden legs, I could feel, heavy as cinder blocks.
"Where you headed?" I asked, as he turned the key,
but he just pointed his finger like a gun, said
"that way, down Highway 61."
That was enough for me.

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