John Balaban is the author of thirteen books of poetry and prose, including four volumes that together have won the Academy of AmericanPoets’ 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 WilliamsAward from the Poetry Society of America. In 2003, he was awarded aGuggenheim Fellowship. In 2005, he was a judge for the National BookAwards. His new book of poetry is Empires (Copper Canyon Press, 2019).In addition to writing poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, he is a translator ofVietnamese poetry and a past president of the American Literary Translators Association. In 1999, with two Vietnamese friends, he founded theVietnamese Nôm Preservation Foundation. In 2008, he was awarded amedal from the Ministry of Culture of Vietnam for his translations ofpoetry and his leadership in the restoration of the ancient text collectionat 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 BookFair.
JOE WALPOLE: Your most recent book of poems, Empires, is very muchconcerned 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 beenthere. I’ve always been more interested in public issues than in personalcomplaint. 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 empiresand those moments where a shift occurs that might not be perceptible atfirst, but nonetheless the change is complete and done. Sometimes theshift happens and we don’t know it. Other times, like the World TradeCenter bombing, we know right away that something’s changed in ourlives forever. And these things have gone on not just recently but eversince 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. The grand days ofthe spread of the American empire—not that we ever thought of it necessarily as empire—are diminishing. That’s why the poem moves frommoments like that in America. There’s a poem in there about Christmas