I was born in Middletown, Connecticut, into a very unusual family. My father, Willis Barnstone, was a young professor at Wesleyan University at that time. When I was two, we left Connecticut to live in Spain on a Guggenheim Fellowship my father had been granted, and so my first spoken language was Spanish. After that year, we moved to Bloomington, Indiana, where my father took a job at Indiana University, where he stayed until his retirement.
Willis is the author of more than 70 books, of poetry, translation, literary criticism, biblical scholarship, memoir, and so on, and I grew up surrounded with his books. I believe that in a very real sense I grew up inside my father's mind. My walls were lined with Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, with Borges and Calvino, with James Wright and Paul Celan, with Freud and Sartre, and along with a healthy dose of pulp fiction, these were the books I browsed through and tried to read from a very young age. My mother, Elli Barnstone, is an artist who was among the first to convert the craft of batik into abstract and representational art. I grew up surrounded by her extraordinary batiks, some of which were mounted on wooden frames and lit from behind so that the wax glowed and illuminated the colors like stained glass. We spent our childhood painting, drawing, writing poems and stories, and playing in nature, both in Indiana and in Vermont, where we have a summer house in the Green Mountains outside of Brandon.
With this sort of cultural submersion, I suppose it is no surprise that my brother Robert became a Harvard-trained architect, painter and sculptor, and that my sister Aliki became a well-known poet, translator and literary critic. I suppose it is no surprise that I followed this path as well. What my strange and interesting family did for me was to give me a vision of what it was to have a life work, as well as a life, and to give me permission to pursue that life work, even at the expense of practical considerations. I knew that I had to have a career in the arts, and that I had to succeed at it, because my earliest models of whole human development were the artists, singers, architects and writers who filled our house with laughter and shook the floor with their dancing.
I returned to Middletown to go to college at Wesleyan University, where I stayed for two years. However, at the end of my second year I was already deeply in debt, had just broken up with my college sweetheart, and was deeply exhausted from the strain of a very intense semester's work, so I decided to take a year off of college and think things through. I spent the first summer studying Greek at the Hellenic American Union in Athens and the second summer studying Spanish at the Universidad de Menendez Pelayo, in Santander, Spain. During the year, I lived in my family home in Indiana and took a graduate workshop in literary translation that my father was teaching. Then, when my sister called me up from California and told me that I should transfer to the University of California at Santa Cruz, I did so, sight unseen. I moved to California in 1981, and have stayed there with some interruptions, ever since.
After I graduated from Santa Cruz, I floated for a while, trying to find a job with my English major, and working as a window washer, a factory worker in a granola factory, a data entry person, and a personal assistant at Pacific Telesis. Opportunity came in the form of a phone call from my father, who had been granted a Fulbright to China, but was depressed after a bad break-up. He wanted company in China, and asked me to come along for moral support. We lived together in the Friendship Hotel in Beijing for a year, from August 2004-August 2005, and taught together at the Beijing Foreign Studies University.
While in China, I got in touch with the underground Chinese poets, the Misty School of poets who were writing poetry influenced by western Modernism, poetry that went against the Maoist precepts of Social Realism and that celebrated emotion and subjectivity instead of politics and useful clarity. I befriended many of the experimental poets involved with the Beijing Spring, the Democracy Movement, and the Misty Poetry movement. Those intense, youthful encounters took on a more serious note when many of my friends found themselves to be writers-in-exile after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.
Though some of these writers, notably Bei Dao, have gone on to considerable literary fame, at the time they were struggling to survive, a struggle made more difficult because their poetry simply did not exist in the languages of their exile. Therefore, when I returned to the United States, and while working on my MA in Creative Writing and Ph.D. in English at U.C.Berkeley, I went to work on a book to promote their poetry in English, which was published by Wesleyan University Press as Out of the Howling Storm: The New Chinese Poetry (1993). I have continued to champion their work in the textbooks, anthologies, articles and book reviews that I have edited and/or authored. My other books of translation are The Art of Writing: Teachings of the Chinese Masters (1996), Chinese Erotic Poems (2007) and The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry (2005). The latter project is a translation of the major poems from the entire tradition of Chinese poetry over a 3000 year period, and it is the culmination of my work in Chinese over the last 22 years.
I have been very active in the field of world literature over the last two decades as a teacher, translator, critic, anthologist and writer of textbooks. I am the editor or co-editor of several world literature textbooks, including The Literatures of Asia (Prentice Hall, 2002); The Literatures of the Middle East (Prentice Hall, 2002); and The Literatures of Asia, Africa, and Latin America from Antiquity to Now (Prentice Hall, 1998). As a writer seeking to expand my craft and vision, I have chosen to live overseas (in China, Africa, and Greece), and I have used translation as a means to make the larger world intimate and to open the geography of my literary imagination. Today, my work is influenced as deeply by Chinese parallelism as by Western accentual-syllabic verse, by the rhetoric and imagery of the Arabic, Urdu and Persian ghazal as by that of the sonnet. My work has been translated into Arabic and Chinese and is currently being translated into German and Kannada.
My primary work, however, is my poetry. I have published four books of poems, Impure (University Press of Florida, 1999), Sad Jazz: Sonnets (Sheep Meadow Press, 2005), The Golem of Los Angeles (winner, Benjamin Saltman Award in Poetry, Red Hen Press, 2008), and Tongue of War: From Pearl Harbor to Nagasaki(winner, the John Ciardi Prize in Poetry, BKMK Press, 2009).
Currently, I am The Albert Upton Professor of English and Chair of English at Whittier College, where I founded the Creative Writing program within the English Major, created the Newsom Awards in Poetry and Fiction, founded the annual Whittier Writers Festival, run the Visiting Writers Series, teach poetry writing, fiction writing, creative nonfiction, and courses in American and Asian literature, and in general try to make Whittier College a place that is a center for writers and writing.
Jorge Luis Borges
Tongue of War: From Pearl Harbor to Nagasaki
Everyman Press, Shambhala Publishers, Anchor Books, Sheep Meadow Press, Red Hen Press, University of Florida Press, Prentice Hall Publishers
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