Willis Barnstone on Poets Cafe

The following interview of Willis Barnstone by Lois P. Jones originally aired on KPFK Los Angeles (reproduced with permission).

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Biographical Information—Willis Barnstone


Willis Barnstone, born in 1927 in Lewiston, Maine, and educated at Bowdoin College, the Sorbonne, School of Oriental Studies of the University of London, Columbia and Yale (PhD), taught in Greece at the end of the civil war (1949-51), was in Haiti in 1960 during the deadly rule of Papa Doc and in Buenos Aires during the Dirty War (1975-1976). He was in China during the Cultural Revolution in 1972 invited by Chou Enlai. A Fulbright Professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University (1984–1985). Former O’Connor Professor of Greek at Colgate University (1973), he is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature and Spanish at Indiana University. He lives in Oakland, California.

A Guggenheim fellow, he has received the NEA, NEH, ACLS, W.H. Auden Award of NY Council on the Arts, Midland Authors Award, four Book of the Month selections, four Pulitzer nominations, six awards from Poetry Society of America, including the Emily Dickinson Award. In 2015 he received the Fred Cody Life Achievement Award in 2015. His work has appeared in American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, Harper’s, New York Review of Books, Paris Review, Poetry, New Yorker, and Times Literary Supplement.

Some poetry books are A Day in the Country (Harper), Life Watch (BOA), Mexico in My Heart: Moonbook & Sunbook (Tupelo Books), New and Selected Poems (Carcanet), Stickball on 88th Street (Red Hen Press), Café de l’Aube à Paris / Dawn Café in Paris (Sheep Meadow Press); translations include Poetics of Translation (Yale), ABC of Translation: Poems & Drawings (Black Widow), Ancient Greek Lyrics (Indiana), Restored New Testament (Norton), The Gnostic Bible (Shambhala), The Other Bible (Harper); memoir books are Sunday Morning in Fascist Spain (Southern Illinois), We Jews and Blacks (with Yusef Komunyakaa), and With Borges on an Ordinary Evening in Buenos Aires (Illinois). Borges has written, “Four of the best things in America are Walt Whitman’s Leaves, Herman Melville’s Whale, the sonnets of Willis Barnstone’s Secret Reader, and my daily Corn Flakes—the rough poetry of morning.” Harold Bloom describes his version of the New Testament as “a superb act of restoration.”


Borges Defines Happiness During the Dirty War

One evening after reading Kipling to
Borges in Buenos Aires, I took him
slowly downstairs (he had dirt on his shoe
which I wiped off) and out along a dim
back street to the Saint James Cafe. The war,
the dirty one, was noisy. Gun shots, a bomb
in nearby flats, a midnight visitor
pounding a door, the city’s catacomb
of terror operating fine. The mess
and drama thrilled me, though the country-bled.
We sat under our gothic mirror and
began to eat and gossip. Borges said,
smiling, ‘Reading Kipling is happiness’,
and blood shivered in his transparent hand.


An Island

By white walls and scent of orange leaves,
Come, I’ll tell you. I know nothing.
By this sea of salt and dolphins
I see but fish in a dome of sun.

In stars that nail me to a door,
There are women with burning hair,
And on the quay at night I feel
But hurricanes and rigid dawn.

On cobblestones at day I watch
Some crazy seabirds fall and drown,
And as the bodies sink in sand
I know I pay my birth with death.

I only see some plains of grass
And sky-sleep in the crossing storks,
I know nothing and see but fire
In the volcano of a cat’s eye.