John Balaban, 2017 George Garrett Award Recipient

John Balaban

At AWP’s 50th Anniversary Gala on Wednesday, February 8, Board of Trustees Chairman David Haynes announced the winner of the annual George Garrett Award for Outstanding Community Service in Literature, John Balaban.

The award is given to recognize those individuals who have made notable donations of care, time, labor, and money to support writers and their literary accomplishments, and is named for George Garrett (1929–2008), who made exceptional contributions to his fellow writers as a teacher, mentor, editor, friend, board member, and good spirit. The award includes a $2,000 honorarium, in addition to travel, accommodations, and registration to attend AWP’s annual conference, where the award is publicly announced and conferred.

David Haynes introduced Balaban:

It’s my honor to bestow an award named after one of AWP’s founding board members, the AWP George Garrett Award for Outstanding Community Service in Literature.

George Garrett was a beloved teacher and mentor, and a fine editor, poet, critic, and novelist. For many years, the garage of George’s house was filled with mail tubs of student manuscripts; he served as editor of Intro, an anthology that brought many young writers their first national publications. This award honors those who also embody George’s generosity as a mentor to young writers and as a builder of new audiences for literature.

We are grateful for the work of this year’s judges, E. Ethelbert Miller, Cathy Day, and Denise Low, who last fall read hundreds of letters in support of 55 nominations for the award. Reading these letters is tonic for the soul. They are lovely testimonies about those individuals who build literary communities, who teach the art of writing, who support literary careers, who facilitate cultural exchanges, and who usher new voices into publication.

This year’s Garrett Award recipient has done all those things, and much more. He has helped to rescue injured children from Vietnam. He supported and encouraged a student through her travails with breast and kidney cancer. He helped another student leave communist Romania. He helped countless students find jobs and build careers. His letters of nomination for this award are seasoned with place names of four or five continents, because that’s how big his horizons are, and it’s those global horizons to which he introduced his students. He is loved and admired by his students for his deep knowledge of literature and for his great knowledge of the world and its peoples.

He is famous for his translations of Vietnamese poetry. He is admired for his work to preserve the Vietnamese Nom language, an effort for which he established the Vietnamese Nom Preservation Foundation. He has published twelve books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. And this award will join many others that he has already received. In at State dinner in Hanoi, President Clinton called his work a necessary “cultural bridge.”

It’s my great honor to bestow this year’s Garrett Award to John Balaban. 

John Balaban, after receiving the award, spoke to the attendees:

First of all, thanks to former students I taught at Penn State, the U. of Miami, and North Carolina State who conspired to nominate me for this award. As many in this audience know, now and then one hears from former students. Recently I got an email from a student whom I taught in the 1970s:

“For 40 years I’ve put off thanking you for all that you taught me way back then. After an ill-fated career as a social worker, I took a job as a small-town newspaper reporter and editor, which led to this, which led to that. I ended up running a writing center for many years.... True story: Maybe 20 years ago I saw a book of yours on a remainder shelf at a supermarket in Minneapolis. I couldn’t decide if it was sadder to buy it or not buy it, so I think I bought a gallon of milk instead.”

I am often reminded of how my own college teachers affected me, several of them brilliant writers. John Barth was my undergraduate advisor at Penn State. When he learned I would be dropping out of the university because I didn’t have family support and couldn’t get a student loan on my own, he wrote to Penn State’s Director of Student Aid: “I am interested in finding work for Mr. John Balaban, an undergraduate English major.... Mr. Balaban is entirely dependent on his own resources; he is his own family, and as ‘low-income’ as you can get.... Can’t he qualify as a low income family himself?” Still another letter of his to the University’s president kept me in school, which opened a career for me as a poet, translator, novelist, memoirist, MFA director, and creator of a foundation that preserves ancient texts and libraries in Vietnam.

I note that something like 12,000 of us literary types are gathered here in Washington, a 20-minute walk from the White House, now the Place of Alternative Facts and the Palace of Tweets. So I want to close by sharing with you poets, playwrights, fiction, and nonfiction writers a tweet about literature and those who create it, composed by a Vietnamese emperor long ago for the graduating class of the Temple of Literature of 1442. His tweet of only 56 characters is chiseled in stone:

“Virtuous and talented men are state sustaining elements: the strength and prosperity of a state depend on its stable vitality and it becomes weaker as such vitality fails. That is why all the saint emperors and clear-sighted kings did not fail in seeing to the formation of people of talent and the employment of literati to develop this vitality.” —Trích Văn bỉa Tiến sĩ khoa Nhâm Tuất niên hiệu Đại Bảo 3 (1442)

It was just such literati, schooled in poetry and history, who became the civil service of Vietnam, speaking truth to power through their literary learning and writing.

***

Each year, AWP welcomes nominations for the George Garrett Award for Outstanding Community Service in Literature. Consult our award guidelines for more information. Award recipients are selected by AWP's Board of Trustees.