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Clayton Eshleman (June 1, 1935 – January 29/30, 2021) was an American poet, translator, and editor, noted in particular for his translations of César Vallejo and his studies of cave painting and the Paleolithic imagination. Eshleman's work has been awarded with the National Book Award for Translation, the Landon Translation prize from the Academy of American Poets (twice), a Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry, two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Rockefeller Study Center residency in Bellagio, Italy, among other awards and honors.



Clayton Eshleman was born on June 1, 1935, in Indianapolis, Indiana. He is the son of Ira Clayton Eshleman (1895-1971) and Gladys Maine (Spenser) Eshleman (1898-1970). The poet's father was employed as a time-and-motion study efficiency engineer at Kingan and Company, a slaughterhouse and meat-packer. The family lived in the 1800 block of North Delaware Street. As a child the poet was forbidden from playing with children whose parents drink alcohol, with children of different races or religions, or whose mothers wear pants outside of the home.

Eshleman was exposed to the arts as a child through piano lessons and drawing classes focused on comic strips. In high school, Eshleman played football, ran track and wrestled. He worked as a lifeguard during the summer.

In 1951, Eshleman discovered jazz music, attracted in particular to the music of Bud Powell and Lennie Tristano. He began to spend time in jazz clubs and to play jazz alongside classical music. In 1953, Eshleman enrolled in Indiana University, majoring in music, but was not devoted to his studies. He pledged to the Phi Delta Theta fraternity. The hazing he endured during pledge week would become a significant topic in his poetry.

Pursuing his interest in jazz, Eshleman travelled to Los Angeles in the summer of 1954. He parked cars for a living and studied jazz piano with Marty Paitch and Richie Powell, the younger brother of Bud Powell. Returning to Indiana University in the fall, Eshleman changed his major to Business. His academic performance suffered. Put on academic probation for low grades, he was expelled for having too many parking tickets, but able to return to school the following year, this time as a Philosophy major.

Eshleman discovered poetry in creative writing classes at Indiana University. He studied 20th century American poetry with Samuel Yellin and Josephine Piercy. Jack and Ruth Hirschman introduced him to world poetry in translation, including Federico Garcia Lorca, Vladimir Mayakofsky, Rainer Maria Rilke, and St.-John Perse. Mary Ellen Solt introduced him, via correspondence, to Louis Zukofksy, Robert Creeley, Cid Corman, as well as to poets closer to his own generation: Paul Blackburn, Robert Kelly, Jerome Rothenberg, Jackson Mac Low, and David Antin. Eshleman travelled frequently to New York City to meet with these poets in person. Through Paul Blackburn he would meet William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, and Denise Levertov.

Eshleman graduated from Indiana University with a degree in Philosophy in 1958 but reenrolled as a graduate student in English Literature. He supported himself by playing piano in the bar of a steakhouse on weekends. Eshleman published his first poem in the Indiana University English Department student magazine, Folio. The following year, Eshleman took over the editorship of Folio for three issues. Eshleman gave his first reading of his own poetry in New York City at Metro Café in 1960. The reading was organized by Paul Blackburn.

Eshleman discovered the poetries of Pablo Neruda and César Vallejo in a copy of Dudley Fitts edited Anthology of Contemporary Latin American Poetry (New Directions, 1947) given to him by Bill Paden in 1958. Motivated by his interest in Neruda and Vallejo, Eshleman hitchhiked to Mexico City in order to learn Spanish in the summers of 1959 and 1960. He began translating Neruda's Residencias at this time.

In 1961, Eshleman graduated from Indiana University with a Master of Arts degree in Teaching Creative Writing. That summer he married Barbara Novak and took a job teaching English for the University of Maryland, College Park, Far-Eastern Division (Japan, Taiwan, Korea). In the next year, he taught literature and composition to military personnel for two months in Tainan, Taiwan, four months at Tachikawa Air Force Base, outside Tokyo, and two months at the Strategic Air Command (SAC) Base in Seoul, Korea.


Eshleman met Cid Corman in person for the first time in San Francisco while en route to Asia. He met Gary Snyder and Joanne Kyger in Tokyo when they were en route to India. Following Snyder's suggestion, in the spring of 1962, Eshleman moved to Kyoto to teach English as a second language at Matsushita Electric Corporation in Kobe. He and Barbara would stay there until 1964.

While in Kyoto, Eshleman began what he would later describe as his “apprenticeship to poetry” by translating César Vallejo's Poemas humanos. Simultaneously he begins writing “The Tsuruginomiya Regeneration”: what would ultimately become a 350-page sequence of poems, eventually reedited and published as his book Coils (1973). Alongside his writing and translation, Eshleman studied William Blake, Northrop Frye's book on Blake, Fearful Symmetry, the I Ching, and world mythology. After working for several weeks outside under a persimmon tree inhabited by a large red, green and yellow spider, which subsequently disappeared, Eshleman has a visionary experience involving a spider which he interprets as a totemic gift confirming his vocation as a poet.

During this period in Kyoto, Eshleman was close to several fellow artists and poets: Will Peterson, Gary Snyder, and Cid Corman, who was then editing the second series of Origin. His correspondents during the period include Paul Blackburn, W.S. Merwin, Jerome Rothenberg, and Robert Kelly. He published his first books during this period as well: Mexico and North and Residence on Earth, a translation of Neruda Residencias.

In 1964, the Eshlemans returned to Indiana for one year before moving, when Barbara was several months pregnant, to the Miraflores section of Lima, Peru, where Eshleman hoped to gain access to César Vallejo's manuscripts for the Poemas humanos, then in the possession of Vallejo's widow, Georgette. Georgette would ultimately deny him access to the manuscripts. Eshleman's initial translation of the Human Poems would not be published until 1968, when it was released by Grove Press.

Eshleman's experiences walking through the slums of Lima awakened his political conscience. At this time he was also hired by the North American Peruvian Institute to edit a bilingual literary magazine, funded by the institute. He gave the collection the title Quena (in reference to a Quechuan flute). Writers and intellectuals in Lima assumed the magazine was cover for United States government espionage work. The magazine was suppressed by the Institute for political reasons prior to the publication of its first issue.

Eshleman's son, Matthew Craig Eshleman was born in Peru in 1966. Barbara Eshleman suffered nearly fatal complications from the birth. Thereafter Eshlemans returned to Indiana briefly before moving to New York City in the summer of 1966. They separated in New York City that fall.

Over the next couple of years, Eshleman taught at the American Language Institute at New York University while participating actively in New York literary and artistic life.

In 1966 and 1967, he published a series of books under the Caterpillar Books imprint. These include titles by Aimé Césaire (in Eshleman's co-translation with Denis Kelly), Cid Corman, Paul Blackburn, Frank Sampari, David Antin, D. Alexander, Robert Vas Dias, Jackson Mac Low, and himself. In 1967, he founded and began editing Caterpillar magazine, which he would publish quarterly through 1970, and periodically thereafter, through 1973. The magazine was supported by grants from the Council of Literary Magazines and the National Translation Center as well as sales, advertisement, and donations. Caterpillar was of major significance for poets writing in the postmodern tradition during those years.

Eshleman was also active in the anti-war movement, particularly as an organizer and participant in “Angry Arts” protest group. He was arrested and jailed for demonstration at St. Patrick's Cathedral. He also participated in a series of readings in Milwaukee and Seattle with Robert Bly, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, Ed Sanders and others to raise money for draft resisters.

Eshleman cultivated a wide circle of new and on-going friendships during these years, including Frank Samperi, Diane Wakoski, Adrienne Rich, Nora Jaffe, Leon Golub, Nancy Spero, Carolee Schneeman, James Tenney, Michael Heller, and Hugh Seidman, among others. Diane Wakoski introduced him to John Martin the publisher of Black Sparrow Press in 1968. Martin would become the principal publisher of Eshleman's writing beginning with the publication of “Cantaloups and Splendour” in 1968.

In 1967, Eshleman began Reichian psychotherapy therapy with Dr. Sidney Handelman, completing the analysis in 1969.

Eshleman met Caryl Reiter on New Year's Eve 1968. She would become his second wife. In 1970, the poet's mother died. His father died the following year.

In 1970, Clayton and Caryl moved from New York to Sherman Oaks, California. Shortly thereafter Eshleman joined the faculty of the School of Critical Studies at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, where he organized a reading series and taught seminars on contemporary poetry, William Blake, Wilhelm Reich, T.S. Eliot, and Hart Crane. Close friendships were formed during these years with Stan Brakhage, Robin Blaser, John and Barbara Martin, as well as with Robert Kelly, who was then teaching nearby at the California Institute of Technology.

In 1972, Eshleman met José Rubia and Eva Barcia. He and José Rubia Barcia began co-translating César Vallejo's España, aparta de mí este cáliz that year and shortly thereafter working on a new translation of the Human Poems. Eshleman also began translating Antonin Artaud at this time.

Under the influence of Mikhail Bakhtin's book Rabelais and His World, Eshleman began to re-organize “The Tsuruginomiya Regeneration” manuscript material into the book he published in 1973 as Coils. The publication brings closure to a project begun more than ten years earlier, in Kyoto. Eshleman also published the final issue of Caterpillar in 1973.


During the summer of 1973, the Eshlemans moved to France for one year. He and Caryl sublet an apartment in Montmartre and taught courses in American poetry at the American College in Paris.

In the spring of 1974, following the advice of the translator Helen Lane, the Eshlemans visited the Dordogne region of France. They rented a furnished apartment and begin visiting the Paleolithic painted caves in the area, including Lascaux. Eshleman decided to undertake an in-depth investigation into the Paleolithic imagination and the imagery of the painted caves. The project became a central area of his writing and research over the next three decades, resulting in the publication of his major work Juniper Fuse: Upper Paleolithic Imagination and the Construction of the Underworld in 2003. In addition to Lascaux, which Eshleman visited on several more occasions over the next twenty-five years, he visited Font-de-Gaume, Combarelles, Niaux, Garges, Marsoulas, Le Portel, Le Tuc d’Audoubert, and Les Trois Frères, among other sites. The project was supported at various points by grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Beginning in 1981, he and Caryl organized and lead a guided tour of the painted caves and the region in general. The tour continued irregularly, ultimately gaining sponsorship from the Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida, through 2008. Guest-lecturers on the tour included Robert Creeley and Gary Snyder among others.

In 1974, the Eshlemans returned to Los Angeles. The poet began teaching in the Extension Program of the University of California at Los Angeles and, in 1977, under an “Artist in the Community” teaching fellowship through the California Arts Council at Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles. In 1979, he was appointed Dreyfuss Poet-in-Residence and lecturer in creative writing at California Institute of Technology, Pasadena; a position he held through 1984. Thereafter he taught part-time as a visiting lecturer in creative writing through University of California campuses in San Diego, Riverside, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara.

While conducting his research into the painted caves, Eshleman continued his work as a translator. Working with José Rubia Barcia, he completed new translations of César Vallejo's Complete Posthumous Poetry. Published by the University of California Press in 1978, the collection won the National Book Award for Translation the following year. Working with Norman Glass, Eshleman translated several major works by Antonin Artaud, published as Four Texts in 1982, and, beginning in 1977, working with Annette Smith, he translated the complete poetry of Aimé Césaire in several volumes. This work was supported by a translation grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and, in 1981, it won the Witter Bynner award from the Poetry Society of America.

Alongside their repeated travels to visit the painted caves, the Eshlemans travelled more widely in Europe. In 1976, the poet lectured on American Literature during a “Summer Seminar” in Frenstat, Czechoslovakia, supported by the State Department. In 1978 and again in 1980, he spent one month in Germany under the auspices of the Visiting Author Program administered by the American Embassy in Bonn, Germany. In 1979, he visited Spain.

In 1979, Eshleman began writing regular book reviews for the Los Angeles Times. In 1982, he and Caryl began publishing short pieces of travel writing in magazines and newspapers including Destinations, Diversions, The Chicago Tribune, Frequent Flyer, and Pan Am Clipper. In 1983 and 1984, Eshleman edited a monthly poetry column for Los Angeles Weekly, entitled “Ill Fate and Abundant Wine.”

In 1981, while teaching at Caltech, Eshleman founded his second major magazine Sulfur: A Literary Tri-Quarterly of the Whole Art. The journal would continue through 46 issues – across roughly 11,000 pages – the last issue appearing in spring 2000. From 1983 to 1996, Sulfur received partial funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.

1986 to 2003

In 1986, Clayton Eshleman become Professor of English at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Michigan, where he would teach primarily introductory courses in poetry and poetry workshops.

That year a travel grant from the Soros Foundation funded a one-month trip to Hungary. While in Budapest, Eshleman co-translated a short anthology of contemporary Hungarian poetry with Gyula Kodolanyi, which he subsequently published in Sulfur 22.

Over the next three years Eshleman would publish, among other things, three volumes of selected writings: The Name Encanyoned River: Selected Poems 1960-1985 (1986), Antiphonal Swing: Selected Prose, 1962-1987 (edited by Caryl Eshleman, 1989), and Conductors of the Pit (1988), which is effectively a volume of selected translations.

Over the next fifteen years, Eshleman would share his work at colleges and university and poetry conferences around the North America and Europe, travelling widely and often spending several months of each year as poet-in-residence or guest faculty at a wide variety of institutions, including, among many others, Naropa Institute, or travelling in Europe for his on-going research on the Paleolithic painted caves.

Eshleman continued co-translating the poetry of Aimé Césaire with Annette Smith, publishing Aimé Césaire, Lyric & Narrative Poetry, 1946-1982 (1990) and a second edition of Césaire's Notebook of a Return to the Native Land (2001). In 1992, Eshleman published his translation of César Vallejo's Trilce, a second edition of which won the Landon Translation Prize from the Academy of American Poets in 2000. In 1995, Eshleman published a volume of translations of the work of Antonin Artaud under title Watchfiends and Rack Screams: Works from the Final Period, co-translated with Bernard Bador, a selection of whose own poetry Eshleman had translated in 1986, as Sea Urchin Harakiri.

In 1997, while visiting Lascaux, Eshleman was permitted to descend into and examine the scene in the shaft of the cave for thirty minutes. He realized his investigation into the painted caves was complete.

Major collections of Eshleman's original poetry from these years include Hotel Cro-Magnon (1989), Under World Arrest (1994), and From Scratch (1998). In 2002, he published Companion Spider, a second volume of selected prose. In 2000, the final issue of Sulfur, issue 46, appeared.

2003 to 2021

Clayton Eshleman became Emeritus Professor of English at Eastern Michigan University in 2003. That year, he also published Juniper Fuse: Upper Paleolithic Imagination & the Construction of the Underworld, the precipitate of more than 25 years of research and writing on the painted caves.

With his retirement from full-time teaching, Eshleman continued to travel widely throughout the United States and Europe to present his work at colleges and universities as well as poetry-related public events.

In 2004, 2006, 2007, and 2008, the Eshlemans again lead tours of the painted caves of France, sponsored by the Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida.

In January 2004, Eshleman was inviting to visit Chauvet cave with Jean-Marie Chauvet and James O’Hern. That year he also spoke at the Latin American House in Paris and at a poetry conference at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. In November, he and Caryl spent the month at the Rockefeller Study Center at Bellagio, Italy, where Eshleman studied and wrote about Hieronymus Bosch's painting The Garden of Earthly Delights.

Since his retirement, Eshleman has published several extended collections of his own recent poetry as well as new translations and collections of prose.

In 2005, Soft Skull released a substantially revised and extended second edition of Conductors of the Pit: Poetry Written in Extremis in Translation. Additional recent translations include Curdled Skulls (2010), selected poems by Bernard Bador, and Endure (2011), poetry by Bei Dao co-translated with Lucas Klein.

In 2007, the University of California Press released Eshleman's translation of César Vallejo, The Complete Poetry: A Bilingual Edition, the culmination of forty-five years of translation and research. The collection won Eshleman his second Landon Translation Prize from the Academy of American Poets. It was also on the International Short-List for The Griffin Poetry Prize.

Recent volumes of Eshleman's original poetry include My Devotion (2004), An Alchemist with One Eye on Fire (2006), Reciprocal Distillations (2007), Anticline (2010), and An Anatomy of the Night (2011). Two extended collections of the poet's prose have also appeared: Archaic Design (2007) and The Price of Experience (2013). The Grindstone of Rapport: A Clayton Eshleman Reader (2008) collects six hundred pages of poetry, prose, and translations from 45 years of writing.

..... This collection was followed in 2013 by a new translation, again by Eshleman and A. James Arnold, of Césaire's Original 1939 Notebook of a Return to a Native Land. Additional co-translations of Aimé Césaire's poetry are forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press.

Clayton lived with Caryl Eshleman in Ypsilanti, Michigan. He died on the night of January 29–30, 2021.

Literary career

Eshleman has been translating since the early 1960s. He and José Rubia Barcia jointly prepared The Complete Posthumous Poetry of César Vallejo (1978) and won the U.S. National Book Award in category Translation. He has also translated books by Aimé Césaire (with Annette Smith), Pablo Neruda, Antonin Artaud, Vladimir Holan, Michel Deguy and Bernard Bador. In 2006, a translation of The Complete Poetry of Cesar Vallejo, with an introduction by Mario Vargas Llosa, was published to much acclaim, won the 2008 Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets, and was shortlisted for the 2008 International Griffin Poetry Prize.

Eshleman founded and edited two of the most seminal and highly regarded literary magazines of the period. Twenty issues of Caterpillar appeared between 1967 and 1973. In 1981, while Dreyfuss Poet in Residence at the California Institute of Technology, Eshleman founded Sulfur magazine. Forty-six issues appeared between 1981 and 2000, the year its final issue went to press. Eshleman describes his experience with the journal in an interview which appeared in an issue of Samizdat (poetry magazine).

Sometimes he is mentioned in the company of the "ethno-poeticists" associated with Jerome Rothenberg, including: Armand Schwerner, Rochelle Owens, Kenneth Irby, Robert Kelly, Jed Rasula, Gustaf Sobin, and John Taggart. Over the course of his life, his work has been published in over 500 literary magazines and newspapers. He read his work at more than 200 universities.


Cave art

For over thirty years, Clayton Eshleman studied Ice Age cave art of southwestern France.

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