Balaban was born in a housing project neighborhood in Philadelphia to Romanian immigrant parents, Phillip and Alice Georgies Balaban. His father taught himself calculus, invented a model airplane, and studied engineering in Romania, while his mother was a peasant with "almost no education". Balaban wrote his first poem at the age of eight or nine, and cites the influence of show tunes that his elder sisters used to sing while washing the dishes after dinner.
He became a Quaker at the age of sixteen, while searching for alternatives to the violence in his neighborhood. He obtained a B.A. with highest honors in English from Pennsylvania State University in 1966. A Woodrow Wilson Fellowship that he received in his senior year at the university allowed him to study English literature at Harvard University, where he received his A.M.
During the Vietnam War, Balaban was a conscientious objector; He went to Vietnam with the International Volunteer Services where he taught at a university until it was bombed in the Tet Offensive. He was wounded in the shoulder by shrapnel and evacuated; after his recovery, he worked to save burned and injured children from the war. He left Vietnam in 1969, but returned in 1971 to work on Ca Dao Viet Nam, a collection of poems in the Ca Dao folk tradition.
Balaban's first published collection of verse, After Our War (1974), was a Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets. In 2000, he released Spring essence, a collection of poems by Hồ Xuân Hương, an 18th-century poet and the preeminent woman poet of Vietnam. The book included English translations and versions in both the current Vietnamese alphabet and the historical Chữ Nôm writing system.
Balaban has written other works that draw on his experiences in Vietnam. His anthology Locusts at the Edge of Summer: New and Selected Poems won the 1998 William Carlos Williams Award. He is currently the Poet-in-Residence and Professor of English in the creative writing program of North Carolina State University.
- After Our War, (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1974)
- Blue Mountain, (Unicorn Press, 1982)
- Words for My Daughter, (Copper Canyon Press, 1991)
- Locusts at the Edge of Summer: New and Selected Poems, (Copper Canyon Press, 1997, 2003)
- Path, Crooked Path, (Copper Canyon Press, 2006)
- Ca Dao Viet Nam: Vietnamese Folk Poetry, (Unicorn Press, 1980) (Revised edition, Copper Canyon Press, 2003)
- Vietnam: A Traveler's Literary Companion, with Nguyen Qui Duc, (Whereabouts Press, 1996)
- Spring Essence, The Poetry of Ho Xuan Huong, (Copper Canyon Press, 2000)
- Vietnam: The Land We Never Knew, (Chronicle Books, 1989)
- Remembering Heaven's Face: A Story of Rescue in Wartime Vietnam, (University of Georgia Press, 2002)
- The Hawk's Tale, (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988)
- Coming Down Again, (Simon & Schuster/Fireside, 1989)
Awards and honors
- 2003 Guggenheim Fellowship
- 1998 William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America
- Baughman, Ronald. Excerpt from Dictionary of Literary Biography, accessed 9 July 2010.
- The Poetry Center at Smith College: John Balaban, accessed 19 September 2007.
- Saha, Ankur (2009). "John Balaban Interview". KAURAB Online. Retrieved 9 July 2010.
- Purdy, Gilbert Wesley (August 2003). Jacket magazine. review of Ca Dao Viet Nam, accessed 19 September 2007.
- Interview and information from Barns & Noble, accessed 19 September 2007.
- Faculty of English Department at North Carolina State University, accessed 19 September 2007.