Clayton Eshleman was born Ira Clayton Eshleman Jr. on June 1, 1935, in Indianapolis, Indiana. He is the only child of Gladys and Clayton Eshleman, both Presbyterians, and from midwestern backgrounds (Eshleman himself believes that “Eshleman” is based on “ash” as in “ash tree,” and that he is a wee bud on the world tree, Yggdrasill). He was brought up to be a racist, and to identify only with people who looked like him (he was, for example, forbidden to play with children whose mothers wore slacks away from home). His mother started him on piano lessons when he was 6, and at about the same time he discovered imagination via comic strips and books. He began to listen to bebop as a teenager (Bud Powell especially), and hang out in Indianapolis blues clubs. After graduating from Shortridge High School in 1953 (where he ran track, wrestled, and played right end on the football team), he entered Indiana University, as a music major and as a pledge to the Phi Delta Theta fraternity. The summer of 1954 he spent in Los Angeles, parking cars for a living, and hanging out in jazz clubs at night (he also studied jazz piano briefly with Marty Paitch and Richie Powell). Upon returning to Indiana University that fall, he dropped out of music school and, at his father’s urging, entered Business School. He does not recall much of the following two years. In 1956 he was thrown out of school for a combination of poor grades and excessive campus parking tickets, at which time he moved out of the fraternity into a series of rooms and shared apartments in Bloomington, and returned to school in 1957 as a Philosophy Major. He also took some creative writing workshops and American poetry courses, and for the first time in his life, something really took hold: poetry.
At the same time that he was discovering poetry, his friends Jack and Ruth Hirschman were introducing him to world poetry via translations of such writers as Federico Garcia Lorca, Vladimir Mayakofsky, Rainer Maria Rilke, and St.-John Perse. He also came across translations of the poetry of Pablo Neruda and Cesar Vallejo and began to teach himself Spanish, mainly to learn what these two poets were really writing. The summers of 1958 and 1959 were spent in Mexico, where he started to translate Neruda himself. The Neruda Residencias were the first poems that really captivated him. While a graduate student at Indiana University he also met Mary Ellen Solt who introduced him to William Carlos Williams and the Black Mountain poets. Via the Hirschmans he met Robert Kelly, Jerry Rothenberg, and Paul Blackburn. He married Barbara Novak, from Logansport, in the spring of 1961 and accepted an instructorship with the University of Maryland in their Far-Eastern Division (Japan, Taiwan, Korea) teaching literature and composition to armed forces personnel. By the fall of 1961 he and Barbara were living in Musashi Koganei, a Tokyo suburb.
In the fall of 1961, Gary Snyder visited on his way to meet Allen Ginsberg in India and suggested the Eshlemans would be happier living in Kyoto, teaching English as a Second Language. They moved there in the spring of 1962 and remained in Kyoto until the fall of 1964. While in Kyoto, Eshleman began his apprenticeship to poetry: a translation of the 110 poems that Vallejo wrote in Paris between 1923 and 1938. He also read all of Blake, and Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God tetralogy. He became good friends with Snyder, Cid Corman and the lithographer Will Petersen, all of whom were living in Kyoto at this time. From Corman he learned a good deal about translation and literary magazine editing.
Barbara and Clayton returned to the States, and moved back to Bloomington, where he worked on an anthology of Latin American poetry assigned by the O.A.S. in Washington (which he completed but has never been published) while Barbara worked in the university campus bookstore. In the spring of 1965, Eshleman took L.S.D., for the first of six times with Daphne Marlatt. He also decided to go to Lima, Peru, to attempt to see Vallejo’s worksheets for the Paris poems, then in the hands of his French widow, Georgette. With Barbara several months pregnant, the couple made the move in August, finding a small apartment in the Miraflores section of Lima. A complicated 9 months ensued: Eshleman was offered the chance to start a bilingual literary magazine by the Peruvian North American Institute, which he called Quena, but the magazine first issue of some 300 pages was suppressed by the Institute because it supposedly contained political material; Barbara gave birth to Matthew Craig Eshleman in February 1966 and soon after nearly bled to death; Eshleman was denied access to the Vallejo worksheets by Georgette; he also spent a lot of time wandering the slum areas of Lima and claims that the Peruvian experience made him political for the first time in his life.
Once back in the States in the spring of 1966, they moved to NYC and separated shortly. Clayton moved into a basement room condemned for human habitation on Bank Street, and Barbara and the baby moved to an apartment at 18th Street and 2nd Avenue. Both soon had jobs at the American Language Institute at New York University, where Clayton taught for two years. In 1967 he took over Joanne Kyger’s loft at 36 Greene Street, and founded the literary review, Caterpillar, which he edited on a quarterly basis until moving to southern California in 1970 as part of the original faculty in the School of Critical Studies at the California Institute of the Arts. Before leaving for California, he met Caryl Reiter (New Year’s eve, 1968), and she accompanied him to Sherman Oaks, in the San Fernando Valley where the couple lived until the fall of 1973, when they moved to Paris for a year. Caterpillar magazine ended in the spring of 1973, with the 20th issue.
While living in Paris in Montmartre, Caryl began to work with Clayton in the editing of his poetry, an activity that has continued to this day. The Eshlemans also met the Spanish translator Helen Lane who convinced them that they should see the French Dordogne before returning to the States. In the spring of 1974, they rented a furnished apartment in the same farm complex with Lane, and soon after moving there discovered the painted and engraved Ice Age caves of that region. Eshleman also discovered that all the books on cave art had been written by archeologists and decided to undertake an open-ended investigation of what he soon came to call “Upper Paleolithic Imaginaton & the Construction of the Underworld.” Caryl and Clayton returned to Los Angeles in the fall of 1974 and after spending several months with his Black Sparrow Press publishers, John and Barbara Martin in west Los Angeles they found a duplex nearby where they remained, with the exception of several trips back to the French caves, until summer 1986. While in Los Angeles, the poet became unhappy with his 1968 Grove Press edition of Vallejo translations and teaming up with Jose Rubia Barcia, a Spaniard teaching at U.C.L.A., the two cotranslated all of this poetry along with Vallejo’s Spanish Civil War poems. In 1982 the Eshlemans took a small group to the caves, an activity which has continued off and on until the present (in 2000 the Ringling School of Art and Design, Sarasota, became the tour’s official sponsor).
After Eshleman was offered a Professorship in the Eastern Michigan University English Department the couple bought a house in Ypsilanti, 6 miles east of Ann Arbor, where they continue to live. At EMU Eshleman taught Introduction to Literature: Poetry, as well as numerous poetry workshops. The Eshlemans continue to return to France whenever possible, and in the late 1990s, Clayton finished his cave investigation as the book, Juniper Fuse.
Over the past decade, five collections of his translations, five collections of his poetry, and two collections of essays have been published. Over the years he has published his writing and translations in over 500 literary magazines and newspapers, and given readings of his work at over 200 universities. He is now Professor Emeritus at EMU. In 2004 Black Sparrow Press will bring out a new collection of poetry, My Devotion, and Soft Skull will bring out a revised and expanded version of his 1988 selected translations, Conductors of the Pit. In October 2007, Black Widow Press brought out a new collection of CE’s prose, interviews, prose poems, and notes, called Archaic Design. In the fall of 2008, Black Widow will publish a 600 page “Eshleman Reader,” a selection from forty years of his poetry, prose, and translations, to be called The Grindstone of Rapport.