By Megan Hayes
BOONE—Appalachian State University professor of creative writing and poet, novelist and essayist Joseph Bathanti was awarded the North Carolina Award for Literature on Sept. 22. The North Carolina Award is the state’s highest civilian honor. Gov. Pat McCrory presented the award to Bathanti and six other recipients at a ceremony at the Raleigh Marriott City Center.
Receiving the North Carolina Award, Bathanti said, “is a profound honor,” describing prior recipients of the award for literature as “phenomenal, often legendary writers" who also have been his friends and supporters for years: Tony Abbott, Fred Chappell, Shelby Stephenson, Lee Smith, Jaki Shelton Green, Kay Byer, Robert Morgan, Michael Parker, Ron Bayes, Randall Kenan and Heather Ross Miller.
“This distinction means everything,” he said, “since at its heart is the dazzling and varied literary community comprised of every single writer across the state.”
Bathanti served as North Carolina’s poet laureate from 2012-14. The winner of numerous literary awards, he has written 10 volumes of poetry, three novels, a short story collection and two books of nonfiction. He teaches creative writing at Appalachian and is writer-in-residence for the university’s Watauga Residential College.
A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Bathanti describes Pittsburgh as “my beloved home town, but North Carolina is my beloved home state.” He writes about both, his work often referencing his working-class background and paying homage to his parents, who pushed and inspired him to become a college graduate and eventually a college professor.
Bathanti moved to North Carolina in 1976 as a member of the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) anti-poverty program, and began what would become a multi-decade endeavor teaching and working on literature projects with correctional facility inmates. He credits this work with teaching him the significance of telling one’s own personal story, and he has facilitated numerous workshops and writing projects for military veterans and their families managing the aftereffects of combat and trauma related to military service. He was chair of the N.C. Writers’ Network Prison project from 1989-94 and earlier this year was named the Charles George VA Medical Center Writer-in-Residence, a program in the Veterans Health Administration in Asheville funded by the North Carolina Arts Council and the North Carolina Humanities Council.
“Poetry and the stories that drive them save lives,” said Bathanti. “I really believe that. In the words of the great American poet William Carlos Williams: ‘It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die every day / for lack / of what is found / there.’”
Bathanti’s work has garnered him many awards, including the 1997 Oscar Arnold Young Award; the 2001 Carolina Novel Award; the 2006 Novello Literary Award; the 2006 Spokane Prize; the 2010 Roanoke Chowan Prize; the 2012 Will D. Campbell Award for creative nonfiction; and the 2014 Irene Blair Honeycutt Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Literary Arts.
Additionally, he has earned a nomination for the 1996 National Book Award; the distinction of being named the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet for the Western Region for the North Carolina Poetry Society for 2011-12; literature fellowships from the North Carolina Arts Council; and a fellowship from the Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry. In 2014, he was named the first scholar-in-residence at the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, and he is a mentor for the creative writing residency at Carlow University, also in Pittsburgh.
Bathanti holds a B.A. and an M.A. in English literature from the University of Pittsburgh, and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Warren Wilson College. He resides in Vilas with his wife, Joan, and two children.
Created by the North Carolina General Assembly in 1961, the North Carolina Awards have been presented annually since 1964. The award recognizes significant contributions to the state and nation in the fields of fine arts, literature, public service and science. The North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources administers the awards. Additional recipients of the 2016 North Carolina Award were Dr. Linda S. Birnbaum of Chapel Hill for science; Robert J. Brown of High Point for public service; James C. Gardner of Rocky Mount for public service; Dr. Assad Meymandi of Raleigh for fine arts; and Dr. Aziz Sancar and Dr. Paul L. Modrich of Chapel Hill for science.
Appalachian State University, in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, prepares students to lead purposeful lives as global citizens who understand and engage their responsibilities in creating a sustainable future for all. The transformational Appalachian experience promotes a spirit of inclusion that brings people together in inspiring ways to acquire and create knowledge, to grow holistically, to act with passion and determination, and embrace diversity and difference. As one of 17 campuses in the University of North Carolina system, Appalachian enrolls about 18,000 students, has a low faculty-to-student ratio and offers more than 150 undergraduate and graduate majors.
“All across the state exist dedicated, selfless folks – teachers in the main – holding on doggedly to poetry and literature, folks who still believe that our stories will save us and that our children’s futures, their very humanity depends on our not losing sight of what beats so passionately in us.”
– Joseph Bathanti, N.C. Award winner and former North Carolina poet laureate
The North Carolina Awards recognize significant contributions to the state and nation in the fields of fine arts, literature, public service and science.