Appalachian Perspective: North Carolina Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti

Hosted by Appalachian State University's Chancellor Kenneth E. Peacock, Appalachian Perspective cable television program has featured prominent and interesting North Carolinians, the university's leading academic and public service programs, and other topics of statewide interest. Episodes air across the state on cable operators' community access channels. The 30-minute program is a production of the university's Office of University Communications.

Through 2014 award-winning poet and novelist Joseph Bathanti will tour the state as North Carolina's leading ambassador of literature. The creative writing professor at Appalachian is North Carolina's newest Poet Laureate. It's a fitting role for this gentleman. For the past 35 years, Joseph Bathanti has helped people find their voice through writing, from prison inmates, to college students, to combat Veterans.


The following edited transcipt has been prepared from this Appalachian Perspective episode.

The following is a presentation of Appalachian State University.

Chancellor Kenneth Peacock: Through 2014 award-winning poet and novelist Joseph Bathanti will tour the state as North Carolina's leading ambassador of literature. The creative writing professor at Appalachian is North Carolina's newest Poet Laureate. It's a fitting role for this gentleman. For the past 35 years, Joseph Bathanti has helped people find their voice through writing, from prison inmates, to college students, to combat Veterans. We will meet this advocate for literacy coming up on Appalachian Perspective.

KP: Welcome to Appalachian Perspective, my guest today is North Carolina Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti. Welcome Joseph, it is great to have you on the show and great to have as part of Appalachian State.

Joseph Bathanti: My pleasure to be here, Chancellor.

KP: Well, thank you. Tell me, did you ever see this coming? I mean, you came to Appalachian in 2001, did you in your wildest of thoughts think, maybe one day?

JB: One aspires to those kinds of things, but it is often things that happen to other people. But I should point out that the very last round of Poet Laureates nominations, I was actually nominated and I was a finalist, so I thought that I had a crack at it. But even so, it's such a talented pool of writers that you are competing against, all good friends and colleagues of mine, so still thoroughly unbelievable when I got the call that the governor had selected me.

KP: You are the seventh state Poet Laureate, is that correct?

JB: Yes, sir.

KP: What happened when you found out? At that moment, what did you think? Did you party? What did you do?

JB: It's interesting. I got an answering machine. (On) my cellphone voicemail there was a message from David Potorti who was a literature director at the North Carolina Arts Council. David didn't come right out and say "You got it." What he said was to give me a ring, and then he said "Ah, how auspicious it is Friday the 13th" because it was July 13th. And I took that auspicious to mean good auspicious, not that he says saying "Haha you didn't get it." So I called David back and as he said yes, it's for real, you may celebrate. It was really late in the evening, I was with my wife Joan. We were visiting in Atlanta and I went home and my whole family was there and Joan made the announcement. Everybody hooped and hollered. You know, it's just a terrific feeling to surface out of that pool and such an honor, especially because that pool of North Carolina writers is so very distinguished.

KP: How has life changed since that call? Since that moment you found out.

JB: As much as anything, Chancellor, it has changed because... well my inbox became suddenly unmanageable. I'm asked to do things all over the state and sometimes outside the state. On a more practical level, the kinds of hours I spend working answering correspondents, just dealing with it. And also, my responsibilities here at the university have become exponentially increased. I drive a lot of miles now, so I'm on the road, gosh, I'm on the road just about five days a week I'll bet. And I would say three out of those five days I am sleeping in a hotel bed. So life has changed dramatically.

KP: Any special places you've been? Any moments you would say that this was a special time?

JB: I have a number of special times. I think, I'm thinking of one of my very earliest visits. It was in Cumberland County in Fayetteville, a place called Howard Hall Elementary School. And I walked into the school and there was jazz playing. And I thought, "Wow, what is going on here." I looked to my left and there was picture of Count Basie and just then a very dynamic woman named Mellotta Hill, the principal, rushed toward me to explain that Count Basie was the jazz artist of the week and that every week she showcases the work of a different jazz artist for her kids. I say that because I've gone into a number of elementary schools all over the state where really terrific things were happening. We hear an awful lot about where terrific things are not happening. And in some case that is so, too, but there are a lot of dedicated educators in the trenches doing really significant work. Most recently, and I know you are from Rocky Mount, I visited Nash and Edgecombe counties. I had a fascinating time there. I went to Fountain Correctional Center for Women and was in front of about 200 women talking about creative writing, doing a reading of my work, and I am going to be invited back to actually do some creative writing workshops with those women. But also in touring and being in these little towns. Big towns, little towns, medium towns, the character of the people is just fascinating and the kind of history that one is immersed in. For instance, just in Rocky Mount of course, I saw the historical marker for Thelonious Monk who was born there and walked along Thelonious Monk plaza. I found out the Jim Thorp, the great Native American athlete, played his very first baseball game, his first professional baseball game in Rocky Mount. And I also visited the house where Jack Kerouac stayed when he lived there for a while with his sister, and parts of what he was writing then showed up in his novel "Dharma Bums." So that's not the exception, but the rule. I feel like every little place I go into, the people and the history and the poetry inherent to that place comes out in wonderful ways. That enriches me. I feel like I am getting way more out of this experience than what I'm giving.

KP: Shortly after, you were recognized and received this well-deserved honor of being invited to deliver the commencement address at Appalachian and you read a poem by Robert Frost, a classic, "The Road Not Taken." I think a lot were surprised by that. What was the message that you were trying to convey to the young people that day?

JB: I chose that poem, Chancellor, because it is one of those poems that travels with me and has always traveled with me. I have always been intrigued by it because it's about the road not taken, not the road taken. There are lines in it like "Way leads on to way," which I think perfectly exemplifies one life. Way does lead on to way, the path is not always clear. We don't have fixed destinations, and then at the end Frost says "and that has made all the difference." He doesn't tell us what the difference is. Folks tend to believe that difference was the right difference, but it could have been the wrong difference.

JB: I chose that poem because I wanted our young people, our graduates, to be aware that way will lead on to way and that they will have opportunities to make choices and they should consider all the options that they... I would hate for them to think that after they get this fabulous education here, in which they really are trained to do specific things. But the way life opens up opportunities to you as a result of that initial education, I just wanted them to be aware that their life hadn't been decided for them at that moment at age 21. It was opening up and that road was going to fork again, again, and again. And those options should be savored.

KP: Share a little bit about the path, the road that you did take. You started I believe in Pittsburgh.

JB: Yes, sir.

KP: And you had experiences as a Vista Volunteer and became a college professor, and now North Carolina Poet Laureate. Things along the way, things that shaped you to be prepared for this.

JB: You know, I think maybe I am a poster child for that kid who is open to chance. I allowed way to lead on to way or allowed a certain amount, if this makes sense, calculated random to move me. I grew up in Pittsburgh in a very provincial Italian-American neighborhood, all my grandparents were immigrants. My dad was a steelworker and my mother was a seamstress. I graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with degrees in English Literature. I went there for undergrad and graduate school and then, as I like to say, once I got out of graduate school I was freshly 23. The list of what I didn't want to do was prodigious, though I did not know what I wanted to do. I applied to become a Vista volunteer, another case of random.

JB:I was just arbitrarily thrown into the prison system to teach and work among North Carolina prisoners. I had never taught. I knew zero about custody and prisons, etc. But as you know, one learns. So this entire rich life opened up to me, not just the world of prison inmates, but their stories, which was feeding my fledgling writing. I also came to live in the South, what I have come to just love. I like to say that Pittsburgh is my beloved hometown, but North Carolina is my beloved home state.

JB:My wife, Joan, of, gosh, 35 years, was assigned to that very same project. We met at breakfast at training, we romanced once we got out of Vista, we got married and I was faced again with a crossroad. I walked into Central Piedmont Community College and asked the chair of the English department for a job the way you might on a construction site ask a foreman for a job because that is how I thought you got jobs. He hired me, a little more luck. And I worked at different colleges and universities in North Carolina. I spent a lot of time working in the prison system, not just the prison system, but community college system, and I was writing all along bits and pieces, fits and starts, writing a little less badly, a little less badly, a little less badly. A little better, a little better. I began to amass some publications, was very much welcomed by the North Carolina literary community. I just keep chipping away, you know. If nothing else I am kind of hardheaded and disciplined. My career as a writer, I am not a breakaway runner. I get three of four yards a crack and try not to fumble. So I think it's kind of that stick-to-itness. And I remember saying at the commencement talk and I believe when I spoke at convocation too that no one gets anywhere by himself. There are a million helping hands, some invisible along the way and I feel that I have been the recipient of such goodwill and generosity. Certainly the past 12 years here at Appalachian State have been the icing on the cake, truly.

KP: Well along this path you, you mentioned before your work with prison inmates. What was that about?

JB: We like to say that ignorance is bliss, Chancellor, and I think there is a lot of valiance in that statement. Once I knew that that world was out there and now that I know about it,tThat world that I was protected from, the world of homeless people, prisoners, battered women, the poor, the disenfranchised, the marginalized, you name it. Now that I know about it and have experience with it, I feel called to continue that work. I think especially among prison inmates, you know. It's a world that not many people have a real reason to know much about, unless you are a criminologist or unless you do time, God forbid, or if one of your relatives ends up incarcerated. Because I now have this specialized knowledge about it, I also believe very sincerely in the power of creative writing, reading, and literacy and just the humanities to launch people's lives into the next layer of, I don't know, expression and self-awareness, that I can't not work with them. Although I don't want to pass myself off as this Mother Teresa-like person, but you know, everyone does his or her part, I think.

KP: Do you read their work? What do you do? You ask them to write something that is creative—a tory, a poem—and is that your role?

JB: Yeah, usually, Chancellor, I will start out in a very low-key way. Not that much different than if I walk into a creative writing classroom on campus. Get to know them, start to talk about stories, the value of narrative. You know, begin to ask them to use their language, to go a bit deeper into memory and autobiography, and then I ask them to write something. It can be as simple as describe your grandmother's kitchen, you know. And then we start it from there. What happens, in the case of prisoners, lots of times no one has ever asked them to do that and seeing what they have to say formalized on a piece of paper sometimes triggers in them the notion that resides within them a pretty rich life apart from prison. I get them to talk about family a whole lot, because that is a kind of common denominator. Families love one another, people love their children, people love their parents. Although prison inmates have anything but idyllic family lives, but nevertheless, they are yearning for that. We just start talking and those guys, I've taught primarily male inmates, but my share of women too, those men and women tend to recognize in their brothers and sisters the same kind of turmoil, same kind of shared humanity that they are feeling. We take it from there. Great things really happen, although I got in not as a correctional, I'm not a guard. I'm not a psychologist. I wield not power over them, so they willing to open up to me in ways that they might not with other folks.

KP: And these individuals are incarcerated at the time you are working with them. They literally are inmates.

JB: Yes, I go into the prisons.

KP: Have you discovered someone that as you said a while ago on your path and as you wrote you found yourself getting a little better, a little better. Have you noticed a pattern there with them or do you work with them long enough...?

JB: Once I have the opportunity to work with them over a period of weeks or even days, they do get better. One of the things that I am doing the whole time is pestering them about reading and bringing things in for them to read and giving them things that they can mimic, because often those populations have a very fixed notion of what a poem is or what a story is. The kinds of things that they have to say, their central store of material, is not the kind of thing that would ever find its way into a poem. I quickly disabuse them of that and them that yes, yes, you have enormous stories to tell and again, give them models of maybe another poet who has done precisely that. And often I take in stories, or poems of inmate authors or those who have done time and then gone out and launched a very profound career, in I don't know writing. A fellow named Etheridge Knight comes to mind who is an African American who went to Korea, got mixed up in drugs while in the service. Once he hit the streets again he got into a lot of trouble and began to write. That was very instrumental in not only in getting him out of prison, but launching a life as a writer and ended up winning, I'm pretty sure I'm correct about this, a National Book Award and became somebody pretty significant in American literature during the 20th century. I use, you know, I use those examples.

KP: Do you approach working with the veterans in the same manner or do it different with them?

JB: And this is new for me, Chancellor, this is different kind of ground. I have never, I had no decided experience working with veterans. Although I have heck of a lot more now than I had August 30th when I was announced as Poet Laureate. I do, I go in and what I try to do is not instantly try to get them to write about military life or combat, but begin to get them to talk about their lives apart from the military. Because, often military people that is not their entire life too. I think there has to be a certain amount of, I don't know, you have to go into it slowly. You have to win their trust, because men and women who have been in combat in particular have shared something so extreme that the rest of us will never share, so that brother and sisterhood is very difficult to crack into. Less than one percent of our population has ever been in the military, much less been in combat. It can be a very closed and clannish group of people to deal with. I go in with terrific respect and assess whatever group I am in front of. January I was at Walter Reed up in Bethesda, Maryland and did a workshop and a reading of my work in front of a number of nurses, physicians, support staff, soldiers, wounded warriors, a pretty broad smorgasbord of people there at Walter Reed. It was completely humbling. The kinds of things that people wrote there were completely mind-blowing and very candid. But it was a very safe environment for them so.

KP: You did write a poem, I believe that you read at the Veterans Day ceremony on campus. Now tell me about that poem "Saint Francis."

JB: Yeah, it's called "Saint Francis's Satyr Butterfly." I was asked by the North Carolina Arts Council, which is supported through the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, to write a poem for Veterans Day, which was an enormous an assignment, a lot of pressure simply because what do I know about that? So, I didn't want to take the topic head on, of what combat, of war it is an enormous topic and what, I am just a bystander. I began to do research and I found out that there is an endangered butterfly called Saint Francis's Satyr Butterfly that lives in 10 by 10 kilometer patch in the middle of Fort Bragg's 251 square miles. It exists nowhere else and the habitat it favors is a high artillery, bombardment training zone. There is this beautiful endangered butterfly that lives in this precarious patch of geography. It is very beautiful, but it looks like it is wearing military marsh camouflage, and looks like a standard issue combat helmet. It is named after Saint Francis of Assisi, who was a mystic and a soldier who turned mystic and was also a POW. So I fooled around with that and wrote a poem about a butterfly, rather than war per se, but I think it exemplifies the military life and valor and frugality of being a solider in ways that I wouldn't have been able to catch had I talked about something I knew absolutely nothing about.

KP: Your new book, I think it is "Sonnets of the Cross," will you talk about that a little bit. What's...?

JB: I grew up very orthodox Catholic, Italian-Catholic, in Pittsburgh. I was an alter boy, I was a choir boy. I went to church; we went to 8 o'clock mass before class every day. And I think, I don't think, I know the legerity, the high solemnity, the sound the vestments, all of that swirling pomp very much influenced me as a kid and certainly influenced me as a writer. Around Catholic churches, around the nave of the church are something called Stations of the Cross which commemorate the last hours of Jesus' life. Pilgrims back in the early century, I think might have begun in the 3rd century, would actually go to the Holy Land and trace the way of the cross and follow the footsteps of Jesus. There are 14 of them, so I wrote 14 sonnets that basically mimicked the 14 Stations of the Cross. I used the Shakespearean sonnet to do that because I felt like I needed the form to contain me, 14 lines in a sonnet, 14 Stations of the Cross. While they are very iconoclastic and unconventional, I like to think that the spirituality that embodied in them is very devout. And some are set contemporarily.

KP: Before we wrap up, talk a little bit about your role as a faculty member here at Appalachian. The challenges you see in teaching creative writing.

JB: I can't tell you how impressed I am with my students. I come in here like my colleagues, Lynn Doyle, Susan Weinberg, Abigail DeWitt, Katherine Kirkpatrick, Derrick Davidson, I hope I'm not leaving names out, brilliant teachers all committed to the students and committed to the Visiting Writers Series. I see their work and I know that I wasn't even this close to being as good as they were when I was their age. It's a program we are really proud of. I think it is the envy of the system. We have a Visiting Writers Series that is second to none. Period. Nationally, I am certain, that we bring in anywhere from eight to 10 writers every year, who not only read their writing publicly for the community and college community, but we also have craft sessions where that writer comes in and really gives our students a lot of face time and lectures them on things that are seminal to their work. We have the Rivers-Coffey Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing for eight weeks every year; we bring in a writer of national, international renowned. We have two scholarship opportunities for our students. So we like to think of ourselves as a very vibrant part of campus, bring the arts and humanities to the floor, and are a vibrant part of the English department. We enjoy terrific support from our colleagues in English. The challenge is, you know, the challenge is to grow the program and continue to attract kids into the creative writing concentration to grow the major to keep the Visiting Writers Series alive and well and funded. Not unlike your constant role, is to ensure ongoingness and, you know, the proper funding to do the best we can. I mean it is a dreamy job and I think my colleagues would echo that.

KP: Well, from all that you have done, all your past, all your experiences. Is there any one person or any one event or any one happening in your life that you would say made me who I am today?

JB: I will say this, Chancellor, because we were talking about marriage and wives before we were sitting in these chairs. I mentioned that meeting my wife was a defining moment. I met her at the introductory breakfast for Vista and the room where the ballroom scene where "Gone with the Wind" was filmed, no less, The Georgian Terrace Hotel. And we got breakfast and she could tell that this Yankee boy was befuddled about the grits and she stepped in and helped me fix those grits up and I have been eating them ever since. She has given me good steers from then and the other thing in terms of all that writing. One of the things that writers need is for people to believe in them and won't scoff when you say something so grandiose as "Oh, I want to be a writer." Especially when you haven't written a thing yet and Joan was just completely supportive of me from the get-go and that is why all those books are dedicated to her.

KP: I know her and I know the wonderful relation, but I want to interject this one thing. I know that you are that defining moment, you are that defining person for many young people, on this campus. I have been out in town to eat, you find students who have to work, have their job and say what do you do, "Oh I'm at Appalachian." Your name comes up. I was at one restaurant shortly after you were named, and I knew the exciting news that day. That young man said "Oh he means so much to me." So you...

JB: That means everything to me. I say this and I mean it and I probably speak for every teacher on campus. I love my students. It's hard not to.

KP: Well, thank you for all that you do for Appalachian. Thank you for being a guest on the show today and we are very proud of you. You have got a university 100 percent behind you. I am proud of you.

JB: Well thank you, Chancellor. I know that and I am proud of the university.

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