Joseph Bathanti: Writing as a Sacred Office

Faith & Leadership, Oct. 23, 2012

Joseph Bathanti’s poems reflect his life. Raised in a close-knit, blue-collar community of Catholic immigrants in Pittsburgh, he attended parochial school and lived near his parents and other relatives until he was 23.

In the 1970s, he first ventured out of Pennsylvania to work as a VISTA volunteer with prison inmates in North Carolina. He met his wife-to-be on his first day of training and has since continued to live and work in North Carolina.

Bathanti, 59, was installed in September as North Carolina’s seventh poet laureate. He is a professor of creative writing at Appalachian State University.

His poetry has been published in the Christian Century, among other magazines, and his books of poetry include “This Metal,” “Land of Amnesia,” “Anson County” and “The Feast of All Saints.” He has published two novels, “Coventry” in 2006 and “East Liberty” in 2001, along with a book of short stories.

He spoke with Faith & Leadership recently about the influence of his upbringing and his religious life on his writing. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Tell us about your faith growing up and how it influences your work.

I grew up in a little Italian enclave, one of the last in Pittsburgh. All my grandparents were from Europe; three were from Italy, one from France. Everybody in the neighborhood had similar equations. Some of my friends’ parents didn’t even speak English. We were very much dyed-in-the-wool Roman Catholics.

I was an altar boy, a choirboy. I went to Latin Mass every morning during the school week, and I went to church. The sound of the liturgy infiltrated me at a very early age. I loved all the pomp, the smell of incense, the statuary and the stained-glass windows.

I liked Jesus very much. I liked Catholicism well enough. I guess my big quibble is I didn’t like the nuns, the vicious women who taught me early in my life.

Growing up, I thought everybody was Catholic. I had really lovely parents and amazing friends and extended family. And I had the nicest dad in the wide world.

But I got in trouble a lot in school. It wasn’t bad stuff — never a fight. Yet I was physically abused with boards and sticks and all sorts of things. It was the traumatizing influence in my childhood. I guess I should thank the good sisters, because they certainly have given me a lot to write about.

After that, I attended Pittsburgh Central Catholic, a private high school for working-class boys. My mother called it a private school for Catholic hoodlums, which always amused me. I was taught by Christian Brothers. I loved the brothers, and I will always love Central. It was very liberal. It was life-changing.

I go back every year and spend a week as writer-in-residence there. So my quibble has never been with Catholicism. It was just with the nuns.

I’m in Protestant churches now more than anything; I belong to one, as a matter of fact. The Spirit is still very much alive in there.

But I miss the beauty of those old Catholic churches. There were things for my eyes to light upon. I smelled things. I heard things. I was surrounded by incredible imagery. I miss that kind of Wizard of Oz, Cecil B. DeMille giant production…

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