A Gift from NC Poet Laureate, Joseph Bathanti

Posted  Jan. 31, 2013 by The  Prison Arts Coalition

This essay first appeared in the magazine, The Sun, and will appear in the forthcoming book of essays, Half of What I Say is Meaningless, from Mercer University Press in Macon, GA. It is the winner of the 2012 Will D. Campbell Award for Creative Nonfiction. The author, Joseph Bathanti, is North Carolina’s Poet Laureate, and a professor of creative writing at Appalachian State University, where he is Director of Writing in the Field and Writer-in-Residence in the University’s Watauga Global Community. He has taught writing workshops in prisons for 35 years and is former chair of the N.C. Writers’ Network Prison project. 


By Joseph Bathanti

Bull City looks like Fidel Castro: green yard bird fatigues, engineer’s cap and a mule-tail, anarchist beard. He’s from Missoula, Montana, but took his fall, a life sentence, in Wilkes County, pretty rough cowboy country, 45 minutes up the road. His moonshine and mesquite accent rolls out of cave-rock. He carries into the creative writing class I’m teaching at the Iredell County Prison, in Statesville, North Carolina, a Bible, a dictionary, chain-gang loose-leaf, two sharpened pencils. He aims to be a writer.

If asked, Bull City would say he’s simply making his time, being a man. He works a gained-time job at the prison’s furniture factory, learning a trade he can put to use if he ever gets out – which isn’t likely. The job and his writing and the Lord keep him busy, though not in that order. The Lord comes first, he is fast to stipulate. I’d wager he’s in for murder. Crime of passion. While the free world sees murderers at the bottom of the criminal sump, thanks to the media who demonize them all as axe-wielding serial killers, that particular pedigree on the yard is really its most honorable, affable and predictable. A tiny percentage of men and woman sent up for murder recidivate; the insane, emotionally-charged circumstances that land them in prison are highly stylized, and tend to never duplicate themselves.

But Bull City could have done anything: set fire to a town or poisoned a reservoir. Booze, guns and drugs shadow his eyes, scars and tattoos on his body. More to the point, ultimately you can’t glean a thing about a man by just looking at him – especially in prison, where discussing crime stories is strictly taboo. What he’s done doesn’t matter. For certain, he’s brushed up against the beast and come away with that cauterized long-time felon stare. The sorrow of his past has made him vulnerable enough to turn to God, and grow into a strong and serious prisoner. One can plainly see that no one, guard nor inmate, would willingly mess with him…

[Continue reading at: http://theprisonartscoalition.com/2013/01/31/a-gift-from-nc-poet-laureate-joseph-bathanti/]


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