Poet Laureate Tells Students to Tell Their Stories in Poem

Winston Salem Journal photo

David Rolfe/ Journal

Posted Mar. 5, 2013 in the Winston Salem Journal


Paul Garber/Special Correspondent

The South is disappearing, its people changing, its culture evolving.

But poetry is the perfect way to preserve what’s fading away.

That was a message that a group of students heard Tuesday from Joseph Bathanti, North Carolina’s poet laureate. Bathanti, a professor of creative writing at Appalachian State University, spoke yesterday at Forsyth Technical Community College.

“Your stories are important, and can be contained in a poem,” he told the students.

Bathanti has been to each of North Carolina’s 100 counties during his 37 years as a prison volunteer, writer and educator, but he said the novelty of the places he visits will never wear off.

“I see it as all disappearing –– the South is going away,” he said. “The geography is not going away, but the ethos.”

Bathanti, a native of Pittsburgh, was named the state’s poet laureate in August. He has been in the state since 1976, when he came to work in the prison system helping inmates learn to write.

Many of the poems he has written –– including several he read Tuesday –– deal with experiences he’s had working with inmates. His next volume of poetry, scheduled to be released in the fall, is called “Concertina”, a reference to the coiled razor wire that tops the fences surrounding a prison.

One poem, titled “Crying,” told the story of a young inmate who had a tattoo of a tear under one eye. The poem describes the youth, just barely old enough to be part of the adult population, and his isolation from other inmates. Finally the inmate is asked about the tear. He replies that he doesn’t know why he got it, that he doesn’t know why he’s done anything.

Other poems Bathanti read deal with family or experiences from his youth. “The Footlocker” recounted his father’s purchase of a footlocker when Bathanti left home for North Carolina in a beat-up 1969 Volkswagen. The footlocker was something Bathanti didn’t want, but accepted nonetheless. He still uses it to store old manuscripts and writings.

“Wheeling” was about driving a girl across the state line to go to a bar in a state with a lower drinking age. They drink and party and are the last ones to leave, but when it’s time to go home, the car won’t start.

Bathanti appeared as part of Forsyth Tech’s Humanities Enrichment series. He was introduced by Yolanda S. Wilson, dean of the Humanities and Social Sciences Division.

In addition to being an award-winning poet, Bathanti has also published nonfiction, short fiction and two novels, “Coventry” and “East Liberty.” In addition to his creative writing classes at Appalachian State, he is director of writing in the field and writer-in-residence at the university’s Watauga Global Community.

Bathanti said his poems often read more like fiction than formal poetry, and he encouraged students to use their own voices and not worry about such technical aspects as rhyming schemes. He encouraged them to just plunge right in and not worry about being clever or profound or being compared to writers they see on bookshelves.

In an interview following the workshop, Bathanti said there’s value in writing poetry even if someone isn’t trying to get the work published. But most of those who stick with it probably want to see their work in print.

“It’s like making a delicious meal –– you want people to eat it,” he said.


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