Posted April 17, 2013 in The Daily Advance, Elizabeth City
By Reggie Ponder
North Carolina’s poet laureate challenged an audience of community college and high school students Wednesday to stay in school, read, and do some writing of their own.
In a presentation at College of The Albemarle, Joseph Bathanti said being the state’s poet laureate is a tremendous honor and means he is an ambassador for poetry, literature and literacy. Bathanti is slated to give a similar presentation today at Elizabeth City State University.
Bathanti’s itinerary as poet laureate includes visits not only to schools but also to prisons, homeless shelters and battered women’s shelters. Lately, he has been working with returning combat veterans on ways they can tell their stories.
The state’s seventh poet laureate, Bathanti grew up in Pittsburgh, Pa., the son of a steelworker and a seamstress. He told the audience that as he was growing up he would tell his father we wanted to work in the steel mill — just like him — but his dad would reply insistently that he was going to attend college.
Indeed, he said his work as a writer and teacher is mainly a monument to his parents and their firm belief in the American Dream.
“They dreamt for me a life until I could sustain that dream myself,” Bathanti said.
Bathanti said he is something of a poster child for the power of education.
“I’m the first person with my name to ever go to college,” Bathanti said.
His grandparents all came to America from Europe in the first decade of the 20th century, not knowing any English. He said he would not have been brave enough himself to set out on such an uncertain journey.
Reading and writing mean the world to him, he said.
“Reading is power,” Bathanti said. “It opens up every door imaginable.”
Bathanti said he was very proud to be at COA since he taught at community colleges in the state for 25 years and is a believer in the community college system.
“It’s kind of a miraculous thing, to tell you the truth,” Bathanti said, noting that the state’s network of 58 community colleges means every citizen of the state is within commuting distance of a quality, affordable education.
And military veterans and others who are at a turning point in life and need to learn something new have that opportunity because of community colleges, he said.
“That’s another miraculous thing about the community college system: You’re never too old to get educated,” Bathanti said.
Bathanti’s message hit home for many of his hearers, as the audience was full of students 30 years old and older who are just starting out in their college careers.
One of those was Scott Terry, 30, who left the military about a year ago and came to COA. He completed the machining program and now is working on an associate of arts degree.
Terry did some writing as a military photographer and public affairs specialist, and is interested in earning a bachelor’s degree in English. He said he has written journals and blogs and is hoping to round out his writing by learning some new techniques.
Terry mentioned that COA students just formed a writing club this semester and he is involved in that. Bathanti’s presentation whetted his appetite to read more and learn more about writing, Terry said.
Thomas Hill, 34, is chairman of the Gates County Republican Party and planning to earn an associate’s degree at COA before transferring to a four-year college and eventually going to law school.
He said his writing in the past has been mainly related to his political activism, but Bathanti’s poems and remarks have inspired him to write more for fun and self-expression.
Bathanti, who teaches at Appalachian State University, read poems about the steel mill where his father worked, the prisons where has volunteered for nearly four decades, witnessing a robbery at a McDonald’s in Greenville, and sports.
Addressing the budding poets before him, Bathanti said many probably think poetry has to be about lofty ideas and not about sports or other things they might be interested in.
“That’s not true,” he assured them. “It’s a vessel that will hold all your stories.”
He mentioned that sports played a big part in his life, since he grew up in Pittsburgh “where Steelers football is a religion” and played high school football alongside future NFL great Dan Marino.
Bathanti urged all the writers in the audience to stick with it through the ups and downs.
“You will get better if you stay at it,” he said. “Hang in there. Like everything, hang tough.”
Contact Reggie Ponder at firstname.lastname@example.org