NC Poet Laureate Believes in the Power of Words

4-24 poet laureate elementary school

Posted April 23, 2013 in

By Preston Spencer

North Carolina’s Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti, who roamed the halls of Mitchell Community College as an English professor during ‘90s, returned to Iredell County on Tuesday to share his love of the written word.

The current professor of creative writing at Appalachian State University entertained children with a simple poetry exercise at Cool Spring Elementary School before appearing as the speaker at the Iredell Friends of the Library’s annual meeting.

“God bless the teachers and the libraries, and the libraries need to dig in,” Bathanti told those gathered for the Friends of the Library meeting at the Iredell County Public Library.

Cool Spring Elementary School

As Poet Laureate, Bathanti regularly travels around the state, teaching young students about the importance of reading and writing. On Tuesday, two third-grade classrooms at Cool Spring Elementary were the beneficiary of his presence.

“We’re getting them in the early stages, trying to evangelize them with poetry,” Bathanti said. “We want to them to fall in love with the idea of writing and the sound of it. They’re so imaginative and malleable at that stage, and not skeptical, not where they think poetry’s not cool, and square.”

Bathanti briefly told the children about his family and background before getting them involved with an activity. Without explaining why, he asked the third-graders to write down in a list more than a dozen items, including their favorite animal, least favorite food and the best part of living in Iredell County. The children were then asked to volunteer to stand up and read their “list poems” to everyone. Most of the students happily shared, with peers jokingly booing or cheering some selections for favorite college or band, in what was a jovial atmosphere.

“Never stop writing. Never stop reading,” Bathanti told the students. “Reading is power. It’s like money.”

Bathanti answered questions after poems were read. Students wanted to know his favorite color (recently, black), whether he ever wrote funny poems (not often) and about his pets (has a cat, his dog died in December).

But, more than anything, the children wanted to share their own stories. In the span of about 15 minutes, there were five stories told dealing specifically with opossum interactions, along with tales about raccoons and copperhead snakes. Barthanti joked, “I don’t think I’ve ever been around so many opossum experts,” but thanked the children for their stories, and encouraged them to write the narratives down as writing practice.

“Everybody has stories. Writers just write their stories down,” Barthanti said. “If you’re living and drawing breath everyday, you have stories. You just got to pay attention to them.”

Iredell County Public Library

Libby Campbell, a board member of the Iredell Friends of the Library, which provides financial and volunteer assistance for numerous library programs, introduced Barthanti at the Friends’ annual meeting.

“I think all of us have cause to be proud (of his appointment to Poet Laureate) because of the years he spent here,” Campbell said, referencing Barthanti’s time at MCC, where he was writer-in-residence along with his teaching duties.

Barthanti told the members of the Friends of the Library that he thought of his first childhood library card “as sort of like a union card,” saying it felt like joining a club. He called reading the “great equalizer” before choosing a few poems of his own to share.

Barthanti’s selections covered a broad range of topics, from a date gone wrong in his hometown Pittsburgh to a made half-court basketball shot to a reflection on when he used to drive children to visit their mothers in prison. Barthanti moved to North Carolina in 1976 as a part of the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) program that focused on prison outreach.

His time speaking with prisoners taught him, he said, that those who end up behind bars nearly always have redeeming qualities. Along the way, though, something goes wrong.

“Poverty and lack of education is why people end up in prison,” Barthanti said. “That may seem like an oversimplification, but I’m delighted to stand behind that oversimplification.”

Bathanti was appointed to his post by former Gov. Bev Perdue last year. Poet Laureates keep their title for two years. Bathanti has six published collections of his own poetry, along with three fiction books and one work of non-fiction.

Iredell Friends of the Library

Before Barthanti read poetry, the Iredell Friends of the Library discussed the business of the past year.

In 2012, the Friends paid for much of the library’s youth services, which reached 3,669 people during the Summer Reading Program. The group also bought magazines, movies, licenses to show the movies, archival products and the Let’s Talk About it Series, which more than 50 people participated in over the course of 10 weeks. Computers were provided to the children’s department and author visits were arranged. Members give their time as well, with volunteer hours numbering in the thousands.

Steve Messick, director of the Iredell County Public Library, said “the Friends’ support is more important than ever” because of state funding cuts.

“The past couple years have been really, really hard on us,” said Messick. “It’s really had an effect on services we can provide, or not provide, to the public.”

Friends’ President Louanne Watts told those at the meeting that the group’s influence stretches all the way to outer space. NASA Astronaut Dr. Tom Marshburn, who spent part of his childhood in Statesville, is a Friends’ member and currently has his Iredell County Public Library card aboard the International Space Station, said Watts.

“Just to give you an idea of how far we reach,” Watts joked, before telling Friends’ members, “Thanks to you and your generosity, we can continue to say, ‘We do good things here.’”


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