Veterans Share Stories During Poet Laureate Visit


Jim McNally/Statesville Record & Landmark

North Carolina Poet Laureate Joseph Bathani (right) chats with Jim Lawton before the start of a lecture and workshop at the Iredell County Library on Wednesday.

Posted Aug. 1, 2013 in

By Jim McNally

Poets typically employ their own unique writing styles, story-telling motifs and whatever else they want to toss in there.

But at an event held Wednesday night at the Iredell County Library’s Main Branch in Statesville, the state’s top poet asked participants to check certain aspects of their poetic license at the door.

As part of the summer’s “Iredell Reads” program, North Carolina Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti asked the dozen or so who participated in the nearly two-hour session to mostly stick to the facts to tell stories related to military service of either themselves or family members.

Bathanti, an Appalachian State University writing professor, is an incredibly likable 60-year-old who has the disposition of a quasi-formerhippy.

After describing how he spent years as a late teenager thinking of ways to avoid the Vietnam War, he was drawn to help veterans.

“I was philosophically against the war, partly because that was the fashionable thing for a young college kid to be at that time,” he said. “But I also think I was genuinely against the war aside from that.”

He explained that when he was named the state’s seventh poet laureate last year, he was told that among his duties was to create a “signature project.” His idea was to engage and encourage veterans — largely those returning in recent years from Iraq and Afghanistan — to tell of their experiences. The spark for the project came to him at the urging of a colleague who asked Bathani to help her son, who had served in Iraq and was battling inner demons as a result.

“I also noticed that I was seeing more and more combat vets in my classrooms and this was all coming at the heel of my becoming poet laureate,” he said.

Bathani, who taught at Mitchell Community College for 13 years ending in 2003, said that in addition to talking about poetry and creative writing at schools and libraries and “any place that wants me,” he also makes military locations — particularly Veterans Administration hospitals and other recovery facilities — stops on his tours.

While he generally speaks with and teaches veterans in their teens and 20s, the crowd at Wednesday’s event had stories to tell all the same.

Participants were asked to write in the style of nonfiction memoir for about a half-hour and then read what they had written.

Jim Lawton, a former member of the Statesville City Council, told of an experience as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam when one of his comrades died in his arms.

David Benbow recalled his time as an Army guard in the DMZ (demilitarized zone) between North and South Korea and how the North Koreans would blast loudspeakers at certain times.

From his vignette, Benbow read, “The damned speakers were starting early this evening.”

Luanne Watts, one of the organizers of the event, compared the experience she had in watching her son prepare for manhood and that of a friend whose son was shipping out to Afghanistan.

“He’s not ready for this,” Watts said of her son and echoed the sentiments of her friend. And Allen Campbell offered some comic relief in talking about his refusing to clean the sidewalk outside his Navy barracks with a toothbrush.

“I wasn’t in favor of that,” Campbell said understatedly.

Bathani seemed impressed by the writing and asked those who participated to email him future drafts of the written anecdotes.

He also promised to come back to Statesville anytime he asked: an avowal, no doubt, that some in attendance will hold him to.

The “Iredell Reads” book has been “A Prayer For Owen Meany,” by John Irving. In the novel, events surrounding theVietnamWar figure prominently in the plot.


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