By Joseph Bathanti
The influence and reach of public libraries across the United States is inestimable, and certainly the impact of public libraries in North Carolina cannot be measured – especially in small, rural communities across our state where they literally serve as lifelines. The following is an essay I published in North Carolina Libraries a number of years back: “A Catechism of Books.” Forgive me for quoting myself in that essay, but I woke this morning in the Dunhill Hotel, directly across the street from the main branch of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Library. The city trembled in soft early April sunlight, and I just couldn’t stop myself from returning to 1976 and my first months in Charlotte, a city that so graciously welcomed me, a city that will always feel like home:
“By the time I left Pittsburgh for North Carolina … I knew I wanted to be a writer. I applied to VISTA, was accepted, and assigned to work with prison inmates in and around Charlotte, an assignment that ended up being quite congenial to writing. But I didn’t know anything about writing except that it took a lot of longing — which I’ve always been good at. Well before I ever had a North Carolina driver’s license, I had library card at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg public library on Tryon Street in downtown Charlotte. Not so downtown, then, and the library not half so glittering. But it was charming and devout, and it was there that I first became acquainted with, actually saw in the flesh, so to speak, the first little magazines and periodicals I was destined to publish in, though at the time nothing seemed more remote. By then, I was puttering away on my poems and stories, and I needed somewhere to send them. I’d pull them off the periodical wall: Southern Humanities Review, Southern Poetry Review, Tar River Poetry, Carolina Quarterly, South Carolina Review. I’d leaf through and find the names of the editors and the addresses. To actually see and touch those magazines, to be able to copy those names and addresses into the little pocket notebook, that surely all writers carried to accommodate the capricious muse, made me feel like a writer. It wasn’t long before those rejection slips started pouring in.”
Charlotte’s brand new baseball field, BB&T Ball Park, home of the Charlotte Knights is beautiful. The grass is emerald and from home plate is a clear view of the towering silvery skyscrapers of downtown just a few blocks away. Just across the street from the field isRomare Bearden Park. In 1980, when Joan and I were still living in Charlotte, and I was teaching at Central Piedmont Community College, The Mint Museum organized the first nationally touring exhibition of Bearden’s work, and I took my creative writing class to see the exhibit. Each student’s assignment was to write a poem about a painting of her choice. So … we were practicing Ekphrasis long long before I had ever heard the term and well before it was in vogue. The poems that came out of the exercise were really something. Ekphrastic poetry, while all the rage these days, a bit of a watchword in the poetry community, remains a truly valuable tool not only to connect two artistic media, but also to give students a fun and concrete exercise to engage them in writing poems.
Not incidentally, Bearden spent some time in my home town of Pittsburgh and graduated from Peabody High School in 1929 – the same high school my mother graduated from in 1937.
Bearden was also a songwriter. He co-wrote one of the classics of Jazz, “Sea Breeze.” Here it is performed by Dizzy Gillespie.
Today is Charles-Pierre Baudelaire’s birth day. Baudelaire is often leagued with the prose poem, and is one of its earliest practitioners, though the Father of the Prose Poem, certainly the poet credited with
introducing the prose poem to French Literature, is Aloysius Bertrand. While Bertrand seems, alas, a footnote to Baudelaire, it’s worth looking at atrio of his poems. And here is arguably Baudelaire’s most famous prose poem, “Be Drunk,” translated by Louis Simpson.
“In the 1860s Baudelaire continued to write articles and essays on a wide range of subjects and figures. He was also publishing prose poems, which were posthumously collected in 1869 as Petits poémes en prose (Little Poems in Prose). By calling these non-metrical compositions poems, Baudelaire was the first poet to make a radical break with the form of verse.” – from Poets.org from the Academy of American Poets.
The prose poem remains an elusive genre, a kind of hybrid form, it strikes me, that looks like prose, can move narratively forward like prose, but embraces the charged compressed diction of poetry, has an impressionistic flair, the metric torque of poetry, but refuses poetry’s wholly idiosyncratic relationship with the page’s right margin. The prose poem also crosses, upon occasion, into the realm of experimental creative nonfiction. I’m less worried these days about what to call things until after they are completed. Not to be facile, or reductive, the prose poem – while decidedly not a default genre for what one cannot categorize – remains yet another kind of very sturdy vessel in which to house certain kinds of writing that cross genres and resist obvious characterization.
Here’s a really interesting and useful primer on the prose poem with plenty of great examples of this protean, never very-well-defined genre.
I would also direct you to Holly Iglesias’s prose poem in my April 2 blog installment. Holly is a master of the form.
Kakalak Poetry and Art Contests are open for submission. To be eligible, you must be a native or resident of North Carolina or South Carolina. For guidelines and entry fees, click here.
The Charlotte Writers Club has been a mainstay for writers in and around Charlotte for years and years. It will always have my affection and gratitude.