The North Carolina poet laureate acts as an ambassador of N.C. literature, using the office as a platform from which to promote N.C. writers and the potentially transformative qualities of poetry and the written word. The N.C. Arts Council administers the poet laureate program, providing an annual stipend along with staff support.
Joseph Bathanti was born in Pittsburgh, Penn. on July 20, 1953, and grew up in an Italian neighborhood called East Liberty. His father was a steelworker and his mother was a seamstress, both children of immigrants who arrived from Italy and France in the early 1900s. As a teenager Bathanti held a number of working class jobs: he was a hod carrier for a contractor, carrying bricks in a box on his shoulder; a busboy; a dishwasher; a truck driver for a flower shop; a stock boy and a roofer.
“While I grew up in a very literate household, with plenty of books, I wouldn’t necessarily call it a very literary household,” Bathanti recalls. “Poetry, especially, was a foreign dog to say the very least.”
It wasn’t until a memorable day at his high school in 1969 that the poetry seed got planted. The African American poet Don Lee (known today by the African name Haki Madhubuti) put on a performance for the school’s 1200 predominantly white students.
“He was a tall man with a giant Afro, and wore a dashiki,” Bathanti recalls. “He performed and shouted absolutely fire-breathing Afro-American poetry to us, and blew all 1200 minds there in different ways. It was utterly outrageous—we had never seen anything like it.” The publication of his high school literary magazine, The Spectrum, further cemented Bathanti’s interest in the craft.
“The guys who wrote poems in the magazine were getting terrific attention from the most wonderful, intelligent girls that I especially wanted attention from,” Bathanti says. “I realized at that juncture that having ‘feelings’ was more significant than shoulder pads.” Steeped in the music of the day—from artists like Bob Dylan, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and Joni Mitchell— the 16 year-old Bathanti began to think in different ways about his life and begin committing words to paper.
He spent his freshman year at a state college in the small Pennsylvania coal mining town of California before transferring to the University of Pittsburgh, commonly known as Pitt, where he earned an M.F.A. in English Literature.
After his graduation, Bathanti joined Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), a national service program designed to fight poverty. Originally considering Montana, he was placed in North Carolina in 1976 as a volunteer working in the state’s prison system. At the time he knew nothing about prisons or jails beyond what he had learned from James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart movies.
“I like to say that one day I was in my mother’s kitchen, and the next day I was on a prison yard— the contrast seemed that abrupt,” Bathanti recalls. “I moved into a completely new consciousness, new geography and new ‘language’ that came to represent North Carolina for me. I fell in love with the state instantly.”
Assigned to work in Huntersville Prison in Mecklenburg County, he met a fellow volunteer from Atlanta, Joan Carey on their first day of training. “She took pity on this Yankee and coached me through my first serving of grits,” Bathanti says. They married a year later and have remained together for 35 years.
After a year with VISTA, Bathanti arrived at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte to apply for a job as an English teacher. The unexpected departure of a faculty member due to a family emergency opened up a timely vacancy, and as a result Bathanti found himself in a classroom only two days later. It was his first teaching job, and lasted almost a decade.
Along the way, Bathanti began writing in earnest. “I started writing habitually—sitting down every day and actually writing poems,” Bathanti says. “I made the decision that if you wait for inspiration, nothing will occur. Do you ever get inspired to develop a workout program, or a diet? No, you’re not inspired; you do it.”
He also began to delve into his own life for ideas. His first poem of substance was a work about his paternal grandfather, who had arrived in the US in 1907 from Puglia, Italy on a ship in steerage as so many other immigrants had done.
“I began to understand what image and imagery means, how to use the five senses, how to actually get into the specificity of what happened, the story, the narrative,” Bathanti says. “Early on, I had divorced poetry from narrative. But free verse, which I had never encountered, gave me license and permission to ramble and tell the stories that resided in me. That doesn’t make me unique; they reside in everybody. So not only did they open a wellspring in me as a young poet, but they also opened a wellspring in me as a young teacher.”
For four years starting in 1985, Bathanti shared his talents as a poet and writer while living in rural Anson, Union and McDowell counties as part the North Carolina Visiting Artist Program, a collaboration between the N.C. Arts Council and the N.C. Community College System running from 1971 to 1995 which brought artists of all stripes to small towns and rural communities across the state.
“I learned about all of those linked agencies that make things happen in terms of education and the arts: public libraries, the community college system, local arts councils and county school systems,” Bathanti says. “It was a fabulous training about how to put on an event, how to go into the school system, how to pool resources, how to partner or sometimes, how to go door to door scrounging for funds to bring in a buck dancer.”
Since that time, Bathanti has traveled to all of North Carolina’s 100 counties, advocating for writing, literature and literacy. He has taught, lectured and read his work not only in traditional settings like public schools, libraries , civic clubs and colleges, but also in battered women’s and homeless shelters, training schools, daycare centers and nursing homes. He’s taught writing workshops in prisons for 35 years and is former chair of the N.C. Writers’ Network Prison project.
In his writing, Bathanti draws heavily on his life, ethnicity, religion and personal experiences. His first poetry collection, Communion Partners (1986) addresses growing up in a religious family and attending parochial school. Anson County (1989) explores the people of that rural county he met during his work as a visiting artist. Family, work, place and religion again figure in The Feast of All Saints (1994) and This Metal (1996), which was nominated for the National Book Award.
His novel, East Liberty (2001) is a coming-of-age story about race relations and religion set in his hometown in the 1950s and 1960s. Coventry (2006), drawing on Bathanti’s experiences as a prison teacher and mentor, tells the fictional story of a prison guard’s son who follows in his father’s career only to be increasingly imprisoned by his own job.
The short stories in his collection, The High Heart (2007) are set in Pittsburgh during the 1960s and 1970s and are linked by a main character, Fritz Sweeney and his dysfunctional parents.
Now a professor of creative writing and writer-in-residence for Appalachian State University’s Watauga Global Community, Bathanti instills in his young students the knowledge that regardless of their age or experience, they, too, embody stories.
“I give them two quotes,” Bathanti says. “One is from Richard Hugo’s book, The Triggering Town: ‘The creative writing classroom is a place where your life still matters.’ The other is from Flannery O’Connor, who’s a real idol of mine: ‘Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.'”