Arts & Entertainment

Former N.C. Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti visits Ocracoke

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The poem Uncertainty is printed below.

Joseph Bathanti, courtesy of Appalachian State University New Bureau

By Peter Vankevich

Sometime it takes a radical decision for someone to find their true calling in life.

For former North Carolina Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti, it was a stint following college as a VISTA volunteer working in a prison where he discovered he could write and also that he had a gift for inspiring others to foster their creativity.

Bathanti is the author of 10 volumes of poetry, three novels and a short story collection.

“After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh, 1975, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I did have a really long list of things I didn’t want to do — I also knew I wanted to do something good” he said.

So, he applied to VISTA, Volunteers In Service to America, which is the domestic equivalent to the Peace Corps. Deriving its roots from the John F. Kennedy administration, it was established by President Lyndon B. Johnson as a national service program designed to fight poverty.

He was assigned to the Huntersville Prison about 12 miles north of Charlotte. It was there he met his wife Joan who was working in the same program. Joan also has extensive work in helping others including working with juvenile offenders in a group home.

At the prison, Bathanti taught creative writing and published a literary magazine of prisoners’ writings. He also taught current events and film classes, coached basketball and softball and formed two AA groups.

Working with prisoners became a life-long commitment for him.

“Paraphrasing, Dostoevsky once said you can learn the character of a society by its prisons,” he said.  “In those prison yards, I saw different versions of myself and different versions of my early friends, thinking, it was by the grace of God there go I. It was a humbling experience that influences my daily life.”

These experiences were a fount of inspiration reflected in his own fiction and poetry with titles such as “Inmates Working,” “The Dogs of Salisbury,” “Recidivism,” “Women’s Prison” and “Teaching an Inmate to Read.”

When he was appointed Poet Laureate in 2012 by then-Gov. Bev Perdue for a two-year tenure, he was asked to declare a signature project. He decided to work with returning combat veterans and their families to harvest their stories through poetry, fiction and nonfiction.

“Writing about trauma can help people get over it or at least deal better with it in profound ways,” he said about the project.

He first went to Walter Reed Hospital in Bethesda, Md., to teach veterans, and then returned to North Carolina to work with veterans throughout the state. Last year, he was appointed the Charles George VA Medical Center Writer in Residence in Asheville.

There he met with a group of Vietnam veterans and developed a program call “Brothers Like These” where the vets would tell their own stories and read their poems once a week for nearly two years.

Their public premier took place to a packed house last August at the Asheville Community Theater. The next public performance took place on April 19, on the Appalachian State campus, drawing an audience of more than 300  and it was filmed by UNC-TV for a future broadcast. A book on this project published by St. Andrews University Press went on sale after the performance.

A native of Pittsburgh, Pa., Bathanti grew up in East Liberty, then an Italian-American blue-collar neighborhood where he attended Catholic elementary and high school.

“My father was a steel worker and mother a seamstress,” he said.

His novel, “East Liberty,” set in the 1950s and 1960s, tells the story of Bobby Renzo, who is raised by his unwed mother and who feels called to the Roman Catholic priesthood.

During his Ocracoke visit, Bathanti was a guest on WOVV 90.1 FM, Ocracoke’s community radio station, and he and Joan took in the St. Patrick’s Day parade.

Joseph Bathanti, former N.C. Poet Laureate, and his wife, Joan, talk with Greg Honeycutt on St. Patrick’s Day.

When asked where a writer can retreat for a writing project, he had a ready answer: Ocracoke.

“I think it’s heavenly,” he said. “I don’t want to leave.”

The idea of hunkering down off-season in a fairly isolated, beautiful, evocative, inspirational place like this strikes him as the perfect place to write and have access to other things that would fuel creativity.

“I love small communities and there is something really romantic and archaic here in the all the best ways that can’t be faked. In terms of inspiration, it’s in the ether here, in the history.”

Certainty
By Joseph Bathanti

Far from home – penniless,
food stamps, everything
from Goodwill – I lived with Joan Carey,
a Baptist girl from Tucker, Georgia.

For eighty bucks, we leased a Charlotte attic
across from Detox and Memorial Stadium,
and worked in the prisons.My family in Pittsburgh wondered what was I doing

for no wage, and why,
all the way down in North Carolina –
like some agitator.
The certainty I lived in then

made me happier than I’ve ever been.
One torrid August night, 3 a.m.:
we barged out of the Weavers’ crazy party.
Joan and me and Jim, our VISTA boss.

We had come in Jim’s tiny Honda:
brown, homely, tires the size of saucers.
We were headed for Krispy Kreme
up on Independence,

the Hot Dougnuts Now neon
about to announce yet another epiphany
in that enchanted tropical August.
Joan was twenty:

sundresses I remember like pets from my childhood.
And Jim: so young and confident.
Inside they danced to Thelma Houston’s
“Don’t Leave Me This Way,”

setting fire to hallelujah –
the last sacrifice of the summer.
Hearts and windows shattered across the Queen City.
Glad to be together,

we stepped into the street toward the car.
The night was far from over.
Yet up in the huge magnolias,
early morning cast its thermal hush

upon the revel. The three of us
saw it at the same time:
Jim’s Honda, somehow detached
from its station at the curb,

rolled down the middle of 8th Street.
An automobile inexplicably animated
with sinister purpose – as if we’d tripped
unwittingly through the scrim

segregating us from that other world
where things happen for no reason at all.
Jim and I intercepted it, backpedalling
as it bulled us toward the intersection,

until we finally halted it inches from catastrophe.
We looked at one another and laughed –
the way convicts ambling Huntersville yard
laughed about building thirty-forty years

in the penitentiary.
Guys my age who wouldn’t see the streets again,
until after the sons Joan and I would one day whelp
had grown into men and left home.

The laugh Joan and I exchange all too often
when the unimaginable
hurtles into an otherwise placid day.
The laugh I think of now as fear.

Published in Concertina, from Mercer University Press, 2013.