MONROE – Union County residents welcomed a poetic dignitary into their midst this week.
Joseph Bathanti, North Carolina’s poet laureate, wove personal experiences and stories into his poetry as he spoke to faculty and students at South Piedmont Community College on Tuesday, Feb. 18. Bathanti discussed the events of his life that crafted him into the person he is today, while giving students an insight into how furthering his education played into all he’s accomplished.
“I like to harp about education,” Bathanti said, adding his parents instilled in him a value for education and he always knew he would go to college. “I’m kind of the poster child for why you should continue education.”
Bathanti, the son of a steel mill worker and seamstress, attended the University of Pittsburgh – where he found he “was really suited to reading,” and where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English literature.
Bathanti’s presentation Tuesday night was a mixture of discussion and reading, as he took turns rotating from reading his works to answering questions and filling in the holes about his past.
The poet laureate had no idea what he wanted to do when he left college, so he joined Volunteers in Service to America in 1976, where he mentored to inmates in Huntersville and met his future wife, who also was volunteering with the program. Although his parents thought he was crazy for volunteering with inmates when he had just earned a master’s degree, Bathanti said he was doing the “best thing I ever did in my life.”
Bathanti later went on to work at Central Piedmont Community College, where he began to write and hone his craft.
“I began writing badly and then less badly and then less badly…,” he said, telling the students that if they wait to get inspired, they will never start. “I just kept plodding along.”
Inspiration can come from anywhere, Bathanti explained. It can be world-changing events or an everyday occurrence at home. For him, his high school days at a Catholic school played a big part in shaping his future. It was a time of hippies, the Vietnam War and Civil Rights movement.
“Three things came together that changed the face of everything,” Bathanti said, listing the women’s rights movements, the Black Power movement and the anti-war movement. As a result, Bathanti said, different music, movies and writing started coming out.
But as important as those events were, something closer to home had a big impact on the poet laureate’s writings. His father is a central figure in works such as “Knocked” and “Wheeling,” and his poems are filled with stories from his past.
“Wheeling” is a poem about driving to Wheeling, W.V., in a borrowed Mercury Comet. Bathanti said he got the idea for “Wheeling” from talking to his friend about the incident and the memories of that night came “flooding back.”
While Bathanti wishes at times he could go back and make changes to some of his works, that’s a habit aspiring writers have to learn to control.
“Nothing is finished, but at some point you have to put (your writing) down and move on to something else,” he said.
Bathanti is constantly writing. He has written six books of poetry, two novels, a book of short stories and a non-fiction piece since 1986. He also has received numerous awards including the Ragan-Rubin Award in 2012, selected by the North Carolina English Teachers Association. Bathanti currently is a creative writing professor and the writer-in-residence in the Watauga Global Community at Appalachian State University.
Bathanti is the state’s seventh poet laureate, having been appointed in 2012 by Gov. Bev Perdue. Poet laureates are charged with traveling the state, engaging writers and readers of all ages, according to the North Carolina Arts website. The poet laureate typically serves a two-year term, although that can be changed by the governor, and receives staff support along with a $15,000 annual stipend from the North Carolina Arts Council.
Find more information at www.ncarts.org/resources/poetry-resources/north-carolina-poet-laureate/.