Joseph Bathanti, laureate and brother-to-all, speaks
by Rob Neufeld
That’s in addition to visiting schools, colleges, prisons, shelters, and hospitals; teaching at Appalachian State University; and publishing two new books.
“Concertina” (Mercer University Press, 2013) is a book of poems derived from his work in prisons in 1976 and from his early years with his future wife, Joan, a Georgia girl. “Half of What I Say Is Meaningless” (Mercer, June 30, 2014) is a collection of autobiographical essays about such topics as his parents, Thomas Wolfe, Catholicism, working class existence, the teaching of writing, and irony.
Bathanti has also written “East Liberty,” a coming-of-age novel set in a tough neighborhood in Pittsburgh; “Coventry,” a Southern Gothic novel about the hell of prison, for which he won the Novello Award; “This Metal,” a book of poems nominated for the National Book Award; “Restoring Sacred Art,” winner of the 2010 Roanoke Chowan Prize; and seven other books.
Bathanti is a master of many forms—poetry, fiction, essays, memoir, and plays—and informs each with passion, poetic objectivity, and colloquial ease.
Bathanti speaks at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, 10 a.m., Saturday, as part of its “Writers at Wolfe Series.” (Call 253-8304.) See his website at josephbathanti.wordpress.com.
I interviewed him recently, and here are some excerpts.
A: I found out what that wire was before I knew of the little Italian music box…I was surrounded by concertina all the time, working in prisons. Then, driving across the state, I would see it from afar, and I would know I was coming upon a prison, and it became the most salient symbol of that repressive world. It’s unusually beautiful, but it’s hideous…The irony was beyond profound for me—that something that makes this beautiful Old World music—held in your hands, it’s your companion, it’s lovely—becomes something insidious, designed specifically to rip people apart.
Q: One of the most powerful and driving themes in your work is your resistance to the idea that anything or anyone’s personality is black or white.
A: Ah. No one is just one thing—I probably learned that early in life, but wasn’t able to articulate it…I’m skeptical when I hear a story, especially one that puts the teller in the story in a hierarchy that privileges him or her…Literature has educated me that we live in the spaces between black and white, that nether-space, neither good nor bad, but profoundly human and flawed. I think that profoundly human and flawed is getting close to sainthood. It’s the best we can do.
Q: What are you referring to when you say you learned that early in life?
A: I grew up in this inner city, Italian, Catholic, working class neighborhood where I was surrounded by all sorts of characters. I heard a lot of stories, and I grew up, probably because of my mother, not taking things at face value, always scrutinizing characters, sizing them up, looking deeper than the surface…We were instructed all the time, because it was a rough neighborhood, to be on red alert…I love it that people are walking contradictions, that they’re not all one thing…We walk around in an illusory life just to get from Monday to Tuesday to Wednesday.
Q: Your life and writing seem attuned to people in tough circumstances, such as prisons.
A: You work in a prison and so you start dealing with drug addicts and alcoholics. Then you find out about homeless people. And then you find about kids who are having difficulties. My early life in North Carolina led me into that, and we [his wife and Joan and he] became house parents for abused and neglected children.
Joan was a counselor in another kind of group home. We were making our living among that population. It’s was eye-opening…There are the front-line and often suffering people whom, I’m afraid, we’re being coached, more and more by the powers that be, to loathe. And we can’t do that. They are us. It’s like the Beatitudes —there but for the grace of God, so take care of the poor, especially when you reach a station where it’s easy enough to do that.
Q: Let’s talk about your Poet Laureate work.
A: A colleague of mine in the English department [at ASU], a real friend—her son was a corpsman in Iraq, and he returned from the war—I can’t be more articulate than to say he was a mess. And he wanted me to work on an independent study with him, where he would write about his wartime experiences. I agreed to do that, and then I thought, if I were going to do it for one person then I should probably generalize that opportunity to vets across campus.
I had this lodged in my mine, and when I was asked to declare my signature project [as Poet Laureate], I unhesitantly said this is what I’m going to do: I’m going to work with returning combat veterans and their families to harvest their stories through memoir, poetry, fiction, playwriting, you name it…We know that people who write about trauma get over trauma a little quicker. It’s not a formula. It doesn’t happen instantly. But if you can control the memory, it won’t control you.
A: One of the things I was interested in doing in “Coventry” was not to privilege anybody. Essentially, we have the African American prisoner and we have the Caucasian guard. I tried not to privilege either of their viewpoints as to who was good and who was bad. I tried to put them in the same hopeless sump. They’re both in prison together in an insoluble situation, and that’s why I wanted those two to shape-shift into each other often in the novel’s more impressionistic and fabulous flights.
Q: You have this poem, “Doughnuts,” which tells about a prison guard and contains beautiful imagery.
A: That incident really happened. It was the very first day I was on the prison yard in Mount Pleasant out in Cabarrus County, and we were playing basketball, and this old guy brought in these doughnuts to the old chain gang captain. I remember that image of the doughnuts, still kind of warm, glazed, kind of beautiful, really delicious looking, but how stark and ironic—the idea that this mean, throwback chain gang superintendent had a sweet tooth.
Q: One of the things I love about your work is your vocabulary. You seem to collect words—current lingo, specialized words, and some personal favorites. Let’s get to one of your favorite words, “amnesiac.”
A: I don’t know when I got so worked up about how we know what’s true. I decided that we were all victims of a kind of amnesia, that we’ve forgotten out instincts, we don’t know who we are, we don’t have much history…We’re all trying to reassemble our lives from this imagined past and we’re not sure what really happened in our own lives. That idea of waking up every day and wondering who the heck am I, and then taking it from there.
Q: What are you reading now?
A: I’m reading a lot of war stuff. I recommend Katey Schulz’s “Flashes of War”; and the anthology, “Fire and Forget.”
Q: What do you show students as examples of war poetry?
A: I show them the Vietnam poems of Yusef Komunyakaa and Bruce Weigl—for instance, (Weigl’s) poem, “Song of Napalm.”
Q: What Southern food have you learned to cook?
A: I can make a pretty good vat of collard greens.
Q: What will you be doing after retiring as Poet Laureate?
A: I’ll be teaching at Appalachian State University, and I’ll remain an advocate for vets. I’ll stay involved in prisons. I’ve been collaborating with the photographer Carl Galie, writing poems for his book and exhibit about mountaintop removal. And I have a new novel coming out from the University of North Carolina in September.
Q: What inspirational items or mottos do you have above or on your desk?
A: Over my desk, there are pictures of my wife, my sons, and my mom and dad. I have the last baseball that my father ever had in his hand; and my grandmother’s rosary.
Q: What music have you been listening to?
A: I just took out of my car a CD I’ve been playing over and over, the double album, “The Last Waltz.”
Q: What museum exhibit has made a big impression on you?
A: “Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In” is a show
meant for writers, and is currently at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.