Three Poets Laureate: Lightning Rods for Poetry

Nick Narbutas
From the July/August 2015 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Joseph Bathanti
North Carolina Poet Laureate, 2012–2014

The author of fourteen books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, most recently the novel The Life of the World to Come, published by the University of South Carolina Press in 2014. His most recent poetry collection is Concertina, published by Mercer University Press in 2013.

You initially moved to North Carolina as part of the VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) program. How did this experience shape the sort of poet and teacher—and, by extension, poet laureate—you would go on to become?
When I arrived as a VISTA volunteer in North Carolina, in 1976, recently out of graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh, I was burning to write, though I hadn’t really engaged in it with the kind of steadiness necessary to pile up pages. By happenstance, I was assigned as a VISTA to the North Carolina Department of Corrections and spent the next fourteen months, more or less, in a cell block or on a prison yard—mainly at Huntersville Prison, about twelve miles north of Charlotte—immersed in the tangle of things related to incarceration and reentry.

Prison is a place of extremes where very dramatic things happen by the moment. Young writers often harp about not having anything to write about, but suddenly I was handed a trove of material. Thus I started writing, rather obsessively, about the surreal world of prison. What’s more, my first foray into teaching began in prisons. One of the first things I did as a new VISTA was to organize informal writing workshops in the trailer [connected to] the prison that served as the de facto classroom. I’d supply the guys with a prompt, they’d read what they wrote, and then we’d kick it around. I was also able to put together a couple of saddle-stitched anthologies that featured their poems, stories, and artwork.

I wasn’t thinking at all, back then, that those weekly sessions in that too-hot or too-cold trailer might be therapeutic for the prisoners. It hadn’t occurred to me in those terms, nor had the big conversation about the indisputable benefit of writing in dealing with various sorts of trauma been initiated on a widespread scale. I initiated those sessions because I saw them as extensions of my own desire to write and as a way to contribute to the VISTA project. I became, of course, mystified and intoxicated by the stories those men had to tell and the manner in which they told them. I also launched into reading everything I could get my hands on about prison, especially poetry and fiction.

When asked to recapitulate my career, I always say that my first teaching job was in a prison, and in the narrowest sense this is true. More importantly, my VISTA assignment and teaching in prison were not only the beginning of my own education, but the true genesis of my writing life.

I discovered in VISTA that prisons are but one shackle in the ponderous chain of group homes, halfway houses, soup kitchens, mental hospitals, women’s shelters, juvenile detention centers, and homeless shelters. The same characters show up in each script. It’s no secret that all social ills are intimately connected, but it’s something I had to learn by seeing for myself. I became not only aware of the vast subculture of poverty and affliction, but also of the often invisible network of agencies, organizations, and socially [engaged], charitable individuals committed to helping the kinds of folks who find themselves in such places.

The philosopher and theologian Thomas Moore said, “Deep changes in life follow movements in imagination.” As a result of being not only with prison inmates daily, but also in close proximity to the community of mercy which inevitably responds to suffering, I experienced a radical shift in my imagination. Revealed to me was a rare and secret world and I was an eyewitness to it. Not only was it consciousness-raising, it was life-changing.

As North Carolina’s poet laureate, I was interested in getting in front of every citizen of the state I could manage to visit, but I was also especially keen on visiting those people and those regions of the state—very rural and/or underserved—that did not have regular access to writers and literature, including the populations my service in VISTA revealed to me.

It seems like the act of teaching writing lay at the heart of your work as poet laureate, especially in your signature project of working with returning veterans and their families. How did this go for you? Did you have any specific goals or hopes in mind for the project, and were they achieved?
Ultimately, teaching is at the heart of a poet laureate’s service. A solid poet laureate, certainly at the state level, has to be a teacher, an educator. It’s a job that demands a decided pedagogical range to work with all kinds of folks in unimaginably diverse locales—not to mention all the planning and preparation that goes into it all. Traditionally North Carolina poets laureate spend a considerable amount of time in K–12 schools, cheerleading not only for the children, but for those embattled, dedicated, hard-working teachers who ensure that writing and reading endure. That same kind of teaching by the poet laureate also occurs in county libraries, community colleges, universities, churches, shelters, and hospitals. The laureateship in North Carolina remains, I’m pleased to say, a grass-roots service position.

When I declared my signature project as poet laureate—to work with military veterans, those returning from combat and others, and involve their families whenever possible, to tell their stories through poetry and other genres—I didn’t really know what I was getting into. I’m dramatically smarter today about the issues plaguing veterans and their families than I was thirty-two months ago, when I declared my aim to pursue that work, but I’m still very much on the front end of that apprenticeship.

Since then, I’ve taught at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, the Veterans Writing Project summer workshops at George Washington University, and a number of other venues. But, primarily, my work with vets and their families has been in North Carolina. There is nothing terribly fancy about what I do. In the main, I walk into those places and simply talk to those folks for a while, then ask them to talk, and then I ask them to write—not necessarily about their wartime experiences, but inevitably that’s exactly what they end up writing about. And the writing these sessions yield is always breathtaking.

At the outset of my project, I had hoped to launch a statewide initiative, to create a model that would be perpetuated beyond my tenure as poet laureate. I don’t think anything quite that ambitious was ever achieved, in a codified sense. Yet—because of my work, in part, and the attention the North Carolina Arts Council focused on it, and other like-minded agencies and committed folks that rallied to the cause—I do think there was a certain amount of concentrated attention devoted to vets and their families and how writing and other arts can be implemented to not only bring to light their stories, but also to assist them as they deal with the often debilitating fallout associated with deployment.

Again, I cannot at all take credit for this. So many terrific initiatives were already in place or in the process of taking hold when I was appointed poet laureate in 2012. I more or less became a focal point for the crucial intersection among vets, their families, and writing. The North Carolina Arts Council took up that torch, spread the word, and paved the way. Essentially, I mimicked what others had hatched before me. And I reached out initially for help, notably and especially to Ron Capps, founder and director of the Veterans Writing Project in D.C., and Donald Anderson, editor of War, Literature & the Arts, at the Air Force Academy.