Thursday, October 7, 2010

Bathanti Proves Poetry Can Make a Difference

Bathanti Proves Poetry Can Make a Difference

One of the charges occasionally leveled at contemporary poetry is that it has become irrelevant. Whenever I hear that claim I can’t help but wonder what contemporary poetry the speaker is reading. I read about 100 new poetry books each year and perhaps thousands in various poetry journals, and I will admit that a percentage of those seem pointlessly self-involved: poems about writing poetry; poems written such that only other poets could appreciate them; poems that are mere self-expression. I will admit that even I occasionally write such poems, since other poets and myself are also among my audience. That percentage, however, seems to be a very small one. Most of the poetry that I read is about experiences, ideas, and perceptions that have a broad base of interest and appeal: politics, religion, philosophy, living in the 21st century, joy, loss, regret, all the various faces of human endeavor, success, and failure, and, of course, like all art, beauty and truth.

I can think of no better example of the vital relevance of contemporary poetry than the work of Joseph Bathanti. For decades Bathanti has been deeply involved in the “real” world both in and through his poetry. As a poet and educator (currently at Appalachian State University), Bathanti is the author of 12 creative and scholarly books and has won virtually every award available, but it is the subject of his poetry and the ways in which he uses poetry to change people’s lives that are most deserving of acclaim and that illustrate his vital relevance.

Bathanti’s various involvements in criminal justice began when for fourteen months as a VISTA volunteer, he taught and coached inmates, started Alcoholic Anonymous chapters at two prison camps, coordinated work and study release programs, developed job and parole plans for inmates on the verge of release, and conducted a weekly creative writing workshop, culminating in the publication of an anthology of inmate writing and art work. He followed that up by teaching a Learning Lab at Huntersville Prison and living as a house-parent for abused and neglected children. During this time, he also became involved in death penalty work and appeared on radio and TV as a staunch abolitionist.

Over the past 33 years, Bathanti has lectured, read his work and conducted workshops in a variety of prisons, training schools, battered women’s shelters, homeless shelters, daycare centers, nursing homes, soup kitchens, barns, gyms, train depots, and fish camps. He served as a Humanities scholar through the Georgia Humanities Council on a writing/performance project with AIDS patients at Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital. For ten years, from 1991-2001, he taught an annual week-long creative writing workshop at a North Carolina prison road camp in Stateville. And during the academic year 2005-06, he weekly took a group of creative writing students into Boone’s homeless shelter, Hospitality House, and facilitated a writing workshop among the residents there. This initiative resulted in an anthology, featuring the work of the residents and Appalachian State University students.

Most recently, in March of 2009, he guest-edited the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing, an anthology of prisoner writing published through University of Michigan’s Prisoner Creative Arts Project (PCAP); and also conducted creative writing workshops in Detroit and Ann Arbor prisons.

Bathanti will facilitate a poetry workshop sponsored by the North Carolina Poetry Society, from 5:00 to 6:30 on Tuesday, October 12, at Taste Full Beans Coffeehouse in downtown Hickory. The workshop will be followed by October’s Poetry Hickory, where Bathanti and Robert Abbate, author of The Courage of Straw and instructor at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, will be the featured writers. Poetry Hickory will begin at 6:30 with shorter readings by Bill Griffin, Julian Phelps, and Bethea Buchanan.
Cost of the workshop is $15 for NCPS members and $25 for non-members. Membership information is available at Registration can be reserved by contacting Scott Owens at or 828-234-4266. Space is limited, so early registration is encouraged. Poetry Hickory is free and open to the public. The poem below, which deals with issues faith, beauty, and everyday ways of coping, can serve as a sample of what those in attendance will hear.

The Last Time I Drank with Phil
by Joseph Bathanti

I’m drinking
in the Rose Garden
at Mellon Park with Philip.
Out all night, we find ourselves
burnished in the high
dawn of Easter, Sunday
sun dripping yellow plates
from the Sycamore’s wet green shade.
Spider webs catacomb
the primrose. Angels
spray from silver fountains.
Goldfinches float above
the sequined lawn.
So much light
we shield our eyes,
like the first mendicants,
two old friends, stumbling
upon the risen Christ,
uplifted emerald
bottles of warm Rolling Rock


  1. Though transplanted from Pittsburgh, Joseph Bathanti has been one of the most readable and deeply authentic poets residing in our state, since landing here back in the 1970s. I always read him, always recommend his work, and I never cease to be amazed buy his versatility as a man of letters, his unstoppable energy, and his wise spirit.

  2. We are on fall break this week so I may actually make it to the reading and workshop tomorrow!