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State Poet Laureate entertains, teaches Elkin students

By Tanya Chilton tchilton@civitasmedia.com

February 13, 2014

ELKIN — The seventh Poet Laureate of North Carolina, Joseph Bathanti, gave a talk with narrative poetry readings from works penned by his own hand, and led an ask and answer segment with Elkin students and staff as Friday’s audience at Elkin High School.


A native of Pittsburgh, Pa., Bathanti told his audience that it was during high school that he seriously became interested in poetry. While a student at Central Catholic High School from 1967-71, Bathanti’s attention was drawn to the literary magazine “Spectrum.”


In an opening moment of serious reflection, combined with humor, Bathanti said he was drawn to the craft initially “because the guys with the poems in the magazine got attention from the girls.”


The reason seemed good enough for Elkin students. Many laughed while some nodded their heads in approval.


Coming from what Bathanti described as a “working class, Italian-American neighborhood,” Bathanti elaborated on other influences in his life. He explained that his father’s job was as a steelworker and his mother’s as a seamstress.


As early as 7 years of age, Bathanti contemplated themes of sainthood and martyrdom. “I was only 7, why be tortured and die?” asked a young Bathanti, who later wrote “Sainthood.”


In addition to “Sainthood,” Bathanti conducted readings from his other books including, “Feast of All Saints” and “Concertina.”


Many of Bathanti’s narratives capture ordinary, day-to-day events interwoven with themes of human interaction and heavy realism.


Detailed attention in prose is frequently given to ordinary objects. Themes of religion, family, food, community and prison outreach, and sports weighed heavily in Bathanti’s reading. In fact, National Football League players Dan Marino and Mark Bulger went to the same high school, said Bathanti.


Bathanti honored students’ reading request and remarked on their personal interpretation throughout the talk, held in the Elkin High Media Center.


One student requested a reading of the poem entitled Jo-Jo, named after “a buddy that was a good basketball player,” said Bathanti. Another student wanted to know the meaning of “Three Little Pigs” a poem based on an intense discussion with a prison inmate that included a detailed knowledge of barbecue and sauces.


After Bathanti turned 18, he found himself in the midst of “significant influences” such as the Vietnam era, the Civil Rights movement, Woodstock, women’s rights, black power, and the hippie movement. In the midst of it all, “there were gripes against poetry being too hard to read.” Narrative emphasis that need not rhyme or have meter counts grew in popularity.


Elkin English teacher April Swarey said, “His (Bathanti’s) connection to an authentic life was evident…not just a formula with choices you make…decisions will come up.”


The teacher added that the narrative style is characteristic of the “1960’s beat poets” and the Harlem Renaissance. “Many mediums in poetry offer kids the freedom to have a voice, with one medium no better than the other. Narrative is just as beautiful as other forms,” Swarey added.


Bathanti said, “That period gave permission to write poetry from a lot of different places.” Friday, Bathanti still advised poets similarly, “Write about what you think you shouldn’t write about. We all have stories we need to write,”


Elkin Librarian Kathy Snow said she particularly enjoyed the high school reading, because like Bathanti, she is a native of Pittsburgh.


Bathanti is a professor of creative writing at Appalachian State University and author of 13 publications. He said he has two more works set to be published soon.


Tanya Chilton may be reached at 336-835-1513 or on Twitter @TanyaTDC.