Saturday, April 27, 2013

Joseph Bathanti: A (Quick) Appreciation

           I recently attended the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Library’s On the Same Poem luncheon.  Each year the library chooses a poem for the community to read, has teachers lead conversations about it, and brings the poet to town for a reading and Q and A.  Past writers have included Rita Dove, Fred Chappell, Kathryn Stripling Byer, Tony Hoagland, and Kwame Dawes.  This year, for the tenth anniversary of the event, the chosen poem was “Entering an Abandoned House,” by North Carolina’s poet laureate, Joseph Bathanti.
           I’ve long been an admirer of Bathanti’s, and I often quote him, particularly an answer he once gave at a reading when asked what he thought about “so many bad poets” who were writing:  A bad poet never hurts anybody.  Corporate crooks steal millions. Bad doctors kill people.  Bad lawyers and bad politicians ruin lives.  A bad poet eventually realizes he’s bad, and, if he doesn’t, who is he hurting?”
I had the honor of introducing Bathanti at “On the Same Poem,” and I thought I would post a draft of my comments.

I’m jealous of the students here today, jealous that you’re discovering Joseph Bathanti’s work when you’re young, and in doing so, you’re discovering something else, something important.
            I was almost forty when I published my first book of poetry, and it confused my mother.  For one, the poems didn’t rhyme.  But, on a more fundamental level, she recognized some of the people, places, and events.  I was writing about things she knew, but how could that be?  How could our lives be poetry?
            It took me a long time to figure that out.  I grew up in a factory town where in school we learned about Shakespeare and Keats.  They were wonderful, but they seemed to have nothing to do with us.  Even those we had an easier time understanding, like Langston Hughes, were still “historical.”  Outside of school, there was no poetry.
In other words, I didn’t know poets like Joseph Bathanti existed.  I didn’t know about books like Anson County, Land of Amnesia, and This Metal.  I didn’t know that you could write about what he writes about.
Joseph Bathanti writes about abandoned houses (and exploring them), baseball, bars, bathrooms, single mothers, proms, weddings, factories, the tangled relationships between parents and children, the town and county and state where people live.  In doing so, he writes about desires and ambitions and brokenness and how much we long to connect and how much we misunderstand.
He writes about our lives.  And, with empathy and compassion, with a wonderful eye and ear, he shows us that our lives are poetry.
It’s a gift.  It’s a gift he has, and it’s a gift he gives us.
And the importance of his work has been recognized, he has received numerous prestigious awards, fellowships, and prizes.  You can look them up and see, but I’m particularly glad that his work is being recognized here.  In a library.  In a project dedicated to the relationship between poetry and community, poetry and our lives.
My jealousy at the students discovering him when they’re young is dwarfed by my appreciation of his work and by the privilege in being the one to introduce him.
Ladies and Gentleman, our state’s poet laureate, Joseph Bathanti.

A Few Links to Bathanti’s biography and work

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Our Other National Anthem: YMCA

            We’re at our town’s minor league baseball team’s season opener, and the Jumbotron begins to play YMCA.  People around us get up, and my seven year old son is confused.  He knows what the Y is; he goes there to swim and play basketball.  But, he doesn’t understand this Pavlovian reaction to the song and the way people are twisting themselves into shapes that are similar to, but not quite, dancing.
            “Why are they doing this?” he asks.
            It’s a question that I’ve had myself.
I was in college before I encountered people who were openly, comfortably, playfully gay.  Not coincidentally, that’s when I learned about the concept of camp and I realized the Village People, who I had loved since I was young, were gay and were mocking stereotypical American masculinity.  It startled me, and it was one of those realizations where you feel stupid afterwards because it’s so obvious.
What’s odd is how over the years YMCA has gone from being a popular song to being an iconic one.  It’s an American folk song.  It’s played at ballparks, arenas, weddings, schools, parties.  People with strong “family values,” who believe America will crumble into the sea without the Defense of Marriage Act, will stand, shape themselves into enormous letters, and sing about how there’s a place for young men to go and be with other men and have fun and do what they want they feel.   Such people might angrily point out that the C stands for Christian, and that claiming the song was originally a gay anthem disparages a wholesome charity social organization.   Perhaps they don’t know it appeared on the album, “Cruising,” (along with the other hit, “Hot Cop”).  Perhaps like the younger me, they simply haven’t thought about it.
            There are plenty of cases of music getting mainstreamed, sanitized, and made acceptable.  The popularity of “YMCA” isn’t any odder than ice cream trucks playing Ragtime melodies and tunes that used to be considered the devil’s music.   In the 1920s, people feared that hearing ragtime and jazz was going to provoke you to jump into someone’s car, go somewhere, smoke reefer, and get busy.  Now it’s a pied piper tune for children.  Or what about those cheery kid’s songs like Ring Around the Rosy which is about the plaque or London Bridge Is Falling Down?  Or there was the McDonald’s ad campaign years ago -- Mac Tonight -- which reworked Weill and Brecht’s “Mac the Knife” from Three Penny Opera, a song about a serial killer, into a jingle about dinner.
I answer my son’s question.  “People are doing this because it’s fun.”  He looks around and says, “It looks like when we got here.”  I know what he means.  We had arrived at the playing of the national anthem, and he had wondered why everyone was standing up together.  It occurs to me that the two songs you’re guaranteed to hear at sporting event in the U.S. are The National Anthem and YMCA.  And one of these is joyful, inclusive, makes you want to move, and suggests the messy ironic complexity of what it means to be an American.

Saturday, April 13, 2013


The taxes become more and more
difficult to do, a result, perhaps,
of my life becoming more full,
more rich, although frankly
it feels more as if I’m being
wrapped up, thread by thread,
form by form, like Gulliver,
or a fly about to be eaten.

            That’s not right.
Let’s be somewhat honest today.
I’m neither hero nor victim.
I wasn’t forced to wed, have kids,
buy a house. But, I must give
an accounting of my actions,
and this, I suspect, is the source
of our resentment each spring,
how we must provide a reckoning,
even as we understand the numbers
don’t explain what we’ve done or why,
and no matter what the tally says
it’s far too soon to know just what
it is we may have gained or lost.