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

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