Last September when we were gathered for our last evening on the mountain at the Table Rock Writers Workshop, we knew that our dear friend and colleague Joseph Bathanti was just that minute being celebrated in Raleigh by the North Carolina Arts Council. Joseph had just been selected from the very wide and deep field of talented North Carolina poets to serve as our state’s poet laureate. Joseph is now touring the state giving readings, teaching workshops in places where poetry may not be the norm, and generally bearing his gregarious self with equal measures of humility and humor. In short, Joseph is doing what he’s always been doing since moving to North Carolina as a VISTA volunteer in 1976.
Joseph’s poetry is musical and sublime, whether he is writing about the remnants of the Confederacy that haunt Anson County or the dangers of house hunting on high cliffs in a western North Carolina winter. Joseph’s blue-collar-Pittsburgh roots inform his vision and the sharp turns of his lines. He is our Philip Levine (the U.S. Poet Laureate for 2011-2012). Like Levine, Bathanti often writes about the world of physical labor, whether it is a memory of his father’s daily pilgrimage to the steel mills or his wife’s work in bearing two remarkable sons–Jacob and Beckett–who are now making their way in the world with considerable gifts and grace as a result of their joyous upbringing.
Joan Bathanti, Joseph’s life partner, born and raised in Georgia, was also a VISTA volunteer, and North Carolina was their matchmaker. That must be why Joseph has worked so hard to reward every borough and backwood in these 100 counties with a word picture. When I was compiling the Literary Trails of North Carolina series for UNC Press, Joseph was the go-to poet. He had a poem about most everywhere. He had already discovered that cemetery near the South Carolina border that requires a spooky hike through pine barrens to visit the graves of those rugged early settlers who harvested tar here in the 1700s. Joseph had already observed and written about dock workers unloading boats at Wanchese, simultaneously musing at the numbing challenges that must have worn down the Lost Colony. His poems are by turns tender and terrifying, always asking hard questions, always wondering at the foibles of humans and angels.
As if his poetry were not enough, Joseph has also written novels and story collections that benefit mightily from his poet’s ear and eye. But finally it is the bond of friendship, his role as a masterbuilder of our North Carolina literary family, that is the measure of Joseph Bathanti. That is why I could shoot him an e-mail in the midst of his busiest year as our state’s new poet laureate and within an hour he would answer, saying yes to teaching for us this fall at Table Rock.
–Georgann Eubanks, Table Rock Writers Workshop
Please visit our website and consider joining us this year, September 9-13, 2013 for the Table Rock Writers Workshop.