If not for teenage hormones, Joseph Bathanti might never have become North Carolina's seventh poet laureate. "I went to an all-boys Catholic high school in Pittsburgh," Bathanti says, "and we had this literary magazine come out. All these guys had poems in them, and they got terrific attention from all these girls I was dying to get attention from. Predicated on that — not just that, I hope — I started writing poetry."
Nominated by former Gov. Bev Perdue in 2012, Bathanti will serve until 2014. He has authored three books of fiction, one of nonfiction and seven books of poetry. CL caught up with the Appalachian State creative writing professor before his upcoming visit, slated for Sept. 22, 7 p.m. at St. Alban's Episcopal Church in Davidson, to learn more about his inspiration, favorite poetry and just how to beat the evil writer's block. This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Creative Loafing: When did you first get into poetry?
Joseph Bathanti: When I was a junior in high school, in 1969. Part of it was just the times. There was so much upheaval — it was really exciting. I wrote it in fits and starts, but it wasn't until I arrived in Charlotte in 1976 that I really buckled down and started writing and developing a habit of writing regularly. It's taken a while, maturity and all that stuff, but now writing is like second nature to me.
Favorite poet and why?
I have a bunch, but my canned response is Robert Lowell. I discovered his work in passionate ways at a time in my life where it would really influence me in very positive ways. He writes a lot about family — I write a lot about family — but I also like the denseness and compression of his work. It has machine-gun fire in it. I also became very acquainted with his life, and I don't know if this is possible just by reading people's work, but I kind of love Robert Lowell, even though he's been dead since 1977. It's some kind of mysterious affinity that I have for him.
What are your duties as poet laureate?
I actually have a job description: I am the ambassador of reading, writing, literature and literacy in the state. I go all over North Carolina, to libraries, colleges, prisons, shelters and hospitals and talk about reading and writing. Sometimes I read my work. I also have a signature project, and that's working with returning combat veterans and all veterans and their families to harvest their stories through poetry, but also through fiction and nonfiction. I've been going to veterans' hospitals and brain-trauma research and veterans' writings centers. On Nov. 8, a collaboration between me and the Touring Theatre of North Carolina will premiere in Greensboro. It's a play featuring the writing of veterans and their families.
What is your creative process like?
It's been a little catch-as-catch-can since I've been poet laureate. I've been traveling like crazy, and I don't have a set time to write. I just kind of write when I have time. That amounts to every day, sometimes for a decent amount of time, sometimes for only half an hour.
Something I understand now that I didn't when I was 16 or 23 is that really good writing comes through the revision process. There is no writing, only rewriting. Get something down. Keep going back to it. Sometimes it takes a week; sometimes it takes two weeks; sometimes it takes two years. Each poem, each story, each essay has a mind of its own. I've learned to trust the revision process.
You teach writing workshops in prisons. What's the difference between teaching there and teaching in a classroom?
Usually when I go into a prison I'm dealing with adults, people who come from real poverty and hardship. Often, they've been in prison for a long time and they don't have a lot of formal education. But I find them to be very eager and talented, with enormous stories, much like students. Prisoners just haven't thought to tell their stories.
Are there consistent themes in your poetry?
Family, Catholicism (I grew up intensely Catholic), my hometown of Pittsburgh, North Carolina, the South and the natural world, to name a few. North Carolina has occupied a giant portion of my imagination. I've been here for 37 years, almost two-thirds of my life. I became a writer here. I met my wife in Atlanta, but we got married and had kids here.
What's your take on genre fiction? I don't think subjects are bad. I think writing is bad. Often, some of the writing I see among young writers tends to be really derivative. I've read it before. I want to know that young people who are writing genre fiction have read other kinds of literature as well. Classic literature informs the best genres. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien had read everything under the sun before they embarked on their really inspired masterpieces. Now I'm worried that people are writing genre fiction based not on books but on movies.
Anything you won't write about?
I don't write about things that I think would really hurt people in my life. Even if it's a great story, I have enough to write about. It's almost like a moral stance, lines I wouldn't cross.
Cures for writer's block?
I have a lot of unfinished projects, stories that don't have endings, that I go back to if I'm stuck. But my biggest problem isn't writer's block; it's writer's lack of time.
Some people, myself included, complain that they don't understand poetry and therefore don't read it. How does that person get into poetry?
Start reading it widely and broadly and move away from the places that befuddle you. There is poetry out there for everyone; it's never been more democratized than it is now. There's so much African-American poetry, Latino poetry, gay and lesbian poetry, performance poetry. Pick up a contemporary anthology of poetry, or go to a poetry reading. The work comes alive sometimes in person, when a poet is reading his or her work. It's like going to a play: You say you hate Shakespeare, but then you go to a performance and you say, "Wow, that was something else." Hearing it really evangelizes people.