Photos Courtesy Joseph Bathanti | Interview responses written by Joseph Bathanti
Joseph Bathanti's relationship to the North Carolina Arts Council is one for the books. As a Literature Fellowship award recipient, as our former Poet Laureate, and as a leader in arts programming with underserved communities, both his personal writing and public arts outreach manifest our agency's central mission: to nurture and promote arts for all. From teaching poetry and creative writing to veterans struggling with PTSD during his tenure as North Carolina Poet Laureate, to chronicling our historic Visiting Artist Program in the 2007 book "They Changed the State: The Legacy of North Carolina's Visiting Artists," Joseph's been a champion and ambassador of our work for decades. Not to mention, he's the author of 17 books and the recipient of the North Carolina Award for Literature. We invited him to write about his art and relationship to us in a special 50 for 50 interview below.
Where do you live, and what do you do?
I live with my wife, Joan, in Vilas, NC, in a small mountain valley, a few miles west of Boone. I’m the McFarlane Family Distinguished Professor of Interdisciplinary Education and Writer-in-Residence for Appalachian State University’s Watauga Residential College. I am also the seventh North Carolina Poet Laureate (2012-2014).
Why do you write?
Writing is a reflex, a physical impulse, what Flannery O’Connor termed “the habit of being” – quite simply my life's practice, a daily office, though there are days when I’m able to write only in my head. I don’t want to get too profound or over-mystify it, but writing is inextricable from the way I make sense of the world. Things not terribly clear in my head often come clear on the page, moving into another realm, another ken, that I can only call enlightenment, epiphany – a spiritual experience. I write because it affords me a chance to be a better person, to see and speak a truth perhaps invisible during the actual experience I'm writing about, a truth I cannot always afford to acknowledge in my minute to minute existence. So, I write to tell the truth, to be a better person. When writing, I talk to myself, so there’s no use lying. Writing also brings me great joy.
When did your path first cross with the North Carolina Arts Council?
I certainly knew all about the N.C. Arts Council long before it knew about me. I started my teaching career at Central Piedmont Community College, in Charlotte, in 1977. This was during the very earliest moments of my attempts to write. One Saturday, I attended a writing workshop in Concord. The workshop was led by Tom Heffernan, a poet, who was assigned to the English faculty at Central Piedmont under the auspices of the N.C. Visiting Artist Program, an amazing one-of-a-kind initiative that placed professional artists, from a range of disciplines, in each of North Carolina’s 58 community colleges. I couldn’t believe such a program existed. In 1984, I applied, was accepted and a life-changing romance and adventure with North Carolina began.
Tell me about the Visiting Artist Program and your work with it. What was special about that program?
The N.C. Visiting Artist Program, in the spirit of Black Mountain College, was an innovative, interdisciplinary group of renowned artists specializing in different media under one banner; and towers, along with its famous predecessor, as the State’s most visionary experiment in education. Long before the arts were professionalized, both possessed an unabashed and fierce allegiance to the arts as the principle avatar of education and, by extension, community. The N.C. Visiting Artist Program achieved neither fame nor legendary status – nor often the notice it so richly deserved. Nonetheless, the 321 Visiting Artists who roamed North Carolina from 1971-1995 were supremely and multifariously talented artist-educators with world-class credentials, pioneering zeal and stamina to match. Visiting Artists willingly took to the road: packed up their cellos and trombones, easels and palettes, scrap metal and blow torches. They sat at rickety out-of-tune pianos in gyms and cafeterias and played Chopin or Scott Joplin with good cheer and brilliance. They fashioned dark rooms out of school supply closets; read poems to book club luncheons at local fish camps; helped serve lunch to the elderly, then sang an aria in a mobile Meals-on-Wheels unit; played Debussy and Leadbelly at prison Christmas parties.
Across North Carolina, in countless towns and hamlets, like Bear Grass, Millenium, MacFarlan, Buladean, Rural Hall, and Oriental; in large cities, like Charlotte and Raleigh; in the hinterlands, from proverbial Murphy to Manteo, there exists a convincing and astonishingly varied battalion of monuments left behind by the Visiting Artists who for 24 glorious years called those places home and in many instances still live there: the theatres, county arts councils, music academies, artists series, community college degree programs they founded and which still sustain their communities; the sculptures, paintings, murals, cloth quilts, earth quilts, and all manner of public art that grace colleges, universities, libraries, public schools, retirement homes, banks, and hospitals; every seed of inspiration they sowed in the plow-soles, hollers, inlets, sand hills, coastal plains, urban alleys and boulevards, along the Blue Ridge and deep into the Smokies; every grand and tiny arts initiative, far too many to list, instituted by wayfaring Visiting Artists.
The greatest testimony, the most profound monument to the program’s indisputable far-reaching influence and vision, however, are the North Carolina citizens, people of all ages, creed, color, sexual orientation, and economic stripe, whose lives were not merely touched, but changed, by their contact with Visiting Artists. Many of those folks, especially the children growing up in out-of-the-way places, had never heard before the Visiting Artist Program the lyric testimony of poetry, an arpeggio, the wail of a trumpet, the keen of a flute, had never touched a dulcimer, bassoon or harpsichord. They had never made a pin-hole camera out of a Quaker Oats box, taken a real photograph with it, and developed it in a makeshift dark-room under the eye of a renowned photographer. Nor woven a basket of river cane or learned from a Cherokee artist how an authentic arrowhead is flaked. They had not known what a buck dancer, mime, or woodwindist is, much less met one, and taken a lesson at his or her feet. And those same citizens, young and old, had their own well-established cultures validated by Visiting Artists, especially in the areas of traditional music, folk art, crafts and storytelling – arts long indigenous to North Carolina. Communities, rich in these traditions, came to realize that all along, their entire lives, they had been making art – though not calling it that. To them, life and art had always been seamless: utilitarian, practical, essential, as inalienable and true as the First Amendment. In democratizing the arts, the Visiting Artists Program created an arts renaissance in North Carolina. As someone with working-class-immigrant roots, I have never forgotten the charge of the program to teach and perform among underserved, marginalized populations.
You are an artist and an arts educator. Will you reflect on what the practice of educating people about the craft of writing and literature itself means to you?
Poet Richard Hugo, in his wonderful book on writing poetry, The Triggering Town, unabashedly claims, "A creative-writing class may be one of the last places you can go where your life still matters." He’s right. Class after class, my students march into writing workshops and enter into contractual generosity and candor with one another, perhaps never again duplicated in their lives.
This is news to no one: everyone has a story. Yet often people with the most poignant stories – that the rest of us who live rather pedestrian lives cannot even imagine – don’t think their stories are important, that no one cares about those stories. Our stories are essential, and I would hazard that sharing them comes as naturally to humans as eating. It’s what makes us jointly human, what kindles intimacy. Stories can save us even when we don’t know we need saving – by returning us to who we are essentially, to what matters most to us, taking us back home, wherever home resides: where one hangs one's hat; where the heart is; where, as Robert Frost writes, "[W]hen you have to go there, / They have to take you in." The creative writing classroom is indeed a safe place, yet filled with unpredictable risk. I am daily astonished at the risks my students willingly enter into. They tote their lives into the workshop: secrets, fury, mad desires, heartbreak. Accompanying them are their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, rafts of mysterious friends and relatives, teachers, dead dogs, failed love, the breathtaking yield of having walked on earth with great passion – passion they don’t realize they possess until they see it on paper under their ink-stained hands. My job is to keep them passionate, to keep them writing, to keep reminding them that there is no writing, only rewriting.
How have you seen writing transform your student’s lives?
When I arrived as a VISTA Volunteer, in North Carolina, in 1976, I was assigned for 14 months to Huntersville Prison, in Mecklenburg County. I like to say my first teaching job was in a prison. More importantly, my VISTA teaching in prison was not only the beginning of my own education, but the genesis of my writing life. Much later, as North Carolina’s Poet Laureate, I wanted to get in front of every citizen of the state I could manage to visit, but I was especially keen on those people and regions – rural and/or underserved, without regular access to writers and literature – that my service in VISTA and the Visiting Artist Program revealed to me.
When I declared my signature project as N.C. Poet Laureate – to work with military veterans, those returning from combat and others, and involve their families, to tell their stories through poetry and other genres – I didn’t know what I was getting into. I’m much smarter today about issues plaguing veterans and their families than I was six years ago, but I’m still on the front end of that apprenticeship. In January of 2016, I was named Charles George VA Medical Center (Asheville, NC) Writer-in-Residence. In collaboration with Dr. Bruce Kelly, a physician who has pioneered Medical Humanities at the VA, I taught a cohort of 18 Vietnam veterans, from eight mountain counties in western North Carolina, struggling with PTSD. Born from the writing produced by those veterans was Brothers Like These – a staged reading of the men themselves reading their work. On August 31, 2016, it premiered at the Asheville Community Theater to a packed house and was later reprized on April 19, 2017 at Appalachian State University for a crowd of 300-plus people. St. Andrews University Press published Brothers Like These, the compilation of the staged reading. Those Vietnam veterans – none of whom thought of himself as a writer – committed to paper stories and poems that had been banging around inside of them, deviling them, since their service in Vietnam, paradoxically the same stories that have empowered and lifted them and for which they’ve discovered language. As one of the brothers of Brothers Like These, states: “When asked to participate in this pilot program, we all had the same reservations and doubts about what we were getting ourselves into. Introducing arts and humanities through poetry to help wounded vets initially sounded like a cockamamie idea. This journey has been a catharsis for many of us. It provided us the opportunity ourselves through writing and discussion in a safe nonjudgmental environment; we shared as brothers our most intimate feelings, fears, recollections and thoughts. We found a voice we didn’t know we had and that we weren’t alone or different. We have all gained something from this experience and know it has helped in our understanding and healing.” Another of the Brothers claimed: “This is the closest thing to a miracle that’s happened in my life.”
What makes North Carolina’s creative community unique?
The community of North Carolina artists is the real thing, not merely a rhetorical community, but familial. The artists of this state tend to know, support, and care about one another. It’s a big state, but the artist community is very connected. I can speak more directly about the community of North Carolina writers. It’s like a union. Writers are celebrated in every county, in large and small places: public schools, universities, community colleges, public libraries, local arts councils, and book stores. When I arrived in North Carolina, 42 years ago from my home town of Pittsburgh, yearning to be a writer, I could not have been treated more graciously by the established writers of North Carolina. They nurtured me and welcomed me into their ranks. Not a one asked to see my CV. That spirit of generosity, inclusiveness and camaraderie continues to earmark North Carolina as the best place to be a writer, the best place to be an artist.
Why does public funding for the arts matter?
The dividends public funding for the arts pays is exponential, not just in literal dollars, but also in terms of dramatically enlivening communities and their citizenry. I’m reminded of a quote from Steven Lloyd, who became executive director of the Haywood Arts Regional Theater after his two years as Visiting Artist at Haywood Community College (1988–1990): “It would be egocentric for me to say that HART would not exist without me, but the truth is that the Performing Arts Center would never have been built without the input of a professional who knew what needed to be built and could provide the leadership to raise the funds and build the organization. I had those skills, but without the Visiting Artist Program, I would never have been here. It changed my life, changed this community, and the investment has been paid back a hundred times over. My three years as a North Carolina visiting artist cost the state about $60,000. A rough guess is that the organization I built and the activities I have been responsible for in the 15 years since have directly generated more than $4 million in the economy of this community. The spin-off in tourism revenue would be many times that.” The Arts (and Humanities), apart from the pure enjoyment and edification they impart, reorder and discipline our instincts in profoundly human and humane ways. They assure us we have hearts and souls and dispense enduring advice on how to keep the two from sundering.
We are celebrating a big birthday this year! And you are one of our oldest friends. What are your wishes for us?
First off, I’d like to order a cake as big as North Carolina with a huge blazing taper for each of those 50 glorious years. Across its face, I’d like scrawled in chocolate the names of every person, at every station of leadership and support, visible and invisible, who has made the NC Arts Council a cherished, one-of-a-kind, indispensable, life-affirming agency: the visionaries, starting with Governor Terry Sanford who through executive order created it in 1964; folks in the fledgling county arts councils all over the state who took up the torch with missionary zeal; the simply extraordinary band on Jones Street who tirelessly and with great love daily perpetuate that vision; and, of course, the artists validated, developed and equipped over the past 50 years by NCAC to do their brilliant work across the state. And most importantly, the thousands upon thousands of names of the beneficiaries of that good work, that epic and ongoing collaboration: the great citizens of all 100 counties of North Carolina, especially the children with whom we’ve entrusted the compassionate care of our planet. Then we would sing in one united voice a boisterous rendition of Happy Birthday, joyously toast, and begin plotting the next half-century.