Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Joseph Bathanti reflects on his years as our state's Poet Laureate

Rumor has it that Gov. Pat McCrory will be announcing the state's new Poet Laureate next week. So I asked the amazing Joseph Bathanti about his recent laureateship. Bathanti, as most of you know, is a poet, novelist and memoirist and was recently awarded the prestigious Roanoke-Chowan Award for his 2014 poetry collection, "Concertina." 

What did you enjoy most about being Poet Laureate?

I especially loved getting in the car and scouring North Carolina. I had made these criss-crossing treks across the state, with some intensity, back when I was in the astonishing, one-of-a-kind North Carolina Visiting Artists Program in 1985-87, and in 1998-90, so I found it invigorating to tour the state again and see, up close, not only what a beautiful piece of geography North Carolina is -- from proverbial Murphy to Manteo -- but also the rich diversity of cultures and people and sensibilities across the state. I'm habitually in the larger metropolitan areas of our state, which I love visiting, but I found so romantic, so enthralling, all those little places it was my great privilege to visit as Poet Laureate. The surprises those places and communities everywhere -- large and small -- yielded are truly the kinds of materials writers dream of stumbling upon. It was my humble version of "On the Road." What's more, instead of having Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) riding shotgun, I was so much luckier than Sal Paradise (Jack Kerouac). I was accompanied by the Muse Laureate, my wife Joan. What's more, we were welcomed so graciously, so affectionately, by the citizens in every community we visited.

What surprised you during your tenure?

The biggest surprise was, I suppose, what I already knew; but I was nevertheless surprised by what I have always found so amazing about writing and literature in North Carolina. As Poet Laureate, I officially visited 45 of our state's 100 counties (a number of them more than once) -- though I traveled and stopped in so many other counties along my route. No matter where I went, the big places and the small places, I found poets; novelists; playwrights; essayists, genealogists; historians; and dedicated, often pathological, readers -- in libraries, schools, shelters, hospitals, you-name-it. People enthralled with the places they lived, people tithed to the land, or the architecture, or the history of their various towns and counties. North Carolina is indeed the best place in the country to be a writer and reader.

What advice do you have for the next Laureate?

The new Laureate will show up with his or her own agenda and undoubtedly the talent and wherewithal to put into a play a brand new agenda. About that I'm completely confident. I would hope the new Laureate spends a great deal of time in schools K-12, cheerleading and not only for the children, but for those embattled, dedicated, hard-working teachers. Teachers across our state ensure that the word endures, that kids learn not only to read and write, but to develop hearts and souls around their own inimitable stories. And, above all, I would encourage the new Poet Laureate to have fun.