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The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

Pittsburgh poet speaks in Carolinian cadences

Joseph Bathanti, poet and novelist of many accolades and a professor of creative writing at Appalachian State University, came to Guilford last Monday night, sharing with an intimate crowd selections from his forthcoming book of poems, “Concertina.”Based primarily on his experiences working with VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) in the North Carolina state prison system during the late seventies, the poems of “Concertina” are forceful and meditative, capturing the visceral reality of prison life while remaining sensitive to the element of human pathos.

“Prison handed me a narrative,” Bathanti said, “which was a very dramatic, extreme situation, like a stage that I could witness, and so I started to write about that.”

A native of Pittsburgh, Bathanti found a wealth of inspiration from his experiences subsequent to moving to North Carolina as a young man, where he also met his wife. While much of his poetry, and a novel “East Liberty” (which won the Carolina novel award for 2001), do draw on his upbringing in Pittsburgh, his latest collection is rich with the cadences of the Carolinas.

Bathanti’s direct, staccato-like delivery gave the poems the feel of a Faulknerian monologue in stereo – complete with bizarre, dysfunctional, and quintessentially southern characters.

“I hope these aren’t too depressing, folks,” he said after reading “Dogs at Salisbury,” which told the ominous tale of Luther the bounty hunter, who roamed swamps looking for escapees with his “catamites and his pack of chain-gang bloodhounds. “

With no glass of water to refresh his vocal cords, Bathanti became hoarse by the middle of “Dogs of Salisbury,” which while probably unintentional, complemented the narrative’s macabre tone.

As his hoarseness increased, so too did the sense that at any second, the pack of ghoulish bloodhounds described would burst through the door, come to claim us for their master, sitting “wordlessly” atop a “sore old gelding.”

Luckily, we were spared, and the poem culminated instead in a great phlegmy cough from Bathanti, which gave Luther’s tale a sense of grim finality.

“Well, that was some cough,” he said with a laugh while surveying the audience. Hopefully, he could tell that we were far from being depressed.

Other poems included, “Freedom Drive,” “Crying,” “The South,” “Teaching an Inmate to Read,” “Donuts,” and “Women’s Prison.” “Women’s Prison,” which recounts a monthly visit between children and their mothers in a Raleigh prison, was particularly moving.

“They know to smile at the twirling jagged grandeur
Surrounding the massive compound
Concertina, plaited with silver scraps of dew and dawn light “

After the reading, Bathanti held an open discussion in which students, mainly from Carolyn Beard Whitlow’s poetry workshop, asked questions about his craft and some of his influences. He mentioned James Joyce, William Faulkner, Samuel Beckett, Flannery O’Connor, and poet Robert Lowell as some of his favorites.

“Just be really hard-headed and spit in the eye of anyone who tells you you can’t do it,” he offered as general words of encouragement to the aspiring writers in the crowd.

“I really liked his command of vocabulary, he used really sensory, intense words, like ‘excelsior,'” said Lehn Robinson, a senior English major in Beard-Whitlow’s class. “Where, sir, did you learn to use a word like excelsior?” Robinson asked aloud while leaving the reading.

One student, Joanna Bernstein, was awarded a copy of his book “East Liberty” simply for being from Pittsburgh. All in all, it was an enriching and entertaining experience for all in attendance.

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