Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh, Allegheny County
Joseph Bathanti, the 2012 Poet Laureate of North Carolina, grew up in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh during the 1950s and 1960s.
Awards: Public Poetry Project, National Book Award, Oscar Arnold Young Award, Carolina Novel Award, Novello Literary Award, Spokane Prize, Campbell Award for Creative Nonfiction, Mary Frances Hobson Prize, McFarlane Family Distinguished Professor in Interdisciplinary Education
Joseph Bathanti grew up in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh during the 1950s and 1960s. After graduating college, he joined Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), a branch of the domestic Peace Corps, and moved to North Carolina to mentor prisoners. His experiences growing up in a working class Italian neighborhood and mentoring in a prison influence much of his work. Bathanti is the author of short fiction, nonfiction, two novels, and several poetry books. In 2012, he was named the Poet Laureate of North Carolina. He continues to write and to teach as a Professor of Creative writing at Appalachian State University. New books by Joseph Bathanti are forthcoming, including a collection of essays.
Joseph Bathanti was born on July 20, 1953, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He grew up in East Liberty, an Italian working class neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Bathanti attended Catholic school and credits Catholicism for nourishing his creative impulse, stating in an interview with Appalachian Explorations that “The Bible is just one groovy adventure after another. You couldn’t imagine making those characters up,” and that “Catholicism was absolutely like magical realism. A little boy nailing the host to his wall with a flood of blood coming at him, you could see that in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel.” Bathanti attended the University of Pittsburgh and graduated in 1975 with a BA in English Literature.
In 1976, Bathanti joined Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), a branch of the domestic Peace Corps. The program relocated him to North Carolina, where he taught and mentored prisoners in Huntersville. Bathanti continued to volunteer long after his VISTA contract expired and has spent over 25 years working in the prison system. In an interview with D.G. Martin, Bathanti recounts how he knew he wanted to be a writer upon coming to North Carolina, stating how he “was trying to look outside myself for stories.” Bathanti worked on poems and short stories during this time period. He frequently submitted his work to local journals such as Tar River Poetry and Carolina Quarterly, having varying degrees of success in regards to publication.
In 1986, Bathanti published his first book, a collection of poems titled Communion Prayers. As the title implies, the poems draw from Bathanti’s experiences growing up in a religious family and attending parochial school. His second poetry collection, Anson County, explores the rural existence of Anson County, North Carolina, residents and was published in 1989. Bathanti published a third collection in 1994, The Feast of All Saints, before his award-winning collection, This Metal (1996).
This Metal was nominated for the National Book Award and won the 1997 Oscar Arnold Young Award, which is awarded to the best book of poetry written by a North Carolina writer. Jay Parini, author of The Art of Subtraction, praises Bathanti, calling him “a strong, eloquent voice in American poetry. His poems emanate from deep within himself and his culture, a world of rich ethnic ties and associations. I love the luminous details he uncovers again and again.”
In 2001, Bathanti shifted gears and published his first novel, East Liberty. This 2001 Carolina Novel Award-winning book is set in the neighborhood he grew up in and populated with existing places and streets, such as SS. Peter and Paul Catholic Primary School. This coming of age story of a boy raised by his mother in the East Liberty neighborhood in the 1950s and 1960s tackles the hostile race relations of the time and place, as well as mother-son dynamics, Catholic influences, and effects of TV and movies as escapism explored throughout the book. The novel’s style is slightly unconventional as Bathanti jumps back and forth in time and includes the protagonist’s dreams, which reflects the episodic nature of memory and the character’s unique perception of his world.
Bathanti published his second novel, Coventry, in 2006. Again he draws from life to create, this time influenced by his experience as a prison mentor. In an interview with D.G. Martin for North Carolina Bookwatch, Bathanti relates how he wanted to take his prison experience and “refine it into a story that didn’t simply sensationalize crimes in prison but in some way was a more impressionistic or surreal life in prison” because he had come “to look at prisons as more of a phenomenon than anything that can be described in any logical way.”
The story tells the tale of a family man who becomes increasingly bound by the stresses of his prison job and is faced with psychological conflicts as his interactions with an inmate, who claims to have supernatural powers, begin to cloud his reality. The novel’s thematic concerns and style reflect Bathanti’s personal view of prisons as illogical institutions that imprison the guards as much as the prisoners and that possess the power to influence peoples’ lives in illogical ways. Coventry was well received by both critics and fellow authors. A 2006 High Country Press article quotes novelist Clyde Edgarton as describing Coventry as “a terribly beautiful piece of truth-telling.” The book was also awarded the 2006 Novello Literary Award.
Bathanti published his first work of nonfiction in early 2007, entitled They Changed the State: The Legacy of North Carolina’s Visiting Artist, 1971-1995. Later that year he published his first collection of short stories, The High Heart. The stories in the collection are linked by the main character, Fritz Sweeny, and his dysfunctional parents. Fellow author Nino Ricci compared The HighHeart to William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Once again, Bathanti turns to his roots, setting his characters in Pittsburgh during the 1960s and 1970s. The book, with its complex characters and skillful prose, was well-received by critics and won the 2007 Spokane Prize.
In a review for ThePedestalMagazine.com, Alicia Osborn highlights Bathanti’s ability to engender empathy within a reader, leaving one with “the sensation of being trapped by her circumstances” just like Fritz. She further commends Bathanti’s skillful characterization, stating that “[P]erhaps what’s more important is that Bathanti has rendered his characters with such realism that you could point them out in a lineup and that Pittsburgh he describes is more accurate than what you could glean from a map.”
Among many achievements, Bathanti was named the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet for the Western Region of the North Carolina Poetry Society for 2011-2012, won the 2012 Will D. Campbell Award for Creative Nonfiction, and in August of 2012, Joseph Bathanti was named the Poet Laureate of North Carolina.
In 2013, he published the volume of poetry, Sonnets of the Cross and he won the Mary Frances Hobson Prize. The video profile, “Bathanti” by Kevin Balling, a fellow lecturer of Bathanti’s at Appalachian State University, was released in the same year and blends author interviews with cinematograph interpretations of Bathanti’s work to represent the author’s writing life.
According to Appalachian State University's AppalacianToday, Bathanti was named the inaugural McFarlane Family Distinguished Professor in Interdisciplinary Education at the university, where, at the time of this writing, he is a professor of creative writing in the College of Arts and Sciences' Department of English and a writer-in-residence in the Watauga Residential College (WRC). He has also served as a writer-in-residence at the Charles George Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
Joseph Bathanti is the author of over 15 books and has served as an editor for others. His contributions to public and professional organizations are many and include, but are not limited to: the Creative Aging Network of North Carolina Advisory Council, the Benevolence Farm Advisory Council, and the Appalachian Veterans Arts and Humanities Collective. Dr. Clark Maddux, the director of the WRC, says of Bathanti, "[He] brings us a wealth of experience in building partnerships across the region, an unparalleled depth of creativity and an encyclopedic knowledge of experiential learning."
They Changed The State: The Legacy of North Carolina’s Visiting Artists, 1971-1995. Raleigh: The North Carolina Arts Council, 2007.
East Liberty. Wilmington: Banks Channel Books, 2001.
Coventry. Charlotte: Novello Festival Press, 2006.