Joseph Bathanti is the author of ten books of poetry, three novels, a book of short fiction and two books of nonfiction. Originally from Pittsburgh, PA, at 23 he moved to North Carolina to focus on prison outreach with VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) program. He has been living in North Carolina and working in the prison system ever since. He was the North Carolina Poet Laureate from 2012 to 2014 and his work has won several awards, including the 2016 North Carolina Award in Literature, the Roanoke Chowan Award, the Donald Murray Prize, and others. He traveled to Pittsburgh in January as a visiting professor at Carlow University. While here, he visited Chatham University’s Words Without Walls program and I got a chance to sit down and chat about his work in the prison system and with Vietnam veterans.
To read some of Joseph Bathanti’s poems, click here.
The Fourth River: You spent your morning with the Words Without Walls program, and I know you teach writing and hold workshops in the prison system. How have you seen creative work positively impact inmates?
Joseph Bathanti: I’ve been doing this now for 40 years but this is the first time I’ve ever been to a PA jail because I spend most of my time in North Carolina prisons. I really feel strongly that stories are things that save us. And that often the very things that have destroyed us, when framed as stories, and written down, can save us. This is especially the case with incarcerated folks whose lives have gone awry in so many ways. If they can get a bead on what has gone on in their lives—through story – and just get the writing down in a cogent way, I think it helps a lot. The idea is that you control the memory or the memory controls you. There’s something about ordering a story into a narrative that makes it go from terrific disorder into order; from chaos to cosmos.
TFR: That makes me think of the opening of Half of What I Say is Meaningless where you talk about integrity in nonfiction writing. Where is the line, in creative nonfiction, between creativity and dishonesty?
JB: I think often, in creative nonfiction, we’re dishonest without realizing. We’re dishonest because we’re digging deeply into memory. I think as you move further from the action that spawned the writing, you also get further from that objective truth. So we shoot for a kind of emotional truth all the time: This is what it felt like to me. I think as long as you don’t deliberately lie—we lie often without really knowing it. So creativity comes from the ways we navigate that emotional terrain and through the narratives that come out of it.
I mentioned today at the jail that, lately, I’ve been working mostly with Vietnam veterans with PTSD. These are guys that probably average around 70 years old. They’re the last people who would have ever thought of themselves as writers, but they’re finding writing to be really companionable in a number of ways. A lot of them have tried to stuff, into that box we all have, those memories that are so jarring and horrifying. Yet they’re still dogged by the memories. So, in writing about them, they’re gaining a kind of freedom from the memories.
When we’re sitting around the room with these vets, if someone brings up a story, it instantly triggers a memory in another guy and gives him permission to tell his story. And one of the things I think is interesting about CNF is the fact that if you begin to remember, if you dig deeply, and engage in the task of deep remembrance, then it all comes back to you.
TFR: Do you have a specific writing process?
JB: I don’t know that I do. Whatever I do seems to work in its own way. I travel, I teach, I have all sorts of things going on. So, for me to say that I’m going to be at this place at this time every day and write is just setting myself up for failure. But when I walk down the street here in Pittsburgh, every sidewalk crack triggers some sort of memory. So my writing is very much memory/image based. I’ll remember something and, suddenly, that memory seems so extraordinary that the trove opens. I am an autobiographical writer and I encourage my young students to go there since we all have that arsenal of memories.
TFR: In Chatham’s MFA program, there’s a lot of talk about the writing life, post graduate school. Do you have any advice for continued writing when there are no clear deadlines or schedules to abide by?
JB: I’m a habitual and pathological note taker. I don’t keep a journal, but I’m always taking notes. And most of the time those notes are kinds of photographic short hand that will trigger where I was and what I was thinking at the time.
I also think it’s very important to develop the habit of writing. A lot of my students say they write when they’re inspired. But if you wait to be inspired to do anything, like lose weight or cut the grass or wash the dishes—where there’s very little to be inspired about—then nothing ever is accomplished. Writing is a utilitarian task that has to be done. At some point after I moved to North Carolina, I got the hang of the fact that if you don’t sit at a table and write, you won’t pile up pages. And if you don’t pile up pages, you’re done for. That’s the practice, right? There’s no way to get better if you don’t write.
And of course reading. You have to read habitually to study how other writers accomplish what you’re trying to accomplish in your own work. In reading like a writer, you’re taking lessons from other writers and their books. You are learning from what they don’t do well and you’re especially learning from what they do well.
TFR: What are you reading right now?
JB: I’ve been working with veterans, so I’ve been reading a ton of work from veterans. Robin Olen Butler, a Vietnam veteran, just had a novel come out called Perfume River. I’ve also been reading a lot of the literature that has sprung out of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Roy Scranton has a new novel called War Porn. Also Phil Klay’s Redeployment and Brian Turner’s amazing memoir, My Life as a Foreign Country.
TFR: What writing advice are you glad you didn’t take?
JB: You know it could be arrogant to say this, but I often didn’t listen to my teachers. But I wasn’t a smart aleck about it. There were things I wanted to do and felt confident about. So I think I avoided being discouraged because I held on to my own stubborn notions. It wasn’t like I wasn’t really listening. I was listening. But maybe some of the advice wasn’t for me. So I did what I tell my students to do: I took all the things from my teachers that were helpful and left behind the things that weren’t helpful. And I tell my students to follow that very stricture with me when it come to the advice I dole out to them. You have to find a teacher who appreciates your work, in the same vein that you have to find an editor who appreciates your work. I do editing work, occasionally, and sometimes I’m not in the position of appreciating a really wonderful piece that comes in front of me because of personal taste, etc. Another editor, with a different set of eyes, preoccupations, and personal tastes, might seize enthusiastically on the same piece I might reject. The point is: Never give up.
TFR: What have you been most surprised by in your writing life?
JB: That I’m a writer. I mean, that I’ve had success. Just because it seems unlikely that this would have happened. It’s something I’ve dreamed of doing. It’s not like anybody knows who I am, but I’m surprised that something so wonderful happened to me. I was just some kid with dreams on the streets of Pittsburgh. Becoming a writer seemed pretty unlikely.