N.C. poet laureate sets up shop in Heinz History Center

He returns home as first scholar-in-residence

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How does a boy from East Liberty end up as poet laureate of North Carolina?

Interesting story that, according to Joseph Bathanti, who is back in Pittsburgh this month as the first scholar-in-residence at the Heinz History Center. Mr. Bathanti, professor of creative writing at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., is spending much of January exploring the history center's Italian-American collection.

He was 23 in 1976 when he completed his master's degree in English at the University of Pittsburgh, where he also had earned a bachelor's degree. "I was not sure what I wanted to do, but I had a long list of things I couldn't stomach doing," he said during a recent interview at the Carnegie Library in Oakland.

He ultimately volunteered for the VISTA program, the domestic version of the Peace Corps, and was assigned to the North Carolina Department of Corrections. "My parents were disappointed that I had all these degrees and was going to earn just $2,000 a year and work with criminals."

His pedagogical experiences with inmates, however, led to other teaching jobs. He also began to work to improve his writing. "I wrote badly, then less badly, and was pig-headed enough not to give up."

Supported and encouraged by what he described as a nurturing community of local writers and teachers, he published his first book of poetry in 1987. Next year he will bring out his 15th volume. About half his works deal with North Carolina themes and the other half have Pittsburgh connections, he said. That half includes his first novel, "East Liberty."

North Carolina was "a state crawling with talented poets," Mr. Bathanti said, and that made the competition for the state laureate honor a tough one. A finalist in years past, he was surprised and pleased to be named to the two-year post in 2012 by then Gov. Beverly Purdue. Since then, he has made about 250 presentations, readings and appearances in schools, colleges and prisons.

His signature project has been work with veterans, including those in hospitals and rehabilitation units. His goal is to instruct and inspire them on how to tell their personal stories through poetry, fiction and memoir.

His assignment as scholar-in-residence at the history center includes creating a "signature piece" of writing based on the artifacts, photographs, letters, records and oral histories in the history center's Italian-American archives. "I'll be taking notes furiously and making photocopies," he said. The actual writing will have to wait until he returns to North Carolina. The result could be a book, essay, story or series of poems.

His time at the history center overlaps with his annual teaching stint in the master of fine arts creative-writing program at Carlow University. He plans to return to Pittsburgh in March as writer-in-residence at his alma mater, Central Catholic High School in Oakland.

Mr. Bathanti grew up in East Liberty. His father, Joseph D. Bathanti, was a steelworker at U.S. Steel's Edgar Thomson Plant, and his mother, Roselyn, was a seamstress. He attended SS. Peter & Paul School until he was 11. After his family moved to Highland Park, he went to Sacred Heart Elementary in Shadyside.

He graduated from Central Catholic High School and described his years there as life-changing.

"They planted the seeds that made me want to become a writer," he said. He has kept up connections to his alma mater, including with one of his old teachers, Brother Benedict Oliver.

Luck, he said, has played a big role in his career and in his life. Among his experiences of good fortune was meeting the woman who became his wife on his first day of VISTA training. He and Joan have been married for 37 years. They are the parents of two sons, Jacob, 26, and Beckett, 21. Both were raised to be Steelers and Pirates fans, he said.

Having spent his first 23 years in Pittsburgh and most of the past 37 teaching and writing in North Carolina, Mr. Bathanti said he feels a strong dual loyalty.

"My best friends are still the kids I went to elementary school with," he said. "Pittsburgh is my beloved home city, and North Carolina is my beloved home state.".

Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184

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