A Conversation with Joseph Bathanti
Joshua Kulseth: This question is only peripherally related to your book, but I’m curious, the epigraph from the first section of your collection is taken from a poem by Thomas Merton, and throughout your book there are prominent themes of mystical contemplation of man’s identity and of his role in creation—so, what kind of influence has Thomas Merton had on your spirituality and creativity?
Joseph Bathanti: When I first arrived in North Carolina in 1976 as a VISTA Volunteer, under the auspices of the North Carolina Department of Correction, I was assigned to Huntersville Prison, about a dozen miles north of Charlotte. Through my prison work, I teamed with the Davidson College campus minister, Rush Otey, still a great friend, and he turned me on to Merton and The Seven Storey Mountain. It’s odd to think now that Merton had been dead less than eight years at the time, and that I had never heard of him. But there were so many people and things I’d never heard of. As is my wont, I launched pathologically into reading everything by Merton I could get my hands on. Along with The Seven Storey Mountain, The Waters of Siloe and The Sign of Jonas became pretty influential. I underlined passages – that kind of thing. Merton had a deep and abiding kinship with the natural world, especially as a monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani, and he saw God in every molecule of it.
Once in North Carolina, after years of living in a very inner-city environment, in Pittsburgh, where I grew up, and just beginning to put my first words on paper in meaningful ways, I ended up spending a lot of time in the country, and eventually living in it. Merton helped me take my initial cues from nature (and its clear relationship with the mysterious life of the spirit), and how to salt some of that imagery into my work. While he’s known, essentially, as an essayist, he was also a prolific poet. The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton, an enormous tome, numbers 1048 pages. I’ve read those poems, many of which – unlike his prose – are inscrutable, experimental, impressionistic, having much more in common with the Beat poets and the Black Mountain poets than with established, mainstream mid-20th Century poets. Merton is so magnanimous. He gives one permission to remain flawed, quintessentially and hopelessly human, filled with doubt, and still attempt a contemplative life. I found that comforting – having had that damaging, one-dimensional binary of good and bad, period, literally beaten into my head by the nuns who taught me in grade school. I loved having the myth of perfection exploded, though Jesus had done that well before Merton. Something Merton wrote in his book, No Man Is an Island, remains with me: “Anxiety is the mark of spiritual insecurity.”
JK: Reminiscent of the terse, sonic violence of Lowell’s second collection, Lord Weary’s Castle—which included scathing indictments of the New England brahmin class—is there a connection between the spondaically dense, sonically layered tercets you craft and the nature of your critiques of mountain blasting?
JB: It’s interesting that you should bring up Lowell, as he has remained prominent in the chorus over the years and was very influential in what I think of my first wave of mature poems. While I’d have to cite Life Studies, especially, and For the Union Dead as the books of his I pored over most during those years – and to which I return – the sonic clout of Lord Weary’s Castle – and overwhelming poems like “The Quaker Graveyard at Nantucket,” “The Drunken Fisherman,” Christmas in Black Rock” – is what thrilled me in Lowell. It’s always an epiphany to hear a poem, and then attempt to cultivate the proper ear that allows the poem to levitate from the page and infiltrate one in what feels a wholly physiological way. It of course goes back to Emily Dickinson’s famous mantra: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”
What I heard in Lowell was fusillade, unrelenting body-blows, machine gun fire, armies marching, and I was completely seduced by it. Something in me is always channeling echoes of Lowell. In Light at the Seam, I was decidedly preoccupied with a compressed, often truncated, line, “spondaically dense,” as you put it. I was equally preoccupied with detonation, the explosive burst of the line, whether end-stopped or enjambed, that would propel forth the poem with the same irrevocability, violence and magnificence as a flash-flood tide, or the obscene, yet awe-inspiring, explosion of ordnance deployed in a mountain peak, that erases millennia at the push of a button. I wanted each line to act as a charge, in the explosive sense. The couplets and tercets functioned as torrents (branches) hurtling through the open field – and here I’m thinking of Charles Olson and Robert Duncan and the valence “field” had for them. I felt like I needed that white space, that negative space, around those lines, to cup the torrent of words (actually syllables.
JK: Your poems are consistently layered with Christian exegesis and theology—in what ways does your faith inform your moral position on the impact mankind is having on the environment?
JB: I always hesitate to pronounce on these kinds of things, and I especially blanche at the thought of appearing at all sanctimonious. It does strikes me, however, that a strong faith, regardless of whatever tradition it’s rooted in, must reconcile its core practices with a social conscience that encompasses the entirety of creation – and let me acknowledge my own imperfections in this area. Nevertheless, I believe that we are called upon to respect, care for, and cherish the earth in very small and large ways.
It’s pretty clear that we’re at the tipping point with climate change. The Anthropocene is upon us. There is no ignoring it. I was especially encouraged by Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical, “Laudato Si,” that exhorts humanity toward a radical paradigm pivot to address the climate crisis, so that all of humanity is able to live sustainably and equitably on earth, “our common home,” as the Pope termed it. It’s urgent that the conversation be extended beyond the secular realm and into the very essence of spirituality and personal conscience that spurs folks toward righteous action. There is no shortage of horrific examples of what our continued assault on the planet has yielded, that we are, in essence, committing environmental suicide.
The poems in Light at the Seam look deeply at mountaintop removal in Appalachia, a thoroughly obscene, and profoundly violent practice that subverts the environment and the people, the citizens, of those Appalachian mountain lands in wholly unimaginable ways. Corporations blow the tops off mountains, gouge out coal, then leave the people sick and angry, in devastating emotional precarity, their beloved ancestral homelands occupied, blown to bits, and poisoned – and this is a vastly oversimplified precis of the irreversible environmental and human cost associated with mountaintop removal.
I don’t want to overly poeticize this subject or reduce it to an allegory, because it’s a very real and ongoing tragedy in very real people’s lives. But, it’s hard not to notice that this detonation and pillaging, this rape, occurs quite literally in the sky, that corporations have the unmitigated hubris to invade the clouds and summits, the porches of the afterlife, to blow up, if you will, Heaven – an unspeakable sacrilege, profane beyond belief. My faith, such as it is – and again I’m no holy man – encourages me to think very deliberately about daily choices I make that effect the planet and its inhabitants.
JK: Branching off from the previous question, how does your faith inform the general content and structure of your poetry?
JB: My acculturation as a Catholic boy – grandson of Italian immigrants; son of a steelworker and a seamstress; born in 1953 in Pittsburgh; who grew up in a Little Italy; attended Catholic schools, grades 1-12; spent countless hours at mass – and the sacramental life that is inseparable from that acculturation is the unmistakable source, even when it seems like it isn’t, of everything I write. Notice I’m using the world acculturation rather than faith. I certainly hope I have faith, and I believe I do, but using the word, in this context, makes me sound much more devout than I am.
My work overflows with religious allusions, some very deliberate, others, I’m certain, subconscious. I’m not sure at all how my religious background – and here I’m thinking of the Jesus stories in the New Testament and the Latin mass that so enthralled, so mesmerized, me – infiltrates the structure of my poetry. On the other hand, that background has been preponderantly influential in shaping my sense of sound. I still hear, and am stirred by, that glorious, solemn thrum of the Latin mass, the crescendo of the gargantuan pipe organ threatening lift-off from the choir loft, the ineffable numen that so moved me as a choirboy as I sung in Latin the “Pange Lingua” and “Tantum Ergo.” I loved how dire it all was – the pomp, the pageantry. I want my poems, my fiction as well, to have that sonic heft. But there’s also the danger of that pitch being too heavy-handed, too dense, even too arch, perhaps too dogmatic. We certainly see vestiges of that heavy-handedness in Lowell and Gerard Manley Hopkins, though Hopkins’ linguistic innovations often strike me as unexpectedly playful, delightful. I love Lowell, but I’m not sure he’s ever delightful. Maybe in “Memories of West Street and Lepke.”
JK: Speaking more on your formal conventions, many of your poems (especially in the earlier part of the collection) are in tercets and couplets between six and ten syllables in length (with varying beats)—as a poet, I often find certain forms are more fruitful at different creative stages, and for expressing different content—has this been the case for you as well, or is it simply a random container for your thoughts?
JB: Like any writer, I went through multiple drafts of Light at the Seam, and over a number of years. One of the things I obsessively mess with until the bitter end is the line – its length, number of syllables, whether to enjamb or end-stop. Of late, I’ve been drawn to a syllabic line, but strict syllabics also impacts the final word of a line, and I want pop at the end of each line, what I like to call crunch. In many cases, I found congenial to these poems tercets and couplets, perhaps because these are not, by my lights, narrative poems. I am concerned with how many of these poems look on the page, as well as their relationship with the “field” upon which they lie. Thus, I initially envisioned the component parts of these poems in two and three line bursts (couplets and tercets), in the spirit of haiku, that could almost stand alone. But – like a growing floodtide at the behest of gravity – I also saw each couplet or tercet flowing in rivulets that, gathered ensemble, within the greater composition of the poem, and the entire book, for that matter, embodies irrevocability – again, like a flood, suddenly upon you. I’m not so sure I engaged this strategy consciously in the initial composition. Much of it is organic. Much of it is practical, simply a way of organizing the poems, managing and harnessing them. I’m thinking about it now, as a craft issue, and probably over-intellectualizing and over-mystifying the process because I’m attempting to address your good question.
JK: In the poem “The Assumption” the language is more prominently Incarnational—an adorning of the sacred with the earthly—than many of the other poems in the collection, and the figure of the Blessed Mother is transformed (at the risk of sounding heretical) into a Mother Earth type character. It strikes me in much the same way as Auden’s poem “Homage to Clio” in which the muse of History, Clio, is transformed into the Blessed Mother—was this poem meant to serve as a kind of homage? Or to be Incarnational in this way? If not, perhaps you could talk a little more about your creative intentions.
JB: I didn’t have Auden’s book, Homage to Clio, or its title poem in mind when I wrote “The Assumption.” I tend to be mindful of the liturgical calendar, as well as the cycles of the natural world. The occasion of the poem is, indeed, the Feast of the Assumption, the bodily taking up of Mary, the mother of Jesus, the Blessed Mother, into Heaven, at the conclusion of her earthly life. She did not have to die, nor suffer a stretch in Purgatory. According to lore and dogma, she was spotless and thus assumed into Heaven. I don’t think it’s heretical at all to conflate the Blessed Mother with the Earth Mother, two sacred archetypes, and I would like to add that I was amused at your parenthetical aside “at the risk of sounding heretical.” Now you’re thinking like a Catholic. Mary is commonly associated with crops and agriculture and bountiful harvests, so conflating her with the Earth Mother is perfect.
I live in a mountain valley in western North Carolina, about nine miles from the Tennessee line. The Assumption falls, every year, on August 15 which, in the poem, and as it happened in real life that year, coincided with haying. I took it from there. The poem is literally about haying; the process; the machinery (Of course, I had to mention the “Vermeer baler,” for obvious reasons, and I like naming names.); what ends up unwittingly trussed in bales, along with hay; the long day into the night. I’m attempting to simply recount the process, albeit in charged, perhaps impressionistic, language. The fact that haying fell that year on the Feast of the Assumption was impossible for me to ignore: Mary was assumed; the hay was assumed.
The poem is about the changing of seasons. Haying, a kind of liturgical event, in the table of movable feasts that farmers and people of the land are bound by, is the ritual that signals that change. Of course, I didn’t have all this in mind when I set out to write the poem – and again, in any interview, a writer tends to (over) intellectualize a process that, in its actual composition, was organic and mysterious and often had a mind of its own. This poem was initially triggered by the first buckeye dropping to the blacktop and the sighting of the season’s first wooly worm. The baler and the tractors and pickups showed up the next day, August 15. I also wanted the entire poem, in the image of Mary, “as she rises,” to be apparitional.
JK: Your language oscillates from poem to poem (and sometimes within the same poem) between heavily accented, mono/duo-syllabic, Anglo-Saxon root-words, to the lighter, more elegant multi-syllabic Latinate words—was this a purposeful convention, or do you find yourself unconsciously shaped by a wide-ranging lexicon?
JB: I’d love to say that everything, in these poems, from their respective inceptions, is intentional, clearly choreographed and orchestrated – that would make me a master tactician – but, like all writers, I work draft to draft and attempt to give the poem its own head, listen carefully to it, and follow close behind. With both eyes open on the scape I’m envisioning, I’m mouthing the words I commit to paper, and they tend to suggest themselves as sounds, perhaps, mimetic of the action and imagery I hope to evoke. In most of the poems, in Light at the Seam, I’ve moved away from narrative, in the strictest sense, away from perhaps my usual discursive style, into a more impressionistic vein where the story is the moment and, to quote Cesare Pavese, “the image is the poem.” I discover language in the ongoing revision of the poem, language often not present, or even accessible to me, when I first begin a poem’s composition.
JK: You mention Artemis bathing in an earlier poem, and in “My Mother and Father” you compare your parents to “two lone cedars”, which is reminiscent of the myth of Baucis and Philemon—what role has mythology played in your art?
JB: I certainly have a digest of stories out of classical mythology that travels with me. One is definitely the story of Actaeon and Artemis. I still can’t get over that Actaeon was changed into a stag and devoured by his own dogs – for accidentally spying Artemis at her bath. And I’m obsessed with Sisyphus, certainly the classical myth, but much more specifically with Camus’s “The Myth of Sisyphus,” which I read as a high school junior in 1969. Coming from a working-class family, I very much took it to heart as a cautionary tale and have written habitually about it. I’m flattered that you see in “My Mother and Father” the myth of Baucis and Philemon, and I’d love to take credit for that. But, in truth, I had been reading Pound’s translations of Li Po, and also Kenneth Rexroth’s translations: Love and the Turning Year: One Hundred More Poems from the Chinese. The metamorphosis, the surprising shape-shifting, how the natural world and its people become inseparable, often indistinguishable, in those translations was the inspiration for the final couplet in “My Mother and Father.” What’s more, I can see those two trees from my front door, and I suddenly realized that I had been seeing them for years and years without really registering them. It simply occurred to me to get my mom and dad in the poem – always a good idea.
JK: Your poems, much like the lost materials listed in your various accounts of local floods, are grounded in the specificity of place. Like the farmers, your work is in a way dependent on the land. As a poet, do you see yourself as equally responsible for the care and attention of the earth?
JB: Place is everything to me. “From the dawn of man’s imagination,” says Eudora Welty, in her famous essay, “Place in Fiction,” “place has enshrined the spirit; as soon as man stopped wandering and stood still and looked about him, he found a god in that place; and from then on, that was where the God abided and spoke from if ever he spoke.” I take my cues from place. Living in the country, it’s impossible not to be struck by the ongoing pageantry of what occurs, often imperceptibly, often very dramatically, in the natural world. One lives in that crucible of constant unfolding, of constant revelation. If I might return to Merton for a moment, he says in "The Sign of Jonas": "God talks in the tress." And: " ... it is important to realize where you are put on the face of the earth." The earth hands us all a narrative. I do see myself, as a writer, as a citizen of the planet, responsible for conscionably caring for the earth. But one must first pay attention to the earth, peer deeply. Painters and photographers and writers understand this. But no one understands it more keenly than farmers. In many of the poems in Light at the Seam, I traffic in inventory. My poems are lists – of all that is lost or misplaced, even forgotten, but also of that which is recovered, uncovered, exhumed. I see these things as relics, as composite elements that make up the ethnography of place – in this case, a little mountain valley in Appalachia.
JK: I’ve often noticed an aesthetic kinship between Appalachian and Irish poets: in their commitment to place, and more specifically, to the provincial landscape—do you see the two regions, and subsequently the poets of these regions, as striving after similar artistic goals?
JB: How interesting that you mention Irish poets. I do see that decided devotion to place among them, particularly the ones I was habitually reading, to whom I habitually turned, when I was writing the poems in Light at the Seam. They are grounded in a no-nonsense, unsentimental rendering of place as natural history; and often, as well, the complicated excavation of memory – memory, in this case, being another landscape, another place. Their sensibilities seem to thoroughly embody an Appalachian aesthetic – mysterious, misapprehended, hermetic, layers and layers of story (overstory and understory) that only the anointed dare recount – and an elegant humility as well. Their poems are ample and spare at once, always immaculate, with a brilliant rein on the line, and a way of rendering artifacts, even the infinitesimal, turning them over and over, and discovering entire worlds embodied and embedded in them. They are at once narrative and impressionistic, with a clear eye on history. Their hands are always in the dirt. They never forget who they are or where (place) they come from.
The Irish poets I turned to, and continue to turn to, are: Michael Longley, Ciaran Carson, Medbh McGuckian, Conor O’Callaghan, Eilean Ni Chuilleanain, Paula Meehan, Harry Clifton, Vona Groarke and of course Seamus Heaney – and please allow me to plug Wake Forest University Press for its breathtaking devotion to publishing these breathtaking poets.
JK: This question mimics my other regarding your use of language, but in “Sundial” you spend nearly three stanzas elaborating on the altered lexicon of the children—words of coal and consequences—language has been called a prison-house, among many other epithets, and I’m curious about our vocabularies, especially the way words inhabit and shape us from our earliest years into adulthood. What are your thoughts on this? What kind of vocabulary are you haunted and shaped by?
JB: Well, it’s impossible not to be shaped by language. It floats through the ether and seeps through the walls. It infiltrates our DNA. It is currency and it is anathema and there exists a hierarchy, often based on class and race and gender, as to who gets to wield it and how. All that said, Samuel Beckett reminds us that “Words are all we have.” A precious commodity. “Altered lexicon” is a wonderful way to put it, but with that “altered lexicon – as in the case of those school children in “Sundial, West Virginia” – comes an altered consciousness. Those words in the poem, that have suddenly infiltrated their vocabulary – “watershed, toxic, / overburden, subsidiary, arsenic, / mercury, chromium, cadmium, / boron, nickel, selenium” – actually obfuscate the looming, lethal danger of the coal sludge impoundment that hovers, quite literally, over their schoolhouse. Those words, as they stand, have been divested of their dictionary definitions, and their etymologies. The children have begun to internalize them as sounds that equate, and are synonymous, with death, with their loss of innocence, concomitant with a dawning political awareness. I optimistically envision those children ultimately raising their fists in righteous indignation and solidarity and remaining true to the patch of earth upon which they and their ancestors were born.
In all candor (back to church again) I’ve been shaped by the language, often Latin, that I heard at mass; and I suppose I conflate, absolutely seamlessly, language and sound – those earliest sonic vibrations that have stayed with me. I was shaped by the sound of people in my neighborhood, my grandparents and aunts and uncles, and sometimes my parents, speaking Italian. I was shaped by the first shocking instances in my ear of certain profane and taboo words. I still recoil at raised voices. I nearly fainted the first time someone told me they loved me. I instantly loved the Catholic litanies, those interminable incantatory praise songs of “Blessed be …,” precursor to the list poem. I swooned at the “Hail Mary,” even though I had no idea what it meant. I instantly loved the poetic, often coded language of baseball
Thus, I loved language, and was heavily influenced and enchanted by it its sound, long before I understood that language, some of which came at me in a foreign tongue. Robert Frost, in his theory of “The Sound of Sense” – and here I paraphrase liberally – posited that one could reckon the texture and character of a conversation taking place behind closed doors just by listening to its “sound” and tonal shifts. I think this intuitive and visceral reckoning is internalized and stored in even the youngest of children – long before they themselves gravitate toward a linguistic style and range. There are words we avoid and words we cling to.