Today, we had the pleasure of hosting visiting writer and professor Joseph Bathanti to the Allegheny County Jail to speak with students from all five creative writing classes. Bathanti is no stranger to the prison system, or Pittsburgh for that matter. Born and raised in East Liberty, he attended Central Catholic and writes plenty of growing up in a working class Italian family. Straight out of graduate school with a Master's degree in English from Pitt, he headed south to join the VISTA program as a volunteer in the prisons. He continues to teach creative writing in prisons, any many of his experiences appear as material in his writing, which includes nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. Most recently, as Bathanti told our group, he has become particularly interested in teaching veterans who find themselves behind bars, still dealing with the myriad issues that stem from PTSD.
Bathanti read several of his poems from his most recent book of poetry, Concertina. Many of his poems were prefaced with anecdotes, such as visiting the Army-Navy store downtown to buy a footlocker with his father, to watching the inmate basketball team talk smack on the guards while handily beating them on the court. "We all have stories that need to be told," he said to our group of blossoming writers. "My stories are no better than yours, I'm just neurotic enough to write them down."
He also entertained questions from our students and staff, which ranged from the mental tools he uses to write, to why he wanted to be writer in the first place, to why he continues to work in prisons. "You know, there are people serving in the military so we can stay safe at home, and I have this idea--which is mine alone--that people are in prison so I can be free." The notion that incarceration could happen to anyone resonates throughout his writing, as Bathanti repeatedly made it known that he is thankful he has never been in prison or jail, but also feels a responsibility to treat incarcerated folks as the respect any human deserves. Bathanti currently teaches at Appalachian State University and resides in Asheville, North Carolina, though Pittsburgh still finds its place in his writing. His latest work (and first novel) is titled East Liberty.