Few are the people of a certain age and generation who cannot tell you where they were on Sept. 11, 2001, the day that terrorists attacked our nation on native soil, and the point from which America’s guardians of freedom launched counteractions that have been sustained to nearly this very day.
It is only fitting then, 20 years later, that our guardians of language — our poets — have launched actions of their own. The result, “Crossing the Rift: North Carolina Poets on 9/11 & Its Aftermath,” (Press 53) is an anthology from 116 of our state’s poets, including six North Carolina poets laureate, reflecting on the events of that day — and the 7,305 days that have elapsed since.
Edited by former NC poet laureate and App State professor Joseph Bathanti, and David Potorti, co-founder of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, not all of the poets in the anthology are of that certain age and generation, but all of them, like all of us, have been touched by the events of that day. The result is a compilation of reflections, actions or advocacy that move us from the granular — as in the minute distinction between the words “other” and “another” when speaking with a loved one from an uncertain building and the call is irretrievably dropped — to the global.
Bathanti recently agreed to answer a few questions from Mountain Times about those reflections. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
To hear more from Bathanti and others in person, a release event for the anthology will take place outdoors at Bookmarks Bookstore in Winston-Salem at 3 p.m on Sept. 12.
Tom Mayer: “Crossing the Rift” is certainly an ambitious enterprise. You touch on this in the preface to the book, but could you start by telling me a bit about the anthology and how it came about?
Joseph Bathanti: As I mention in the preface, “Crossing the Rift: North Carolina Poets on 9/11 & Its Aftermath” actually began all the way back in September of 2010, just prior to the ninth anniversary of 9/11. David Potorti, then the Arts Tourism Manager at the North Carolina Arts Council, and I agreed to assemble a complement of poems to memorialize the 10th anniversary of 9/11. By June of 2011, we had laid concrete plans; and, in August of 2011, we sent out the call to dozens of poets across North Carolina “to commemorate and acknowledge in poetry the upcoming 10th anniversary of 9/11 ... a poem that in some way (touched) directly on the events of 9/11 or (reflected) associated themes of peace, hope, reconciliation, loss, etc.” The poems harvested were posted, in the order they arrived, each day leading up to 9/11, on the Poet Laureate section of NCAC’s blog.
In the first few days of 2021, David and I exchanged emails and he mentioned rather offhandedly reviving our earlier 9/11 poetry initiative in print form. I responded enthusiastically, though we knew we had to move with dispatch. The 20th anniversary was approximately eight months off, and assembling an anthology has more moving parts than one can imagine. By Jan. 17, we had a commitment from Kevin Watson and his intrepid Press 53 to publish the anthology. Thus, the scramble began.
On Jan. 31, David and I sent out the call to poets across North Carolina requesting poems for the anthology that touched upon the original thrust of its much smaller digital predecessor, but that also took into account the exponential collateral fallout spawned by 9/11 over the past 20 years: Islamophobia, the vilification of immigrants and the undocumented, ramped-up xenophobia, nationalism and isolationism, two wars and supercharged military budgets that continue to impoverish our nation, as well as concurrent rises in homophobia, transphobia, virulent racism and domestic terrorism.
It was our hope that the invited poets would craft poems with those themes in mind and through the lenses of their experiences and lived lives, and in inimitable ways. The poems poured in from all over North Carolina and from extraordinarily diverse vantages and voices. The yield was dazzling, wildly varied, humbling and uniformly moving.
TM: I expect that must have been an awesome experience corralling 116 poets from across a single state.
JB: After the Jan. 31 call went out, submissions immediately rolled in, then slowed as we neared the established deadline of April 30, which of course we stretched almost until the bitter end. I knew almost all of the poets personally, but David and I also reached out to North Carolina poets we didn’t know — whose work we admired or who were recommended to us. Again, since we were looking at 9/11 through the widest lens — interested in the dead-on direct response as well as the peripheral response — we were also very much intrigued with fielding work from younger poets (those just coming to consciousness the day 9/11 occurred) whose poetic oeuvre has been influenced in a collateral vein by 9/11 and the interminable wars and other global mayhem spawned by it.
There is a good bit of clerking that goes into building a book like this – again, so many moving parts, and an ever-mounting checklist of collecting the poems, and bios, and acknowledgements, suggesting edits, sending out page proofs, proofreading (over and over), constant correspondence with the poets, between David and me, among David and me and Kevin Watson, the editor and publisher of Press 53.
There was the cover image to decide upon. We had to secure blurbs, and write press releases, and set up publicity and readings, etc., and all the things I’m forgetting to list here, the things you don’t contemplate having to do until you realize you have to do them.
But what a pleasure it’s been. I’ve reconnected with so many dear writer friends because of the constant back and forth and made the happy and ever-gratifying acquaintance of a wonderful cohort of younger poets. What’s more, the anthology unites the North Carolina poetry community, isolated these many months by COVID-19, under the banner of social and restorative justice.
TM: You’ve noted that the collection “engages with what poet Carolyn Forche calls ‘the poetry of witness.’” Would you explain that?
JB: David and I, in our original call to poets, invoked Carolyn Forche, and what she dubs “the poetry of witness”: poetry as activism, documentary testimony and the pledge to honor shared humanity and dignity, and social and restorative justice. Writing “the poetry of witness,” is not simply a question of conscience, zeal and commitment to social change and justice — though all those elements are crucial — but of craft and control, especially when the poet’s personal testimony (witness) is so often central to the poem at hand. The poetry of witness stridently resists any effort to revise or deny history (and science), to muzzle and erase and propagandize. It insists upon the primacy of personal and historical truth as paramount in the ongoing quest for peace and equality. Perhaps more than anything, it sacramentalizes the act of memory, of story, as a healing ritual.
TM: What surprised me most about the anthology is the breadth of experience. Some poems are eerily specific, single moments captured in verse. Others give a wide breadth to the events of 9/11 and, as you include in the title, “the aftermath” — even years after as the war in Afghanistan was raging. What surprised you by the poems you received for the collection?
JB: David and I knew we’d harvest dozens of “where I was that day” poems, akin to those written, say, about Pearl Harbor or the assassinations of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. — and those head-on poems were powerful and issued from myriad vantages and temperaments.
But we also very deliberately nudged poets to contemplate 9/11 peripherally, radiationally. And, of course, there are a number of poets in the anthology who were children that morning and others who had yet to think of themselves as poets. The younger poets’ take on 9/11 is often associational, radiational, informed by the new received culture of surveillance and suspicion and, often, hatred that 9/11 ushered in. For instance, each of the 116 poets has lived the last score of years as a citizen of a country at war. There were poems about war and its environmental footprint. It’s worth saying that any war poem is ultimately a poem about peace.
We fielded poems from an Iraq War veteran, from a student at Appalachian State University (the volume’s youngest contributor at age 22), whose father has been deployed for 20 of her 22 years. I was particularly gratified by the handful of extraordinary poems by teachers who recount what that day was like for them in a school classroom with their students, taking it all in in horrific disbelief as everyone huddled around the nearest TV. There were the near-miss “but for the grace of God” poems (and of course my friend and co-editor David Potorti’s stunning poem about his brother’s death in the North Tower); poems that grapple with virulent racism and White Nationalism and the insane underbelly of so-called patriotism that’s fueled such suspicion, polarization and division; poems about “othering,” hate crime and the depredation of the planet.
But there were just as many poems of witness that championed the indomitability of the human spirit and its dogged instinct toward healing; and, if I dare, love. How people have gone on and endured, the rallying cry to allow our “better angels” to prevail. At the literal end of the day, Sept. 11, 2001, there were babies to nurse and bathe and bed, and elderly parents to tend. The next morning, Sept. 12, signaled another working day which America ventured into diminished and confused, without any real notion of how it had been changed for all time, but ventured into nonetheless. There are those poems, and so many about children.
Thus, because of the diversity of perspectives and the diversity of poets and their respective acculturations, their lived lives, the book took on a wide-ranging organic identity of its own. At its core is a plea for shared humanity — for peace and reconciliation.
As Robert Frost declared: “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” David and I were surprised at every turn, thoroughly astonished.
TM: David Potorti’s introduction and prescient family photo before the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in 1986 is captivatingly similar to so many memories many of us have about 9/11. But a generation later, with the war in Afghanistan officially over as proclaimed by the headlines on Aug. 31, 2021, are we as a country destined to regulate this tragedy to the distant memories of a Pearl Harbor?
JB: The great worry remains that the currency of any of these touchstone tragedies will be remanded to the murky vaults of memory, and curated only by those who experienced them firsthand. I grew up habitually regaled with stories of the Depression, Pearl Harbor and World War II. The generation of those who lived through those things is fading. Folks who actually remember December 7, 1941 are, at the youngest, in their mid-80s, All we have is their witness, thus the point of anthologies like “Crossing the Rift” is that they preserve those memories, document and certify them, provide a bibliography of witness, the crucial memorial and cautionary tales that certain things, often horrifying and unimaginable, really did occur and remain at the heart of our identities as Americans. Otherwise the very things that shape our consciousness, our spirits, can be relegated to mere anecdote, forgotten, or worst of all sacrilegiously denied.
TM: A last question: Why poetry? Why not a book of prose or drama, photos or art?
JB: Poetry, as hermetic and mysterious as it can seem, is still primary speech, the medium most like prayer that we reflexively latch onto in an effort to express the ineffable. Poetry is emotionally charged and visceral. It creates, through language, cosmos out of chaos, a kind of order that the experience one writes about — for instance, the overwhelming cataclysm of 9/11 — completely lacked.
To quote this famous injunction by William Wordsworth: “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” Frequently, we need that charged, compressed and intuitive language that only poetry can supply to confront and hopefully come to terms with enormity.