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A life immersed in the written word: Questions posed to the late Fred Chappell

From 1997 to 2002, Fred Chappell was the poet laureate of North Carolina, who also won a slew of literary awards. From 1997 to 2002, Fred Chappell was the poet laureate of North Carolina, who also won a slew of literary awards.

Editor’s Note: Over his tenure here at The Smoky Mountain News, Arts & Entertainment Editor Garret K. Woodward has had the sincere honor and pleasure of interviewing writer Fred Chappell on three separate occasions. Below are some Q&A excerpts from those conversations. Chappell died on Jan. 4 at age 87.

Smoky Mountain News: Your career has such versatility. Is that something that just evolved, or did you pursue other genres in hopes of honing your craft within the genres you initially liked? I think to become a better writer you should try other forms of writing.

Fred Chappell: I agree with you that cross-fertilization is very important. That’s why I think poets should read as much science as possible and fiction writers should read as much poetry as possible. Both of them should learn music and mathematics. Everything goes in the hopper and it’s up to you on what comes out. 

SMN: What do you see as the place of writers in this modern world of distraction, noise and short attention spans?
FC: The best thing is to not join in on it, but to keep steady where you are. We’ve been scribes since 5000 B.C. and I don’t see any reason to let up in these traditional matters. People are losing the knack for reading, at least it seems when I’ve been talking to them. But, if you can get them to read the first few pages, they’re sunk and they’ll be readers for at least an hour or two [that day]. A lot of us can be overwhelmed because there’s just so much out there today, but a lot of it is really terrific. 

SMN: What is it to be Southern Appalachian and a writer, where the landscape and culture affects the writing so deeply?
FC: Well, for one thing, literacy came late to a lot of Southern Appalachia. So, the idea of reading and writing was exciting and novel. And it became a great thing to become a writer, where if you were a writer, you were like a movie star, in a sense. The other part is that people in these mountains like language, we like words and we like what people have to say — “Have a drink with me and we’ll talk,” kind of thing, you know?

SMN: Are you optimistic about the future?
FC: If there is one, I would be. I’m not optimistic right this moment. But, I’ve been down this road before, back during the early 1950s and the McCarthy era. And we came out of that OK. So, I think we will with this one, too. 

SMN: At 83, how are you doing? What’s your perspective these days?
FC: Well, when I look at it from my usual haunts — doctor’s waiting rooms and funeral parlors — I see it’s a really pretty day outside. Not too hot, got some sunshine and a little breeze. And what I think I’ll do is seize it. It was my lot in life to be called to write and I stepped up to the plate — struck out a whole lot of times and once or twice did not. [The role of the poet and the writer] is to express what people don’t want to acknowledge, to acknowledge what people don’t want to express. 

SMN: What was the best advice you ever got, in terms of writing and of life, too?
FC: That’s a very hard question to answer, because I don’t know whether I’ve evolved or moved sideways. The only advice that means anything is “never say die.” You’re going to write no matter what, so do the best you can. I see just what I saw before — a whole universe that has to be expressed. [Life] has taught me a very familiar and important lesson that took a long time to absorb — which is to shut up and listen.

SMN: What has a life as a writer taught you about what it means to be a human being?
FC: It’s taught me humility. It’s taught me patience, for one thing, as to never trust my first impression of anything. Well, you always have the grand themes — life and death, war and peace, love and hate. But, what you focus on as a writer is the moment-to-moment, the specifics of every possible moment and you try to observe as much as you can — before it’s gone and before you’re gone.

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