Fred Chappell is long regarded as one of the countryís finest writers. The author of ten novels, a dozen books of verse, several short story collections as well as criticism, he has garnered a reputation for satirical wit or as Fred might claim, a smart aleck persona. Among his many awards, he has been the recipient of the Bollingen Prize in Poetry, the best foreign book prize from the Academie Francaise, the Aiken Taylor Prize, the T.S. Eliot Prize, and the Roanoke-Chowna Poetry Prize (seven times).
He was born in the mountains of Canton, North Carolina in 1936, educated at Duke University under the tutelage of William Blackburn, and until recently he taught at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro having recently retired after 40 years.
Among his novels are It Is Time, Lord (1963), Dagon (1969), The Wind Mountain (1979), I Am One of You Forever (1985), Brighten the Corner Where You Are (1989) and Family Gathering (2000). His recently published collection of poems, Backasss (2004, LSU), has received rave reviews for its humor. Some of his poetry collections include The World Between the Eyes: Poems (1971), Midquest (1981), which is comprised of River, Bloodfire, Wind Mountain, and Earthsleep. In addition, he has published Castle Tzingal (1984), C: Poems (1993), and The Yellow Shoe Poets: Selected Poems, 1964-1999. His non-fiction includes Plow Naked (1993) and A Way of Happening: Observations of Contemporary Poetry (1998). He has also published scores of short stories.
In 1997, the Governor of North Carolina, Jim Hunt, appointed Fred Chappell the stateís poet laureate. He is a past recipient of the O. Max Gardner Award, the highest teaching award bestowed by the University of North Carolina system. He has also been awarded the Burlington Industries Professor of English. He resides in Greensboro, NC with his wife, Susan.
This interview was conducted on June 25, 2004 near Emory University in Atlanta. Fred had given a reading to a packed house the previous night where he read exclusively from his new collection of poems, Backsass. He and Susan had driven down from Greensboro the previous day and immediately after the interview were rushing off to Charlotte for an event later that night.
William Walsh: I wanted to begin this interview with a discussion of comedy in poetry and this is a perfect subject since your new book of poems, Backsass, is very comical, very satirical. Could you discuss the book and the comedy?
Fred Chappell: Probably the pressure of contemporary events had a great deal to do with it and the dissatisfaction with political and social conditions and issues, and the desire to say something not so grave about certain situations and the desire to be a little smart-aleck for a change instead of being so reverential about subjects that poetry tends to be. I wanted to be funny. I wanted to be light-hearted with an edge and I soon discovered once I got into these poems that nothing is funny unless it is serious. So I decided I would take on certain aspects of contemporary psychology and sociology and fashion.
WW: You stated last night at your poetry reading that your editor at Louisiana State University Press wanted one more book from you before he retired, as well as from some other writers he had worked with over the years, and you said that this book was much more difficult than you had expected it to be.
FC: This is a different kind of poetry for me. Iím usually writing a more measured sort of verse. Whether it is free verse or formal verse, I write a verse that has a kind of formality or at least an aesthetic distance about it even when itís personal, but this [Backsass] has to be very jaunty and has to be a kind of form where youíre nudging people in the ribs even as you speak, and I couldnít quite here the rhythms for a long time, and Iím not entirely satisfied that I ever did as a matter of fact. That was the hard part for me with the majority of the poems, finding a conversational tone for the poems that just wasnít trivial. So, I worked on that a long time and had many, many poems that just simply did not work out.
WW: Your editor at LSU Press retired after many years and there were several writers he sort of brought up at a young age, yourself included. What do you do now for an editor or what do you look for in another editor? Or will LSU give you a choice?
FC: I have no idea. I havenít talked about these questions with anybody. Right now they are hunting for an editor. They had one editor but she left. I donít know. Itíll work out. I ainít worried about it.
WW: When searching for an editor wouldnít you want someone who is familiar with your past work?
FC: No, I donít care about all that stuff. Either the book is worth publishing or itís not.
WW: Donít you want an editor who can read the manuscript with a critical eye?
FC: No one has ever done that much. Only the copy editors for the trade publishers and at LSU. Only the copy editors have done that kind of thing. The editorial editors have never done that.
WW: In the past weíve talked about how you thought the tragic vision was the best method for writing, but then you changed and realized that comedy really exposes the follies of mankind. Can you discuss the significance of comedy in our lives and in our writing?
FC: Well, we depend upon it to keep our sanity, by laughing at ourselves, to keep a sense of balance so that we donít take ourselves all too seriously, I hope. And, of course, itís a way to let off steam. Itís a way to vent frustration and anger in a manor that is harmless for the most part and I hope holds up a mirror to our vises. Thatís traditionally the role of comedy and thatís the one I stuck to.
WW: In the past, youíve said that you like practical jokes and one of my favorite poems of your is ďMy Fatherís HurricaneĒ where you lead the reader or listener in the audience out on this huge limb then you just saw it off and theyíre sort of left there. I thought you did this last night a little bit when you first stepped up to the podium and started reading the opening poem from Backsass, ďHelloĒ. The opening word is ďhelloĒ and the audience responded back to you by saying, ďHelloĒ in a very conversational way but then you didnít respond to them but proceeded on with the poem which sort of played a practical joke on them and had them laughing. Was that intended?
FC: Yes, it was intended (laughing). It wasnít intended at firstóitís just that Iíve learned from public readings thatís how people respond to it. But, Iíve done the same thing with the automatic callers [answering machines] when the guy would say hello and [Iíd] expect to get a response but the machine kept on with its spiel and (laughing) when I read that poem thatís what happens Ė people get the automatic machine coming back at them. And, thatís part of the joke, just to tease them a little bit. But, then after the poem is read, I have to start at the beginning and say, ďGood evening ladies and gentlemen, here we are. Thank you for coming.Ē But, I have a way out of the reading at the end where the automatic dialer [telephone answering machine] comes back on again, and by that time the audience has heard the voice and knows kind of what to expect and they know there is an edge thatís going to be a real sassy machine.
WW: I gave a lecture a few months ago on the ďComedy of PoetryĒ and I found a number of professors agreeing with an idea I have borrowed from Joseph Brodsky when I interviewed him in 1992. He said that every society has ďa high pitch towards the positive, the life affirming, ensuring the inevitability or necessity of the success of the society. A keen ear will always detect an imbalance and try to produce the anecdote. Hence, for instance, the genre of the English ballads, the emphasis on the war.Ē Then he added, ďWhy do we have a foul language? Why when a young man of the age sixteen, seventeen, or eighteen with no experience whatsoever in this life starts to write his poems heís predominately dramatic, dark, and dissatisfied with his life even though he has no experience whatsoever. He speaks out of linguistic necessity to produce a counter balance.Ē I have found the same to be true with young student who are writing, they donít gravitate toward comedy but toward the dark and bleak. Do you find this to be true?
FC: Yes, this is true when you first begin writing. I speak of myself as well as the students that I have known that you tend to have a darker vision and it takes a little bit of maturity before you lighten up. I think the main reason is that when we are very young weíre scared and we think the future doesnít hold much for us and we are uncertain how we are going to handle the challenges. So, it looks kind of bleak and deadly, and after awhile we find out that it is bleak and deadly but itís the same way for everybody else, too (laughing). Thereís a communal feeling. Thereís more of a communal feeling, I think, about comedy then there is about the darkest interior tragedies.
Hamlet is not a communal play for me in the way Anthony and Cleopatra or King Lear are. Those plays have a great deal to do with society, but Hamlet is about an individual set apart. Usually when you write comedy you are not an individual set apart. You feel yourself as part of the community, at least you try to. And even though you can be a critic, a satirist of the community, you still feel part of it. One of the problems Iíve found now for comic poetry is that people identify comedy, satire, almost entirely with stand-up comedians they see on television, which is an isolated figure, a figure that stands apart with a spotlight. I think that is limiting in a way. There is a little too much of that smart-ass stage persona in these poems [Backsass] for my taste. But I didnít know how to combat it and still be funny.
WW: I have realized within the last year or so as I have thought about comedy in poetry that although we have some quirky poets such as like Charles Bukowski, Bill Knott, and Russell Edson to name only a few, we really do not teach or promote the comic element in poetry. Or, at least I have not seen it. Itís not an avenue that people gravitate towards.
FC: I think one of the reasons we donít emphasize [comedy] when we are teaching the mode so muchóyou either get it or you donít. And youíre stuck if they donít get it. They arenít going to get it if you explain it. Explaining it just makes it weaker, makes it seem dumber. So, it takes a little bit of a mind set and a little bit of background that you cannot really supply in the classroom, but you can supply a mindset, some kind of a mind frame as a teacher so that they do understand the darker works given social conditions, history, biographical, and so forth. But, if they donít find something amusing no matter how much you say, they ainít ever going to find it amusing. Itís just that way. What was your theory?
WW: Well, I went on to the Internet and did a Google search for comic poetry and humorous poems and what I primarily found was light verse. And while researching this topic, what I determined is that teachers and scholars tend to feel that a comic poem cannot in of itself be serious and so the person who wrote the poem isnít taken as seriouslyóthey feel the poem wasnít written by an intelligent person or that the poem didnít take much skill or investment of time because it does not display the dramatic and the dark qualities we think poems should have or what we have come to expect.
FC: Part of that is true simply because of the persona the writer has to adopt in presenting a comic work. You often present it from the persona of a buffoon or somebody a little retarded, as they say now, somebody who does not quite catch on to things, someone who is willing to make himself an object of fun as well as to make others an object of fun. The great comic artist who didnít exist is Falstaff, of course. We laugh and cry because we think we are a little better than he is. The same with Don Quixote. But thatís who we are. We are those folks.
WW: As with the stage, an intelligent person can be on stage and act incredibly stupid, but it is almost impossible for a stupid person to get up and act intelligent. When writing comic poetry you have someone who is very intelligent writing something that is funny, yet, people donít observe the fact that this person is highly intelligent in order to pull that off.
FC: One of the questions I used to ask every writer I met for awhile, just out of curiosity, did you ever try to draw a character that was more intelligent that you are? (laughing) Nobody ever said they tried to do that. Only one person said they tried one time but couldnít do it, and what they fell back on was using a lot of technical language and it simply did not work. I think youíre right. You can portray someone not quite as swift as you are, but to portray someone really much more intelligent than you are, I only know one book that ever brought it offĖĖby Olaf Stapledon called Odd John. And, that really took a lot of preparation. He also wrote a book about a dog that was smarter than most of us called Sirius which I recommend. Itís a better novel.
WW: One of the problems with comic poems that I have seen from students or when Iíve been on the Internet or read poems published in journals and literary magazines, is that the writer will simply stuff a joke inside the poem. The poem will usually fall short and what youíre stuck with is simply a joke inside a poem that is not successful.
FC: We have a lot of poems like that that are really just anecdotes. Sometimes they have points; sometimes they donít even have points. Sometimes they are added to illicit a laugh and let it go. A really successful satiric poem is one that makes people laugh and they then makes them say almost immediately why am I laughing at this. (laughing) But, thatís the way itís supposed to work.
My main area of study was 18th Century poetry and thatís the great age of satire and maybe part of the 19th Century with Byron particularly. Thatís where I studied very assiduously how to do these things, and that, of course, is the least favorite era for poetry now. Students donít like to study it and other poets donít like to read it. So, there you are.
WW: Itís been more than sixteen years since we first sat down at your house in Greensboro to talk about your writing. In that time, what has been the biggest change in your life and in your writing?
FC: Sixteen years ago? When I try to think of myself sixteen years ago, I think of myself as a mere stripling, Bill (laughing). I have no idea. Just more years is all I can tell you. I didnít get any brighter I can assure you that. I didnít get any better looking. I didnít get any richer (laughing).
WW: You just retired after teaching for forty years at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. How has retiring worked out?
FC: Well, I havenít really retired yet. Iíve just been doing the same things Iíve been doing. Iím trying to catch up on work that I was supposed to have gotten done a couple of years ago. Iíll be officially retired probably around November or December. Iím not teaching formally.
WW: What do you have on the burner as far as new writing goes?
FC: As I said last night, I would like to write a few essays about women poets. Iíd like to fulfill a few commitments I have to write lectures and reviews, that sort of thing. I have a longing to write some fiction and I owe somebody a short story, but I donít have any real large plans right now. I have notes Iíve been making for a long time over the years for future projects and Iíll go back and look at those and maybe something will leap out at me.
WW: I am interested in your essay on women poetsóthe women you discussed: Heather Ross Miller, Kelly Cherry, Ellen Bryant Voigt and Eleanor Taylor, primarily southern. . . .
FC: Yes, simply because I know their poetry better than most women poets. The only connection I have found between them so far is their take on the individual. Individualism seems to be a common thread that runs through their poetry, and it has occurred to me a possible shaky hypothesis is that perhaps itís a little difficult in contemporary times for a southern woman to know exactly what her identity is supposed to be. But that sounds like a little bit of bullshit. (laughing) I would like people to catch up on reading these women because I think their poetry is very good. Itís very startling and suggestive some times. I find ideas in their work that are really revolutionary sometimes. It would be very interesting to write on their sense of humor which is very different from say Jim Dickeyís comic poems or David Bottomsí poemsóa lot less physical. They are a lot more observational and always a little tinge of Jane Austen in their work. There is a slyness about it that makes some of us seem kind of heavy-handed and blunt.
WW: In your opinion, what is the current state of poetry?
FC: Thereís a lot of it, Bill. Thatís all I can tell you. I donít keep up as much as Iíd like to have been able to because Iíve been reading my studentsí work. Thereís a lot of that, too. But, poets are flourishing! Almost no day goes by that I donít receive a new book in the mail and Iíve never seen such a wide variety of styles and subject matter in my life. Itís a real Sears Roebuck catalog of everything in the world, which is healthy because there is such a great wide spectrum of expression that is untraditional. We donít have the poetry stars that we used to have. Perhaps Bill Collins is the closet we have to W.H. Auden or someone like that. As far as I know, we really donít have that kind of poet. Itís a much more democratic kind of situation than it used to be. I like that.
WW: Every day you receive a new book of poems in the mailóare these for review?
FC: A lot of them are for review that the publishers send to me and hope for a reaction and hope that I might write a review. A lot of people are looking for blurbs. I seem to write a lot of blurbs. And, I guess they just send them out shotgun sometimes.
WW: Whatís your take on most of it that comes over the transom, as far as quality?
FC: Almost all of it has a certain level of competence, technical competence. Very little of it is striking in anyway, and even the ones that try to be striking kind of fall into a category that makes them not striking ĖĖit goes in with all the other poets that are trying to be striking. They donít seem to be quite as profound as the modernist poems I know by heart. But thatís because probably I know those by heart. As soon as I know these poems really well, Iíll find out.
WW: If you take a look at any issue of Poets & Writers magazine you will see that there are a lot of prizes and awards for poetry, just multitudes of accolades. Are we creating a system of self-promotion simply by virtue of the poetry culture being there to assist in its own self-importance?
FC: Yes, that is always true, but that is true in every endeavor. If you look at sportsóthere are all kinds of awards for things that donít happen on the field and for minor things that happen on the field. Itís certainly true of politics where politicians accept some sort of award from somebody everyday of the week, sometimes two a day for nothing they ever did and sometimes for things they didnít do. So, itís just kind of a media-driven society as far as attention goes. But all these things sift out. There are certain awards that mean something and there are certain awards that donít. I would not accept a Pulitzer Prize. I think itís not worth having. But there are some awards around that are nice and honest prizes.
WW: Which ones would you find favorable?
FC: I think the National Book Award is one. I served on the National Book Award committee and I was impressed by how serious everybody took the job and how there was little if any favoritism that I could discern and [the award] didnít go to friends of friends, or friends of friends of friends. And, everybody had done their homework. Everybody had read these huge stacks of poems. That seems to be honorable. But, of course, the juries shift every year so you never know.
WW: I read not long ago and Iím sorry that I cannot remember where but the writer stated that if mankind had never invented poetry or if we never write another poem, it would make very little difference in the lives of most people.
FC: (laughing) Well, if mankind had not invented poetry we would not be mankind. It would be some other kind of animal. This is wonderful speculation but itís kind of science fiction or fantasy because poetry is built into the physiognomy of the human being. Itís part of our nervous system from the time we are born. We react to the rhythm of language and so thereís no way we would not have ever written poetry. Our first language, and linguists have proven this many times, was poetry. So much of our language now, if you isolate it, is poetry. If you went through with just our speech here as weíve been talking, very loosely youíd find a great deal of it is in iambic meter and some of it tends toward the aphorisms and the epigrams simply because of the format we speak in. But we all try to do that. We try to amuse each other, interest each other. We reach for similes and metaphors. There is no way to understand our experience without the tools of poetry. You have to compare one thing with another. When you do, youíve made a simile. When you make it very close youíve made a metaphor and that is one of the things we act upon.
WW: Are we writing poems that change our lives?
FC: Yes, everyday somebody hears a poem, almost everyday, or reads one that changes their life. Not radically for the most part, but any teenager who hears some rap song or some rock-n-roll song has his or her life changed if only for thirty minutes because they believe in that sort of thing. If you are of the literary bent and you get a little older and will you read poems that shape the way you look at things, perhaps not radically, but certainly the poems tint the glasses you look through for a while. Sometimes forever. Sometimes without you knowing it. Sometimes you chose to look through those glasses. Oh, yeah! Poetry is changing our lives.
WW: In the most recent issue of Poetry there was a letter to the editor where a reader wrote that ďone need look no farther than Poetry magazine to find a reason for poetryís decline.Ē He found the poetry to be ďobscure and contrived as to be meaningless or incomprehensible.Ē Iím not trying to pick on Poetry magazine because this can be seen through the canon of literary magazine and journals, but I think to some degree he might have a valid point. There is a huge wave of obfuscation and it is oftentimes difficult to understand even what the point is or what the poem is about.
FC: Young or silly poets try to be obscure. Most people who write poetry think they are being clear and they are only being unclear simply because they donít have the facility with the language yet or they are trying to express something they havenít completely formulated in their own mind or they are trying to express something that might be nearly inexpressible. But a great deal of it [the obfuscation] is because we donít have same cultural reverence we used to have. All poetry, all speech depends upon allusion, that is to refer to something that is not present at the time and place where the speech is given. So, when you find a poem that seems to be obscure, it may make all the sense in the world if you know who Three Finger Mordecai Brown wasĖĖan old time baseball pitcher [a.k.a. The Miner, played from 1903-1916]. When my students pick up a poem and ask me, for example, who Ty Cobb is, I have a little problem there because we donít come from the same civilization in a certain way. And, our culture is so broad and encompasses so many references that we all speak from a different cultural base almost. That makes it difficult.
WW: Is there a major U.S. poet right now, someone we can look to as we did with A.R. Ammons, John Ashbery, T.S. Eliot or so forth. Is there anyone in the canon?
FC: Iím sure there is. There are probably three or four poets of this status but I donít know who they are. I donít read for those reasons and I donít read book reviews so I donít keep up with it.
WW: Last night during your reading as you were reading the poems you changed several words in some of the poems as you were going along. I donít know if everyone else picked up on this. Was that a spur of the moment decision or an editorial mark that you decided upon after the book was published?
FC: (laughing) Some were just accidental. I thought I knew the line but I didnít know the line. But two or three. . . I never stop revising. And, Iíll keep revising poems. If I had my copy here with me, youíd see that Iíve marked out phrases and put in other phrases. I thought the poems were finished but when I started reading them aloud to people I decided, No, No, No. Sometimes I will change them on the spur of the moment. I will improvise an improvement and after the reading is over, Iíll regret that decision.
WW: I noticed in the new poems, Backsass, that the lines breaks, punctuation and general texture of the poems are very sparse and appeared to have an influence of e e cummings. And, you mentioned that cummings was an influence in this book. Can you discuss this?
FC: Just with the visualsóthe idea of scattering a poem upon the page rather than making it into blocks. What was very difficult was to figure out since I had abandoned traditional punctuation was a new system of punctuation for people reading the book. I didnít know what to do about questions for example. So I decided that most of the punctuation and new sentences would be uncapitalized unless I had a definite speaker, but Iíd have to capitalize the questions so they would make sense. I could put a question mark at the end. I had to decide since I wasnít using commas or very rarely when I wanted to space between a series of words or to run them together, so I just used them the way I wanted a reader to hear them, the rhythm, the internal rhythm. All kinds of silly little problems like that that I never had to consider writing a more formal verse, but thatís part of the fun. Technique is always fun.
I keep hearing the poems in different ways every time I would change the position of a phrase, a space between words or I would decide to put a line break here rather than there. It brought home to me one more time how you cannot change a word in a poem without having changed the whole of the poem. Itís like touching a spider web. You touch it in one place and the whole structure trembles and itís certainly true of these poems. They are so small and seemingly fragile that if you displace one snowflake, you no longer have a snowball. Itís fun to work with but I like something with a little more substance, a little more formal structure.
WW: This question takes us way form writing, but it you could change anything in the world what would you change?
FC: (laughing) Oh, gracious alive! Even the wisest person in the world could not answer that question. Any change I could make in the world would screw things up even worse. I say that with a full awareness of how horrible things are, how rotten things are. But with a concomitant knowledge that I donít have whatever answer it takes to set things right. I wish I did. Iíd be a different person if I did.
WW: How and in what ways has your writing matured over the years?
FC: I hope and I made a deliberate try for it to become less self-centered. Thatís the only change Iíve really tried to make. Iíve also tried to see things more clearly, more roundly, more totally than I did before rather than rushing at them with an attitude beforehand. Iíve tried to accept them on their own terms as best as I could understand. Thatís the only real change Iíve ever tried to make.
WW: One of the things that has happened with the writers I have interviewed over the past twenty years is that they have begun to die: James Dickey, A.R. Ammons, Joseph Brodsky, Olive Ann Burns, to name a few, and now that you have retired from teaching and have gotten older, and with most people we think about dying. . . .
FC: No, I dwell on the deaths of relatives and friends and acquaintances, but not on my own. I think a little but about Susan. It will probably happen that I have to die before Susan, and I donít like to think of her as being alone in those years, but, maybe she wonít be.
WW: You are moving away from the personal aspect of your poems, the generic ďI,Ē and in Backsass the narrator, the ďI,Ē is not ďFredĒ but is more of a generic speaker.
FC: Yes, to shift the personality, the onus of the personality to different persona as I go alongóthat gives you rather than a full frontal view in the mirroróit gives you a surrounding of mirrors that give you more angles on the background that youíre in. A real terrific novelist doesnít even have a mirror. He really just sees what is there. Weíre talking Tolstoy, Flaubert here. Or, rather CervantesĖĖhe doesnít need the mirror. He sees the world as it is. But, Iím not like that. I have to see through my own reflection somehow. Itís a limitation that I wish I could get rid of, but no dice.