“An immensely gifted, exuberant, versatile writer who should be ranked among our important contemporary voices.” So spoke novelist William Styron about Fred Chappell, poet, novelist, essayist, and professor. The man who inspired this ebullient tribute was born in 1936 on a farm near Canton. An avid reader, he began writing science fiction in the eighth grade, poetry in the ninth. At Duke University, Chappell studied under acclaimed writing teacher William Blackburn and befriended other future literary headliners, including Reynolds Price, James Applewhite, and Anne Tyler. An editor asked if he’d be interested in writing a novel. Chappell reports, “I told him I was a poet and I wasn’t really sure that fiction was a worthy endeavor.” But he began writing fiction; and four novels later, Dagon won the best foreign book award from the Academie Française.
Thus began a long stellar career that has produced almost thirty volumes. Perhaps his most ambitious accomplishment has been four poetry collections paired with four novels, each based on one of the four elements — earth, air, fire, and water — and all reflecting Chappell’s Appalachian roots as he examines the core of human experience: love, community, and mortality. In 1997, following the tenure of Sam Ragan, Chappell’s remarkable versatility and skill earned him the title of North Carolina Poet Laureate.
As professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Chappell has mentored several of our state’s fine poets, including Sarah Lindsay, Pulitzer-prize winner Claudia Emerson, and Kathryn Stripling Byer, who succeeded him as state Poet Laureate. His excellence in teaching was recognized by the statewide O. Max Gardner Award. Other honors include the Bollingen Prize, the T.S. Eliot Award, and the North Carolina Award for Literature. Now retired from teaching, he lives in Greensboro with his wife Susan, and continues to compose poetry, which he calls “the noblest secular endeavor that the human mind undertakes.”
Castle Tzingal (LSU Press, 1984):
Watch Fred Chappell read from his short story, “Duet”:
(Courtesy of the North Carolina Arts Council)
Watch Fred Chapell discuss the nature of ideas at the North Carolina Writers’ Network 2010 Spring Conference in Greensboro, NC:
(Courtesy of Alice Osborn, www.aliceosborn.com)