2 June 2004 | Vol. 4, No. 2
Okla Elliott Speaks with Fred Chappell
Fred Chappell welcomed me into his house, and I was greeted with the smell of pine-chips and dried rose petals, a fittingly earthy smell for the South's resident man-of-letters, the bashful Appalachian godfather of literature. Two playful cats scratched at what my untrained eye saw as antique furniture, and Fred politely pushed them away, reprimanding them halfheartedly. In our preliminary discussion he offered me a book by a friend of his, whose work I'd mentioned enjoying, and when I said I already owned it, he began searching for another volume to offer, eager to give.
In his garden I drank a beer and he drank a glass (or two) of white wine. I felt I'd died and gone to the heaven of southern gentility—that is, all the attractiveness of the South's high culture without any of the attendant old-money snootiness. Fred looked to his feet and stammered if I complimented him too profusely (which I am wont to do), yet he laughed unselfconsciously at both his own jokes and mine.
I have been a fan of Fred's work since my undergrad years when I read his books like how-to manuals for great literature. The litany of awards both his native country and others have lavished on him over the years is staggering. I offer here an abbreviated list: The Académie Française awarded his 1968 novel, Dagon, the Prix de Meilleur des Lettres Etrangers; he has won the Roanoke-Chowan Poetry Cup three times; in 1985 he was co-recipient (with John Ashbury) of the Bollingen Prize; and he was the poet laureate of North Carolina 1998-2003. Other works of his include the novels Brighten the Corner Where You Are, The Inkling, and It is Time, Lord. Fred is perhaps better known for his poetry collections Spring Garden: New and Selected Poems, Midquest, and Source.
It is hard to sum up the career of Fred Chappell. The Los Angeles Times wrote of Fred, "Not since James Agee and Robert Penn Warren has a southern writer displayed such masterful versatility," and I guess that'll have to do. The following is an excerpt from my conversation with Fred Chappell in September 2003:
Okla Elliott: I hear rumors that your new book will be printed in a limited edition by a local press. Is this just rumor?
Fred Chappell: No, it's true. Yonno Press will be doing the book, and the cover art will be by Fritz Janschka. The paper will be made of cat fur, from cats that have lived in this very house, who have now gone off to the catnip beyond. I think we have enough to make about forty copies of the book. It's called Companion Volume. My last book of poetry was about the characters in a family, and these poems are about their cats.
OE: I immediately think of T. S. Eliot when I hear of a humorous book of verse about cats. Is there a connection?
FC: About midway through the project I realized the similarity. I started writing the poems to amuse Susan, and then decided I might make a book of them. I read Opossum's Book of Practical Cats when I was young and loved the poems. So, I imagine there's some relation there, though I didn't set out with those poems in mind.
OE: You are, like Robert Penn Warren, a "man-of-letters." This seems rare in today's MFA-driven literary world, where a student tends to pick a genre and stick with it. What affects have MFA programs' rise to dominance had on American letters?
FC: The idea of being a man-of-letters—by which I assume you mean a writer who works in all the genres (poetry, novels, and so on)—is an older idea, not so popular these days. It's also a very southern concept. I can't think of many northern men-of-letters. It may be because of the South's connection with France, though many French poets tend to think there is nothing worse for a poet to do than write a novel.
Writing programs have probably accidentally aided in the demise of the man-of-letters.
OE: Would it be fitting to call the seven authors collected in LSU's anthology A New Pléiade a literary school? If so, what are its defining features?
FC: Forming a sort of school of poets was [David] Slavitt's idea, and I was honored to be included. The members of the Pléiade are a bunch of guys who just knew each other and had some similar notions about literature. And there's Kelly Cherry—who's a woman-of-letters and a marvelous writer. Henry Taylor has written poetry and criticism, and Dillard has done poetry, fiction, and great work in film reviews. Brendan Galvin is primarily known for his poetry. He and Garrett worked together on that movie Frankenstein Meets Space Monster. This October in Tennessee they're going to run that movie as part of the George Garrett tribute event.
There'll be all the usual suspects there, I suppose. I'll have to miss most of it, will only get to be there the first day before I have to run off to Washington.
OE: Didn't Dillard also write a verse-screenplay?
FC: Yes. "Night of the Living Dead." A wonderful poem.
OE: He also writes verse-essays, right? He's written one about you and one about Slavitt, if I remember correctly.
FC: Yes, that's right. I think he finds poetry to be a shorter effort than academic essays—and they're very nice, these poems.
OE: There are some striking similarities between your career and John Updike's. You both have famous tetralogies (the Kirkman and Rabbit novels) and you each have a long poem about middle age (Midquest and Midpoint). Are these purely coincidental similarities?
FC: I certainly don't dislike Updike's work, but I don't think I've read an entire novel ever. I've reviewed some of his poems and enjoyed them quite a bit. His criticism and occasional prose are quite good as well. But, no, there's no real connection between my work and his, though it's interesting that you point that out.
OE: What is your attraction to long and longer poems?
FC: It's not the length so much. You can treat a subject matter with several short works, taking little pieces of the idea, lyrical beads strung together to describe what you're after; or you can make it one inclusive piece. I won't say that it's more "organic" that way, because that word sucks. Larger, breathing poems allow you to open up a subject. When you sit down to write the piece you make a choice based on what'll work best, and for me it's often the longer form. These aren't popular poems, can't be because of their length. People don't like teaching them and they're more difficult. Reading poetry takes a lot of attention, and a longer piece is going to require even more attention, and most people just aren't willing to invest the time to read one. The longer poem is a dying form in a way, and I hate to see great forms die out, but...
OE: Much of your poetry is formalist or, even when written in free verse, "remembers" the forms of poetry. What is your attraction to rhyme and meter? Why do you think it's fallen out of fashion?
FC: I'm not a neo-formalist. I'm not carrying water for any group. The form of a poem is determined by its subject.
I don't want to say that free verse is slack, because I write it as well and know that to write good free verse is very difficult, but in free verse the poet finds it too easy to talk and think the way he always does. With formal obstacles he has to think differently, and that can be very rewarding. I think that rhyme and meter can suggest thoughts that I may not have had otherwise.
OE: You've translated ancient Roman poems and plays. What effect has your interest in classicism had on your work?
FC: Well, it's such excellent work, that's why I read it. And it contains in it all the traditions that follow it historically. I'm from a generation that was cheated of a classical education. If you want to learn those languages, you have to start young, at six or seven. I've had Latin halfway and like to refresh myself from time to time. I've never had much Greek. The Greek translations I've done have been partially faked.
The other day I was rereading the translation I did of Plautus several years ago, and I realized it was terrible. I think I've done some rather good translations of Latin odes and lyrics. But my translation of Euripides, for example, holds the distinction of being the worst English rendering of Euripides I've ever seen. I'm not sure how I did that to such interesting work, made it flat and boring. I think I may have been self-conscious of my lack of knowledge and was always looking at compendiums and dictionaries, and trying to stay too literal. I'm not sure why really.
OE: Much of the South American magical realism has a rural setting, like your work. Does magical realism lend itself better to rural landscapes?
FC: Probably the pastoral setting is where we expect magic to happen, but it could happen in an urban landscape. The author would have to know his city the way a farmer knows his plot of land, which is rare, but it could happen.
OE: In your essay "A Pact with Faustus," you say that your earlier novels were experimental and literary to the point of being uninviting (a claim I disagree with, but we'll run with it). You say also that you aren't scared in your new fiction to be sentimental and that "at least a few of us [writers] should rejoin the human race." Would you discuss this change in thinking?
FC: That was written for the Reader, I think [The Fred Chappell Reader, St Martin's Press, 1987]. Maybe it had been published elsewhere before. I can't remember exactly why I wrote that piece. My memory's getting porous. My book Brighten the Corner Where You Are is an all-freshman read this year, and I've got to reread the damn thing myself so I can talk about it. [Laughs.]
But, yes, the tetralogy is rather sentimental, I think. The French magazine Libération sent someone over here to interview me a while back, before those books had appeared in France, and I told the man that I thought they wouldn't be very popular over there. The French are a very unsentimental race. But he said that he thought they would be, and he was right; they've done pretty well there.
What I don't understand is that my earlier novel, Dagon, has been my most successful. Maybe it's the Lovecraft cult, but I wouldn't imagine there are that many of them. Who knows? It's been a bestseller twice in France alone. I don't get it.
I feel that young authors like to present themselves with challenges, often unnecessarily difficult ones—like, "I'm going to write this book without the letters n, i, or a." They're like puppies chewing on a rawhide bone. They'll never get through it, but they can't put off the chewing.
I no longer treat a subject before I write it. I write and let the story take precedence, not some artificial structure I've dreamed up.
OE: The Polish novelist, Bruno Schulz, has a book, translated here as The Street of Crocodiles, that reminds me of your tetralogy novels. It's a novel-in-stories, like yours. The narrator is a boy who mythologizes his father. And it's magical realism before the term was invented. Have you read the book?
FC: Yes, I've read it, and I enjoyed it very much. I would like to read more of his work. That's the only one I've read, but I thought it was very good.
Another Polish novelist I admire is Jan Potocki. He was a baron and wrote only one novel, The Saragasso Manuscript—the best vampire novel ever written, by the way.
OE: It's strange to hear those words come from the mouth of an author who's so lauded in academic circles. It seems that genre fiction is too often overlooked and dismissed without any investigation by academic writers. Why is that?
FC: I don't know why it is. But for me a story is a story is a story. Philip K. Dick, for example, has been accepted into the mainstream literary fold. It's because some of his work is so good that it demands to be read as a story, not just as a genre exercise.
OE: I know that Raymond Carver started out writing little green men stories until he got to the university and thought they weren't "sophisticated" enough.
FC: Well, he probably saw the little green men.
I bet in his case he just finally found his voice. I can't imagine what a Carver-on-Mars story would read like.
It seems that genre fiction is slowly becoming the arena of specialists. With all the new technology in forensic science and science in general, one almost has to be P. D. James to write a P. D. James novel. It used to be that an eighteen-year-old could write a passable sci-fi story. Now, you practically have to have a doctorate in physics.
OE: What is your attraction to light verse? Why is light verse rarely taught even though it is often quite wonderful? Is appreciation of light verse part of the "school" connected with A New Pléiade?
FC: Several of us do write light verse. Light verse is almost always formal verse as well, so there's all the challenges and joys of formal verse, and it's just fun. There's something refreshing about writing amusing verse.
OE: In closing, I'd like to make sure I heard you correctly before. There will only be forty copies of your new book?
FC: Yes. We'll end up having to sell them for a thousand dollars a piece to make our money back. [Laughs.]
There might be a trade edition later, but there's not been anything planned. I haven't thought about it much. I'm pleased to do this small run for now.