Sunday, August 11, 2019

Meeting a Poet Laureate unaware

I can’t imagine a writer in North Carolina or a reader who doesn’t know or recognize the name, Fred Chappell. He is 83 now and has come out with a new poetry collection. He read at City Lights Books in Sylva recently. Wish I had known. I might have made the trip over the mountain to see him and hear him speak.

Fred Chappell
When I was new to these mountains, twenty years ago, my husband Barry and I attended a Bookfest in Waynesville, NC. I was thrilled to be in the  room with so very many authors and their books. I stopped at every table and struck up a conversation with the man or woman who sat there. They were real authors who had published books! The energy was contagious and set my mood soaring.
Barry followed behind me, his camera strap around his neck. I remember meeting Vicki Lane, novelist, that day and some other good writers. But the writer who made the biggest impression on me was Fred Chappell. I didn’t know he was Fred Chappell. I had never seen him or even a picture of him.

He was standing with other men in a room off to the side of where the most activity was taking place. Several tables stacked with books by various authors drew me in. I don’t know how he happened to come over to us. Maybe my enthusiasm caught his attention. But he was suddenly beside me and talking with me. He was being humorous and when he asked me my name, I introduced myself and told him I was with Netwest.

He said, “Oh, yes. That’s Nancy Simpson’s group.”

I guess that was what the NC Writers’ Network –West was thought to be – Nancy Simpson’s group. She was the person who was responsible for holding it all together for all those years.

Fred joked and kidded me and I, not realizing he was a celebrity in the literary world, said to Barry, “Take a picture of me with Fred Chappell.”

I didn’t ask if he would make a picture with me, I just assumed he would. I know now that was rude and presumptuous of me. Barry grabbed his Nikon and Fred grabbed me around the neck and had me laughing when Barry took the photo. It was a memorable moment that I treasure. (But I can't find the photo for this blog.)

Some years later I had the opportunity to take a workshop with him and was very impressed with his warmth, his down-to-earth manner. He told all of us in the group that we could send him a poem if we wanted his help.

I did send a poem. The title was About Jack.  I liked the poem because it sent a subtle message about parents who were too busy to give a child the attention he needed. Fred gave me a good critique, but I could tell he did not like the poem and said he really thought I needed a new title for it.

By then, I had heard from Nancy how revered he was in this state, having been  Poet Laureate of North Carolina from 1997 - 2002, and had won all kinds of accolades. But to me he was just a nice man who had a sense of humor and did not let me know how foolish I was being when I first met him.

Later, I submitted the poem About Jack to a literary journal and it was published. In fact, almost every time anyone reads the poem or hears me read it, they say how much they like it.

About Jack
by Glenda C. Beall

Squeaking brakes, Bus 37 drops Jack home.
He races inside to pour out news from third grade
around bites of PB&J and a mug of milk.

Sherry threw up on her reader!
Alex brought some cool,
long worms to school.
Miss Cook hugged me -- twice.
His nubbin nose crinkles.

Grandma sits at the table with him,
wishing she could bottle this moment;
his grape-stained face, the light of the sky
in his eyes, the impassioned voice
proclaiming events that rival the evening news.

She would give the bottle to Jack's mom
who hurries in from a twelve-hour day at the diner,
flings her first words, like flaming arrows, at him.
Turn that damn thing down!

Jack never looks up, engrossed in Power Rangers,
laser noises, death battles on TV.

I was tempted to write Fred Chappell a note and tell him it was published and with that title he hated. But I didn’t. Many years have passed since then and I have not seen him again. I am happy he has a new poetry book, As If It Were, and I certainly will order a copy.

Read more of Fred’s words in this interview done with the Smoky Mountain News recently.


Elephant's Child said...

Poetry is such a subjective thing. I suppose that is true of all writing but for me it is most true (truest?) of my response to poetry, perhaps because it relies on triggering emotion.
I am glad that, celebrity though he was and is, About Jack proved that he wasn't infallible.

Glenda Beall said...

Thank, EC. I wanted to show that many children are being raised these days by grandmothers and others because mothers have to work and many mothers are stressed out by the time they get home and often the kids miss out. But the mothers miss out on what grandmother receives in this poem. That is sad to me. I have seen both sides of this issue.

I have learned that poetry doesn't appeal to all in the same way. Mothers and most women find this poem significant and relatable.