Last Wednesday nationally acclaimed novelist and poet Fred Chapell came to speak at WCU. The writer gave a craft lecture and poetry reading at the WCU Poetry House. Nearly all of the seats in the Poetry House “living room” were sat with eager students thirsty for poetic prose. In addition to his contributions at the Poetry House Chapell also attended Dr. Bridgford’s poetry workshop class on Thursday for the purpose of critiquing students’ poems.
Fred Chapell was born in Canton, NC and attended Duke University. He has published over two dozen books consisting of full novels, short story compilations, and a plethora of poems. The author taught English at the University of North Carolina for 40 years until retirement. He was the Poet Laureate of North Carolina from 1997-2002, traveling to more than 250 schools, churches, and universities to present his work. Some of his literary awards include the T. S. Eliot Prize and the Bollingen Prize.
Wednesday evening the scholar recited his “Memorial Poem”, a fable he wrote about a fictional widower determined to create the perfect memorial poem for his fallen wife. An important message he delivered within the fable was how such a powerful devotion could be made with so little cost.
“Building materials for poems are very inexpensive…They’re made up of nothing but air,” Chapell explained.
Also the craft lecture covered a fairly unique type of poetic prose; poems for his hometown veterinarian to send condolences to owners of deceased pets. He wrote several of these poems per request by his family vet, Dr. Hunt, who was concerned about owners of passed felines. These consolatory poems were sonnets, and the details of the mourning pet owners were what helped shape these pieces of art.
The guest speaker also conveyed a handful of fundamental elements to composing poetic prose. “Poetry is a mode of consciousness…links between our bodies and minds are tied into the technique,” Chapell explained. Later that evening he and his wife Susan continued the event with further readings of poems for the audience.
This former educator remains devoted to students, even after retirement. The week before his craft lecture Chapell welcomed Dr. Bridgford’s poetry class to send their assignments to him. As mentioned earlier Chapel came to the three hour poetry class Thursday evening. In addition to work shopping poetry students’ work in class, Chapell generously allowed one-on-one sessions with each student from the course from 2 to 4p.m. before class. This time allowed Chapell to intimately connect with the students and their poetry, and truly aid in their poetry education. This reinforces the man’s loyalty to academia. “I think poetry is the best form of writing,” Chapell commented in the classroom.
Kendra Lee Hoffman, a part-time graduate student and full time English teacher, asked Chapell what his favorite part of the teaching experience was. “The best courses I ever taught were freshman high school English. It was in those courses where I made the biggest difference” Chapell replied.
This trip was not Chapell’s first visit to our campus. He has attended the WCU Poetry Conference and once used West Chester as a half-way pit-stop on his way to Canada for vacation. I asked him why he came to do all of this for us and give us his time and expertise. He replied excitedly, “Kim Bridgford!”
“Some years ago I had a class at the poetry conference. I remember Kim being a lot of fun, and remember the experience being very pleasant. My wife Susan and I went to visit Chaddsford and the Brandywine that summer,” he added.
On behalf of the students who interacted with Fred Chapell last week, it was a privilege for us to have the opportunity to hear his readings and receive personal feedback from such an esteemed and accomplished writer. It is clear West Chester has made an impression on him as well. The warm welcome of WCU’s Poetry Center, thanks to director Kim Bridgford, has given Chapell good incentive to come back. It seems that this will not be the last time our campus is graced with his presence. If readers are interested in accessing some of his amazingly cerebral works, simply visit http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/fred-chappell#about.
Nicholas Devoe is a fourth-year student majoring in English with a minor in journalism. He can be reached at ND626335@wcupa.edu.