‘Fred Chappell is like Whitman. He contains multitudes,’ says Rodney Jones
Rodney Jones ’73 MFA, a distinguished alumnus of UNCG’s Creative Writing program, has been the recipient of the Harper Lee Award for Alabama’s Distinguished Writer of the Year, the Jean Stein Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Kenyon Review Award for Literary Excellence, and the Peter I. B. Lavan Award from the Academy of American Poets.
Beginning with his 1980 debut, “The Story They Told Us of Light,” Jones’ celebrated works include: “Salvation Blues: One Hundred Poems, 1985–2005,” winner of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and a finalist for the Griffin International Poetry Prize; “Elegy for the Southern Drawl,” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and, “Transparent Gestures,” winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Jones has served as a creative writing professor at Warren Wilson College, the University of Cincinnati, DePauw University, and Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. He has also received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and the Guggenheim Foundation.
He is a Spartan, receiving his MFA in writing in 1973. Though he never sat in Fred Chappell’s classroom, Jones learned from him through informal mentoring. Chappell is being celebrated at UNCG throughout this year and we asked Jones to share his perspective:
You Might Get the Wrong Idea about Fred
He is sometimes outspoken, but always modest. He does not gladly tolerate fools, but his compelling virtues are generosity, abiding empathy, and a deep and boundless wit.
Fifty years ago when I arrived in Greensboro to try to improve myself, Fred was known as a fiction writer and I had come to study poetry, but my chief reason for being there was Fred. James Seay, my undergraduate teacher, had described him as “the finest literary mind in the South.”
Fred Chappell is like Whitman. He contains multitudes. If he is writing about a conflict between a seventy year old chicken thief and his thirteen year old, recently born again granddaughter, he is very possibly modeling it on an argument between Diderot and Rousseau.
But I want to go back to the first words he spoke to me, which began a transfer of consciousness that goes on to this day. We were at a party for new graduate students at Robert and Betty Watson’s house. “Rodney Jones,” he said, “don’t just sit there like a bump on a log. Say something.”
Of all the challenges that face a great writer teaching in a university, perhaps the toughest is not to lose one’s ear for the idioms heard first.
I never took a course with him, but in regular conversations, held mostly at The Pickwick Bar, or, after The Pickwick closed, in his living room, I learned more than I had learned from anyone, not just about sprung rhythm, but about the music of Charles Ives and Freddie Hubbard, about philosophy and science, and why I should read Alexander Pope.
When I showed him a draft of a poem called “Blues in F Minor,” he stopped me in my tracks with, “What musician were you thinking about?” When I showed him, “Winter in the Capital of Sadness,” he said exactly what I needed to hear, “Stop reading W.S. Merwin.”
He did not talk about his own work though at the time he was writing “Midquest,” the finest narrative poem of the late twentieth century. He pushed me, gently, in my own direction.
As I was about to leave Greensboro, he told me, “Keep on cheating, lying, and stealing.”
— Rodney Jones
Rodney Jones and Maria Hummel will read from their works on Friday, Sept. 30, at 7 p.m. in the Alumni House. The event, hosted by UNCG’s MFA Writing Program and the Class of 1952, is a part of the UNCG English Department’s year-long celebration of Fred Chappell. It is free and open to the public.
Courtesy photo of Rodney Jones