UNCG Magazine

‘Read at whim,’ Fred Chappell advised Maria Hummel

Maria Hummel ’98 MFA, a distinguished alumnus of UNCG’s MFA in Writing program, will read from her works Sept. 30 during UNCG’s weekend celebration of Professor Emeritus Fred Chappell. 

Hummel is the author of “House and Fire,” winner of the APR/Honickman Poetry Prize and the novels: “Motherland,” a San Francisco Chronicle Book of the Year; “Still Lives,” a Reese Witherspoon x Hello Sunshine pick, a Book of the Month Club pick, and a BBC Culture Best Book of 2018; “Lesson in Red,” a follow-up to “Still Lives”; and “Goldenseal,” forthcoming in 2024.

She was a writer and editor for The Museum of Contemporary Art and taught creative writing at Stanford University and Colorado College. She is now a full professor at the University of Vermont.

In addition to receiving the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, the Penelope Niven Creative Nonfiction Award, and fellowships to Squaw Valley Writers’ Conference and the Vermont Studio Center, Hummel has been honored with a Stegner Fellowship, a Bread Loaf Fellowship, and a Pushcart Prize.

Chappell was an influential professor, and we asked Hummel to share a brief perspective or memory about Fred Chappell:

To study writing with Fred Chappell – which I did in the late 1990s – was like studying how to found a country with Ben Franklin. 

Anything that we MFA students wrote, be it sonnet, epistolary poem, surrealist story, dramatic monologue, novel, or monster myth, Fred had already achieved in his multitude of books. His curiosity and handiness for literary invention cannot be overstated. 

Fred’s tutorials, held in a McIver office with shelves and stacks leaning from every side, were often Socratic. He didn’t tell you what he thought of your poem. He read it aloud to you, in a thoughtful baritone, and in the vocalization you heard its strengths and weaknesses. He asked you what you intuited in your lines, how they spilled in your mind, how you might sketch your images. Despite Fred’s encyclopedic knowledge of multiple genres (in multiple languages), he was the antithesis of snobby or elitist. 

When I met with Fred one afternoon, seeking a list of All the Important Books a Young Writer Must Read, he told me the advice that Randall Jarrell had offered him, “Read at whim.” In other words, we should learn to find our own best influences. I know one of mine, and I’m grateful for all that Fred has given me. 

– Maria Hummel

Maria Hummel and Rodney Jones 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.

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