Ever since Fred Chappell stepped down from the post last December, no one wants to suggest who North Carolina’s next poet laureate ought to be.
In a state brimming with writers — from the haunted Outer Banks to our own mountains at the other end — it won’t be easy finding that perfect replacement. Chappell, a native North Carolinian, has set an intimidating precedent.
Originally from Canton, the writer first came to prominence in 1972, when his novel Dagon was awarded best foreign book of the year by the Academie Francaise. The following year, Chappell received the highest literary-fiction honor his home state had to offer — the Sir Walter Raleigh Prize. Since, Chappell has gathered numerous awards for his poetry and fiction, much of which reflects his roots in Western North Carolina. In 1997, he was appointed the state’s poet laureate by Gov. Jim Hunt.
Chappell is commonly credited with continuing the work of his predecessor, poet Sam Regan, by engaging in substantial community-outreach work during his five years in the post. During his reign, Chappell attended every public event the North Carolina Arts Council asked him to go to, wrote a multitude of celebratory poems (including the oft-repeated “A Prayer for the Mountains”), and worked with a variety of writing students, from Arts Council fellows to elementary-school kids.
Now that Chappell has stepped down, a statewide call has gone out for nominations to find the writer who’ll replace him. Although the poet laureate is appointed, a volunteer committee has launched the search for the Tar Heel State’s new voice.
Only two qualifying criteria define the post: Candidates must be longtime residents of North Carolina — though not necessarily natives — and they must be actively engaged in writing and publishing. Beyond that, it’s anybody’s game.
But what does a Poet Laureate actually do?
“When Fred would go to a school, the children would often write him a poem,” reveals Joe Newberry, spokesman for the North Carolina Arts Council. “He went to one school, and there was a little girl named Jennifer Grubs there who wrote him a poem. So, he wrote a poem for her; it goes like this: ‘Jennifer writes until she must stop/ Of kangaroos and how they hop/ They eat plants, she says/ And tubs of stuff/ I hope they don’t eat/ Jennifer Grubs.’
“To me,” says Newberry, “that’s what the poet laureate does.”
However, writing poems for special events and memorial occasions proved a stiffer challenge. In October 2001, less than a month after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Chappell was asked to write a poem commemorating Arts and Humanities Month.
“Since it was so close to Sept. 11, he wrote about how the arts can help build up a nation ravaged by awful things,” recalls Newberry. “It’s called ‘The Attending.’ To hear him read that poem … talk about powerful.”
Fundamentally, the job of the poet laureate is to become a living symbol of the literary arts scene in North Carolina. The job is part documentarian, teacher, diplomat and celebrity.
As Newberry sees it, though, the poet’s role is also a practical one.
“It really is to be a connection between the writing community and the public,” he explains, “and to let folks know about the wealth of literature and writing in North Carolina.”
During Chappell’s tenure, he expanded his public-service work to the point he became a kind of statewide literary mentor. For Newberry, it’s hard to imagine anyone instantly filling the poet’s shoes.
“It’s kind of hard to improve on what Fred Chappell did,” the arts-council representative admits. “Fred was very giving of his time as a mentor. It’s very important, because North Carolina is known as a state of writers. We have a nationwide reputation, and the more kids that are exposed to the richness of writing, the better it is for everybody. The arts help kids with test scores [and to] make them creative thinkers, and that helps make a better North Carolina.”
The act of actually replacing Chappell, suggests Newberry, will be a precarious affair. The search is still in its early stages, Newberry stresses.
“If you are going to mention one [poet],” he adds, “you’d have to mention tons of other folks that would also be wonderful. I’m not trying to be slippery, but I don’t know if anybody would feel comfortable hazarding a guess.”
Word on the street
All this talk about the noble nature of the post makes it fun to imagine one of our own city’s underground bards suddenly burdened with the title.
Local performance poet Julian Vorus, former house poet of the Asheville Poetry Shoot Out and author of the collection Show No Mercy, views the Poet Laureate as a sort of literary social worker.
“I think he’s in charge of all the creative language within the boundaries of his domain,” ventures Vorus. “He sort of makes sure that the wealth of language is spread around so that everyone has reasonably equal access to it.
“He also decides on laws relating to literary allusions and babbling brooks, and he’s got the final say-so on whether a poetic license can be granted or not. He’s where the buck stops.”
All hyperbole aside, Vorus can’t dismiss the importance of the position. In his opinion, writers chosen as poet laureate have a responsibility to liberate poetry from purely academic circles.
“You don’t want them to be the sweater-vest type — you know, overly intellectual,” he says. “[The poet laureate has] got to appeal to the common man and the blue-collar household, and show them the importance of poetry in their lives.”
And how would Vorus act were he so honored?
At that question, the normally verbally frenzied poet turns unexpectedly serious.
“Well, I’d want to orient as much focus as I could towards pushing creative writing with the younger population,” he declares, unwittingly echoing Chappell’s own mission.
“You know, by the time you get out of high school, you’re pretty much set about whether you are going to be a reader or not,” Vorus continues. “I think I’d push for a stronger agenda within the schools as far as pursuing literature, creative writing and poetry.”