North Carolina Poet Laureate Shelby Stephenson didn’t set out to become a poet; first, he had to leave the three-room shanty in Benson where he was born in 1938. And although he pursued a series of jobs and studies, the words caught up with him, landing him positions at university English departments and eventually bringing him full circle, back to the family farm, where today he contemplates the meaning of place, of home, and of memory.
Stephenson was installed as the state’s new poet laureate on Monday, February 2, 2015 in a ceremony at the State Capitol with Governor Pat McCrory, Cultural Resources Secretary Susan Kluttz and Wayne Martin, Executive Director of the North Carolina Arts Council.
In a tribute written for Stephenson’s North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame induction last October, his cousin, Willow Spring author Margaret Maron, included a quote attributed to Eudora Welty: “Let your stories grow out of the dirt beneath your feet.” Stephenson thinks that’s an apt description of what he does.
“Yes, the ‘dirt’ can translate into home, and the way I grew up, and what I see today when I go out to the plankhouse where I was born,” he says. “It’s about the sunset, and the shadows changing on the grass in a different way, all the time. I think the poem is already written, it’s all there to begin with, and has got to be put on the page.”(L to R) Cultural Resources Secretary Susan Kluttz, Joseph Bathanti, Shelby Stephenson, Governor Pat McCrory
It took a while for those words to find a page. Stephenson worked his way through University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, studying law while cleaning tables in Lenoir Dining Hall and holding part-time announcing jobs on WMPM in Smithfield, WCHL in Chapel Hill and WTVD in Durham. Deciding that a career in law was not in the cards, he took a job as a right-of-way agent for AT&T in White Plains, New York.
But writing was always in the background. Through the years, Stephenson kept a diary that, while unremarkable in content, taught him the discipline of putting pen to paper every day. And finally, he answered the call, taking a leave of absence from AT&T to study English at the University of Pittsburgh. He went on to earn his Master’s degree in English there, and his Ph.D. in English at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
“I sent out poems and fell in love with small magazines,” he says, publishing his first poem, “Whales Are Hard to See”, in the Davidson Miscellany in 1973. He returned to North Carolina in 1974, holding positions at Campbell University, Sandhills Community College, St. Andrews Presbyterian College, North Carolina State University and UNC-Pembroke, where he served as editor of Pembroke Magazine from 1979 to 2010. Along the way, his poems—deeply personal in their descriptions of time and place— have been published in countless magazines and journals, chapbooks and books.Shelby Stephenson and family
“I went away to school, and it was wonderful, but the childhood—there’s something about it that cannot be undone,” Stephenson said. “You can’t draw a curtain on your past. You can try to keep it away, but I’ve tried to be open and somehow write about those things. I had a wonderful childhood—my parents were married 58 years—and that’s what I write about. It’s not a lot different from your family, really, or anybody else’s. I was born in a three-room plank house. We had nails for closets. My father’s desk was a piece of hay bale wire on the back of the pantry door. He’d put the oil bills on it.”
Those days, however, are growing dimmer in the memories of North Carolinians, with new arrivals coming from outside the state and rapid changes in population. How important is it to teach these newcomers about the North Carolina that once existed?
“I’m not sure it is important,” Stephenson says. “I meet people from Ohio, New Jersey and New York, and the cliché is, ‘write what you know.’ The second part of that is, ‘you’ve got to write about what you don’t know.’ And I do that, too.”
“You make it up. It’s just a riff. The words actually find out who you are, and surprise you.”
The use of a jazz term is unsurprising when you consider that Stephenson is himself a guitarist and singer who once hosted a jazz radio show called Background. He even considered moving to Nashville after high school.
“When I was 14 or 15, I wrote songs, typical imitations of Hank Williams and Webb Pierce: (singing) “This is the break that will never end/This is the parting, so why pretend?/ You want me to call you just a friend/ But it’s too late now, so why pretend?”
Although he never committed those lyrics to song, his interest in music paralleled his interest in poetry. With his beloved wife and editor, Linda and members of his family, Stephenson has recorded four CDs, covering country giants like Williams and Don Gibson. Recording artist Neil Young even contacted Stephenson and asked if he’d consider publishing an excerpt from a work in progress in Pembroke Magazine.
“He knew me through Nancy Cooke, one of the founders of New South Books, which originally published (former N.C. Poet Laureate) Fred Chappell’s Moments of Light, Stephenson recalls. The story ran in Pembroke Magazine’s 2005 issue under the requested name of “N. Jay Young.”
Stephenson quotes Voltaire saying that “Music is the poetry of the soul.” But there’s a second half of that quote: “And, above all, of great and feeling souls.” As he begins this new chapter in his career, adding the title of North Carolina Poet Laureate to his North Carolina Award, his induction into the Literary Hall of Fame and his receipt of countless poetry awards, he remains steadfast in his dedication to writing—and to remembering.
“It’s something you have to do because you have to do it,” he says. “I never had a course in psychology, but I can tell you it’s therapeutic. My first little book, Middle Creek Poems, came out in 1979 and it was named for the actual creek. See, there was a ‘there’ there. And I know it’s gone, and things change, but we can’t forget.
“I look forward to the martins in the spring, and the bluebirds. I write about the birds, and I feel part of all this, these details within my own past, and culture and family,” Shelby said. “This may be a global story, especially whatever the South is—families, music—so my wish is that everybody can participate.”
By David Potorti, Literature Director
North Carolina Arts Council