North Carolina’s new poet laureate, Shelby Stephenson, grew up on a farm near Benson, where, after cropping tobacco and herding the family mule, he would listen to his father, Paul, tell stories.
The family had just two books in the house – the Bible and the Sears catalog – so he had to rely on his father’s stories to whet his imagination, Stephenson said.
In those days, before television, “people sat around at the country stores and played cards and checkers and told stories,” he said. “There were no books in the house. Farmers farmed, and hunted and fished, so you’d sit around and wait for somebody to say something, tell a story.”
“I don’t think he tried to make things up,” Stephenson said of his father. “It was a way of getting through the day.”
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But those stories – and the songs he heard in church – helped Stephenson become what he is today – a renowned poet and recent inductee into the N.C. Literary Hall of Fame.
“I’m not sure if I remember the sermons, but I remember the music,” he said.
After he graduated from high school, Stephenson said, his father said he was welcome to stay home and help out on the farm. But Stephenson wanted to go to college, so he earned a bachelor’s degree and finished five semesters of law school at UNC-Chapel Hill before dropping out.
“The law and I failed each other,” he said.
Stephenson picked up stakes and moved to Westchester County, N.Y., where he worked for AT&T. After about a year there, he took a leave of absence to take four English classes at the University of Pittsburgh. He never returned to telecommunications.
“I knew the first night that I would stay,” Stephenson said. “I bought $52 worth of books, and it was fun. I was 27, and my life was starting over again.”
Stephenson had fallen in love with words, and in his apartment in Pittsburgh’s Regent Square, he started filing away some of the “bad poems” he had written in a diary he used to keep. One of them was about whales.
“I didn’t know anything about whales, of course,” Stephenson said. “But I had not opened myself up to childhood yet.”
When he did open himself up to childhood, Stephenson found that most of his writing began to reflect what growing up was like for him. He penned poems about the mules he would follow through the fields and about how light on those fields varied depending on the time of day.
Stephenson also wrote about possums, which he notes is the only marsupial native to North Carolina.
“I’m very serious about possums,” he said. “My mother barbecued many a possum.”
After completing his studies at Pitt, Stephenson moved to Wisconsin to pursue a doctorate degree in English at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. That was when he started publishing his work.
From Wisconsin, the Johnston County native made his way back to North Carolina. He was head of the English department at Campbell University in the early 1970s. He retired from UNC-Pembroke in 2010.
On a recent October afternoon at his home near Benson – on the family farm where he grew up – Stephenson recalled a poem he wrote about a 10-year-old slave girl named July. Stephenson’s great-great-grandfather bought July for $413.25. He knows this because he saw the deed of sale at the Johnston County Heritage Center.
“I was trying to study the history of the family and write about that, and I thought I could write July’s story,” he said. “I felt that that’s the subject.”
And therein lies Stephenson’s advice to writers: “Always probably the most vulnerable, unnerving topic is where you should be,” he says.
July is buried in the Stephenson family cemetery across the road from the house.
Stephenson and his wife, Linda, have lived on the farm since 1995. When asked if that made it easier for him to recall his childhood and write about it, Stephenson said he didn’t know.
“I don’t know what makes it easy,” he said.
Easier or not, Stephenson does find inspiration in his surroundings. As he sat on the front porch of the farmhouse he was born in – just a few yards from the brick house he now calls home – Stephenson noticed what was happening naturally in front of him.
“You can look out and see the shadows out there,” Stephenson said. “The shadows are never in the same place. You look at the tree lines – nothing is the same. Everything changes all the time.”