Settling in on his porch, North Carolina’s new poet laureate adjusted his glasses and began to read one of his poems aloud.
Not that she was better than others, not that she
Was loose because her flesh was every man’s,
Never miss a local story.
Not that she had the eloquence to display
Her laces to make her prowl performance –
At this point, a listener might have guessed this poem was about a lady of the night. Such a guess would have been wrong. Shelby Stephenson rolled on in his Tar Heel drawl
– But possum, having all the baggage of a man
Is worrier enough to be taken and bettered by a wanting woman…
The poem was “Possum Lovecall” from Stephenson’s 2004 collection of Didelphimorphia-themed poetry, “Possum.” And Stephenson was reading it in the place where he first learned all about rural life, the porch of Plankhouse, the three-bedroom farmhouse where he was born in rural Johnston County.
“I grew up around possums and all that, and I’ve written about them a lot,” Stephenson said. “There’s an old bluegrass song too, ‘30 Pounds of Possum in My Headlights Tonight.’ My mom used to barbecue possum, and we’d eat squirrel brains too, and turtle. We hunted and fished and ate what we killed. That was life on the farm…”
As he spoke, Stephenson got a far-away look in his eyes. He paused to listen to an avian chirp, identifying it as a mockingbird, and nodded toward the family graveyard full of relatives, including his great-great-grandfather, George, buried in 1886.
Then a movement caught his attention, and he shaded his eyes, looking toward the horizon. “There goes a red-tailed hawk too,” he said, pointing at some distant trees. “Landing right … over … there.”
Never studied writing
They say you should write what you know. Stephenson, who turned 76 years old last June, has been doing that his whole life. To hear him tell it, it’s only because he didn’t know any better.
“I never had a writing class,” he said. “Nothing against it, I just thought nobody would care. But you hear stuff and you don’t make it up, you give yourself to it. What I do, what I’ve always done, is tinged with this culture here. Point of view is what fascinates me. What’s beautiful is that everybody’s from somewhere, whether Brooklyn or San Antonio or Benson, North Carolina. I hope people hear music in my work.”
As he spoke, Stephenson was sitting at the kitchen table of the “new house,” built on his family’s farm in 1952, the same year the road it stands on “was paved by Governor Scott.” The new house is where Stephenson finished out his adolescence after spending his first 14 years in close quarters with his parents and three older siblings in Plankhouse.
The smaller dwelling still stands as a family museum, with photographs going back a century or more. Amble through and Stephenson will fill you in on everyone. Of an uncle who was a particularly skilled fisherman, Stephenson said, “He could not read or write, but he could sure smell a fish in a pond.”
The Stephenson farm is 10 acres now, but it was more than 60 when Shelby was growing up. And in its Colonial-era incarnation, it was a 1,100-acre land grant from King George III. Before the Civil War, African-American slaves worked here. One was a 10-year-old girl Stephenson’s great-great-grandfather George sold for $413.23 in 1851. More than a century and a half later, Stephenson turned that family history into a 2008 long poem called “Family Matters: Homage to July, the Slave Girl.”
“This is the tail end of an old plantation,” Stephenson said. “Then we had tenants on this small farm, black and white, through the late ’50s. I graduated from high school in 1956, and Brown vs. Board of Education was in 1954. Not too many years ago, you’d see a sign driving into Smithfield: ‘Welcome to Smithfield, Home of the KKK.’ But people change. History changes. People make mistakes along the way, and slavery was one. All these stories and experiences from long ago, and yet it hasn’t been that long.”
Or as William Faulkner famously put it, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Sense of place
While he was working his way through college, Stephenson planned to become a lawyer. But it didn’t take.
“Law and I were failing each other in 1963,” is how he explains it.
Eventually he became a teacher, spending most of his career at UNC-Pembroke before retiring in 2010. But teaching was mostly just a way to make a living. What Stephenson is, then and now and always, is a poet. He’s been writing poems his whole life and published his first in 1973 while a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin. It was called “Whales Are Hard to See.”
“I’d send poems out to ‘little magazines,’ the ones with funny names,” Stephenson said. “I wound up publishing in hundreds of those. I’d go to the library, which was curated by Felix Pollak – wonderful poet himself, escaped Hitler’s ovens at 16 and came to this country – who’d bring them to me. I’d send out poems about bladder balloons, hanging hogs on gambrels and so forth. Magazines around here weren’t interested. But they’d seem more original farther away. I did well with magazines in California.”
Over the years, Stephenson has published enough poems to fill more than a dozen books. He has also released four albums of country and old-time songs with his wife, Linda, and he’s almost as quick to offer up a song as he is a poem.
After moving back to North Carolina in the 1970s, Stephenson lived in Southern Pines until his mother died in 1995. That’s when he moved back to this farm, and it’s hard to imagine him anywhere else.
“Listening to Shelby tell stories of hunting and fishing and things he did as a boy, they’re always told with such humor and reverence for the memory,” said poet Jaki Shelton Green, who was inducted into the N.C. Literary Hall of Fame with Stephenson last year. “That sense of place is embedded in who he is as a Southerner growing up in rural Johnston County, and the humanity seeps through the page of all his work. He has a way of bringing the ghost back to all of us and inviting everyone in.”
Sense of purpose
Right before Christmas, Stephenson got a phone call from Gov. Pat McCrory, who asked a question: How’d you like to be North Carolina poet laureate? Fine, Stephenson said. “The governor said, ‘I messed up before,’” Stephenson remembered. “Something like that.”
Something like that. Five months earlier, McCrory had caused a huge uproar in the state’s literary community by giving the title poet laureate to Valerie Macon – a state employee with few poetry credentials and only two self-published books to her credit. Macon resigned after a week of vocal protests, and a chastened McCrory turned to the N.C. Arts Council to find a new poet laureate. Stephenson was a popular choice.
“He’s just good, both as a person and as a poet,” said Kathryn Stripling Byer, a former laureate. “His poetic voice just flows like a spring. He’s a natural, and we really need a voice like his right now with all the divisions we have in this state.”
The poet laureate represents North Carolina to the world at large in verse and also travels around doing workshops and other events. It’s for a two-year term and pays a stipend of between $5,000 and $15,000 (depending on how much he’ll travel).
One bonus of becoming poet laureate is that it’s given Stephenson a renewed sense of purpose. His house is a lot lonelier than it used to be, since his ailing wife “Nin” had to move into an extended-care facility in Smithfield last June. That leaves Stephenson alone with his thoughts and only his little Norwich terrier, Cricket, for company.
“I go to visit and see her just about every day,” he said quietly. “I miss her so much. Today, I got a call from a library up toward the Virginia line, where I’ll be on the 31st. They wanted some books and ordered some, and if Nin was here … well, she’d help me box them up. I miss her all the time. She’s a good editor. Sometimes I’ll read a poem to Cricket, just to hear it out loud.”
That quiet, unfamiliar and unwanted, might be why Stephenson has a radio on in almost every room in the house, each at low volume and tuned to a different station. “Probably,” Stephenson said. “Just to have some noise.”
During his time as poet laureate, however, Stephenson will be on the road a good bit. He has a busy schedule lined up, including readings where he’ll bring poetry into assisted-living facilities.
“I’m really glad Shelby has poet laureate now to get him out into the public where he really shines,” Byer said. “He’s such an extrovert, and he really needs to be out among the people. It’s where he belongs, especially now, because it will help him be less lonely. And he really is our bard, a singer of North Carolina place and song and literature.”
Meet Shelby Dean Stephenson
Born: June 14, 1938, in Johnston County near the town of Benson.
Family: Married Linda Letchworth Wilson in 1966; they have two grown children, daughter Kate Whittington and son Jacob; and five grandchildren.
Education: B.A., UNC-Chapel Hill, 1960; M.A., University of Pittsburgh, 1967; Ph.D, University of Wisconsin, 1974.
Career: English department chair at Campbell College, 1974-1978; English professor at UNC-Pembroke and editor of Pembroke magazine, 1978 until his retirement in 2010.
Awards include: 2001 N.C.Award for Literature, 2004-2005 N.C. Poetry Society Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet, 2014 induction into N.C. Literary Hall of Fame, 2015 installation as N.C. poet laureate.
Published works include: “Plankhouse” (1993), “Possum” (2004), “Finch’s Mask” (1990) and “The Persimmon Tree Carol” (2002), as well as four albums of music.
Laureate projects: Writing workshops in assisted living/retirement homes, promoting writing about farming, raising awareness of using archives.
From Shelby Stephenson’s 2004 poetry collection, “Possum,” published in 2004 by Bright Hill Press. Note: Formatting is poet’s own. See video of Stephenson reading this poem at newsobserver.com/video.
As the pear blossoms trailed springdust
And the abelia swayed
Bees buzzing through the pages of Keats,
The honeysuckle fingered the roadbank
And the turtle labored to port an egg under the eaves of the maintenance building.
The bluebird beaked pinestraw to her house.
The redbellied hung a drum
And the chickadee pranced and preened in the nutgrass.
The nuthatch, upsidedown, pounded and pecked the walnut.
The rose-hued finch puffed in the thistlebud.
The breeze peered from the skirts of the hedges
His climbing rose was thorny on the splitrail.
“Hang it,” his cloak had many colors from trellising along,
All his children and children’s children gone to fields
Without markers, bones lying in the sun,
Running shadows shrunken all out of places he knew.
My body quivers
And the light hairs blow
Under my belly, as a slave tries to say something,
The old fieldrock I am tapping
Trying to find a language,
My pea-brain moving in my skull, my claw and thumb,
Chattel and human in the oil field cemetery.
I am clearly writing my crawl.
A bluebird on the soldier’s stone
Shakes its voice in the silent pounding of my heart
Every time the mallet strikes the chisel.
Ten-thousand years have rained on my rock
I keep etching.