Arts & Culture

Controversy over, NC poet laureate Shelby Stephenson installed

New N.C. Poet Laureate Shelby Stephenson, right, is congratulated by Gov. Pat McCrory, left, and Susan Kluttz, secretary of the Department of Cultural Resources.
New N.C. Poet Laureate Shelby Stephenson, right, is congratulated by Gov. Pat McCrory, left, and Susan Kluttz, secretary of the Department of Cultural Resources. cseward@newsobserver.com

On a day given over to poems and poets, it was a politician who came up with the most memorable line at Monday’s poet laureate installation ceremony. Looking out at the crowd assembled in the historic State Capitol to honor new poet laureate Shelby Stephenson, Gov. Pat McCrory said he wanted to “say something that’s not scripted.”

“I’ve learned my lesson,” McCrory said to laughter and applause. “It’s been a learning process for me, too.”

That was the event’s only direct reference to last summer’s controversy over the appointment and subsequent resignation of Valerie Macon, a state employee with a thin publishing resume, to the position. But it was enough to make the point.

The McCrory administration had not solicited input from the state arts council before selecting Macon. This time around, department of cultural resources secretary Susan Kluttz oversaw a six-member panel that took nominations and undertook due diligence before selecting Stephenson.

In contrast to Macon, who was largely unknown within the state’s poetry community, the 76-year-old Stephenson is a much-respected author. Stephenson has published more than a dozen books, taught writing at universities and won numerous awards and honors, most notably induction into the N.C. Literary Hall of Fame last year.

Monday’s ceremony packed the old capitol’s upstairs House of Representatives chamber with about 150 people, including cabinet members and outgoing poet laureate Joseph Bathanti. Bathanti read a testimonial blurb he wrote for the back cover of Stephenson’s most recent publication, a 2014 edition of his 2001 poem “Fiddledeedee,” and concluded that Stephenson “was born to be North Carolina poet laureate, he truly is the voice of North Carolina.”

Stephenson closed the proceedings with a long list of thank-yous, singling out the woman he called “my editor” (his wife, Linda). Then he read an excerpt from “Fiddledeedee,” a poem that is equal parts autobiography and evocation of the “Down East” rural North Carolina farm country where he grew up.

I was born June 14, 1938

Flag day, in the sign of the Gemini,

on the Wheel of Changing Change, in a pure

accident, one identity coming out of the other

“There could be no one more representative of North Carolina, more open-hearted or more lyrical than Shelby Stephenson,” said UNC-Chapel Hill professor and poet Paul Jones afterward. “Who else could charm both governors and poets, and have references to skitter bugs and our state’s history in the same sentence?”

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