Shelby Stephenson, whose early teachers were the 35 foxhounds his father hunted on his farm outside Benson, is the new state poet laureate.
He was one of three poets recommended by a selection committee under the auspices of the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources and appointed by Gov. Pat McCrory.
Stephenson, a retired UNC-Pembroke English professor who lives in Benson, 35 miles southeast of Raleigh, is our ninth laureate. He follows Valerie Macon of Fuquay-Varina, who resigned in July, less than a week after her July appointment by the governor.
At the time, her appointment triggered a furor. Not about Macon herself, who is in her mid-60s, works in state government and is the author of two self-published books of poetry. Rather the controversy centered on McCrory’s bypassing the protocol of a call for nominations by the state Arts Council.
“The choice of Shelby Stephenson is a delight for everyone in the state,” said poet Anthony Abbott of Davidson, who was on the selection committee. “He is the earth, a true North Carolinian, a wonderful poet and a splendid human being.”
Said Charlotte poet Julie Suk: “He’s the perfect choice. Shelby knows everyone, and he knows every literary nook and corner of the state. He’s a positive energy that brings people together.”
Stephenson, who is 76, said in his “Letter of Interest” to Cultural Resources Secretary Susan Kluttz that he believes “poetry exists in every living thing.”
“My poetry connects the local and the universal and is grounded in memory of the land and people of North Carolina,” he wrote to the secretary.
On his homepage, Stephenson says most of his poems come out of his farm background, “where memory and imagination play on one another. I have written many poems about the mules we worked until I was in the seventh grade and, after that, the tractor.
“The trees and streams, field, the world of my childhood – all that folklore – those are my subjects.”
Stephenson said in his application that he would like to lead writing workshops in retirement communities, “particularly since settling ‘Nin,’ my wife and editor, into assisted living at the Carolina House” in Smithfield last summer.
Stephenson cleaned tables in Lenoir Dining Hall at UNC Chapel Hill, where he graduated with a B.A. in English in 1960 and studied law. He received his master’s in English from the University of Pittsburgh and his doctorate in English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
From 1974 to 1978, he headed the English Department at Campbell University in Buies Creek. From 1978 to 2010, he taught world literature, poetry, creative writing and composition at UNC-Pembroke, where he also was editor of Pembroke magazine.
Over the years, Stephenson has headed many of the state’s literary institutions, including serving as president of the N.C. Writers’ Network. This year, Stephenson was inducted into the state Literary Hall of Fame. He is the author of four poetry collections and 10 poetry chapbooks.
He and his wife, Linda Wilson Stephenson, have recorded four musical CDs, including the 2013 “Shelby and Linda Stephenson Sing Don Gibson” (Outback Studio, Southern Pines).
“Poetry salvaged my life,” he continued. “I am happy to wake up and write.”
Joseph Bathanti, the state’s seventh laureate, served from 2012 to 2014. He says his hope for the new poet laureate is that he will spend a lot of time in schools, K-12, “cheerleading not only for the children, but those embattled, dedicated, hard-working teachers.”
And, “above all,” Bathanti adds, “I would encourage the new poet laureate to have fun.”
In addition to Kluttz, the selection committee included Anthony Abbott, poet and professor emeritus of Davidson College; Robert Anthony, curator of the N.C. Collection at the Wilson Library, UNC Chapel Hill; Kevin Watson, editor and publisher of Press 53 in Winston-Salem; novelist and short story writer Randall Kenan, who teaches English at UNC Chapel Hill; Loraine Robinson, who teaches English at East Carolina University in Greenville and who is senior associate editor of the North Carolina Literary Review; and Carolyn York, president of the N.C. Poetry Society.