Is my column supposed to be about books or about politics?
I get this question sometimes from editors and readers. In fact, one newspaper editor stopped using my column about a year ago. He wrote that he enjoyed my book columns, but “when I get a column and I have to read it to see if it’s a Bookwatch column or one on politics, I find it to be a waste of time and energy. There are enough political pundits out there that I would prefer not to see my favorite book reviewer playing partisan politics … but since that doesn’t seem to be possible, let me just say so long.”
I will tell you the rest of this story in a minute.
But this week, politics and literature come together comfortably in the same column.
Recently Gov. Pat McCrory did something that brought cheers from people of all political persuasions. He appointed Shelby Stephenson as North Carolina’s poet laureate. We do not need to discuss the governor’s first try at that appointment, except to say that this time he did it right.
Stephenson is a distinguished writer. For many years, he taught at UNC-Pembroke and edited Pembroke Magazine. He grew up in the country surrounded by family and other rural and small town characters in Johnston and Harnett counties. These are scenes and people he shared with us in numerous books and poems, including “Family Matters: Homage to July, The Slave Girl,” a long narrative poem that tells his family’s story in an unusual way. He takes his readers through the imagined experience of a slave girl once owned by his ancestor. Stephenson lives on family land, not far from Stephenson’s Barbecue, east of Raleigh just off I-40. His late brother Paul started the restaurant. Don’t miss the chance to eat there if you are ever close by.
Shelby is also a great musician. He and Paul, along with Shelby’s wife Linda and other family members, regularly played country music at Paul’s restaurant. Still today, when Shelby sings Hank Williams’ “I’m so lonesome I could cry,” it is hard for me to hold back the tears.
Not content with his personal achievements as a distinguished writer and as a great musician, Shelby always seeks to encourage talented people to share their gifts. A few years ago, I visited one of his writing classes at UNC-Pembroke. I saw him listen and respond with positive encouragement to a group of women writing about their experiences as soldiers’ wives and single parents struggling with a host of challenges. By giving them the tools and the confidence to examine and share their stories, Stephenson was quietly changing their lives.
He has always looked for ways to find and expand appreciative audiences for the good writing of others. Pembroke Magazine gave him the platform to gather and share the work of authors and build an appreciative community of readers. Unselfishly, he poured his heart into this project and made this journal an American literary treasure.
Along the way, his warm words of encouragement to me and to countless others have sometimes made all the difference. I will always be grateful.
As poet laureate he will be doing even more to celebrate and enhance our state’s great literary scene.
So, congratulations to Shelby Stephenson and thanks to Gov. McCrory for making such a fine appointment.
Now for the rest of the story about the editor who ditched my column, just in case others are thinking about doing the same thing. A few months after the newspaper stopped running the column, it closed its doors.
Maybe there was no connection. But why take a chance?
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. Next week’s (Jan. 18, 22) guest is Howard Fuller author of “No Struggle, No Progress: A Warrior’s Life from Black Power to Education Reform”