Smithfield Herald

Johnston salutes poet laureate

Shelby Stephenson performs a song for the Johnston County Board of Commissioners.
Shelby Stephenson performs a song for the Johnston County Board of Commissioners. jhamlin@newsobserver.com

It takes an exceptional person to pull out a guitar and break into song at a Johnston County Commissioners meeting.

As the newly installed poet laureate of North Carolina, Shelby Stephenson certainly qualified for the Monday morning gig.

The 76-year-old raconteur performed a brief but soulful rendition of his favorite Hank Williams song, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” followed by a few lines from his poem “Fiddledeedee,” which tells of growing up in rural Johnston.

Along the way, Stephenson wove homespun anecdotes into his performance, and he involved the audience with questions such as whether they had ever picked cotton or if they remembered the old Ogburn gin.

Many had, and many did.

The affair had the air of a homecoming for Stephenson, and the poet ruminated for a moment on the simple word at the root of that term.

“Home may be the most haunting word in the English language,” said Stephenson, who lives on the farm near Benson where he was born and reared.

Stephenson said he grew up in a house with just two books, the Sears catalog and the Bible, but he took to the written word with a vengeance upon enrolling at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1956. Stephenson left Chapel Hill with a degree in English and went on to earn a master’s in the subject from the University of Pittsburgh in 1967 and a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin in 1974.

Having completed his education, Stephenson went to Campbell College and became chairman of the English department during his four year-tenure. In 1978, Stephenson moved to UNC Pembroke, where he professed English and edited Pembroke magazine until retiring in 2010.

In 1972, Stephenson began publishing poetry that has earned numerous awards and honors, including the N.C. Award for Literature in 2001 and induction into the N.C. Literary Hall of Fame in 2014. His books have titles that evoke images of his rural upbringing, such as “Finch’s Mask” (1990), “The Persimmon Tree Carol” (2002), “Possum” (2004) and “Fiddledeedee” (2014). Stephenson also has recoded four albums, including a tribute to Hank Williams that he composed with his wife, Linda, whom he wed in 1966.

Looking back on his life, Stephenson said it’s hard to explain how he made it from the farm to academia and then back to the farm again.

“I never really planned that, but all of it salvaged my life,” he said. “When you grow up, you don’t know very much. and everything leads the way. You don’t want to be bored, and so far it’s been kind of like a dream, really.”

Stephenson is North Carolina’s ninth poet laureate since the first appointment in 1948.

As an expression of their “great pride that Mr. Stephenson chooses to call Johnston County his home,” commissioners adopted a resolution congratulating and commending Stephenson on his appointment as state poet laureate.

The honor of reading the proclamation went to Commissioner Cookie Pope, who said she shares some kin with Stephenson.

“Shelby and I share an aunt Ruby and uncle Walter Stephenson, who loved to play the banjo and fox hunt,” she said.

Hamlin: 919-836-5768

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