Barry Saunders

Saunders: Whether he’s talking poems or possums, Shelby Stephenson is a fine choice for poet laureate

New N.C. Poet Laureate Shelby Stephenson, second from right, is congratulated by well-wishers Margaret Baddour, left, and Roger Manley, right, at a reception after Gov. Pat McCrory installed him in the position in a ceremony held at the State Capitol Building in downtown Raleigh on Monday.
New N.C. Poet Laureate Shelby Stephenson, second from right, is congratulated by well-wishers Margaret Baddour, left, and Roger Manley, right, at a reception after Gov. Pat McCrory installed him in the position in a ceremony held at the State Capitol Building in downtown Raleigh on Monday. cseward@newsobserver.com

Back when I used to go for bad, if someone looked at me cockeyed like they wanted to fight, I’d tell them, “You’d better pack a lunch because it’s going to take all day.”

That’s the same advice I’d give to anyone interviewing Shelby Stephenson, 76, who was installed as North Carolina’s poet laureate on Monday.

This not a criticism or complaint about Stephenson. If it weren’t for this danged deadline, I’d gladly still be talking to the dude or, rather, listening to him.

Stephenson’s stories, like some of his poems I’ve read, don’t meander as much as they take unhurried, scenic routes to get to their points – points that are worth every step even as you’re watching the clock and trying to keep an anxious editor calm.

The installation of Stephenson, a retired college professor, into the post is unassailable; the installation of the poet laureate named by Gov. Pat McCrory last year was very much and justifiably assailed.

Eschewing precedent, the governor named self-published poet Valerie Macon last year with no input from the N.C. Arts Council. He said at the time that he wanted to name someone who was not a part of “the standard or even elite groups” – as though elite meant something bad and not, as it does, something to which we should all aspire.

Someone once described the late singer Charlie Rich’s Southern-fried voice by saying you could almost hear the cracklin’s frying on the stove when he sings.

Same thing when you’re talking to Stephenson, whose voice recalls his radio disc jockey past and makes you ask him, “Say, man. Have you ever put out an album or CD of your poems?”

“It’s happening right now,” he said. “It’s been in the works for 10 years.”

Stephenson said he sometimes reads publicly, often with other noted Tar Heel poets such as Jaki Shelton Green.

“She’s always getting on me for writing about possums,” he said, laughing at the gentle rebukes. “I’ve written two books about possums. We ate so many of them growing up, that I try to give back to the possum community.”

‘Itch I have to scratch’

Stephenson said he writes “just about every day, even if I throw it away. It’s like an itch I have to scratch.”

“Writing,” he said, “salvaged my life. I didn’t read as a child, but I remember the nursery rhymes in Miss Apple’s class. ... I started keeping a diary and writing songs at about 15. ... I learned English intuitively. A teacher asked me ‘What is an adverb?’ It could’ve been the white part of a chicken, for all I knew.

“My life started at 25,” he continued. “That’s when I fell in love with books, started buying books. We didn’t grow up with books in the house. We had two: the Sears catalog and the Bible.”

Not surprisingly, Stephenson, who grew up on a farm near Benson, wasn’t expected to pursue higher education. “My father said, ‘Stay here with me and we can hunt and fish, and this place will be yours one day.’ I said, ‘I’m going away to college.’ ”

Away to college he went, receiving degrees from UNC-Chapel Hill, the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Wisconsin.

The official news release from the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources said his book “The Persimmon Tree Carol” is dedicated to the memory of his father, William Paul Stephenson, who inspired him to tell stories through poetry.

Whether talking about hearing Robert Frost reading his poetry at UNC, or extolling the virtues of Hank Williams Sr.’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” (we both think it’s some of the most beautiful poetry what’s ever been wrote) or recalling the scene in the movie “Selma” where Martin Luther King Jr. calls Mahalia Jackson and asks her to sing over the phone Thomas Dorsey’s “Precious Lord (Take My Hand),” Stephenson emphasizes his entertaining stories by singing or reciting, well and without apparent effort.

“Creativity,” he said, “is in each of us. It’s not something just a few people have.”

Perhaps, but not many of us have as much of it as Stephenson possesses.

Oh yeah: that place in Johnston County his father promised to him if he stayed?

It is Stephenson’s now.

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