Before delving into his extensive poetry career and rich family history, Shelby Stephenson sat outside in his backyard next to his dog, Cricket, effortlessly naming each and every bird that chirped nearby. A lover of nature, he uses the sights and sounds on his farm in Benson, North Carolina, as a source of inspiration for his writing.
Stephenson is North Carolina’s newest poet laureate, a title which he said many people he knows had no idea existed.
“This is a world that people who write headlines in the newspaper don’t really know about,” he said about poetry culture.
Gov. Pat McCrory offered the position to Stephenson last December, after the previously elected poet laureate Valerie Macon sparked a huge controversy within the literary community. People were upset about the fact that Macon was a government employee with scarcely any published poems to her credentials. She resigned after just one week.
As the governor searched for a replacement, Stephenson’s name kept popping up in lists of top candidates.
Now residing on the same farmland where he grew up, the 76-year-old North Carolina native said he has been writing poetry for as long as he can remember but, as a child, had no exposure to any famous poets. He also never took a writing class.
“I don’t know where it comes from,” Stephenson said. “I never read any poems growing up—I heard the sermons and the mother goose rhymes.”
Today, Stephenson’s farm is 10 acres, cut back from the 68-acre property he grew up on. Throughout the years, he has witnessed the changing of cotton and tobacco fields to neighborhoods and developments in his hometown of Benson. But those aren’t the only changes he’s seen.
Like countless other southerners before the Civil War, Stephenson’s great-great grandfather George was a slave-owner, living on the exact same farmland. In 1851, this man sold a 10-year-old girl for just more than $400.
Now, five generations and more than a century and a half later, Stephenson turned this part of his family’s history into an extensive poem titled “Family Matters: Homage to July, the Slave Girl,” published in 2008. Written from the perspective of a 10-year-old slave, Stephenson was at first hesitant to write the poem.
“I wondered if I could write it from her point of view,” he said. “I don’t know if I succeeded, but I tried to write myself out of it.”
Prior to beginning his writing career, Stephenson was unsure of what he wanted to do when he finished high school. Growing up, he said that while he didn’t dislike school, he would rather be catfishing.
However, when his father asked him what he would do upon graduation, Stephenson looked him in the eye and said, “Daddy, I think I’ll go to college.”
Obtaining his bachelor’s degree in English from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1960, Stephenson worked jobs at both radio and TV stations. He met his wife Linda while working at AT&T Long Lines.
It was not until graduate school at the University of Wisconsin that Stephenson said he became a voracious reader, spending Saturday nights at libraries immersed in the works of Oscar Wilde and William Faulkner. During one of the numerous poetry readings he attended, Stephenson said he “accidentally” ran into Robert Frost.
“You hear the music in Frost,” he said.
Dorianne Laux, poetry professor in the Department of English, said Stephenson is one of her favorite poets, describing his work as “sometimes whimsical and always beautiful.” Quoting from his poem “October Turning,” she described it as one of her favorites.
“Poetry is mouthfuls of language, musical, like his ‘humpthroated fishhawk,’ and ephemeral like his ‘dream under feathers’ and unsettling, like the ‘masks fixed in cornshuck brooms,’” Laux said. “All of it pressed together to make a kind of rich, closely-woven fabric of the worlds that live both outside and within us.”
Stephenson spent most of his career as a professor at UNC-Pembroke and as the editor of Pembroke Magazine. The school invited him to come and speak there just before they hired him.
“I read poems and sang some Hank Williams songs, and they hired me, and I worked there for 32 years,” he said. “I had thought teaching was for sissies, but I did it, and I really loved it.”
Since becoming NC’s poet laureate, Stephenson has juggled an endless amount of panels and talks at various schools. Just last week he went back and forth between Greensboro, Goldsboro and his home in Benson. A few weeks ago he gave a talk to students at Leesville Middle School.
“The weird thing is the familiar thing: I didn’t realize I’d have to really manage a calendar,” he said. “I’m happy to do it, but I’d never thought I’d be asked to do so many things.”
Later this month, Stephenson will board an airplane to be recognized in a ceremony at his alma mater of Wisconsin, the first time he will have flown in more than a decade. While the transition of his quiet life on the farm to traveling literary figure has been sudden, Stephenson says he is motivated by his duties as poet laureate.
Laux said almost every state in the country now has a poet laureate and that the poetry community is growing. More students are declaring majors and minors in the creative writing program, in addition to attending author signings on campus.
Carlene Kucharczyk, a graduate student in NC State’s MFA in poetry, said these opportunities expose people to poetry that normally wouldn’t be exposed.
“Poetry has changed in many ways, but it’s still the language that best captures and encapsulates the emotional history of the world—the kind of history you don’t find in textbooks, but inside the book of the human heart,” Laux said.
Stephenson says it is inevitable that whenever he checks his email, another appearance request will be waiting in his inbox.
“It shows that the arts, and writing and people’s desire to tell their stories, all of that’s very much alive,” Stephenson said. “I would do it without the laureateship.”
Despite never taking any kind of formal writing class, Stephenson has published enough poems throughout the years to fill more than a dozen books. He published his first, “Whales Are Hard to See,” in 1973.
As he continued to identify the ravens and mockingbirds that flew by and pointed to the house where his father once lived, Stephenson said his writing stems mostly from the sights and sounds he experiences in his daily life.
“Poetry became personal to me,” he said. “My subject is culture—the people, family, the drama of life, the living. We’re finite, and mortal and don’t know the unknown unless we write about it in words.”