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Poet Laureate Promotes State’s Arts and History
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Poet image 1oct15North Carolina’s official ambassador of the written word, Shelby Stephenson, read and discussed his poetry, Sept. 27, at the Columbus County Arts Council in downtown Whiteville. The Reuben Brown House Preservation Society sponsored the free event and afterward served a dinner cooked by members. Forty three people attended.

Before his February installation by Gov. McCrory, Stephenson taught English for 32 years at UNC Pembroke, having served previously at Campbell College (now Campbell University). He has published 14 books of his own and contributed poetry and critical writing to numerous collections. He was inducted into the N.C. Literary Hall of Fame in 2014.

He described his approach to poetry: "I wrote out of the culture I came from … I wrote about what was there before I was there. I didn’t want to forget.”

Reared in Johnston County, Stephenson graduated from UNC Chapel Hill and tried careers in law and business before "the joy of music and words” led him back to school to earn advanced degrees in English literature. "That’s why I’m here today,” he said, although he confessed that he might not have made it to Whiteville if his brand-new GPS had its way.

With the help of Google, Stephenson had located the Clarkton home of Vida Cox and ate lunch with her earlier in the day. Mrs. Cox’s late brother was A.R. Ammons, the New Hope native who taught at Cornell University and won the National Book Award and other national writing honors. Along with other greats such as Walt Whitman and Robert Frost, Ammons was a major influence on Stephenson’s career. "I took his poems personally,” Stephenson said.

Like Ammons, Stephenson grew up on a farm. "Childhood’s just about everything,” he observed. His family tended crops and animals year-round, hunting and fishing when they got the chance. "There were two books in the house I grew up in: the Sears catalog and the Bible.” He described hearing "music” in the preaching delivered at his family’s church; he was also a fan of Hank Williams, Sr. When he discovered Ammons’ poetry, he "heard the same music” there.

Poet image2 1oct15Stephenson spoke modestly of his beginning efforts writing poetry in a "doodling book.” He published his first poem, "Whales are Hard to See,” in 1973 while a student in Wisconsin. Even after the poem had been irretrievably published, Stephenson revised several further drafts of it for his own satisfaction. "If a poem or a story is going to live, you can’t kill it,” he told his listeners.

His poems celebrate themes of family, home, and the natural world. As Poet Laureate, Stephenson chose three goals to promote: arts in nursing homes, new writings about North Carolina farming and farm life, and the preservation of family histories. His own investigation into courthouse archives showed that his great great grandfather had paid $411.25 for a female slave and named her July.

He also discovered that July’s was one of 17 unmarked graves on his ancestors’ land. Those few scarce facts led him to write a sobering reflection on the things people think they own: land, homes, even one another. He received the Bellday Poetry Prize in 2008 for the resulting piece: Family Matters: Homage to July, the Slave Girl.

Stephenson ended his presentation with a few Hank Williams, Sr., songs, accompanying himself on the guitar, and inviting the audience to join in on "Amazing Grace.” He then took questions from the audience. He advised new poets to submit their works to small magazines and online journals. If the internet had been available in the 1800s, he said, "Emily Dickinson could’ve been published while she was alive.”

Janice Young, president of the Ruben Brown House, presented Stephenson with a watercolor painting by Whiteville artist Debbie Conway, depicting the poet standing in front of his childhood home near Benson. Literary co-chairs Janice Simms and Pat Ray organized the program and dinner.

Stephenson’s next book,Elegies for Small Game, is to be published next spring. He pointed out that it won’t be his first animal-oriented collection, as he’s previously published two books about possums, "our only marsupial. "We ate possums. I wanted to give back.” He indicated that he won’t be entirely satisfied as an artist until he’s written poems about collards, okra, and tobacco.

By Diana Matthews

Article and Images Courtesy of and as Published October 1, 2015 in The News Reporter www.Whiteville.com

 
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