Shelby Stephenson is “in love with life,” and the “life” that he knows most intimately is the “life” of people in the countryside of eastern North Carolina. His early years on a farm in Johnston County taught him what it means to be poor, but he also heard stories and songs, and he absorbed everything that was visible or audible in the rural landscape: the homes, the outbuildings, the animals, the plants, the seasons, and the people, black and white, who worked the land with difficulty but also with promise and had their own moments of insight and beauty. Shelby became their troubadour, their “Homer,” and anyone who wants to understand what life in the counties east of Raleigh was like in our generations can turn to Shelby for knowledge and authenticity and for compassion. Archie Ammons, whose own “home country” was to the southeast in Columbus County, once said that he had more in common with Shelby Stephenson than with any other North Carolina poet.
Shelby, of course, has not always been on a farm. He has a college degree from Chapel Hill and a Ph.D. from Wisconsin, he taught English at Campbell and at Pembroke, and for more than thirty years he was editor of Pembroke Magazine. Go back to the issues of the Magazine that appeared under his guidance, and observe again what an archive of enduring literary and historical value they are.
Once after reading a poem of Shelby’s called “Hymn to the Packhouse,” I said to him that I knew nothing about a packhouse but that I could “sing the hymn because he had taught me how.” In such ways Shelby’s poems, rooted in a land that not every reader knows, offer us an invitation to a richer understanding of where we do live—the earth our home, the people we know, the chapters in our lives, our sadness and our joy. And Shelby often goes across the state, wherever writers are gathered, playing and singing and bringing his unique, life-affirming message.
No words about Shelby Stephenson are complete without a tribute to “Nin,” the beloved Linda, his wife for forty-eight years, the dedicatee of almost everything he has written, and an inspiration to Shelby even beyond the country of his heart.
I know of few poets who embody the words North Carolina in the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame more fully or more lovingly than Shelby Stephenson.
Dr. Edwin G. Wilson
October 12, 2014
Southern Pines, NC