In January of 2015 I learned a poet which Red Dashboard published two years prior was chosen to represent his state of North Carolina. Shelby Dean Stephenson was now a Poet Laureate.
I can’t explain the excitement. In running this publication for ten years (starting with ezines, and moving into a press) I had published a poet laureate, Allan Birchelbach of Texas had submitted a poem into an awards category which he won The Spur Award from Western Writers of American for poetry. His poem was slated to publish in our Cowboy Poetry Press anthology, Unbridled, spring/summer print, and then we were to pick up the award in late June. This was already a highlight for me. I was feeling my endeavors learning to publish and manage were paying off. I had decided to take their work, and without knowing anything about them, I merely loved what they wrote (we do have editors who look over work along with me).
Wanting to write a piece about going to my first laureate inauguration, I barely found time to sit down and speak about mine and Shelby’s next day meeting at his home. Work was growing at a fast rate. On that visit we talked about how it was a shock in some ways, and then he gave me The Plank House tour. I told him how his emails with me back and forth were like poetry. Encouraging me to write about my childhood as we connected over his writing—about being country kids when things were much more simple; he also encouraged me to get another book out. Shelby reviewed my first collection, My South By Southwest (2014), along with many other poets, giving me the thumbs up on the musicality, among other great points. The time wasn’t right for our press, life goes on.
Two years plus, and on an unusually warm November day my husband and I find our car driving into Benson, NC where I had arranged to sit down and speak to Shelby again. I’m still thrilled to hear him talk about life, about the writing process, other poets (he keeps me on my toes), and about what’s gone on in the two years he began his laureate journey.
EAS: Shelby, do you mind if I ask you a few questions? (I pull out my high tech digital recorder).
Shelby: Wow, aren’t you totally prepared, all twenty-first century.
EAS: Have you accomplished what you set out to do (he mentioned to me what he wanted to get done as PL back in 2015)?
Shelby: Gosh, I haven’t gotten started (he laughs).
EAS: What are the two things that you’ve done in your term as Poet Laureate of North Carolina, 2015-17, and what do you plan to accomplish?
Shelby: It all seems like a dream—one thing I’ve learned, taking poetry into retirement and nursing homes, and farming. I’m an old FFA boy from way back, I live here. Oh what else was I thinking? Oh yes, genealogy. Have you done yours?
EAS: Yes, I have.
Shelby: Mine dropped off about 1651 and drop into a hole. But I’ve learned, Alzheimer’s, music does it. It’s a way to get to the people that way.
EAS: Mine dropped off about 1647, the Scottish side, even later on the other.
Shelby: It’s amazing, I’ve been to Murphy, twice, programs and things, it’s a long state (NC), goes all the way down to TN; you can drive two hours here to there , it’s been fun seeing it all.
I was recently in Sylva, celebrating Kay Byers life. Silva is way way south of Asheville.
Everybody has a story—you know that; this state is lively, and loaded with people who want to write.
EAS: Has anyone coined your writing style in the past few years? I don’t like to use that term, but it seems people do pin you down, in spite of your feelings.
Shelby: Oh gosh (laughing). I don’t think so. Everyone now I’m off hand, and then I riff, get off topic.
EAS: Have you written about Possums lately? (laughing, because he did write two books about them, as his father hunted them)
If you ever get the chance to talk to him, or read his works, it’s about family. About his father bringing home food, like me, we ate what my father fished and shot.
Shelby: Ah, I wrote a Possum poem the other day. I’m writing some forms now. I have a friend who’s writing, a form, Cinquin.
EAS: What’s unique about that form? What caught your attention?
Shelby: Oh someone mentioned it to me, and explained it was created by a woman, Adelaide Crapsey in the 1920s. So I wanted to try it. I thought if my name was…oh, I don’t’know.
EAS: What caught my attention about your poetry, writing about the past, history, and then we discussed cooking. I lean towards experimental writing, and I felt you had some of that in your manuscripts.
Shelby: Some of Shub’s cooking was from my Mother’s own hand on index cards. I had a good laugh when Nin (his wife) and I found one for Thanksgiving stuffing—
There’s not much left to be said about Stuffing.
My mother pretty much settled the offerings. Makes me think of nothing but quaffing!
In her own hand she wrote the recipe.
It came in the late 1960’s – early 70’s − to Madison, Wisconsin, to Nin and me, from the homeplace near Benson, North Carolina (where Nin and I live now):
TURKEY STUFFING FOR THANKSGIVING
1 cup celery (chopped)
1 ½ uncooked rice
½ cup chopped onion
1 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon salt
5 ½ cups raw popcorn
Broth and giblets of turkey
Mix together and cook until the pop
Corn is all popped and blows
Out the ass of the turkey
It’s ready to serve!
(laughs) But we never got a chance to try this one.
Page 196, Shub’s Cooking, available on Amazon or through our catalog (Shelby’s nickname)
EAS: (laughing) Gosh, I might have to give that one a shot!
Shelby: You bring me to this, what else I’ve learned—family is everything. I’m care taking, learning to wake-up. I’m learning to take care of myself. It’s going to be three years 2018. I drive myself all over (mentions towns again). The writers I meet are so lively. All those writers are great to meet. It’s like the song, “The party is over…”
It’s a different world. Hotels, boy are they an experience. Nin and I did everything together.
EAS: Didn’t have a camper you traveled in?
Shelby: I traded it for the red car over there.
(We laugh, because he was known to travel in that camper, and with his dog.)
Shelby: Someday when you become a poet laureate I’ll coach you, I’ve only said “No” once. It’s better than ice cream when you travel to schools and face elementary students. It’s a challenge. What do you do? Well, you pull out your guitar and kids respond. They actually ask me to sing songs I don’t know. I usually ask them if they know a song I can play (he goes on to sing the song to me).
(About the traveling) One day after the memorial service for my friend, it was raining. I stayed at the Red Roof Inn. I ended up writing a poem for Anne Russell, “The Red Roof Inn Plus.” In remembrance for a time my dog and I stayed with her once. It actually came out pretty funny. You let the words flow and take you where they go.
It’s wonderful not to be bored. I’m having fun. And Cricket (his dog) goes everywhere I go.
EAS: Do you keep the title “Poet Laureate of North Carolina” once your term is done?
Shelby: Well, I’m certainly still me, not former anthing, I haven’t changed, so I’m always a poet. (laughs) Yes, I keep the title.
EAS: I want to end this on one last note. You’ve explained being poet laureate keeps you busy, brings new things to light, like taking care of yourself. My Grandfather always said keep your minds going, he was 99 when he passed, and always writing. What do you say to young writers out there? Even late comers?
Shelby: People didn’t know what poetry was when I was young. It salvaged my life. To be thirteen or fourteen again, somehow words and poems and stories, you respond to stuff you read. You wake up one day and find yourself bored out of your mind, your mind wanders, and you find you have to get it out there. Old or even new stories can come out of you. I certainly never thought I’d be here. I taught, never thought about that either.
That’s the thing—the arts and creative things will still find the children. The digital age takes their attention, but hopefully they find the words. They will turn it into poetry or stories.
My message, is to write, share your life, your words, your family. Be lively.
What a great time I had just speaking to Shelby on the steps of his family’s old plantation plank house, with another Plank House tour (hubs hasn’t seen it, he’s the one on the left in photo). It was like sitting on the porch as my old timer relatives chatted about the old life. Our conversation at times goes in a hundred different directions, but I’ll always love talking or corresponding with Shelby. Some say I have a Laureate crush, and wouldn’t you if you published one!
Shelby Dean Stephenson stumbled into our catalog, into my life. I’m glad he couldn’t stop writing. I’m glad he had manuscripts lying around to send to us. I humbled and honored to say he was one of our authors. As a publisher, I advise you to be open to all writing, in form or in experimental stage. You could be reading a poet laureates manuscript.
Thank you Shelby!
Both books, The Hunger of Freedom and Shub’s Cooking are available in our catalog Red Dashboard LLC Publications