Shelby Stephenson: A Son of Middle Creek and “Paul’s Hill”

     My “Sandspur” column today (April 1, 2009) was a profile of Dr. Shelby Dean Stephenson,  Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke,  Editor of the renowned literary annual Pembroke Magazine,  and mentor and preceptor and comrade-in-arms to hundreds of writers and aspiring writers (especially poets) in North Carolina and far beyond.

As the headline to the “Sandspur” profile suggests,  Shelby’s love of poetry transcends and encompasses all of his other interests and endeavors, even including the “old black magic” he can wrest from a guitar as he plays and sings, along with his devoted wife Linda (known familiarly as “Nin”) the favorite pieces of his Country and Western icons.   He and Linda have produced three albums of their performances, some accompanied by other members of the “Stephenson Family Singers.”

Shelby Stephenson’s humanity is deeply entwined in the roots of his family’s heritage in Johnston County, not far from Benson.  Middle Creek is a central feature of the community in which he was born and reared, and “Paul’s Hill” is the name of his family’s farmstead.  It is out of the homely, plainspoken, and hardscrabble history of his family, and the larger culture of which they were a part, that he has wrought his poetry, now collected in several books.

W. H. Auden,  in a marvelous essay titled “Writing” has made a nice distinction between three aspirations that may inspire writers:  to be original, to be sincere, or to be authentic.  Auden believed, and I agree with him,  that the only indisputable, necessary factor in literary creations is authenticity.  And this is the quality that Shelby Stephenson has in bushel basketfulls.

His most recent book,  “Family Matters:  Homage to July, The Slave Girl,”  brought him his greatest challenge:  accept and also authenticate as part of the story of his life and the story of the antebellum South the raw facts:  that his ancestors trafficked in slaves,  owned slaves, and perhaps sometimes even abused slaves such as “July,”  who came into the family’s life at the age of nine or ten.

It is, however, not enough just to be authentic.  The poet must also be a wordsmith,  a writer who works his words and sentences in much the same way as the blacksmith heats, hammers, and twists iron and other metals into useful tools.  This too Shelby Stephenson, as an artist, has conveyed so impressively.  Here, for an example, is Division VIII of the section he titled “Playing Off One Another”:

Caterpillars

muscling up in arches

on the leaves, balls

caught in webs;  Daddy, Percy, and I

among the yellow smell

taking the tobacco off the sticks,

Daddy, head down, bundling the leaves:

“You’ll get ringworms, boy, go get some shoes on.”

A thin lull of work

keeps us in that swell of time,

longbench, sticks in holes to separate the grades,

Daddy by the window, a cigar hanging in his mouth,

lost in thought on a foxrace,

his dogs lying on the pitdoor:  Tony with white hairs

over his eyelids like and old man’s winter, grim and profuse,

Butler yawning and yearning to run a rabbit in Beaver Dam,

Percy, snuffcontented, easing around the room.

Comments and advice always welcome and usually mulled over and weighed.

RJR

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5 Responses to “Shelby Stephenson: A Son of Middle Creek and “Paul’s Hill””

  1. Tammy Stephens Says:

    Advice? We need that from you, lol.
    Je ne parle pas ou écris l’anglais. Je suis une âme perdue à la grammaire.

    I love hearing history on the area.

  2. Raymond Rundus Says:

    Merci bien, ma belle jeune amie. Je devois entendre et puis ecris plus souvent en francais. Comment fait-on les accents en WordPress?

    Monsieur Ramon

  3. Tammy Stephens Says:

    De rien. C’est amusant.

  4. Tammy Stephens Says:

    Parlez-vous du français ?

  5. Elena Says:

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don

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