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North Carolina Poet Laureate Shelby Stephenson didn’t set out to become a poet; first, he had to leave the three-room shanty in Benson where he was born in 1938. And although he pursued a series of jobs and studies, the words caught up with him, landing him positions at university English departments and eventually bringing him full circle, back to the family farm, where today he contemplates the meaning of place, of home, and of memory (www.ncarts.org).
THE SONG OF THE HUNTING TROUBLESHOOTER
The dogs of my father are free.
The plankhouse guards the hedge.
That house rolls back in ’52.
It marks a kennel’s death.
What draws me to this song of woe?
The politics of Time?
The ads on television shows?
Word-mockers on Talk-Lines?
R’s plan for Health and Medicare?
The name-calling and gaffs?
Yes and no; I am doomed to dare
To add naught to the laughs.
My aim’s to sing a simple song,
From one eternal ear,
To lay my father’s many dogs
Asleep to make a choir.
What tune shall come I cannot say.
To listen to the wind!
That’s what I’ll know and hear today.
The dogs, dead; voices thin.
They come as though their shape may go:
Bing and Bob, Jay Boy, Sing,
Slobber Mouth, Smoky, Tony, Law,
Atlas, Ginger, and Ring.
Their ears lie like muffs on the ground.
I count the silence there.
Cicadas whirr their steep surround,
The media nowhere.
Time after time the trees gain wind,
Though their leaves bear no tongues.
The bark perks up to verse a theme
A symphony might bring.
I put the words in rhymes by choice.
My mind’s not vast enough.
I keep hearing Atlas’s voice.
My father’s pensive face
Tells me that the big dog is dead.
The shaggy hair’s too dry.
I can smell what’s coming ahead,
His look, Atlas, goodbye.
My father could not sacrifice
His tie with black Atlas
To bear him to a grave, suffice,
Say, for a buzzard’s feast.
“Son, wrap a wire around his leg
And drag him to Roach Branch
Where the water trickles to beg
The Heaven’s part, the thanks –”
I did not say a thing to show
I misheard him; I knew
The death of one of his fox-dogs
Brought a murmur of grief.
Where Roach Branch bubbles always bright
I dragged the carcass, left.
I could count days the bones would white
To green my father’s faith.
Remembrance makes me clearly see
Another time he quailed
And brother Paul took over things.
Sing hobbled home, eyes pale,
And streaked in globs and red with fear.
Her back got broke in two.
Afraid, had someone hit her rear
With a stick – who would do
A hunter’s dog so bad a trick?
We can’t be sure we know.
I heard Paul go load the rifle,
Rest aim in a chainey-ball.
Shot Sing between the eyes.
My father looked the other way.
He stood in the pantry
To hear the sound of Sing’s last breath.
An entire century
Of imagination’s dreaming
Cannot bring back the joys
My father’s hounds gave in teeming
Howls to run the fox with his boys.
LOVE AND MARRIAGE
A particularly shaped two-seater,
U. S. market loved, plus my loving friends.
Sprite – Austin Healey, born, London Motors,
The year, 1952: Glands of Sin
Intruded my body and bulged my senses,
No thing could compose except sporting trends:
Healey, Donald Healey, designed this car,
Envy of motor-racing fans world-wide.
Attractive, known as Frog-Eye or Bug-Eye,
Little Sprite, my roadster with the soft top,
Entered my life in real sexy mudguards;
You swerved, curved my high of 1960.
Sports car! I sold it: honeymoon money.
Pause − front headlamps set in the bonnet’s top,
Requirement to meet lamp-height on sunny
International U.S.A’s ticket.
The dollars I needed to help wed Nin?
Exactly six-hundred; that was a lot.
An Interview with S.E.B. Detling
S.E.B. Detling: Dr. Shelby Stephenson, thank you for taking time to talk with me today. Before we begin, would you mind setting the scene for our readers? Why did you choose to answer these questions here?
Shelby Stephenson: I’m glad you are here in my study, today. I’ll try to respond to your questions. I’m surrounded by books I love and by Norwich Terrier, Cricket. I feel that I am her mascot.
SEBD: You are presently the North Carolina Poet Laureate, as well as a recording artist, husband, father, and grandfather, and you have hosted your own jazz radio show. You have hundreds of publications in poetry, starting with your first published poem, “Whales Are Hard to See,” in the Davidson Miscellany journal (1973). Through the years you continued to publish in small literary journals introduced to you by Felix Pollack at the University of Wisconsin, curator of “the largest magazine collection in the world,” as you said in an interview with North Carolina Public Radio’s Frank Stasio, and you received acclaim in California and other places far removed from the rural North Carolina landscape which served many times as your subject. How does it feel to now be recognized by your peers as deserving of the Poet Laureate title, and your work assigned the responsibility of keeping “the state’s fast-vanishing rural past alive in verse” (Menconi)?
SS: I am grateful. That’s how I feel. The page is always blank. When I approach the page, I try to let the words find me. The laureates before me and the ones to come appear as poets whose words matter the way they try to say that the arts and the love of the arts keep us human, capable of love and understanding what it is like to be alive on the planet. As for the “vanishing rural past”: of course, it is never gone. It lives in the body and soul of anyone who remembers. The poet sees that, the past, trying to keep it alive. I do not want to forget. I don’t try to write about fields of cotton, for example, or a tobacco patch, or hogs or chickens or mules, and so on. Those subjects draw me to themselves: the possum, the squirrel, the raccoon, the chickens, dogs, and so on. The subjects just happen to live in my body. All my personal history always waits to be changed into something else, a form and shape others, hopefully, might participate in.
It is true that I learned over the years this: the farther away from home I sent poems about hogs or farms, the more likely I would place them in the “little magazines,” those literary journals I fell in love with while browsing in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s collection. And Felix Pollak I can see now, his face aware of some mysterious connection with poetry I have still not figured out. Maybe it is because he escaped Hitler’s ovens and found a way to express himself in poetry and through his work as curator of probably the largest little mag collection in the world. I don’t know. I still would like to revise that first poem I had published in the Davidson Miscellany. And maybe I will. Perhaps I could think of a whale as a dog or pig or possum or rabbit. I’ll get to a revision somehow.
SEBD: Throughout your work, it seems your main objective is to capture the sights, sounds, music and smells of the past and present of Benson, North Carolina, where you were born on your family’s land, and where you continue to reside today, albeit in a newer home built on the same land alongside the historic plankhouse, now turned into a museum. You have mentioned that you used to write and leave your work around the house where Linda, or Nin as you affectionately call her—your wife, editor, and singing companion of 49 years—would begin the editing process. It was through this process, you remark, that you learned “anything local, specific, or that had details, could live,” and you “wanted to make that sing” (Stasio). You have also said that “on the page, I’m doomed if there is no music” (Durham). Finally, you have noted that Hank Williams, singer of your favorite song “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” is an inspiration because “you can smell and hear the pain” (Stasio). Can you explain why you think the development of sights, sounds, music and smells is so important in your work, and can you describe the process by which you make the details of your work sing to the senses of your audience?
SS: I probably don’t have anything specific to say, I mean, something Big, a point, a statement, for I have always loved music, the hymns of Rehobeth Primitive Baptist Church and the songs I heard on the radio in the early 1950’s. I feel the pulpit swell in the sermons, the music low and high at the same time. I knew I could not forget Grace. Is not Grace a surrogate for the Imagination? “Where Could I Go but to the Lord,” “Farther Along,” “In the Garden,” and so on. I loved and love the sounds, the message there, too, though never undoing the daydreaming for the unknown I wonder and wander about right now.
I sang “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” at a musical jam last night. Isn’t that song a poem? Or consider the songs of Don Gibson. He too, like Hank, could sing out the pain and into it: “Legend in My Time,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Sweet Dreams,” “It’s Too Soon to Know” (my favorite of the songs Gibson wrote). What I am trying to say is this: when I really started writing – feeling that I felt good to put words on a page – came in my early thirties: I knew I could never get over the past. I just folded it all into what say and how I see, letting the music and words try to find out where I am going.
Nin is now at Smithfield Manor, a skilled nursing place in Smithfield. She’s trying to learn to walk again. I miss her and her eyes on the manuscripts. I am doing the editing now. Sometimes she asks to see something I’ve written and I give her a poem. And I for sure try to let my work get cold before I try to place it in a magazine.
I don’t know if my words sing to the senses of readers and hearers. That is my wish. We are all the same and we are different. Maybe one might appreciate the music in my lines if that person does not know what a tobacco worm is or what a grubworm is or a Duroc pig. I just happen to be born at home, while my family worked the fields. I will never quite get over that, never change that. So I keep trying to turn Paul’s Hill into something bigger than itself. I want to make it shine.
SEBD: Your verse is heavy and sweet and you like “long sentences and heavy rhythms rich with words and sometimes thick with music,” writes Julian Long (www.julianlong.net.) Playing off of Long’s description, I would like to further describe your verses as “song sentences,” and note the musicality and alliteration woven into your words. As a professional musician, could you describe the musical rhythms of your work and, as a writer, how you came to be comfortable with long lines of verse, versus the shorter “hillbilly” lyrics of which you have abundant knowledge, talent, and a penchant for performing?
SS: I like the words “song sentences.” That’s nice and accurate for my bias toward music, the musicality of every syllable and page; yet I want to give information too, I mean, detail, to show a “there” was there, even though it may be veiled or running in a brook of myths or moths, of sources I cannot quite name. I want to stay as close to the actual as art allows. I do not want to throwaway a way of life which will not go away. Childhood. In the chapbook Steal Away (Jacar Press) I write some shorter pieces, even occasional sonnets (about slavery) and a villanelle (about bundling tobacco). I wanted to show how the past was and is. To say again: I hope everyone might appreciate my writing. The categories for writing don’t quite ever fit.
I hear the song or words as I write. I don’t know how to say this: language works the way it does. It breaks and goes in directions the writer cannot control. At least that is more for me: see? I say “sea” and think of “Peace in the Valley,” the Tommy A. Dorsey hymn: “and the night is as black as the sea.” Maybe that is not the line he wrote. That is what I hear.
I tend to write shorter poems, like the “hillbilly” songs you mention, after I quit writing the long, sort-of hybrids. I wrote 300-pages, 52 chapters, arranged loosely in alphabetical order (from A through Z), a manuscript called Country. (Who will sing with me? Who will publish that!)
SEBD: You have said that you did not grow up with books. The only two in the plankhouse of your childhood were the Sears catalog and the Bible (“Stephenson”). You have also said that you even had “an aversion to poetry” and never took a writing class. “Nothing against it, I just thought nobody would care” (Stasio). However, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, you attended five semesters of law school until you and law, as you have been quoted, “failed each other” (“Stephenson”), and in 1965, you took a leave of absence from your job at the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) to sign up for four English courses at the University of Pittsburgh. In regards to those courses you say, “I knew the first night, there in a rented room in Regent Square, that I would stay in words” (“Shelby,” www.nclhof.org). I am curious to know what happened in those four English courses that changed the direction of your life?
SS: To be clear: I understand the “aversion” climate, as it was that: when I was growing up, I breathed the atmosphere of what I heard around me: work, get a job, make some money. There was a bias against the arts and against poetry, whatever it is. I was a daydreamer. How often I heard a teacher say: “Shelby, put on your thinking cap.” Well! I came to books with a loving vengeance. Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography? His father said something like this: “Son, you will not make any money for your verses.” That’s the way it goes. I suppose I am a Romantic, one who longs to side with the unknowing. I want to see IT all whole: Consider Shelley: Did he say somewhere something like “Poetry is a sword forever unsheathed that would consume the scabbard that would contain it.” I may be remembering wrong, I don’t know. That is wonderful to me. Read Emerson’s “The Poet.” Or the Whiteness of the Whale chapter of Moby Dick. That’s poetry to me. And I carry those feelings today, those emotions which take me into the backside of chickens running across the yard, to my mother’s brushbrooms swishing pretty pictures in the yard she swept (before we got a lawn), or the way Gray, the mule I knew best, would push her chest into the barbed-wire fence which kept her in a grassless lot, the red, dried blood already scabby and hard in her confinement.
I needed a writing class, yes. I never thought I had anything to say, until my diary I doodled in turned to entries and imitations of songs and poems I fell in love with along the way.
Law? Best thing to happen to me was when the law and I failed each other. An F in Income Tax and a D in Future Interests sent me on my way, through a blind-date and a job with American Telephone & Telegraph, Long Lines, headquartered, then, in White Plains, New York.
Yes, in December, 1964, I took a leave of absence from the telephone company. I am still on leave! I was bored out of my follicles! I left my Austin-Healey Sprite with my mother (my father never drove it: he said, “Son, you have to put this thing on”). I signed up for that special semester of English. I felt free. I was chosen right then to stay with words and music and literature. My life started over. The way chose me. And that’s the truth. I also knew I would not go to Nashville, Tennessee, and work my way into a career as a country singer, though singing was and still is something which centers me, whatever direction or periphery the days go. I wonder all the time about What IF. What if I had gone another way and done the music as a business (which it would have to become). I still don’t know. I am trying to figure the days out as I go.
SEBD: You served as editor of Pembroke Magazine for 32 years, 1978-2010, and have come a long way in the world of words since you wrote, “When I was a boy the teacher asked me / what an adverb was. I told her I didn’t / know, thinking to myself it could be the / white part of a chicken manure for all I knew,” from “Grammar” in Plankhouse, a book of vignettes from childhood alongside photographs by Roger Manley. I am curious, besides the request from Neil Young to be published in the 2005 issue under the pen name N. Jay Young (Potorti), were there other surprising moments that happened or any life lessons learned during your tenure at the magazine that you would like to share?
SS: I don’t know: I told Neil Young when he called (he wanted to send me a story, a chapter from a novel he was writing) to use his real name. He asked me to run the story under the name N. Jay Young. I don’t feel that was a surprise – that someone as popular as Neil Young would call. It just was pretty much routine, after all we published in Pembroke Magazine features on A. R. Ammons, Fred Chappell, Barbara Guest, Doris Betts, Lee Smith, Tim McLaurin, Robert Morgan, plus sections on Irish writers, South Korean writers, African American writers, Native American writers, Hispanic writers, Hungarian writers, German writers, North Carolina writers and on and on. Mentioning Neil Young reminds me how un-found-out in the larger world, beyond Pop-Culture-dom, most writers are. America wants to showcase. Poetry, for example, may be the shining constellation in the world’s humane story, a living life, starving for love and forgiveness and harmony.
The little thing about “Grammar” came from my father, I think. I believe he told me that his friend told him a story. The teacher asked Bill Parrish, my father said, to spell “tired” and Bill said something like, “T-I,” “T-o,” “Tird,” tired! And he knew what he thought he spelled, too, my father said, adding that the teacher asked him what an adverb was and he said he thought to himself It could be the white part of a chicken manure for all he knew.
I loved being editor of Pembroke Magazine. I wrote reviews and some occasional essays for the mag. I never published a poem of mine. I wanted to present other writers. And I think of this: I wish I could have published the magazine that never gets published: I mean, the work I had to send back, because I did not have room in the annual (the mag came out once a year) to publish the poets and writers. Isn’t that an endorsement of the life within us! I had to send the work back. I am trying to say that the mailbox was full just about every day. We take for granted the lives of others who want to tell their stories, be counted as individuals. That desire to be heard is the continuous surprise I love to remember.
SEBD: During your writing process, voices, sounds, personification and point of view, from what I understand, tend to overshadow your conscious self-editor. This impression is formed from works such as the Prologue of Fiddledeedee, a long poem, where you write, “Saying I need an image to make the world / I went back home and held my eyes to the hill / and it said You need a word deeper than I / [...] and I said Where is the word / that holds All I am trying to say?—” In your “Reflections,” you also note that “I keep hearing those voices way back there, as they lead me on to the page, the words leading the way, trying to find me.” And I believe you touch on this process in your interview with David Potorti, Theater & Literature Director, NC Arts Council, when you talk about the cliché of “writing what you know.” But then you go on to say, “you’ve got to write about what you don’t know [...] You make it up. It’s just a riff. The words actually find out who you are, and surprise you” (Potorti). Looking back into your family history, it seems that “riffing” is a part of you, an inherent characteristic shaped “by the music of the preachers in their pulpits, quoting in riffs from the Bible” (Stephenson). Can you take us by the hand and show us how these riffs begin and how you summon the words to appear on the page?
SS: I don’t know if I can take you by the hand and show you. That would be nice. Words get in the way and I cannot say How I do anything. I just do it. After the work gets cold, after the day goes on, the night, the next day, another one and on into another, the words begin to form something. A detail comes along, for me, something out of childhood perhaps, a certain bird, like the purple martins whose blurring wings signal the fledgling to join the air and fly, the baby bird’s feet fragile as ink-stains clinging to the opening of the hole in the nesting gourd to complete a sentence, a flight, an attempt at soaring over the meadow.
I have seen this picture. And the little bird flies and returns to hold its mouth open on the perch until the mother or father bird stops feeding it and it goes off on its own to be itself a Real bird.
You mention the sermons: oh the preachers on my father’s side of the family: his father and his grandfather and greatgrandfather. How I won’t soon forget those Sunday mornings, the lined-off hymns, the sun settling in the laps of women under their church-hats, my lonely self in shortpants stuck to the over-varnished benches. I wanted to take my guilty self outside and could not. I had to stay there until the swelling voices dwelled and stopped in the shuffling out the door under the big oaktrees in the yard at Rehobeth Primitive Baptist Church.
SEBD: “What do I do?” you have been quoted as asking. And you respond, “I have tried to present my past and my family, especially my mother and father, as themselves and somehow make them big enough for any reader anywhere to read his or her own parents and ancestors into my poems” (“Shelby,” www.nclhof.org). In my opinion, however, what you do is greater than this. Writing on the land that has belonged to your family for over 100 years—once 1,100 acres but decreased to 10 acres—with the “graveyard across the now-paved road where ancestors and slaves share the same dirt,” as your cousin, writer Margaret Maron describes it, and you say that you know things change “but we can’t forget” (Potorti). So you capture the past and even attempt to make amends for it, such as in Playing Dead where you say, “I’m trying to give back to the possum something we took away by hunting it and eating it when I was growing up here” (“Poetry”). But you also open a dialogue for the future, through verses where you write:
“Unable to breathe in and out
(There was so much traffic)
Black the crawl into light
White her swelling dream
The rude world waited for
And the huge throng
When she dashed up a persimmon,”
“Playing Dead Deader”
“[Big Hunter] & Company farmed a colony of cul-de-sacs.
Doom, despair, and agony”
“wondered if he would run out of trees to climb
[...] as big yellow dozers
woke up the earth
leaving scoops shaped
[...] and houses went up on the farms—
…Tara, Landsing, Sunnybrook, Creek Stone,”
“The Farm That Farms New Houses”
“They are farming houses right up to the creek.
No more skipperbugs skating and fish rolling in shallows.
The forked-tailed channelcat, pumpkinseed, rockbass, horsefish, suckers-gone—.”
These poems point to a concern for the future of North Carolina’s disappearing rural communities, a recurring theme also found in the work of fellow North Carolina poet and environmentalist, Tony Reevy, who was kind enough to introduce us.
While poet laureate, you have had the chance to promote writing about farming, and I believe that you have been doing this by visiting with local children at public libraries and high schools. In speaking to these children who hold the future of North Carolina in their hands, how do you envision rural North Carolina to be in the future?
SS: Tony Reevy’s pulse fits the environment. I look forward to his writing, always, especially as he writes about the land. I want to see more about his family, too, as it is the American dream for most everyone who lives in this country.
Rural North Carolina will survive the developments, the tendency to progress and pave, the wish to colonize the fields with houses and plants of industry and well-being. One person makes many and good will triumph to try for balances between wildness and civilization. I believe that. The State is a long one, from the Outer Banks to the Tennessee Border. I just came from Burnsville over in Yancey County. I believe I know why people go there and stay. The air is clean. The community exists for work, especially for the writer and the glassblower, the potter and the musician who wants to play on the square there just to enjoy playing and being heard. I did a program at the library in Murphy, too. What a place! Good air, good people, all there in that cradle of landscape and wonder. And there is Mount Mitchell, too, still celebrating this year of 2015 its 100th birthday, as it showcases the first-established State Park in North Carolina.
It is true: my Middle Creek has changed. I can walk out the door to the Rock Hole. There is a cul-de-sac there where we boys used to wash sacks guano came in. And we’d fish for the little fish, the bottom feeding horse-fish and the occasional bass, and the pumpkinseed, the bream, the crackershell.
I live near McGee’s Crossroads. Exit 319 of I-40. We have a Sheetz there now at 50-210. Why not!
I still know the FFA Creed. There are students, especially at North Carolina State University, studying Agriculture, wanting to farm, to learn how to keep the land an earth of richness and possibilities.
SEBD: As poet laureate, another project you are promoting is an interest in archives. You have a collection of your own, a measurement of 196 feet of linear shelf space (approximately 120,050 items) of archival material in the Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, including correspondence with local, national, and international poets, novelists, editors, and publishers, including A.R. Ammons, Fred Chappell, Norman Macleod, Guy Owen, and Paul Green. The use of archives also played a pivotal role in bringing an important manuscript to life, a story born from your family’s land and the slaves across the street from your house buried in unmarked graves. In “Reflections” you write that “while searching for things to write about, I saw a note in my sister’s handwriting that Pap George sold a 10-year-old slave girl for $413.25. I went to the Johnston County Heritage Center in Smithfield and did some research, and then I went to the courthouse in Smithfield and saw a copy of the bill of sale” (Stephenson). From this research was born the manuscript Family Matters: Homage to July, the Slave Girl, winner of the 2008 Bellday Prize, a work with moving revelations such as when you write that “the money to buy and sell [July, the slave girl] presses into my heart.” The use of archives holds an obvious importance in your life. For those of us unable to attend your talks at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, for example, can you tell us a little bit about the conversations we are missing?
SS: Well, there is another set of worlds in Archives & History in Raleigh, in courthouses, and heritage centers across North Carolina and nations everywhere. Family is almost everything, especially in the South. Research sets us free until we must make things up. Our history IS “serious business,” as I say in Steal Away in a sonnet for July, the Slave Girl.
What do I say at the readings? I try to let them be; yet once I start talking I always realize that I stay pretty close to trying to get the actual straight. I’d like to publish something about tobacco worms and see it in print in Poetry (Chicago). I won’t worry the thought too much. If I can make the worm sing I might succeed in doing that. Hearing from students (I’m thinking of the Greensboro readings) especially reminds me of their lives, their individual stories, their own desires to be heard. Thing is to let go and do it! See what happens.
SEBD: As poet laureate, a third project you are pursuing is offering writing workshops in retirement homes. In your interview with Frank Stasio, you mentioned that your wife is now living in such a home and that you have both heard wonderful stories. Would you like to share one of your favorites?
SS: Rose at Brookdale (where Nin was for a little over a year) told me that her parents both died of pneumonia in the early 1930’s, during an epidemic, right after she was born and that she went to live with her aunt who raised her. And I listened to her tell me that story, you can imagine, and then she said, “My aunt said when I was a baby, I was ugly as a mog-owl.” I thought to myself: I have not heard that word in several decades. I had forgotten it, a “mog-owl.” And I said, “Rose, have you ever seen a mog-owl?” I can’t remember exactly what she said. My mind went to the red owl that pitches on the grass under the big southern oak down at the edge of my Cow Mire. I see it almost every day about dusk. You can set your watch almost by the time the owl pitches on the ground, maybe looking for a mouse or something to stir. I still want to know what a mog-owl is.
One thing I learned: patients of dementia cannot be workshopped. If they can be, they must hear music. I have seen women, mostly, turn out of their gnarls in their wheelchairs and sing with me on “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” or “Amazing Grace,” and other hymns and spirituals, then fall back inside themselves to be courted by a breathing, confusing silence.
SEBD: Some of your most moving and personal poetry I find deals with not the loss of landscape for which you are so well-loved and recognized, but for the loss of loved ones. Of your parents you write, “I have held my father’s hand as he was dying / And my mother’s, lying in her lap like dried peas, / (She was no longer the little girl jumping into a hay-pile)” (“Connotation”). And, please correct me if I am mistaken about the subject of these poems, but your beloved Nin, looking as ”beautiful as the east spreading crimson,” is written into “A life with depression-mania comes” and “I do not know what lows are for” where you write, “I had no feelings at all—no sadness, no tears, just numb. / To have you wells a dream. / The worst hurts over and gone. / [...] this January 31, 2010[...] It is gone” (“Shine”). Now that Nin is no longer at home editing, you say that you have to look at things. Seeing how these poems are so personal it makes me wonder, is there anything that you choose not to publish?
If I can get the words right, more than themselves, I think I can publish anything. I do not want to be indulgent and tell all. There is no all to tell. Words salvage the hard and vulnerable places one might go to tell a story in words, in poems. I believe the so-called vulnerable things might be the calling and the story, the challenge in the telling waiting to be told.
I am currently circulating a manuscript Nin helped edit: Nin’s Poem it is called now. It is a love story, really, of her life living with what is now called Bipolar. That’s a misnomer, for there are variations of moods, sways and circulations, within moods. If I knew the relationship between the brain and muscles I could be consultant to the best doctors in the world. The mystery cannot be contained in meds, though meds are necessary for trying to keep heading for some balance so one can live, wake up awake and say, “Good morning, world, here I come again.”
SEBD: On a lighter note, have you found anyone to publish your 300-page memoir hybrid poem-prose or is it still lying around the house with Cricket, your “Norwich terrier, sweet, noisy to squirrels and deer, loyal to a fault” (“I do not know”)?
SS: I do not have a publisher. I send to contests I read about in Poets & Writers. Or someone who runs a press might say Send me that long manuscript and I gladly send it. I want to be published; yet I must say the cliché: no substitute there is for facing the page and seeing what the words might score.
SEBD: Now your turn – you ask the question and you give the answer.
SS: What is glorious about today? It’s an October sunshine and coolness. My parents are October babies. Like Thomas Wolfe and Bob Morgan and my mandolin-picking friend, Russ Powell, who knew Barbara Guest. And perhaps it is my favorite month. What a thought: to see what October brings, the tobacco carts on the road, the highway, pulled by a man or woman in a pickup, the tobacco allotment lifted this year, the farmers planting more and more for Where? Where is it going, our “money” crop.
I have written about tobacco. I never thought I could. The gunk in our lungs, the stifling heat in that six-week hell of working the fields now traversed by big tractors and many workers (mostly from somewhere else, as all the little farmers are gone and the tenants and workers gone to the cities north or somewhere, I don’t know where): they, these big green or orange tractors come in with the workers in a converted re-vised yellow schoolbus and rush through the fields like mosquitoes looking for somewhere to land.
And then November and Thanksgiving. What promises!
Thank you for asking me the questions I have tried to answer.
SEBD: Shelby, it has been a great pleasure spending time with you today. I hope that you continue to be “happy to wake up and write” and “enjoy helping others see themselves anew” (“Shelby,” News). Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. And thank you for being a part of Negative Capability.
For more about Dr. Shelby Stephenson and his work, visit his website at: www.shelbystephenson.com.