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Posts Tagged ‘Shelby Stephenson’

Wow, I really like your enjambment.

To the women who said this to me after a reading last Spring: Where are you? Who are you? I’d like to get to know you better. Let’s get together and talk . . .

. . . about my poetry. Oh, right, about yours, too. About all sorts of poetry. Just remember: the sexiest line in the English (Major) language is, I like your poem.

Because let’s face it, most of the people I run into every day don’t want to hear about my poetry. I’d most likely encounter a blank stare, or even a lynch mob, if I confided, “I’m writing a sestina using the argot of 1930’s gangster Chicago.”

But there must be someone out there who admires my enjambment. I guess I’ll have to place myself at the mercy of the Editors.

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Years ago when I first became afflicted with this obsession Poetry I was writing in a vacuum. Lines tumbling about in my head pressuring to be set down on paper – why does someone do that? For a Pulitzer? Not in a million years. Pushcart? Never heard of it. Fortune? Ha ha ha ha ha! Fame? Of course not . . . well, maybe a little would be nice.

No, I suppose I write for the same reason as all writers: the compulsion to get it onto the page, and to get it right. But how to know if it’s right? I was desperate to have someone read from the growing stack. Not to tell me it was good (OK, it wouldn’t hurt my feelings if they did) but just to confirm that what I was writing was poetry. That the lines communicated what they were meant to. That they connected with the reader.

Having no access to a writer’s group it occurred to me that I should submit to poetry journals. The Editors would let me know how I was doing! Editors are wonderful human beings, but of course they are far busier than I imagined. Most of the feedback they gave came from their Xerox machines. A few had distinctly negative things to say (without ever quite using the word “sucks”). But there was one Editor, one Golden Pen beyond the vale of the SASE, who never failed to encourage.

Perhaps you’ve guessed – I’m talking about Shelby Stephenson. Between 1999 and 2004 I sent him seventeen submissions, eighty plus poems. I must have exhausted him! But the tiny slips that returned along with the poems usually said, “Keep writing!” or “You’ll place these elsewhere.” Sometime during those years I met Shelby in person at an NC Poetry Society meeting and then I understood. The concept rejection does not reside in the man’s soul.

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And then on April 14, 2005, I received in the mail an 8½ x 11 page on the Pembroke Magazine stationery. An acceptance. I must have written a real poem at last.

Here are a few samples of the “non-rejection” slips – I saved every one. Here’s the acceptance letter, and here’s the poem Orange Cap which appeared in Pembroke Magazine Number 38 in 2006.

Shelby Rejections 01_0002

Pembroke 2005-04-12

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Orange Cap
for Grady at ninety

Common as dirt; cotton and nylon with a plastic snap band,
stiff front, forehead’s high profile that begs
for jaw ballast of a heavy chew; the kind a man wears
while he primes tobacco, hoes a row of beans,
seep of sweat darkening the brim, its shade
a cool welcome across the man’s red face
while the Piedmont sun sows his ears with slow cancer.
I can see one like it settled low on your narrow head

in many a long day’s field, beneath the nights’ revival tent,
at sixty still cutting timber with your boys,
your bony arms like axe handles, your hoarse chuckle
taming the chainsaw’s growl. You’ll never sit still,
almost ninety now and determined to ride that durned mower
across town, little wagon in tow to carry a brown paper sack –
bread, milk, a slab of streakéd meat
for the creases your daughter cut at the creek bank.

Never still and never capless, one clutched in silent hands
at the hospital that night we lingered with Opal,
last Yadkin County breath struggling from her lungs,
prayers that she’d open her eyes one more time
to your foolish teasing, the only one who could make her laugh –
prayers to be answered in the next life.
For today, always a cap and another to share:
I’ve kept the one you gave me, orange, Kennedy Auto Supply,

dusty then and more so now from its berth
beside these books that don’t tell a single story
that’s as worth hearing. See, I inked your gift’s date
here inside the hem: May 19, 1989. Remember
all the times I’ve rediscovered it, surprised you
at the door with the old blaze perched on my scalp?
Used it to make Opal cluck (but she couldn’t help grinning)?
Coaxed a phlegmy chuckle from your throat?

At each goodbye you ask, Still got that cap?
Like all the things we can’t take off –
the smell of woodsmoke in a canvas jacket,
black tobacco gum beneath cracked nails;
like all the things we’ll wear into glory –
grief, redemption, love for one companion,
shared laughter at an old fool’s tales . . .
yes, friend, I’ve still got it.

first appeared in Pembroke Magazine Number 38, 2006

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Spring Larkspur, Delphinium tricorne — Appalachian Trail north of Groundhog Creek Shelter, 5/2015

Post script

– I pulled out my copy of Number 38 this summer to leaf through it again and discovered there a host of poets I’ve since some to know and revere: Ronald H. Bayes, Ann Deagon, Janice Moore Fuller, Sharon Sharp, Heather Ross Miller, Nancy Tripp King, Isabel Zuber, Susan Meyers, Ruth Moose, and more. I just want to say, “Holy Cow, Shelby!”

And THANKS!

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Doughton Park Tree #3

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 . . . it is nothing but a song – the long journey home:

Homecoming – what sort of images does that word evoke?

Marching band lined up, the girls with their blue and gold pom poms, boys becoming men bursting through crepe paper onto the field.

All the old families filing into Salem Fork Baptist for preaching, and in the afternoon pot luck under the willow oaks.

A long absence, a holiday, sitting down to share the meal with family, wondering where you really belong and beginning to get an inkling.

The prodigal returning to discover the grace of unconditional love.

.   .   .

How about this one: men and women who have known each other for fifty years, or one year, or just today, gathered in a single great room to listen and be silent, to laugh and to cry, to start out wondering whether they belong and discover themselves bound together by the soul of words into one family.

Sam Ragan Poetry Festival at Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities and the tenth anniversary celebration of the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet Series – friends, it was one hell of a homecoming! Oh yes, the readings, Fred Chappell bringing new poems, fables and morals to slap you upside the head; Gilbert-Chappell mentors Cathy Smith Bowers, Joseph Bathanti, Lenard D. Moore, Tony Abbott each with their prized student protege from the program; from basketball to angels; from love lost to love well shet of; from growing up to growing old to refusing in any fashion to grow old. And the greetings – more hugs and handclasps per unit time than any baby shower or wake or political convention on record.

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And then there was Shelby Stephenson. Our “newest” NC Poet Laureate? How about our oldest and truest friend and guide? Has anyone in our state done more to encourage poets? To teach and encourage? To just plain get the poetry joy juice flowing in the crowd’s veins?

When I read the announcement that Shelby had been selected as Poet Laureate I immediately dug out my file – all the rejection slips he sent me while he was editor at Pembroke magazine. Friends, you would have to knock me down to get me to part with these sixteen little 2 x 3 inch slips of yellow paper (some actually just a post-it note with the Pembroke rubber stamp). Almost every one has a personal scribble: “good luck placing these” . . . “keep writing” . . . ” liked [poem] best” . . . “send more any time.” My God, how I harassed him with submissions until glory be one was good enough to keep.

Shelby Stephenson, thanks for the poetry homecoming. I am still discovering where I belong.

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from fiddledee
(read by Shelby at the 2015 Sam Ragan Poetry Festival)

Saying I need an image to make the world
I went back home and held my eyes on the hill
and it said You need a word deeper than I

so I took the old fencerails the lizards ran
and my family’s tongue came out of the Mouth
of Buzzard’s Branch, the sound of that one story,

everywhere, in the marshes, in the fields,
and lowgrounds, and I said Where is the word
that holds All I am trying to say? –

and the cows lowed through their cuds over
and over it is nothing but a song – the long journey home:

*    *    *    *    *

.  .  .  let go the body: the cardinal

flowers stretch across the landscape, handsome
in their high keys: there goes a plankhouse into
a hedge: we come from a desert of innumerable

dances made in pain and pleasure arriving
forever, America’s promise, Huckleberry
laid back every spring when the little green

corn is sided, what broken clods to bounce
in the dirt: the literature of the world
is the people: Whitman, where are you? Our

faculties run out into the unknown:
results are beginning, continuously
extending the plain chance to hold a seat,

here, hardy as a foot soldier: an articulate
voice lowers to let the mind down so the
undergarments might hear humanity

in the bosom stumbling back to breathe independently:
transitory, we bequeath to thee, O Death,
this victorious song thou breaks, the word

of the singer, his parentage and home,
the wood in the flames a quiet crackle
of no hurry going up and out, moving

the dust that settles the ashes, a tune,
a farway injury of happiness,
a bliss that is hard to empty: time and space

affirm the rhythm, the dimensions of
across and around: wrap a tent around
the music and steal away: images edge

the feelings like heels grinding lightly on
a board of closest imaginative
stances delighting the reapers in the

wheat, the keepers in the creek: the word is
another form of dancing: the body
moves on the surface just over truth: we

live amid the skin: the true art of
experience is practiced by the skipper
bugs: they skate so well: I clap my hands and

the water scoots a wake beating with a
new beauty: and the line which begins behind
is brought forward: I look back one more time

to draw a radiance in language, a
radical system formless and grammatically
mountainous and divine, mortal as the

fertilizing rain, a lingering space
that gives the celebration a morning, noon
and night swallowed up by the dallying and playing

world holding the ancient beard in an avenging
dance, a cosmos for jollity: high in
the pocket of a farmhouse I am alone,

a laughing moon brightening like an orange on ice.

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fiddledeedee
© 2014 by Shelby Stephenson, Press 53, Winston-Salem, NC

More information about Shelby at http://www.shelbystephenson.com/home.htm

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Over the next couple of weeks I will share more vignettes, poetry and photos from the 2015 Sam Ragan Poetry Festival & tenth anniversary celebration of the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poetry Series

Also check back for a link to the full photo gallery, forthcoming

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Doughton Park Tree #3

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It’s been a few years since I saw a patient with their fingers stiffened by black gum, so tarry and mean you just absolutely couldn’t get it off.  For years they were regulars, members of several local families, and by late August I’d usually treated two or three of them.  Oh, they didn’t consult me to take care of the black gum.  That was a fact of life.  They’d come in with a sprained back from first priming (bending over to pull the lowest leaves, the first ones to ripen).  Or one of their kids would be vomiting from green tobacco sickness when the morning dew permitted the nicotine to penetrate her clothing and permeate her skin.  (The older ones all smoked or dipped, and a little extra nicotine didn’t phase them.)

To say tobacco farming has changed is like saying calling to your neighbor has changed.  The wood-fired tobacco barn has gone the way of the rotary dial phone.  The government bought back all the allotments, but you can imagine plenty of other reasons why you see so many fewer acres of tobacco in Surry County now (and so many more acres of grapes).  On top of that, those big steel gas-fired curing barns just ain’t as picturesque.  And I guess the kids have all gone off to college, because I don’t see them with that black gold on their fingers during priming any more.

.     .     .     .     .

I moved to Elkin over thirty years ago to join Jonesville Family Medical Center right where rural nirvana blooms, the juncture of Wilkes, Yadkin, and Surry Counties.  Some days over lunch, one of my nurses shared stories of her farming childhood.  When priming was finished and the barn was full the whole family would join in the curing – cousins, uncles, the tribe.  The men had to tend the fire all night long to keep the heat just right.  The women would bring baskets of supper; the kids would play until way after dark; someone would break out a fiddle or a guitar.  There was probably a Mason jar of something potent being passed around in the shadows beyond the firelight, but my nurse wouldn’t want to make any accusations.  She and the other youngsters would bed down in quilts and blankets around midnight, and when the sun came up across the fields, there Mama would be with cold milk and biscuits.

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Who’s going to keep these stories alive for us?  Thank goodness for Shelby Stephenson.  I wonder if Mrs. Stephenson, watching her little boy helping with the priming, could have imagined he would go off to college and come back home a professor.  Could she have imagined him turning the black gum into poetry?  As English Prof at UNC Pembroke, as editor of Pembroke magazine, as author of numerous volumes, and as picker of a mean guitar, Shelby has given the old stories new voice, new breath, new life.

.     .     .     .     .

Tobacco Days

The rows almost ridge themselves, shaping the year again
towards seasons that let the dust of sandlugs
fall into yesterdays lost in failed crops, quick dreams.

*   *   *   *   *

I lay on the warm ground of the Mayo barn at four in the morning
hoping Brother would oversleep.
The flatbed trailer bounded across the ditch,
the Farmall Cub droned.
“Morning, boys.”  I climbed the tierpoles.
Taking the top, I handed down four sticks at a time to Lee to
Paul who packed the trailer.  From my perch I
stirred the sun through airholes uner the eaves.
The barn emptied, we walked through dew to breakfast.
Dreams drifted awkwardly, Brother’s Big Man chew
rolling over in sand-dust.

*   *   *   *   *

The tobacco greens for the farmer who dives into the dirt,
renewed in the smell of warehouses,
golden leaves in the lightholes bringing the legged sunlight in.
Dew in dust, a musk in  mist,
the tobacco tips one more time on the prime,

a sea of blooms
bobbing in ninetyfive degree wisps of heat,
adhesive tape slipping over blisters.

My bare feet burn on the ground and I shuffle
toes into dirt for moisture, inching stalk by stalk
down endless rows in the ten-acre field where short rows
fade into plumbushes and shade.

The mules on the drags relax through the hot, climbing
July days, the frying dust, and you wonder if you’ll ever
get the gum off your hands.

Shelby Stephenson
from Finch’s Mash © 1990 by Shelby Stephenson

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