Call it poetic justice: After sparking controversy with his appointment of a questionably qualified state poet laureate in July, Gov. Pat McCrory announced in a press release today that the eminently qualified Shelby Stephenson will take the post.
As the INDY wrote in July, Gov. McCrory’s abrupt, unilateral selection of state employee Valerie Macon as poet laureate caused an outcry in the state’s literary community—and beyond. Facing national scrutiny and criticism, Macon resigned after less than a week, leaving the post vacant until now.
There were two reasons for the controversy over Macon’s appointment. For one, she lacked the legitimate publication and poetry teaching credentials necessary to represent North Carolina’s literary achievements and serve as an ambassador between the poetry establishment and the people.
Gov. McCrory also drew fire for making an end-run around the North Carolina Arts Council’s informal but established selection process. The governor has the legal right to unilaterally select a poet laureate, but doing so sweeps aside a longstanding practice of considering the recommendation of the Arts Council. Some speculated that Gov. McCrory used the appointment as a strategy to attack “cultural elites.”
In any case, Gov. McCrory appears to have learned from his mistakes, and even strikes a penitent note while praising Stephenson in the press release. “Shelby Stephenson will represent the literary greatness of our state,” McCrory says. “We recognize that we didn’t follow the traditional process during the last selection. However, this time my appointment comes from the strong recommendation of [Department of Cultural Resources] Secretary [Susan] Kluttz and the distinguished members of the selection panel.”
According to the release, members of the panel included accomplished poets, teachers and publishers such as Davidson College’s Tony Abbot, UNC-Chapel Hill’s Randall Kenan and Winston-Salem poetry publisher Kevin Morgan Watson. At the time of this writing, representatives of the North Carolina Arts Council could not be reached for comment on their involvement.
Stephenson, a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate, is a resident of Benson, where he grew up on a farm. He has a long, distinguished career in the service of poetry. An English professor and literary journal editor at UNC-Pembroke until his retirement in 2010, he won a North Carolina Award for literature in 2001, among many other literary garlands. His numerous collections of poetry include The Hunger of Freedom, Play My Music Anyhow and Fiddledeedee.
According to the release, Stephenson wishes to focus his tenure as poet laureate on running writing workshops in retirement communities, drawing attention to local archives and family histories, and promoting writing about agriculture in North Carolina.
Stephenson will be installed in the post in a public ceremony at the State Capitol in February.