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Shelby Stephenson’s ‘Playing Dead’ published in late 2011

February 3, 2012

“Playing Dead,” Shelby Stephenson’s ode to the underappreciated possum, was published in late 2011 by Finishing Line Press.

12shelby__stephenson_1.jpg“Playing Dead” is a sequel to “Possum,” his 2004 work. “Playing Dead” is 25 poems and 25 pages, including Possum’s recipe for “Hunters and Taters.” Stephenson’s Possum or “PD” is a much-harried sage of the modern age.

“Shelby Stephenson must have been a possum in another life,” poet and essayist Janet Lembke wrote for the back cover. In this life, Stephenson is an award-winning poet and former editor of Pembroke Magazine, UNC Pembroke’s long-standing literary magazine. Stephenson retired in June 2010 and continues to write daily and play music from the back porch of his historic family home near Benson, N.C.

In an interview from his home, Stephenson talked about possums, an animal he identifies with. “A possum is as much a part of our culture as a mockingbird,” Stephenson said. “Nobody admits to eating possum any more. That world is gone. Poor possum, here come the cars and cats,” he said. “Possum will survive.”

13shelby_stephenson_2.jpgFor all its wry humor, “Playing Dead” is dead serious.  As one of the oldest North American mammals and only marsupial, the possum is an adaptable survivor in the modern world, and playing dead is one of its many strategies.

Possum, like Stephenson, is bothered by too much blacktop and too many people, but surviving modernity as a sly witness.

Poets also seem to be relics of a past age, Stephenson says, lamenting the lack of newspaper reviews of poetry. Stephen Smith, a friend and fellow writer, offered his thoughts in a recent review for The Pilot newspaper of Southern Pines.

“If you’re a lover of poetry, you’ll want to read ‘Playing Dead,’” Smith wrote. “Shelby has spent his adult life writing the truth, and his work has never been better, in my opinion, than in ‘Playing Dead.’ He’s propelled by music, image and memory that never masquerade or fall prey to clever obfuscation. He’s the purest poet I know.”

North Carolina author and poet Robert Morgan added praise for Stephenson. “In ‘Playing Dead,’ Shelby launches out in some new directions, using the persona of PD to comment in dialogues, lyrics, rap rhymes and soliloquies on our rapidly changing times.”

Stephenson, who won a Bellday Prize and the Oscar Arnold Young Award for his 2009 book-length poem, “Family Matters: Homage to July, the Slave Girl,” said his latest small book of poetry did not win a prize, but the judges and publisher liked it enough to publish it.

Unlike some of his former publishers, Stephenson said he is not personally acquainted with Finishing Line Press of Georgetown, Ky. The story behind the cover art is a familiar one, however.

“My son Jacob did it in high school,” he said. “He always loved to draw animals. I held the flashlight while he held the pencil and paper.”

14shelby__stephenson_3.jpgStephenson’s writing is branching out again with his next work. He isn’t sure where this part-memoir, part-epic poem is going yet. “I don’t know,” he pondered. “It’s about growing up playing music and wondering why I didn’t go to Nashville.

“I just wanted to write it to salute the old church hymns and hillbilly music, they call it—that back porch music that keeps me going,” he said.

Stephenson has been working on the manuscript for a year. He has sent out pages for review and is threatening a rewrite into prose, which would be a first for the poet. Whatever form, his loyal readers will be familiar with it as a singular act of art and inspiration.

Here are two selections from “Playing Dead:”


PD Algonquian
Washed his face in a frying pan
Combed his fuzz with a tractor wheel
Died with a toothache in his heel.

Go on home O White Beast
It’s getting late to greet Miz Possum

Playing Dead went to town
Riding a billygoat, leading a hound
The hound’s ears drooped and billygoat jumped
Throwed PD on a stump

Go on home O White Beast
It’s getting late to greet Miz Possum

Belly to belly and sash to sash
How land can PD last
Female possums spit and grin
While males chew persimmon tree limbs

Back up and push you Old Sly Possum
You’re just in time to smooch Miz Possum


            Hunters & Taters


1 hunter’s boot
8 white sweet potatoes
2 tablespoons persimmon wine


Catch a hunter snoozing.
Gnaw boot free.
Drag to den and let heat in sun
                        until boot is juicy
enough to slide into a stew.
            Let taters simmer
              with wild herbs potting and peppering a boil.