Shelby Stephenson’s newest book, “Play My Music Anyhow,” is poetry worth remembering.
Published in January by Finishing Line Press, Stephenson said “Play My Music Anyhow” is a diverse collection of poems that were previously published in many literary journals over the years.
“If I had not tried to publish them again, I might have lost them. I just wanted them to keep going,” Stephenson said. “They are different in tone, and then there are the last two which come directly out of the mouths of two men I heard talk.”
In an interview in early February, he said the new book is not a “best of” Shelby Stephenson. “No, it is not the best until I see the rest, and the rest is not written yet,” he said.
Stephenson, who writes from his home in Johnston County, retired from UNCP’s Department of English and Theatre, where he taught for more than 30 years. He also edited the university’s literary journal Pembroke Magazine, where he published work by outstanding writers of North Carolina and beyond.
“Linda and I are well; we played at the ‘Q’ last night,” he said, referring to his family’s barbecue restaurant, Stephenson’s BBQ, in McGee’s Crossroads.
Besides numerous books of poetry, Stephenson has made several recordings of bluegrass and country music; hence, the book’s title “Play My Music Anyhow,” which is derived from the classic song “Momma Don’t Allow (no music playing ‘round here).”
“That song was everywhere when I was growing up,” Stephenson said. “One does not have to go far to find a story.”
Indeed, Stephenson draws from memories of growing up in rural North Carolina. His latest small book contains remembrances of hog killings (“The Vat” and “Just Shot Hogs”) and working in the fields with his mother (“The Soda Sower”). Stephenson called it a collection of works that make him feel good.
“I have learned over the years that I feel better if I have something that once had a life of its own—a memory, a house, a barn, a dog, tobacco and so on, specific things,” he said. “And I go from there, wondering if I have anything really to say.”
The book cover has a story too. The art was created by Stephenson’s son, Jacob.
“Jacob likes to draw, always has,” he said. “And a few months ago I told him I wanted something for the cover, and he sketched somebody who might look like me holding an F-hole guitar and someone like my brother, Marshall, who played banjo when we were growing up.”
When asked if he had favorites in “Play My Music Anyhow,” Stephenson cited several poems.
“I love ‘The Orchard Boy,’” Stephenson said. “The details in the poem are actual and real, all of them. Right down to the hogs at the end.
“I like ‘The Wind in the Woes,’” he continued. “‘The Soda Sower’ is for my mother. I waited on her, a bucket of soda between my knees. And she strowed the soda—‘sody’—in the corn middles. She was something else. All mothers are!”
Stephenson writes every day, often in the family home place that he restored. When the weather is fair, he can be found on the porch with a laptop.
“I have a book, full-length, coming out later this year, I hope, called “Maytle's World,’” he said. “My mother was Maytle Samantha Johnson Stephenson. Evening Street Press in Ohio will bring it out.”