RETROSPECTIVE: Shelby Stephenson retires and Pembroke Magazine gets a new editor


UNC Pembroke’s literary journal Pembroke Magazine No. 42 was published in early March 2011. It is Shelby Stephenson’s 30th and last as editor of the venerable “little magazine.”

He explained: “I woke up one Wednesday morning in June and decided it was time.” The magazine was at the printer, and it was time to stay closer to the Johnston County home where he was born.

Stephenson’s retirement gives pause to consider Pembroke Magazine. With a remarkable beginning, its survival was a singular act of inspiration and devotion. New editor Jennifer Key is prepared to continue its legacy.

Stephenson inherited the editorship from renowned poet Norman MacLeod and turned the journal into one of the most celebrated publishers of North Carolina writers. While winning a dedicated following, near and far, the magazine continued to reflect the spirit of its home in Pembroke.

Key, a new faculty member of the English and Theatre Department, was named interim editor. Like her predecessors, she is a poet, and like them, she is smitten with literary journals and their place in the world of letters. Key’s knowledge of academic journals is thorough, and she brings considerable enthusiasm to the project.

“The little magazine is the life blood of creative writers and essayists in America,” she said. “Pembroke Magazine is a gem for North Carolina; it’s one of the state’s treasures. Shelby published some of the best contemporary writers in the state.

“Shelby has an enviable relationship with North Carolina’s writers. He has been marvelously generous, and they trust him completely. Everywhere I go, I meet his friends,” she continued.

To understand where the new editor will take the magazine requires a look into its past, and Key is keenly aware of its history. Norman MacLeod, a poet with a national reputation, was recruited to the university in 1969 to start Pembroke Magazine and to elevate the University’s intellectual profile.


“Norman MacLeod was quite a character,” Key said. “He was a Westerner and a fascinating literary figure. He was quite famous and one of the most published poets of the 1930s. He was friends with all the famous writers - William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Langston Hughes, Upton Sinclair, D.H. Lawrence - all of them.

“MacLeod came here at the end of his career to start the journal,” Key said. “In fact, Pembroke Magazine is the only one of the many journals he founded that is still standing.”

Pembroke Magazine No. 1 was 48 pages. Subsequent editions published collections of writing and tributes to Southern authors. There was a lot of MacLeod’s work in the journal. He retired in 1978, and No. 12 was dedicated to him.

After a year with an interim editor, a faculty committee handed Stephenson the editorship in 1979. Dr. Raymond Rundus, who was department chair at the time, said it was a perfect match.

“Shelby has left an immeasurable - and perhaps unmatchable - legacy to what is now The University of North Carolina at Pembroke,” Dr. Rundus said. “Among the greatest strengths that Shelby brought to the department was his interests in the ‘little magazine,’ both as a reader and as a frequent contributor. 

“He brought a struggling Pembroke Magazine, with limited circulation and readership, by the year 2000 and by “Number 32” it was a nationally known  and internationally recognized annual of 450 pages, five pages alone devoted to ‘Notes on Contributors.’ Shelby also brought brightness and a propensity for lively discourse to his colleagues and to the university.  He brought to us perhaps the most respected, easily the most authentic, personality to our department.”

“Daunting” is how Key described replacing a legend. She also recognizes that the aspects of the magazine that were important to its past are still important. And, the new editor is Southern.

“Growing up in southwest Virginia, parts of North Carolina felt very much like home, and I’ve long read and admired North Carolina writers” Key said. “I want Pembroke Magazine to reflect this university and this region while retaining a broad appeal. Number 43, which is in production, will be a lot like Number 42, drawing from a selection of strong submissions and authors we solicited. At its best, this magazine should connect to the region and serve this community.”

The new editor would relate the publication to the rural roots of the University, its “people, culture, landscape and its economic realities too,” Key said. “I hope it will connect to Robeson County because this county is Pembroke Magazine’s home.”


Besides producing a journal every year that was full of great writing, Key said Stephenson broke new ground for academic journals. “As its editor, the special issues are Shelby’s great contribution to North Carolina letters.  These were outstanding issues. Not only did Shelby publish editions that highlighted specific North Carolina writers, he also edited issues that featured African American, Native American, and Hispanic or Latino(a) writers,” Key continued.

magazine coverStephenson’s other important legacy is publishing early work of some of the next generation of great Tar Heel authors. Clyde Edgerton, author of “Raney”and numerous other novels, penned this note about him for UNCP Today:

“When I wrote my first short story in the late 70s (that's 1970s), I knew two writers - a distant cousin who lived in California and Shelby Stephenson, recent (at that time) editor of The Lyricist at Campbell University,” Edgerton said. “I asked Shelby to read the story. He said okay. I was nervous, worried about what he would say. He came back to me - enthusiastic; and he encouraged me to send it out and write another story. This initial encouragement was a tremendous boost, and he’s given such a boost to writer after writer after writer.  Besides all that, he writes poems that skin raccoons, sweeten the pot-likker, shine through the window, and sing like a gold and silver bird. I'm lucky to know the boy.”

Among the successful authors who were celebrated in special editions were Robeson County native Jill McCorkle, Tim McLaurin, Lee Smith and Robert Morgan. Morgan, who is author of ‘Gap Creek,” “Boone” and other works of fiction and poetry, offered this tribute:

“Shelby Stephenson is a North Carolina treasure,” Morgan said. “His poems are music, and his singing is poetry. No one else evokes the rural world as memorably. Pembroke Magazine has been an inspiration, a home, and a place of delight for all of us over the years. It is hard to think of a literary journal with more satisfying surprises, more diversity, more generosity toward writers and readers alike. Its single-author features of essays and tributes have been a wonderful boost for many writers, including myself.” 

New Editor Jennifer Key sees her mission clearly. “The magazine itself is over 40 years old, and so I feel very honored to be the third editor it has ever had. My goal as the steward of this North Carolina institution is to carry on its tradition – and especially is attention to literature of North Carolina.  You want to continue the great work the magazine has done in representing some really fine writers both local and national, including Jill McCorkle, whose work belongs to both categories. “


A giant oak stands in the yard behind Shelby’s house near Benson. He was born under that tree in the historic family home that he has renovated and relocated behind the newer house.

Outbuildings and the original outhouse are nearby. The old well’s pulley is hanging off the porch. Shelby explained that a chain was attached to a bucket to draw water from the well, which was not far from the hog lot. The weathered wooden house has three rooms and many memories for the poet.

“I was writing on the porch this morning,” Shelby said. “Restoring this house is the best thing I ever did. This is the past, and this is where ‘July’ came from,” he said referring to his 2008 book-length poem Family Matters: Homage to July, the Slave Girl.

Linda and Shelby are in good health and good spirits. He is writing every day and recently bought a truck to haul musical instruments to their performances. He is working on a second chapbook of poetry about possums, an animal he identifies with. “They are survivors,” Shelby says. “I didn’t grow up with books; we grew up with possums.”

As he talks, his passion for Pembroke Magazine is evident. “It’s a cliché, but it is a labor of love,” he says. Stories still circulate of Shelby carrying manuscripts in A&P shopping bags. Linda confirmed the story. “He carried it everywhere, even to the doctor’s office. It was always personal.”

“I backed into all this,” Shelby said of the magazine. “I really enjoyed it. We had no staff except Tina (Emanuel), and it just got bigger and bigger. I still have feeling for all those poets. They believe that they will be published. They have good stories, worth telling.”

Like Jennifer Key, Shelby’s love of academic journals began early. “I had fallen in love with little magazines in Wisconsin. There were all these writers who got published in them. That’s when I first read Pembroke Magazine.” He also confessed to being homesick for North Carolina.

He had sent an essay to MacLeod for the Paul Green edition (Number 10). Guy Owen asked him to contribute a piece to Number 11, which was the Erskine Caldwell edition. From Wisconsin, he sent a poem, which MacLeod published.

In Pembroke, Shelby helped distribute Number 12, the Norman MacLeod edition. “I corresponded with MacLeod but never met him. Looking back, it’s like a dream,” he said. “These little magazines are worth doing, and Norman did it.”

MacLeod founded Pembroke Magazine, and Stephenson breathed new life and energy into it. As the journal grew in volume and influence, Shelby’s own poetry and music gained an audience. He and Linda produced CDs of Hank Williams as well as their own music. His poetry was published in several collections and feature-length chapbooks. He won the Bellday Poetry Prize for “July.None of his poetry appeared in Pembroke Magazine.

Shelby’s personality was magic and magnetic. His style of teaching and playing music are like his editorial style. Long-time UNCP colleague Chet Jordan distilled it in a few words: “He didn’t teach writing; he inspired it.”

From his porch in Johnston County, Shelby is cheering the magazine on. He has met the new editor and read her work.  “Jennifer is really, really a fine poet. I know she’s going to do good things. I wish her the best.”

It was “all personal” - the restored homeplace, the poetry and Pembroke Magazine.