Kim Church, a recipient of the 2015 NC Arts Council Fellowship, read from her novel Byrd.
by Daniel Wirtheim
It was a Friday night. Energy from A&T’s Homecoming stirred on Elm Street while North Carolina Poet Laureate Shelby Stephenson introduced the 2015 NC Arts Council Fellowship Recipients inside Scuppernong Books.
In the back of the store, nestled in an enclave between a table topped with slices of pie and a pair of couches, David Potorti, director of literature and theater at the state Arts Council, was giving his opening remarks to a room of roughly 25.
The recipients were a group of seven — four fiction writers, two screenwriters and a poet — who will receive a $10,000 grant to further their craft. All of the recipients have agreed to stay in North Carolina for their year as a fellow.
Potorti introduced the fellows with short bios, most of them about living as educators and freshly published writers. Then he introduced Stephenson, the North Carolina poet laureate.
Stephenson’s face is a landscape unto itself. When he takes a moment to choose his words — which he does often — his wrinkles drift into the sides of his face. He moves and speaks slowly. A self-proclaimed farmboy who studied law at UNC- Chapel Hill, Stephenson came into the position in the midst of controversy.
Stephenson was chosen only after the first 2014 Poet Laureate Valerie Macon resigned. Gov. Pat McCrory had originally selected Macon without consultation from the Arts Council. She was a state employee with a thin publishing résumé who was quickly swimming in accusations of being a McCrory-insider and stepped down. Stephenson was a more deliberate pick.
His poems are a lifetime of reflections on growing up in a rural farming family in Benson. Baseball gloves, God and fields are just some of the themes from the poem that he read before allowing the fellows to take their turn.
One of the fellows, Kim Church, like Stephenson, studied law. She read a passage from her first novel Byrd, about a North Carolina woman who moves to California with her boyfriend, gets pregnant and returns to her hometown where she puts her child up for adoption. Byrd has been a moderate success, at least enough to make Church an artist fellow. Her work, like Stephenson’s is dedicated to Southern imagery, drawing long country landscapes and the isolation of characters within them. Her words are lyrical as she describes a scene between the protagonist and her lover, a California musician.
The Arts Council does not select fellows but they do offer criteria that a panel of professionals must adhere to when making the decision. The applicant cannot be enrolled in an academic or degree-granting program and has to submit a list of items the writer may use the grant money for.
The money cannot be used for academic research but can be used to set aside time for work. The Arts Council claims that this is the way to promote culturally significant works in and about North Carolina.
Julie Funderburk is an assistant professor and arts director at Queens University of Charlotte and the only poet at the fellowship recipient reading. She received an MFA from UNCG’s creative writing program. Unicorn Press, a small-press based in Greensboro, published her book of poems Thoughts to Fold into Birds in 2014.
“In the bedroom where your parents slept, the hardwood’s scorched,” she read from her poem, “Slated for Demolition.” “There’s a view through to the sky — this is what happens. At the bay window, the demo permit hangs where sheer curtains used to blow their ghosts.”
Funderburk’s message seemed as elusive as a few of the listeners who had crept back to the bar for another drink. Groups of passersby were speaking loudly enough to one another to be overheard clearly inside. And all the while Stephenson sat, his face a landscape not of a city caught in the midst of one of the nation’s largest homecomings but a long narrow stretch of dirt road.