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Acclaimed Arizona author & poet Richard Shelton dies at 89


Acclaimed Arizona author & poet Richard Shelton dies at 89

'If I stay here long enough, I will learn the art of silence'

  • Richard Shelton
    University of Arizona Poetry CenterRichard Shelton

Richard Shelton, a famed author and poet who helped further Tucson's burgeoning literary scene and spent decades teaching Arizona prisoners how to express themselves through writing, died last week at the age of 89.

Shelton wrote 11 books, including his seminal work "Going Back to Bisbee," which earned Shelton national recognition. Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano proclaimed April 22, 2006 as Richard Shelton Day to recognize his accomplishments as a writer, his work with the University of Arizona's Poetry Center, and his efforts with "the countless fledgling writers he mentored both inside and outside the university."

Shelton began working at the UA in 1960, founded an influential writing workshop for incarcerated people in 1974, and later was awarded the title of UA regents' professor.

Shelton grew up poor after he was born in Boise, Idaho, in 1933 and used reading as way to escape gnawing poverty. In 1951, he attended Harding College in Arkansas, and two years later, he transferred to Abilene Christian College in Texas where he began dating Lois Bruce, a classically trained vocalist. Shelton earned a bachelor’s degree in English, and married Lois in 1956.

Shelton later joined the U.S. Army, which sent him to Ft. Huachuca in Sierra Vista where he served until 1958. During this time, he and Lois had a son Brad. After his service, Shelton relocated to Bisbee, and began teaching English at the Lowell School until 1960.

That same year, Shelton become involved with the University of Arizona's Poetry Center. Founded by the poet Ruth Walgreen Stephan in 1960, the center began at a home near the university and once hosted the poet Robert Frost. For the next four decades, Shelton, along with wife Lois and others, helped expand the Poetry Center's collections and shepherd the institution through multiple moves, first to a UA bungalow on Cherry Avenue and later to a new 17,000-square foot building on East Helen Street named for Helen S. Schaefer.

Shelton helped raise $5 million to build the new Poetry Center, making the UA and Tucson part of the creative writing scene in the Southwest, and for this, the Poetry Center has a line from Shelton's poem "Desert" immortalized on a stone wall.

"If I stay here long enough, I will learn the art of silence," wrote Shelton.

Lois served as the long-term director of the Poetry Center, and died in June 2015 at the age of 82. 

'A true trailblazer'

In 1970, Shelton receiver a letter from a serial killer, who requested feedback on his poetry. The exchange inspired Shelton to begin teaching creative writing workshops for prisoners, which expanded from a single workshop in the Arizona state prison to four, including a workshop for inmates in maximum security in federal prison backed by support from the University of Arizona Poetry Center and the Lannan Foundation, according to Shelton's website. That effort sparked a literary journal titled Rain Shadow Review, an annual publication featuring the work of current and former inmates.

Shelton also solved one unique problem of prison life. Most inmates are not allowed typewriters or computers, so his wife Lois "devoted over thirty-five years to typing and copy-editing the handwritten work of men in several Arizona State Prisons, for their workshops and for submission to publications," according to Shelton's website. "For most of the men in the prison writing workshops, seeing their work typed in print for the first time is life-affirming."

Among those who worked on their stories and poems with Shelton was Jimmy Santiago Baca, who earned his own award-winning career, publishing 35 books of creative non-fiction and poetry. 

Baca called Shelton a "true trailblazer" for his work in the Arizona prison system.

"Richard was the single most formative force that created what we see today—namely, all these prison writing programs and books and projects, they can all be traced back to his conviction and commitment," wrote Baca. "Back in `71, 72, 73, he already had a battery of poets and writers meeting at Florence Maximum Security prison, he was fundamental in raising awareness as we see it today—one of the few who truly started the prison writing renaissance. Many, many adherents followed in his tracks."

In a Facebook post, published a few days before Shelton's death, Tucson musician and poet Billy Sedlmayr called Shelton a "great man who helped countless people to find a way to write, incarcerated men and all those who had classes with him."

Sedlmayr wrote about Shelton in a 2016 review of Shelton's memoir "Nobody Rich or Famous," describing meeting the author in 1989 while serving a prion sentence at the Wilmot prison complex.

"He never forgot where he was, a dangerous place with rifle towers, concertina wire where mistakes were separated and strength was the currency," Sedlmayr wrote in 2016. "Richard did something more than make tools of writing available to groups of flawed men. I think he let us retrieve something true in ourselves that could not be eroded or beaten out of us. The sound and scratch of pen to paper that would stand alone, harbor the individual, and keep some kind of humanity alive in us."

"For me the gift he gave was belief in myself there was something besides the reckoning. Love you Richard," Sedlmayr wrote this week.

Shelton later wrote a memoir about his experiences called "Crossing the Yard: Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteer."

The University of Arizona Press published several of Shelton's works, and credited the author with bringing Southern Arizona to the world.

"Again and again, we heard stories of how 'Going Back to Bisbee' touched readers near and far, from the person who moved here from across the country, inspired by the book, to the job candidate from Connecticut who went to their local library to see what the press had published and discovered this literary gem. He was a brilliant storyteller," wrote UA Press staff.

"In 'Crossing the Yard,' he chronicled what was perhaps his life’s work—teaching writing in the Arizona state prisons. As publishers, it was incredibly moving to work on this book. It is a testament to the transformative power of writing and our common humanity," they wrote. "Shelton’s exploration of our common humanity continued in his final work of nonfiction, 'Nobody Rich or Famous,' a quietly profound memoir of his upbringing in Boise, Idaho. Evoking both the beauty of the natural world and the sorrows of poverty, it stands alongside the greatest of contemporary memoirs."

Writer David Irwin credited Shelton's work with bringing him to Tucson.

"The college library my freshman year had the prestigious and influential University of Pittsburgh Press Pitt Poetry Series. That's when I discovered Richard Shelton, whose surrealistic desertscapes mirrored complex human interiors," said Irwin. "He was one of the reasons I wanted to live in Arizona."

Irwin said he met Shelton as a volunteer at the Bisbee Poetry Festival in the 1990s, and later lived near the author in Tucson.

"When we moved to Tucson, we turned out to be neighbors with nearly identical phone numbers, so we took messages for each others' mis-dials," Irwin wrote. "The last couple of years I made sure both his autoharps were still in tune, though he barely strummed them anymore," said Irwin. "It was always an honor and and a joy to share space with him and Lois."

"There are no birds. Richard Shelton, the man who reached out to me in a very dark place, is gone," wrote Ken Lamberton. "After many days at his bedside, now I find comfort in his poetry.  Because, in the end, all you become are words."

Correction: A previous version of this obituary incorrectly reported the year Shelton began working at the University of Arizona.

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