Richard Shelton, January 7, 1970. Photo by LaVerne Harrell Clark.
Richard W. Shelton (1933 - 2022) was an Arizonan writer, poet, Regents Professor emeritus of English at the University of Arizona, and the renowned author of Going Back to Bisbee. He is considered by some to be the "poet laureate of the Sonoran Desert." Shelton was born in Boise, Idaho on June 24, 1933, and died at home in Tucson, Arizona on November 29, 2022, at the age of 89.
Shelton was raised in poverty and took solace in reading. He attended Harding College in Arkansas before transferring to Abilene Christian College in Texas, where he earned a BA in English. Shelton next joined the U.S. Army and was stationed at Fort Huachuca, but was discharged from service in 1958. He went on to study for a PhD in English at the University of Arizona in Tucson. He never completed his dissertation on Elizabethan literature and therefore finished with a master’s degree.
During his graduate studies, Shelton worked as an English teacher at the Lowell School in Bisbee, Arizona, an experience that would later inspire his book, Going Back to Bisbee. After completing his degree in 1960, the University of Arizona hired him to teach in its English department, where he remained until his retirement in the 2000s and became a Regents Professor emeritus. Shelton was one of the founders of the university's Masters of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing, which was launched in 1972. He served as Director of the Creative Writing Program, Director of the University of Arizona Poetry Center, a Faculty Fellow, and a Flinn Scholar mentor. In his lifetime, he published twenty books of poetry and nonfiction.
In 1974, Shelton established, under the auspices of the Arizona Commission on the Arts, a Creative Writer’s Workshop at the Arizona State Prison. In 2016, the program expanded to also include maximum security federal prisons. Many books of poetry and prose by the men in these workshops have been published, including the anthology Do Not Go Gentle. Since 1991, these workshops have been supported by grants from the Lannan Foundation. Past and present members of the workshop continue to publish poetry and prose in dozens of journals and have also published books with, most recently, Mercury House, the University of Arkansas Press, and the University of Arizona Press. Shelton wrote of this experience in Crossing the Yard: Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteer.
As part of the prison writing program, Shelton also founded the critically acclaimed Rain Shadow Review, a free literary journal showcasing the creative talents of current and former inmates of Arizona State prisons and throughout the United States. The prison writing workshops and the Rain Shadow Review continue to this day.
From 1980 to 1982, he was one of the three judges of the Lamont Poetry Award of the Academy of American Poets. Shelton served two terms as president of the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) and was National Honorary Chancellor of the National Federation of State Poetry Societies. In 1991, he and his wife, Lois Shelton, were joint recipients of the Governor’s Award for support of the arts in Arizona. In 2000, Shelton received a $100,000 Completion Grant from the Lannan Foundation. In 2006, he received the University of Arizona's Henry and Phyllis Koffler Prize for outstanding accomplishment in teaching, and, with his wife Lois, the Arizona Book Festival's inaugural Arizona Literary Treasure Award.
Governor Janet Napolitano proclaimed April 22, 2006, "Richard Shelton Day" to recognize his accomplishments as a writer, his service to the Poetry Center and the University, and his mentorship of fledgling writers both inside and outside the University.
In The Saturday Review, critic Alastair Reid said that Shelton's poetry "...stands out in its stark, understated ironies. Shelton is a poet of the Southwest and his language is as dry and bony as his desert landscape...the sharp economy of his line, his beautiful equilibrium of manner and matter, already make him an important poet."
His first book, The Tattooed Desert, won the International Poetry Forum's United States Award in 1970. His fourth book, The Bus to Veracruz, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. He has received two National Endowment for the Arts Writer’s Fellowships (one in poetry and one in nonfiction) and three Borestone Mountain Awards, including First Award in Borestone Mountain’s Best Poems of 1971. In all, Shelton has published sixteen books or chapbooks of poetry, and his poems and essays have appeared in more than 200 magazines and literary journals (including The New Yorker, Poetry, Harper’s, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, Kayak, The American Poetry Review, and The Antioch Review), and have been translated into Spanish, French, Swedish, Polish and Japanese. National Public Radio and the British Broadcasting Corporation have featured his work, and Shelton has read at colleges and universities throughout the country. American composers have set many of his poems to music.
Shelton's first book of creative nonfiction, Going Back to Bisbee, won the Western States Book Award in 1992 and was honored as a "One Book Arizona." The book has sold nearly 50,000 copies and is in its 12th printing at the University of Arizona Press.
The University of Arizona Special Collections Library contains original writings and other artifacts and mementos of Shelton's life and achievements. His legacy is one of generosity and lasting impact.
In a 2016 review of Shelton's memoir Nobody Rich or Famous, Tucson musician and poet Billy Sedlmayr wrote, "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."
Photo courtesy of the UA Poetry Center.
In Memoriam: Richard Shelton | Eric Swedlund, College of Humanities
Acclaimed Arizona author & poet Richard Shelton dies at 89 | TucsonSentinel.com
Acclaimed Arizona Author and Poet dies at 89 | AZPM.org
The Big Yard: November 30, 2022 | Ken Lamberton