Shelton named Mississippi Poet of the Year

John Michael Shelton was selected by the Mississippi Poetry Society as Mississippi's Poet of the Year on Friday. Shelton retired from teaching at Starkville Christian School in May and is a full-time writer. (Photo by Sarah Raines, SDN)
Staff Writer

The Mississippi Poetry Society announced recently retired Starkville Christian School English and Spanish teacher John Michael Shelton as Mississippi's Poet of the Year on Friday, granting him the opportunity to have a book of his poems published.


Shelton began writing poetry 34 years ago, while working as produce manager at a grocery store in West Point. 

Through poetry, Shelton was able to earn a degree in English at Mississippi State University in 1994 and moved on to earn his teaching certification.

Shelton's first poem was named "Alone" and it was about his son.

"There was a storm in West Point that night and the lights went out and I lit a hurricane lamp," Shelton said. "He was 8 months old, at the time. I could hear him rustling around and I wrote my first poem. I've written over 5,000 poems, and that's one of two that I can remember completely."

Shelton continued writing poems after that first night. One day, when his son was about 7 years old, Shelton's mother challenged him to either do something with his poetry or stop writing.

Shelton gathered his poetry together and submitted it to MSU for the Eugene Butler Scholarship of Creative Writing — a $4,000 scholarship which would enable him to go through school to get his English degree.

Shelton said waiting to hear who would be the recipient of the scholarship was the most intimidating hour of his life. He was 38 years old waiting to hear if he could go back to school.

"I'll never forget sitting in the hallway waiting for them to call my name," Shelton said. "When they did, it said 'your life's about to change.' I became a poet and a teacher."

English professor Price Caldwell was the chairman of the committee which decided who received the scholarship. Shelton said Caldwell gave him the scholarship if he made a promise to further the love of poetry in others.

"That's when I decided to use my degree to teach, so I could keep that promise," Shelton said.

Shelton said when Caldwell died, he attended the funeral and Caldwell's wife asked him to read a poem he had written about her husband.

"It was one of the most surreal moments I've ever lived," Shelton said. "I got to say thank you to the man that changed my life. Not many people can say that."

Since earning his degree at MSU and his teaching certification, Shelton taught at Northwest Junior High School in Meridian, Hebron Christian School in Clay County and retired from Starkville Christian School in May. He now describes himself as a full-time writer and is the president of the Mississippi Poetry Society.


Every year each of the three branches of the Mississippi Poetry Society nominates a poet for Mississippi's Poet of the Year and the poets nominated submit 25 to 30 poems to be judged.

The society will help pay for the publication of a book of original pieces by the poet of the year. Right now, Shelton is in the process of selecting which poems to publish, considering if he wants art in the publication and deciding on a title.

"I have several things I really love and I'm trying to work on a combination of those things," Shelton said when asked about a title. "I absolutely love the holidays, I love wolves, I love the sea and lighthouses. I haven't come up with the right combination of things I love. And that's all besides being a teacher and a parent."

At first, Shelton said he was astonished when he got the news Friday morning. He didn't make it known right away, but called only a few people to tell his news to. On Saturday, Shelton wrote a post on Facebook announcing he was selected as Mississippi's Poet of the Year and he has already been invited to do two book signings and readings.

"As of this morning I had almost 500 responses to it," Shelton said. "It has been really incredible the well wishes people have seen fit to bestow. I feel like I don't deserve it but they really have been wonderful to me."