In Memoriam: Richard Shelton

December 19th, 2022

Richard Shelton, a longtime University of Arizona professor and renowned writer known as the poet laureate of the Sonoran Desert, passed away Nov. 29. He was 89.


An emeritus Regents Professor of Creative Writing, Shelton wrote a 11 books of poetry and creative nonfiction, and his poems and essays have appeared in more than 200 magazines and literary journals, including The New Yorker, Poetry, Harper’s, The Atlantic, and the Paris Review. A memorial is being planned for the spring, at the University of Arizona Poetry Center.


In addition to his own writing and work for the university, Shelton established in 1974, under the auspices of the Arizona Commission on the Arts, a Creative Writer’s Workshop at the Arizona State Prison. Gov. 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.


Shelton was one of the founders of the UArizona MFA Program in Creative Writing, which launched in 1972, said Director Kate Bernheimer.


           “I am told that whenever anyone asked for details around that, he would laugh, and in his typical humble fashion say, ‘We just thought we were offering some classes!’


“He is remembered with enormous respect and affection by all who have shared stories about him in recent days. Richard Shelton was instrumental to the Department of English and the Poetry Center, and to establishing creative nonfiction as an essential genre in this MFA Program and in the field. He was passionate about the ethical contributions to society and the planet that can be made through literary work


“Richard Shelton kindly leaves readers hungry for art and meaning many books of poetry and creative nonfiction to relish. His writing is accessible, truthful, and new. 1971’s “Requiem for Sonora” (a poem first published by The New Yorker – which, over the years, featured many of his poems), demonstrates superbly his ecologically emotional style. The MFA Program sends our heartfelt condolences to Richard Shelton’s friends and family.”


The University of Arizona Press published several of Shelton’s books, including his first book of creative nonfiction, Going Back to Bisbee, which won the Western States Book Award in 1992 and was honored as a “One Book Arizona.” Director Kathryn Conrad posted a memorial to the University of Arizona Press website:


“Richard Shelton brought 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.


“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. As one of his students, facing relocation to another prison, wrote to him, ‘I am not afraid, dear Richard. I am singing.’


“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.


“Richard Shelton’s legacy will be detailed by many—and it will take many to document his transformative contributions to the University of Arizona, to literature, and to so many lives. When we remember Dick, however, we will remember him through these books, books that let us know him and that touched us all.”


Shelton was a fixture (and sometimes interim director) of the University of Arizona Poetry Center since its inception, and helped shape the Center over the decades, said Executive Director Tyler Meier.


“If there is to be some sort of definition for a literary citizen, then it has to be Richard Shelton. When you take stock, it bewilders the mind. Thousands of students—both at the university and in the prison system—count him as a mentor and guiding influence, and their many successes are a testament to his legacy as a teacher and lover of words.


“With his wife Lois, the longest-tenured director in Poetry Center history, they invited and hosted many of the more than 1,000 poets and writers who have traveled Tucson to give readings, experience the desert, and taste the foods that help define this place. In so doing, the Sheltons managed to further establish Tucson and Southern Arizona as a hub of international letters that continues to distinguish the city’s reputation to this day. In later years, Shelton served on the development committee of the Center, helping to secure resources for the Center’s current home, the Helen S. Schaefer building, and raising essential funds for programmatic and operating costs. 


“Very few can rival the sense of place that so imbued his poems and prose, and which became one of his great and enduring subjects. An avid environmentalist, he treated the Sonoran Desert with fear, awe and reverence, aware always of its great power and fragility.”  


Meier said Shelton delighted in telling stories, and loved laughter. Shelton published “Whatever Became Of Me,” in his 1975 book You Can’t Have Everything; in a reading he gave at the Poetry Center in 1978, he joked about the origin of the title. Calling it an autobiographical poem, Shelton recounted receiving a form letter from someone in his high-school graduating class alerting him to an upcoming class reunion, that began “Dear Richard Shelton, whatever became of you?” Arrested by the breezy tone of a classmate he couldn’t quite remember, he decided to write the poem to find out what had become of him. The poem ends this way:


I am what has become of me

A man who lives in the desert


where coyotes wail more skillfully

than hired mourners

at the funeral of an Eastern king


where every night the stars

whose light I have not earned

and will never deserve

return as if to keep a promise


and even the rain

when it falls is coming home