Richard Shelton was born in Boise, Idaho, in 1933. 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, thus concluding his studies with a master’s degree.
Shelton is the author of a dozen books of poetry and creative nonfiction, including Nobody Rich or Famous (University of Arizona Press, 2016), about his childhood in rural Idaho; Crossing the Yard: Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteer (University of Arizona Press, 2007), about his tutoring inmates in a weekly writing workshop; The Last Person to Hear Your Voice (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007); Going Back to Bisbee (University of Arizona Press, 1992), a memoir about the Southwest; Selected Poems, 1969–1981 (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982); and The Bus to Veracruz (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1978), which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in Poetry and the National Book Award in Poetry. His poetry and essays have been translated into Spanish, French, Swedish, Polish, and Japanese.
Shelton received numerous grants and awards during his career, including a Completion Grant from the Lannan Foundation, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Arizona Literary Treasure Award. In 2006, he received the University of Arizona’s Henry and Phyllis Koffler Prize for outstanding accomplishment in teaching. In the same year, then Arizona governor, Janet Napolitano, declared April 22 “Richard Shelton Day” to recognize Shelton’s literary accomplishments and his service to the both the University of Arizona and its Poetry Center, as well as his mentorship of emerging writers both inside and outside of academia.
While studying for his PhD, Shelton worked as an English teacher at the Lowell School in Bisbee, Arizona, an experience that would later inspire Going Back to Bisbee. After completing his master’s degree, the University of Arizona hired him to teach in its English department, where he remained until his retirement in the 2000s. In the 1970s, he began running the Arizona Prison Writing Project, where he spent every Saturday hosting writing classes. From 1980 to 1982, Shelton was one of the three judges of the Academy of American Poets’ Lamont Poetry Award. He served two terms as president of the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) and was National Honorary Chancellor of the National Federation of State Poetry Societies. Shelton was an emeritus Regents’ Professor of English and was involved with the university’s Poetry Center, for which he served as director, since its founding. He had also formerly served as a director of the University of Arizona’s creative writing program.
Richard Shelton died on November 29, 2022.