Fred Stewart, a 47-year-old Durham resident who works as a home health RN, goes to the small town of Titusville, Fla., several times a year to visit his parents. While there he hikes around the marshes and beaches of the nearby Merrit Island National Wildlife Refuge. His poem, "Route One, Central Florida, December 2, 2001," was inspired during a trip to the refuge, when it turned out to be closed due to increased security at the adjacent Kennedy Space Center, following Sept. 11.
"I had a written guide to other wildlife viewing areas off of Route One and on the St. John's River, so I drove along those back roads," Stewart says. "Some of the most beautiful areas along the river were covered with litter left there by fishermen. As I drove along these routes I would stop and write pieces of what became this poem, describing what I was seeing. It was in part a letter to my good friend John Brennan, whose birthday was on that day, Dec. 2. I have tried writing poetry and some short stories on an irregular basis for years, and John has been very encouraging."
Contest judge James Applewhite said he was impressed by this poem's unpretentious language, which is "as bleak and vital as the landscape it represents."
"The mix of politics and religion vectors into the right-wing patriotism of the flag on the 'mullet-headed redneck's truck,'" Applewhite says. "We believe that, in this place, such folk are indeed 'secretly jealous' of the Taliban's supression of women. The poem unites the foreign and domestic politics of misogyny in a landscape holding also the abuse of natural creatures and recording, in new terms, part of the rural South's politcal-religious reinforcement of ignorance and anger. This poem has the impact of documentary photography, but is more able to imply convergences of natural objects, human inhabitants, attitudes and history."
Despite winning a contest with this poem, Fred Stewart expresses one regret. "I feel sorta bad using the word 'redneck' in this poem; it makes me look narrow-minded and prejudiced," he says. "But I always say terrible things when I'm being tailgated."