"I grew up with possums," Shelby Stephenson said of the title and the hero of his latest book of poetry. "We hunted possum, and we ate possum."
"Possum," a chapbook or little book by the UNC Pembroke English professor, was published in August by Bright Hill Press of Treadwell, N.Y. It is a poetic ode to the lowly critter.
"There is a little possum in all of us, and I've fallen in love with them," Dr. Stephenson said. "They are astonishing and adorable things, I've found."
There are no possum jokes in Dr. Stephenson's tribute to North America's only marsupial.
"This is a serious possum," he said. "I did not want any jokes at poor possum's expense."
As North Carolina's Poet Laureate Fred Chappell wrote of "Possum," "At every turn, possum the animal and 'Possum' the chapbook invite allegorical, symbolic and emblematic readings that the critter and the poems evade."
Besides its quirky physical attributes and unusual survival instincts, Dr. Stephenson said the possum is a survivor and a living witness to the rise of mankind, suburbs and all.
"The possum has seen it all," he said. "I was born in a plank house on a dirt road, and we were more involved with animals. That world is gone."
Dr. Stephenson wrote "Possum" over a period of "a year or two," he said. The series of poems represents a complete story.
"I wrote this all at one time," he said. "It is a complete story with a beginning and an end."
The poems were submitted to the annual Bright Hill Chapbook Poetry Contest and won first prize that included publication of the little book.
"Bright Hill is a wonderful little success story, and they did a great job with the book," Dr. Stephenson said.
Several of Dr. Stephenson's chapbooks of poetry are in print, including "Fiddledeedee," "Middle Creek Poems," "Carolina Shout," "The Persimmon Tree Carol," "Finch's Mash" and Poor People."
On UNCP's faculty since 1979, Dr. Stephenson has edited the literary journal Pembroke Magazine for 25 years. He is also a recipient of the UNC Board of Governor's Award for Teaching Excellence.
"Possum" may be purchased online at www.brighthillpress.org.