Ralph Earle moved to the Chapel Hill area from his native state of Vermont in 1977, to attend graduate school in English at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he had a life-changing experience.

“Once upon a time a fellow grad student made a witty critique of my necktie at the annual English Department Sherry–in those days I looked like Jerry Garcia and wore a necktie one day a year–and at that moment I knew I no longer wanted to be a professor,” Earle says. “It seemed that in spite of the great gift and responsibility of being able to mold young minds, much of the profession was given over to witty critiques of neckties.”

So Earle opened a bookstore in the tobacco-belt county seat of Sanford, N.C., and after its “long, drawn-out bankruptcy” some six years later, he wound up as a freelance writer. He has also since been an officer of the North Carolina Writers Network, and has led the Poetry Workshop at the Carrboro ArtsCenter (at that time the ArtsSchool). He now works at IBM, where he leads a Web marketing team.

“I’ve been writing poems since I was a child, and go through fits and starts when I send them out for publication, then long phases when I don’t,” Earle says. He’s published over 30 poems, in publications like The Sun, Carolina Quarterly and Main Street Rag Poetry Review.

A number of his poems are about flying. “For a while I was on airplanes a couple of times a month,” for business, he says. “On the way out to San Jose or White Plains or wherever, I would be very focused on the tasks ahead, but on the way home the only thing I wanted to do was write poetry. A lot of these poems touch on world-weariness or the paradoxes of the human condition. Mostly, this poem is what I observed in La Guardia one afternoon when I was brain dead–you know, the time when you see a telephone, and you can’t even remember what it’s for, so your mind is free to reframe it in a fresh and mysterious way.”

Many poems entered in the contest explicitly mentioned the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, so contest judge James Applewhite was impressed with how Earle managed to write a “poem of anxiety and mourning for the Twin Towers tragedy (‘the news has tumbled in a stack’)” without ever mentioning them. “This poem expands as if in concentric rings from the airport, to include representative glimpses of the wider contemporary life in its comforting icons (‘little-girl pink’), food and drink consolations (‘salad and Beaujolais’), distractions (‘computers, neon arrows’), and the need for ‘meaningful announcements’ on the part of passengers ‘frightened of going home,’” Applewhite says. “I especially admire this poem’s artful mix of anxiety and mourning, determination and fatalism. It catches the tone of post-9/11 perfectly.”