The day began with two workshops by John Ottley from Alpharetta and the GA State Poetry Society, former editor of the Midwest Review in Atlanta, and Bob Collins, retired English professor from UAB and editor of the Birmingham Poetry Review.
John had participants try their hand at editing poems that had been submitted and rejected. Editing poetry, I know, is a wonderful way to improve your own writing, but who wants it? That exercise made me happy that I had only my ugly ducklings to deal with and not those of other poets as well.
Bob Collins spoke on the persona poem and the dramatic monologue and gave us examples of those forms. His reading of Browning's "My Last Duchess" took me back to the drama department at the University of Alabama and Dr. Allen Bales when I was a sophomore. At the time I was so "green" it would have made Dylan Thomas's greenness look pink; yet, I needed that little two-hour elective and Oral Interpretation with Dr. Bales seemed just the ticket. Ah, but I hardly even knew the term, and I certainly knew nothing of what to expect. Never mind that I had performed as Gretel in our third gray play and had pantomimed "You Can't Judge a Book by Looking at the Cover" in a junior high talent show.I'd even memorized lines for an older woman part in senior play that was so un-memorable I don't remember what it was. Still, what did I know about oral interpretation?
The small class had assembled before Dr. Bales arrived. He walked in and had a printout of his new class roll. We were in a room with a small stage and a podium. He handed us a copy of "My Last Duchess." Then he ran his finger down the list of students. "Number 15," he said. "Miss Smith. Mary K. Smith." Yes, my first name is Mary and my maiden name was Smith.
I just about fainted with fear at that point. I had no idea what he was about to ask of me. He instructed me to go up on the stage and read the poem. Well, no problem, I thought. I can read the poem if my wobbly legs will take me up there. I had read the poem before. And that's what I did again, if a little shaky. It was a fair reading, but it was simply that, an oral reading.
When I sat down, Dr. Bales ran his finger down the roll again. This time the boy approached the podium with what seemed to be a slight swagger. He took time to look at his audience and size us up, it seemed to me. He drew in a deep breath and stood tall. Then, as if he indeed at one time had rehearsed and memorized the poem, he began distinctly, "That's my last Duchess..." He enuciated, and gestured to where the picture might be hanging, and gave wing to each word, each line gaining momentum as he read.
My heart sank as my classmate finished the interpretation and stepped down. I knew now how awful my reading had been, relative to his. At that moment I knew I would surely get a failing grade for my performance that day, and I wasn't sure I would ever make a passing grade. But I was never one to throw in the towel. Nobody of my generation ever thought of dropping a class; you were stuck with the IBM cards you were dealt over at registration in Foster Auditorium, the same spot where George Wallace would stand the next year, 1963, in the "schoolhouse door."
And stuck it out I did. Dr. Bales set about teaching us how to project our physical beings into our performance. He had us beat our chests with our fists as we read "Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay boom," hitting hard on the boomlay. If someone's voice were not deep enough or rich enough, he'd insist on hitting the chest again. The word golden in "golden bells" had to rise and fall as if it were as precious as the medal it named. When Bill Thompson, whose voice was very deep, and who had had no trouble with boomlay, could not go high enough to get the O in golden, Dr. Bales made him say it over and over and over until finally this O squeaked out follwed by two more squeaks that hurt the ears. Dr. Bales gave up and moved on.
What I lacked in dramatic delivery, I seemed able to make up for with my knowledge of the literary pieces Dr. Bales chose for us to interpret. While I wasn't transformed into a total drama queen, I still have my high moments, thanks to Dr. Bales.
Today there was one of those moments. The contest prize chair, Jerri Hardesty, called out the name of the 3rd place winner in the "Make Mine Short" contest required to be a short poem in a traditional form. "Kathleen Turner," she called, and I looked around, expecting this to be one of those out of state folks who regularly receive our prize monies by mail. Jerri was looking at me and said again, "Kathleen Turner."
She named the poem, "Haiku III." I jumped from my seat. "Kathleen Turner? That's me!" Jerri was mortified at her mistake, but I took it as the opportunity to tell a story to the group of life in small town Prattville and my first trips to the bank. On the first drivethrough, the teller welcomed me to town by name and said, "Oh, you live in the Hydrick house." In small town south you never live in your own house until you've moved away. On the next trip to the bank to pick up my new credit card, I was very surprised to see that my card read, "Kathleen Turner." "Yes," I squealed. Alas, that banker recognized the difference and didn't let me get away with that credit card.
So, it's long overdue, but thank you, thank you, Dr. Bales. I O U.
beggar outside in soiled rags.