By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Are there two words in the English language more ill-suited for each other than "poetry" and "Republicans"? But Republicans, we have learned, are tricky: Just when you think you have them all sussed out, they dispatch a curious specimen of the order who gleefully toys with all your hard-earned intelligence.
Dale Wootton, a local bankruptcy lawyer who has the requisite picture of himself with the first President Bush on his office wall, has us scratching our heads: When his children were young, he read poetry to them after dinner, a certifiably artsy habit. The Woottons lived in Highland Park then, but Wootton grew okra, that plebeian vegetable, in his front yard. And now Wootton is the host of an occasional Friday-night poetry reading at the Garden Café, the restaurant he owns next door to his law office in Old East Dallas. The star poet is a black woman who specializes in erotic poetry and goes by the pen name "Succulent."
Wootton started the readings in November but had already had plenty of practice manning the microphone at poetry events. One day about 15 years ago, he found a crumpled-up verse in the trash can at home and asked his 11-year-old daughter Lacey why she had thrown away what he thought of as surprisingly dark aperçus. (One of the lines Lacey wrote at the time was "Why do so many things break your heart?") To foment burgeoning talent in his home, Wootton invited his friends and their families over for poetry potlucks: Bring a dish, bring a poem by yourself or someone else and read it out loud.
At the Garden Café's events, reading a poem out loud is optional. That may explain why Wootton attracted his lawyer and developer friends rather than the Deep Ellum poetry slam crowd. But soon his buttoned-up friends began sprouting uncharacteristically confessional--"spilling their guts," as Wootton describes it. Wootton, a genial host, fosters an accepting forum for the aesthetic florescence of his usually sober-minded friends by thanking them after they read and saying something kind.
Julie Ehret is a commercial litigator who lives in Highland Park and is a regular observer at the readings. She had been to a Deep Ellum slam, "but that was angry poetry," she says. "This isn't angry poetry." Wootton says slam poetry "is not something I'm interested in" but that high culture isn't the point, either. "We're kind of in-the-middle people," he explains.
Wootton's readings have been the perfect venue for the aesthetic resuscitation of Harmon Cohen, a 69-year-old financial manager who acknowledges that he is a bit of an "uptight" sort. He and his wife, Terry, an antiques dealer, had been relatively unacquainted with the art of verse but attended the first reading. That night Harmon thought, "Boy, this is really neat," and went right out and bought three thick books of poetry. Then he started writing his own poems. "I've learned a lot about people I know or thought I knew, like Harmon," Wootton says. "I had no idea he had a soul. We all have a soul, but sometimes we don't share it."
At a later reading, Cohen read aloud an erotic poem he had written about his wife, but Cohen hadn't told her beforehand that the poem was about their lovemaking. As Cohen read the poem, his wife slowly began to slither under the table. Their son got up to read next, but first he said, "Dad, I assume that's about the time I came along."
The Cohens had to miss the reading at the cafe last Friday, but it seems unlikely they will be absent again. Karen Stepherson, the scholarship coordinator at Eastfield College who also goes by Succulent, took the stage (actually, she took the chair) and apologized to everyone for being absent at the previous reading. That was the night Cohen read his erotic poem, and ever since, Stepherson's friends had been razzing her that she and her erotic verse were in danger of being upstaged by an old white man (although when Stepherson, who is an erotic poet but also a lady, explained the situation, she said she was in danger of being upstaged by "an elderly Caucasian gentleman"). Stepherson knew it was time to pull out all the stops, and she let each word sink in: "Take me, undress me, let my garments fall to the ground," she said. "Don't kiss me on the back of my neck/Turn me around."
She also cited Cool Whip and candles, but one shouldn't assume that the roster of amorous objects in her poem that night was based on personal experience: She dedicated that poem to the Cohens. --Claiborne Smith