Unbuttoned-Down Muse

Dale Wootton, center, leads a poetry reading.
Tom Jenkins

Unbuttoned-Down Muse
An anti-slam crowd takes to verse

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

Girls Wanted

When it was announced, DISD's new all-girls junior high and high school was praised as a private-school idea that makes good sense for public adoption. Housed in the old Stephen J. Hay administrative building off Herschel Avenue in Oak Lawn, the school, in a triumph of brevity, will be called the Irma Rangel Young Women's Leadership School. It's scheduled to house 200 seventh- and eighth-graders this year and add a grade every year until it has grades seven through 12.  

Sounds great, right? Try to find a parent who doesn't want to limit his daughter's interaction with boys during the preteen and teen years.

Why, then, did the district have to extend the deadline for applications from July 15 to July 30? It's not because students couldn't qualify, as standards are reasonable: Students must be in the 40th percentile in reading and math and have a 75 (or C) grade average. They must also pass an essay and interview portion. And the school has had no problem filling the seventh grade, as it's already full with 100 students.

But as of Friday, less than three weeks from the August 16 start date, the eighth grade had accepted only 18 students. DISD officials did not return calls from the Dallas Observer, but three DISD teachers the Observer spoke with suggest that the district did not market the school aggressively enough. "Very few parents I talk to even knew the school was opening," says a longtime teacher. Luring seventh-graders isn't difficult, she says, as students are graduating elementary and looking for junior high school options. "But you can't just put out applications on a desk downtown and hope parents will show up. " --Eric Celeste

The Eyes Have It

At a recent pretrial hearing, Michigan state prosecutor Donna Pendergast asked confessed serial killer Coral Eugene Watts ("Evil Eyes," by Glenna Whitley, June 19, 2003) to remove his thick glasses for the witness.

Joseph Foy, 47, identified Watts as the man he had seen in an alley in Ferndale, a suburb of Detroit, on December 1, 1979. Drawn to his back porch at about 10 p.m. by his dog barking, Foy said he saw Watts leaning over a woman and making "slashing" motions. When Watts turned to walk to his car, he locked eyes with Foy.

"We exchanged glances and actually held a glance," said Foy, according to The Detroit News. "The glance him and I had, I'll never forget...It was just blank...It was like he just dropped off the laundry." On the ground was Helen Dutcher, 36, stabbed to death.

Watts' trial for Dutcher's murder has been set for November 8. If acquitted, Watts will return to a Texas prison but maybe not for long. In 1982, Watts, now 50, confessed to killing 13 women in Texas and Michigan in exchange for a 60-year-sentence. (Watts left Michigan for Texas after coming under scrutiny for three murders in Ann Arbor and at least 18 others in the Detroit area.) Authorities in Houston and Galveston had little choice in the plea bargain; they had no physical evidence linking the killings to Watts. The only motive Watts has ever given: "They had evil eyes." Unless he is convicted of another crime, Watts will be released in 2006.

Watts didn't fight extradition from Texas, but he wrote a letter to the Houston Chronicle dated April 16 about his "mistreatment" by Huntsville prison authorities, accusing them of sticking him in solitary confinement for a week to keep him "ignorant of the legal and illegal maneuvering of the Texas and Michigan courts." Complaining that he wasn't given time to groom himself, Watts wrote that surgery for prostate cancer had left him incontinent and his clothing smelled of urine. Also, Watts had to walk in shackles past a crowd. Watts contended it was a conspiracy to "belittle, humiliate and dehumanize [him] in a circus-like atmosphere, as if to say, 'We have the animal bound and chained.'" --Glenna Whitley

We Win Several

Dallas Observer reporters were winners in recent journalism competitions sponsored by the Houston Press Club and the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies.

Staff writer Glenna Whitley won first place for feature story at the press club's annual Lone Star Awards for "Evil Eyes," her June 19, 2003, report on the criminal career of convicted serial murderer Coral Eugene Watts (see "The Eyes Have It," page 17). Editor Julie Lyons took second place in the same category for her July 17, 2003, story "The Girl Who Played Dead," a chilling account of the aftermath of an attack on five teens in a South Dallas drug den in 1990. Former staff writer Thomas Korosec took home the first-place award in the business story category for "Grave Robbers" (November 6, 2003), about a brazen identity-theft ring. Korosec also placed second for Print Journalist of the Year. Sports columnist John Gonzalez won third place for sports commentary for his March 6, 2003, account of a run-in with Texas Rangers outfielder Carl Everett. Former staffer Carlton Stowers took third place in the sports story category for "Friday Night Lite" (September 25, 2003), his look at six-man high school football in rural Texas.  

In the AAN awards, Observer critic Christine Biederman won first place for arts criticism among weeklies with circulations greater than 50,000, while Lyons won first place for feature writing for "The Girl Who Played Dead." Writer J.D. Sparks won second place for religion reporting for "Fallen Angel" (December 4, 2003), her investigation into the turmoil that divided Dallas' Cathedral of Hope, the nation's largest gay and lesbian church.

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