One day, Pierre and I were having lunch at El Barrio, a Mexican-inspired restaurant in Birmingham. Pierre mentioned that he thought that Juan, who worked as a server there, would be a great person to ask to read for Whitman, Alabama. He had met Juan previously, and they had hit it off. So, we asked Juan if he might want to read for us.
Juan said sure, and he told us that he would try to recruit his then partner, and now friend, Tim, to read with him.
"I was a little apprehensive because I'm shy," Tim said. "Getting in front of people makes me extremely nervous."
We decided to film Juan and Tim while they ate lunch at Feast and Forest, only a couple blocks away from where Juan worked.
We only had about an hour to film. Juan had to come between shifts at El Barrio, and Tim, who worked at a bank, was on his lunch break. While Tim was driving to meet us, he got stuck in traffic, which didn't do much to calm his nerves.
"So then we're down to like ... 45 minutes," Tim said.
The filming was quick, but we got it done. Tim says the reading was no big deal for Juan, who is an extrovert and doesn't get stage fright. But for Tim, it was a pretty big accomplishment.
"I kind of enjoyed it," Tim said. "Doing something I usually would not do, out of my comfort zone."
So thank you, Juan and Tim. We imagine it's not easy to test the boundaries of your comfort zone while on camera, eating lunch, reading poetry.
And also a shout out to Kristen Hall and Victor King, the co-owners of Feast & Forest, for letting us disrupt their day a bit so we could film at their wonderful restaurant.
Every 4th of July I tend to wonder who the people are who are behind the scenes, lighting up the night skies with fireworks for us. On the 4th of July in 2016, I had those same thoughts -- I figured it'd be the longest of long shots to make something happen that day, but I called a number I found on a website for the show at Lake Martin.
Robert Gunn, who works with the Lake Martin Amphitheater, picked up the phone. It was the afternoon of the fireworks show, the event was already in gear, when we asked if he could help put us in touch with the folks shooting off the fireworks. We're so thankful Robert didn't hesitate, just said he'd see what we could do. We soon got word from Robert that Joel Hart, a twenty-eight-year old lead technician, would meet us.
Pierre and I jumped in the car and drove from Birmingham toward Lake Martin to meet Joel. We were excited, and I was holding my breath, not certain we’d actually end up being able to film anything.
Joel Hart was less excited about seeing us
Robert had called and warned him that we were coming. We wanted to interview him -- something about a project, something about Alabama?
Joel said that his first thought was to say no.
"I don't think we want to deal with it," Joel said. "We had just done our final test [for the fireworks show that night]. But we said, 'Yeah, y'all can send them down.'"
When asked why he agreed to talk to us, Joel had a simple answer.
"That's just southern charm," he said. "That's what that is. It may not be something that we want to do, but we're going to do it because we've been asked to do it."
His answer struck me because it was much like something that Billy Wayne who read part of Verse 43 said. He didn't agree with some of the words in the poem, and when I asked him why he agreed to read it, he said, "Because you asked me to."
After Pierre and I further explained the project, Joel mentioned we might want to have his younger brother Andrew read, too. Andrew is a woodworker, cabinet maker, small business consultant, writer, and avid poetry reader. We didn't know all this at the start of the read.
"I thought [the project] was a fascinating thing," Andrew said. "Even though it’s [titled] 'Song of Myself,' [Whitman] is including someone else. He’s using he, she, them, they, I, and we. In a sense, [the poem] is reawakening that concept: that we are all the same."
"My brother was real interested because he's read a lot of Whitman," Joel said. "So I said, 'Okay, I'll do it with you.' It was something I figured I'd do because I never did that before. We were brothers trying to do it together."
Still, the actual filming took much longer than Joel expected.
"We had several takes and we probably did it fifteen times, and they did different camera angles," Joel said. "At one point I said, 'We're going to have to shut this down.' But after [it was over], my brother and I talked, and we were like, "Wow, that was pretty cool."
Joel admits that he didn't really know what would become of the project with the two filmmakers who visited him out of the blue and told him they were filming people who ARE Alabama.
"I didn't really have any preconceptions," Joel said. "But it was pretty neat to see what the end result was. When I saw the video of that guy down south in Alabama, who worked with tires, (Jason Tabor, Verse 39) that one who said 'I'm all sweaty and stuff' on camera, that's Alabama to me. Down and dirty. Changing tires. They hit it on the nail."
Andrew agrees. "I love to see [this poem] read by Alabamians," Andrew said. "It made me feel proud. The more hands this is in, the better. Something like this [Whitman, Alabama project] ought to go mainstream."
Towards the end of their read was when we found out that Andrew was a writer and fan of poetry. I remember Pierre remarking how amazing it was that somehow, we came across two brothers and were able to capture each doing something they had a passion for -- Joel with fire, Andrew with poetry. Joel and Andrew agreed.
When recently asked whether Andrew thinks the project could help reduce stereotypes about Alabama, he mentions that he’s grown up and lived in Alabama his entire life.
"When we are not really focused on how everybody [outside of Alabama] feels about us, we are making inroads. You lead by example," Andrew said. "I think the truth is proved right in time."
By Jennifer Crandall, as told to writer Liz Hildreth