I met Beth at the museum where she works, then followed her home in my car. When we pulled up she immediately took a shotgun out of her trunk and leaned it on her front porch.
I think she was testing my boundaries a little, seeing what she could provoke in me. I think there's a dance or play that can go on between people. Was I just an outsider who's going to look at her like, "Oooh, look at these southerners!"
Now Beth agrees; she was poking at me.
"That's how I am," Beth says. "And a lot of people can't handle me. But I tested you and you came to my party and spent the night here. You didn't know if I was a killer!"
Beth had invited me to a party at her house. She has a hunting camp in her backyard and a group of Cajuns from Louisiana was there hunting deer. That night the Cajuns cooked up a huge low country boil and then picked up their instruments and played Zydeco music in the barn. There was dancing and drinking late into the night.
As for poetry, Beth has always had an appreciation. It should have been obvious but I didn't know that when we filmed.
"I love the art of wording things," she says. "I love smart-ass people."
But she had some reservations about reading—for two reasons. She was hoping her dad would do the reading. And I suspect she didn't totally trust the project's intentions. But she ended up stepping up to plate anyway.
"Cuz my Daddy died and you didn't have anyone else!" she says. "And sometimes you feel like somebody from out of state is going to make a fool out of you, and I just wanted to say, ‘I can read this and freak you out.' All we ever hear is how stupid we are, and not politically correct. I wanted to represent the state to let you know that there are people that can transform into what you want them to be in order to do a good job. I ain't ever done anything like that before but I wanted to do a good job."
So Beth practiced her verse before the shoot. Again and again and again.
"I didn't want to look like an idiot!" she explains. "Even though I couldn't say capitulate for nothing."
She also wasn't a big fan of the verse I had chosen.
"I am about fun!" she explains. "This verse is NOT about fun. Killed! Stabbed! Bloody! Dead! Nobody alive! I can find humor in everything—except for that damn verse."
After the fact I explained that I thought contrasts are cool. Her ridiculously fun personality with this particularly dark passage.
"Truly deep, Jennifer. Truly deep!" she says, not quite buying it. "I don't see the woman in a Sno-Cone booth or little kids dancing under a bridge reading that." [See verse 43]
I remind her that she did it though. She said yes. She got through it.
"I did it," she concedes. "But it's just like being married to a piece of shit—not gonna do that again."
One bit of serendipity. You can't see it in Beth's verse, but the house just behind where we filmed was owned by Beth's paternal grandma—Elizabeth Whitman. It's been known forever as "the Whitman House.
It's a point of pride for Beth. She's proud of the house. She's proud of where she comes from, and her community.
"We don't try to impress anybody. We enjoy the little things. And we're content. And people hate that," she says. "It's a simple, slow life. Our ambulances don't even speed. If you're gonna die, you're gonna die."
When asked what she thinks the biggest misconception of the south is she says it's the idea that everybody's racist, that there's a Klan around every corner.
Sometimes she gets those kinds of questions at work at Old Depot Museum in Selma. "Is the Klan here?"
"Well if they are, they suck!" she tells them. "You an Alabama fan or Auburn? That's what we care about here."
Beth doesn't understand that kind of thinking. She has more friends than she can count.
"You can't have enough friends in life—it's not possible," she says. "And how could you hate someone for who they worship, or the color of the skin, or who they love? It's exhausting. You have to be miserable. "
"And here's the thing about a small town," she adds. "If you're a piece of crap, word gets out really quick."
For Beth, it's about community. Being genuine. Talking. Telling stories. Asking questions. More talking.
She gave an example: She had been in New York City and bought a charcoal drawing in Central Park. She carried it all throughout the city, and nobody said a word. Then she carried it through the airport, on her way back home to Alabama.
"Guy walks right up to me and asks, ‘What you got in that tube?'"
"Dear God, you're from Alabama!" she said.
By filmmaker Jennifer Crandall, as told to writer Liz Hildreth