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Sonnets for the South

Mobile Symphony's Stephen Hedrick takes a poetic look at Southern living

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Arts Editor

Stephen Douglas Hedrick has enjoyed a remarkable rookie season as executive director of Mobile Symphony Orchestra.

Hedrick, once a globetrotting executive with Disney Co., joined a thriving, successful organization. This season was noteworthy for excellent attendance and a sellout for the March 1 showcase concert with violinist Itzhak Perlman. Within the past few weeks, Mobile Symphony announced an appearance with violinist Joshua Bell in 2008; and a weeklong residency in 2009 by another noteworthy fiddler, Midori.

Not a bad start for the Alabama native, who began his performing arts life as a child actor. He moved to New York and spent his early career as a singer, dancer and actor in musical theater, summer stock and the national tour of "West Side Story." He also was a recording producer and worked in Alabama and New York as a scenic and lighting designer, company, stage and tour manager.

Hedrick spent two decades with Disney in the United States, Europe and Asia, first as manager of talent booking and casting for Walt Disney World in Orlando, and evntually as executive producer/project director of entertainment for Disney's $3.2 billion theme park in Tokyo.

Now he enters the literary world with "Tall Tales & Sonnets of the South" (http://www.talltalesandsonnets.com) featuring photography by Georgia native Jack Anthony. Hedrick's book is published by Jenkins Group Publishing (hardcover, 103 pages, $34.95) and has generated about a hundred orders by word of mouth. Jenkins Group will print an initial run of 2,000 copies.

Hedrick recently discussed the book with the Press-Register. Here are excerpts from that conversation:

Press-Register: How did the book come about?

Hedrick: After I left Disney, I wasn't writing as much anymore, so I started sitting down and hammering out something about 4:30-7 a.m., my magic hour. I'm an early riser, so I'd get up and go to the computer read my e-mail. It's my most creative time of the day.

I heard about a critique group associated with the local library, the Chevy Chase Library (in Glendale). Every other week on Wednesday night, the writers would get together and critique one another's work, and talk about style form and story, and that's how I started again.

I've never been a poet or a huge poetry reader, but I kept gravitating to verse. I would start out in prose and things would rhyme, and I would say, "I could make this whole thing as verse" It started as a writing exercise, and one of my favorite topics was the Old South when I was growing up -- the romance of living in the South, the easygoing style, the people and how friendly they are. After several of those pieces I thought I could make a whole book out of it. That was three or four years ago.

Q: Does your inspiration come in waves (and) wash over you, or is there a specific moment you respond to?

A: Usually I get an inspiration during the day and then I pray I remember it, or I write it down and hope I don't lose the note. When I wake up in the morning, my mind is a blank slate -- clear, uncluttered, I'm not worried about things. Then I pull out my note and start writing. I'm reluctant refer to myself as a poet. I fancy myself more of a storyteller who just happens to use verse. Because poets are very serious people. They're high-minded and thoughtful.

Poetry has changed a lot since the classical poetry we read in high school and college. In my critique group, I would show up with verse and people would sit back and say, "Rhyme is 'old school.' Today you're supposed to be obtuse, hard to understand, and you've got to read it 15 times before you get a meaning out if it. (Laughs.)

But .... every time I read a poem to the group, they just went nuts. "Oh, that's so beautiful! Can I have a copy of it?" I thought maybe going retro is not such a bad thing.

Q: What most inspires you, a misty morning, memories of people or something out of your childhood?

A: I think it's all of the above. When I started writing this ... I actually took notes all over the world, wherever I was, always fondly remembering the South and with a burning desire to get back here -- which is one of the reasons I jumped at the job with Mobile Symphony.

It's funny where inspiration comes from. You can be anywhere in the world that reminds you of the South, and you sit down and put fingertips to keys.

Q: Tell me about the photography.

A: I met Jack Anthony on the Internet while I was finishing the text of the book. I saw his photo of kudzu -- there's a barn in the middle of that, and you couldn't even see the barn! -- and I thought, "What a wonderful picture. I wonder if this guy has any more?"

So, I contacted this guy by e-mail ... and asked whether he'd be interested in working together. He wrote back and said, "I'd love to."

He lives in Dahlonega, he was born there and ... he started photographing scenes and published a book called "Dahlonega: A Special Place." We started working together, e-mailing back and forth, and I finally met him when I got back to this coast. We had a great time going through his photographs and matching them up with stories and poems I'd written. It's been a fun project.

Q: Did you do much traveling to visit your childhood places?

A: A few, but not a lot. I wanted to capture it more as I remembered it than how it's changed. I wanted the book to capture those moments in time before they completely dissipate. The old grocery store where I grew up is gone now. It was torn down 20 years ago, which is a shame.

Q: I'm sure you've considered a CD version of the book?

A: Funny you bring that up, because I wrote some of that only after reading it out loud to myself, and if it didn't flow or I stumbled on words ... I could hear it more when I read it. ... Most people in poetry will tell you it's meant to be read out loud.

Q: What is it about the South that makes Southerners and non-Southerners alike wax poetic?

A: (Laughs.) It's almost otherworldly, especially for people from other areas of the country to come down here. The plants look different, people talk differently, they take life slow, they take time talk to you and be friendly. I think it's just strangeness of it all for a lot of people.

You can drive down any country road in the South today and somebody will pass you in a pickup truck and they'll wave at you. That's just part of who we are.


© Dauphin House Publishing | Last edited September 24, 2007