TUPELO – During the last school year, Autry Davis introduced nearly 6,000 students to poetry and folk stories through his distinctive style.
“I’m not a poet. I’m a performer,” Davis said. “My main focus is to entertain them, to get them to laugh, to get them to say, ‘Oh, that’s what poetry is.’”
While Autry, who will turn 69 next month, spends the school year performing for students through the Crossroads Poetry Project, he was never a fan of poetry when he was growing up.
“When I was a kid, I didn’t care for poetry,” Davis said. “As a child, I heard the classics but thought it was boring. I saw no reason for it.”
And he still saw no reason for it into his early 50s. But as the classically-trained actor spent less time on the stage, he started looking for an artistic outlet. The Crossroads Poetry Project came out of that search.
They focus on the Corinth and Alcorn County schools but are beginning to branch out. He drove to Shannon in February as part of Black History Month. He will be at Saltillo Primary next month.
“I will go almost anywhere,” Davis said. “My time is free. I only charge for the gas to get there and back.”
Davis grew up just across the state line from Corinth in Guys, Tennessee. After a stint in Vietnam, Davis went to the University of Mississippi and was just a thesis away from getting his masters degree in theater arts when he decided to leave. He felt he needed more than Ole Miss could offer.
“I left Ole Miss and went to New York City and enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Acting from 1979-1981,” he said. “I was getting out there and performing – learning the things needed to become a complete actor.”
He continued to tread the boards for almost a decade. But when he had not “made it” by his self-imposed 10-year time limit, he decided to head back south.
“I did extra work on one episode of Kate & Allie and had a speaking line on the soap opera Loving,” Davis said. “The week I was leaving, one of the soaps called and asked if I could come back and work, but I said ‘No.’”
“I am happy with the decision I made, but sometimes I kind of wonder what would have happened if I stayed.”
But Davis still makes use of all the things he learned in acting classes and on the stage.
“I try to make it interesting and I understand that I am entertaining and teaching at the same time,” Davis said. “I think about each poem and use my acting background to interpret it.”
He loves to see the smiles on young faces as they discover that poetry doesn’t have to be dry and boring. And he loved it when a teacher pulled him aside and said that his visit the year before prompted some students to work harder on their language and writing skills.
For the folk tales, Davis develops not just a voice but a personality for each character in the story. Through the use of dramatic pauses, volume changes and other techniques, he brings the stories to life.
“I never use costumes or props, just the voice,” he said.