Serpentfoot's proposed new name:
Nofoot Allfoot-69-mouth-tail-solids-liquids-gases-animals-vegetable-mineral-all-predators-and-prey-that-consume-and-move-with-feet-fins-wings-wheels-canes-roots-limbs-vines-landslides-dust-wind-water-fire-ice-gravity-vacuums-black-holes-going-over-under-around-and-through-Our-Greater-Self-our-habitat-the-cosmos-of-which-we-are-but-part-and-where-all-life-feeds-upon-other-life-from-the-smallest-atoms-or-bacteria-to-the-great-black-holes-and-dog-eat-dog-and-“Last-Suppers”-where-we-are-what-we-eat-or-consume-and-each-lives-on-in-the-other…∞ Serpentfoot
POETRY, Ga. — Off Georgia State Route 100, at the edge of Chattooga County, across from a row of chicken houses, in front of a forest, inside a beige trailer, next to a stationary bike and a marching band drum and two snakeskins and boxes of old newspapers and a rusty stapler and books about philosophy, poetry and nude beaches, Serpentfoot sits on a ripped red couch.
"Black holes!" Serpentfoot says.
"The cosmos!" she says.
"Dog eat dog!"
She continues on like this, screeching what appears to be nonsense for about 90 seconds. But she swears her words have meaning. She swears she's spreading the gospel of her one-member church, Our Greater Self.
Born Carolyn Marjorie Ann Clay, Serpentfoot has been northwest Georgia's ambassador of weird for five decades now. She's feuded with churches, founded a writer's colony, withdrawn into the wilderness, stripped nude at a county commission meeting and unsuccessfully sued a group of elected officials for nine figures.
On Oct. 22, Serpentfoot will turn 82. Rivers of wrinkles run through her hollow cheeks. Red bags sit below her eyes. She knows the end is nigh.
Which is why she's here, inside her tornado-mess of a trailer, rattling off these words. Words carry weight, she knows. Words can change a life.
And so she wants to alter her name again, to these words. All 101 of them. And while they seem disparate, Serpentfoot says they are held together by the invisible glue of life. Everything in the universe is connected: That's the message of her ministry.
When we die, our bodies are for the animals and plants we leave behind. But we should leave more than that, Serpentfoot believes. We should leave a message in the form of our names. Your mantra in life should be scrawled across the top of the obituary section.
But Serpentfoot's master plan isn't working. When she tried to change her name in February, a Floyd County judge blocked her attempt. He said Serpentfoot herself couldn't even remember that name. It's so long, the judge argued, anybody who wants to sue or prosecute her will become too confused to file accurate court documents.
Serpentfoot hasn't given up, though. On Sept. 21, she filed a notice of name change with the Chattooga County court clerk. She's added more words to the name since her first rejection. Now, she waits to go before another judge. She's ready to argue.
"It seems like a long name," she said. "But it's a short, quick message that covers everything."
Serpentfoot was born in 1933 along the Chattooga-Floyd County line. The oldest of nine siblings, she grew up picking cotton for her father, a sharecropper. Her family attended a Methodist church and prayed every night.
But she didn't believe the Christian teachings. She couldn't fathom that an all-powerful God would create something called hell. She didn't trust her teachers, either. The alphabet didn't make sense to her because letters don't appear in nature.
"I didn't believe everything just because I heard it," she said. "If it didn't make sense to me, I hated thinking somebody's pulling a trick."
In 1971, she retreated to a decaying farmhouse in an 86-acre Chattooga County ghost town, where Native Americans once lived. She had no heating or plumbing. She changed the area's name from Tulip to Poetry — which the Georgia Official Highway and Transportation map still recognizes.
She wanted to create a writer's village and spread a new wave of poetry throughout the country. She loved how the art allowed her to pack a message into a tight space. She formed Poets of Georgia Inc. According to a 1974 Associated Press article, more than 300 people joined her group.
Serpentfoot also launched Poets Monthly, a publication that featured work from writers throughout the state. The January 1974 issue features Serpentfoot next to then-Gov. Jimmy Carter. She said she marched into his office without an appointment and named him an honorary resident of Poetry, Ga.
Then, she went broke.
She said she retreated to the woods and began living off herbs and nuts. It was then she became spiritual, born literally from hunger. Her religion is simple: Wait until your body tells you what you need, then act.
"Our belly starts talking a lot to us," she said. "The best guidance in the world is to do what you need to do. When need becomes necessity, you will do it or you will die. All life is need."
In 1995, she appeared before the Rome City Commission to protest its decision to pray at the beginning of every meeting. When they began to pray anyway. She stripped off her clothes. She said her action should not have been offensive because John 1:14 reads that the Word became flesh. Police arrested her, nonetheless.
"I did a little body language," she said. "The body is a temple."
In 2009, she filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the Rome City Commission, the Floyd County Commission, the building inspector chief, a superior court judge, a magistrate judge, the district attorney and a former district attorney. She said some officials discriminated against her religion when they arrested her for stripping nude. And the others? She said they violated her Cherokee ancestors by building on what she said was Chief John Ross' old home.
She asked for $100 million. She received none.
Four years later, she filed another petition in court, this time asking for a man's dead body. She said the man promised her his remains, that he didn't want to be buried. Like her religion demands, she said, the man wanted his body given to the animals and the plants. Again, a judge denied her request.
Now, Serpentfoot is back, maybe for the last time. She filed a petition in February, asking to create a 36-word name. In a pro se court motion, she said this would allow her to spread the message of her ministry. She also said she was tired of having a single name because that doesn't work with official documentation.
Her driver's license, for example, reads "Serpentfoot Serpentfoot." In her court filing, she said her new name was more traditional. And though it has 36 words, as well as an ellipses and an infinity symbol, she said she would abbreviate the name as Nofoot Allfoot Serpentfoot.
Judge Bryant Durham Jr. denied the motion in May after Serpentfoot couldn't recite all the words in her proposed name. Durham also listed her history of arrests and civil lawsuits, arguing such a long name is unwieldy for court purposes.
Serpentfoot responded in June with a second motion for Durham to read. This time, she added 32 more words to her name. She argued in her motion that it was unfair to hold her criminal history against her.
"If the Court will check Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, in the New Testament, the Court will find that Jesus was convicted," she wrote. "And sentenced to death."
Durham, nevertheless, denied her new motion.
And so she has moved to Chattooga County, adding yet another 33 words to her name, pushing the total to 101.
Following your internal needs, Serpentfoot concedes, can hurt those around you. She said she changed her name the first time because family members were mad about the controversies she caused. She chose Serpentfoot because she liked the idea of a snake, on its belly, in need but not downtrodden.
Decades ago, she said, she was "an alcoholic, a chain smoker, a dependent on drugs, a spendthrift and a glutton." She's been married several times but broke off the relationships because her husbands either cheated on her, wanted to put her children in military school or simply watched too much baseball.
Regina Otwell Vaughn, Serpentfoot's former daughter-in-law, said she looked up to her as a child, though rumors spread in town that she was practicing witchcraft. One of Serpentfoot's sons, Craig Otwell, said he was separated from his mother at times. He can't recall the specific reasons.
"I don't really know," he said. "(Being apart from her) just seemed normal."
Serpentfoot's niece, Patricia Mallard, said she participated in family functions like the other aunts. In the family, they still call her Ann. She said Serpentfoot is smarter than most people realize. And she's braver.
"She has no problem telling people what she's about," Mallard said. "I don't begrudge her. God bless her for sticking to it."
That's what Serpentfoot is doing in her trailer.
For hours, she shares her message. We're all together. The stack of Little Caesars pizzas in the passenger seat of her car, she explains, is going to the animals outside. And the quiet, 86-year-old man in the other room, she said, is a registered sex offender who is staying here because he had no other place to rest his head. She met him through one of her hobbies: writing letters to prisoners.
And then, Serpentfoot lifts herself off the couch. She tries to get to her walker. But she's old, and her right hip needs to be replaced. So she leans forward, parallel to the ground, and she scoots across the floor, like a snake.
Dog eat dog. Dust to dust. Landslides, black holes, the cosmos — they're all out there, and they're all in here.
Contact Staff Writer Tyler Jett at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 423-757-6476.