Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

A Convict's Cloak

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Bill Mullins Johnson spent twelve years in prison for a murder he did not commit. It was ultimately determined that no one killed Johnson’s four-year old niece, Valin, and that she died of natural causes. But thanks to damning court testimony, Johnson was convicted of the crime that wasn’t a crime. He is thoughtful and funny and would never claim to be a poet. But in the course of a conversation, Bill Mullins Johnson offers turns of phrases that are unconsciously poetic but resonate with the force and weight of a crafted stanza.

I had the good fortune of spending an afternoon with Johnson, capped by a homemade dinner with his mother, Laureena Hill, who stood by her son’s side at the cost of fractured family bonds. I was doing research for a play I’m developing about wrongful convictions for Studio 180, the theatre company that recently remounted its acclaimed production of David Hare’s Stuff Happens and offered Toronto audiences The Laramie Project, a stirring and sobering chronicle of a town where a young gay man had been killed and tied to a fence. Inspired by The Exonerated, a play about U.S. inmates on death row who were ultimately found to be innocent, Studio 180 artistic director Joel Greenberg approached me about mining similar territory in Canada, where capital punishment isn’t part of the landscape but wrongful convictions surface with alarming regularity.

And so it was that I found myself in Sault St. Marie, across a kitchen table from Bill Mullins Johnson as he cradled his purse-sized dog Precious in his lap. “It’s difficult for me,” Johnson said. “I’ve had to learn life sentence skills instead of life skills. If you don’t conform to prison you will die in there. You will die in there. So you have to put on that convict cloak.”

“Life sentence skills” and “convict cloak” are wonderful turns of phrases. Not poetry, per se, but poetic language all the same. And like poetry, the rhythm and phrasing of words spoken in a non-literary context can resonate in unexpected ways. Exhibit “A”, if you will, is the court testimony from an RCMP officer in the course of the trial of Robert Latimer, the Saskatchewan farmer who was convicted of killing his severely disabled daughter and sentenced to ten years. I tilled the facts of the Latimer story into a radio play that included the following passage from the court transcripts. An RCMP officer, who I named Craig Pearce, has taken the stand and speaks of confronting the father, now named Doug. The words are from the actual trial:

"I told him I wanted him to listen very carefully because this was a serious matter. I started by saying that we are not here to judge him. I understand the situation you are in and we empathize with you. We have no choice but to do the job we have to but at the same time we’ll assist him in getting through this situation as best we can. 'We have spoken to several people. Everyone said the same thing that you are a caring person, a good person. At the same time, we know that this was not a natural death. Your daughter was in a great deal of pain. Doug, after considering all that is known, I have no doubt that you caused your daughter’s death.' There was no response from him and I noticed that his eyes were glassy with tears. I continued, 'This is not something that you wanted or planned to do. You loved your daughter very much.' At that point he nodded yes. 'This is something that you felt you had to do out of love for your daughter, isn’t it , Doug?' There was no reply. 'I can imagine this is very difficult for you and I feel bad.' I repeated that he was a loving father and I said, 'You only did what you felt was best for her out of love for your daughter.' Again there was no reply and I repeated it. I asked, 'Isn’t that right, Doug?' At that point he was close to crying. I said again, “That’s what happened, isn’t it, Doug? Isn’t that right?” He replied, 'My priority was to put her out of her pain.' I asked, 'That’s what you thought was right, wasn’t it?' and he began nodding his head yes. At this point there were tears flowing freely.

A colleague read an early draft of Mourning Dove and flagged this scene. “Too poetic,” he noted, assuming I had penned it myself, not knowing they were the actual words of a police officer.

A few years ago Slate presented “The Poetry of D.H. Rumsfeld”, who was then Secretary of Defense. Rumsfeld, it should be noted, plays a major role in Stuff Happens and gave Hare the phrase that would become the play’s title (“Stuff happens… And it’s untidy, and freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.”) Slate took verbatim passages from official transcripts from the Defense Department and formatted them to read like poems. “His work”, author Hart Seely writes, “with its dedication to the fractured rhythms of the plainspoken vernacular, is reminiscent of William Carlos Williams’”. Many are familiar with Rumsfeld’s riff on the unknowable (“There are known unknowns”) but here is another offering from a man in uniform:

Glass Box

You know, it's the old glass box at the —
At the gas station,
Where you're using those little things
Trying to pick up the prize,
And you can't find it.
It's —

And it's all these arms are going down in there,
And so you keep dropping it
And picking it up again and moving it,
But —

Some of you are probably too young to remember those—
Those glass boxes,
But —

But they used to have them
At all the gas stations
When I was a kid.

The final word goes to Maurice Gagnon. His daughter was charged with killing her 11-month old son. Gagnon waged a successful but years-long campaign to clear his daughter’s name. Battle-weary but unbowed, he continues to take on the authorities.

I’ll breathe
down their neck
as long as
I’m breathing
.

It may not mesh with our understanding of what poetry is (and is not) but everyday language unearths its own beauty. It may be spoken by a military official who many believe has blood on his hands and has yet to be held accountable. Or it might come from an innocent man who once wore a convict’s cloak.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Emil Sher

Emil Sher’s works include stage plays, screenplays and radio dramas. His published works include Making Waves, Mourning Dove and Hana’s Suitcase on Stage.

Go to Emil Sher’s Author Page