Copyright ©2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I really love the poems we're about to hear. They're beautifully written. But some of them really hurt. They're about the worst thing that can happen to a mother, the murder of her child.

The poems are collected in the new book, "Slamming Open the Door" by my guest, Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno. Her daughter was murdered by the daughter's ex-boyfriend in 2003.

This is Bonanno's first collection of poems. She's a high school English teacher and a contributing editor of the American Poetry Review, where her husband, David Bonanno, is an editor. Two of the poems in "Slamming Open the Door" were nominated for the prestigious Pushcart Prize.

Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno, welcome to FRESH AIR. I want to start by asking you to read the opening poem in your book, which is called "Death Barged In."

Ms. KATHLEEN SHEEDER BONANNO (Poet): Thank you. I'll be happy to.

Ms. BONANNO: Death Barged in, in his Russian greatcoat, slamming open the door with an unpardonable bang, and he has been here ever since.

He changes everything, rearranges the furniture, his hand hovers by the phone; he will answer now, he says; he will be the answer.

Tonight he sits down to dinner at the head of the table as we eat, mute; later, he climbs into bed between us.

Even as I sit here, he stands behind me clamping two colossal hands on my shoulders and bends down and whispers to my neck: From now on, you write about me.

GROSS: Kathleen, when I read that poem, I just thought now I have to finish the book. I think that poem is so good, as is the rest of the book. We are, coincidentally, recording this interview on the sixth anniversary of your daughter's murder, which I had no idea when we were setting up the date, that it was going to be the anniversary. So this must be such a loaded day for you.

Ms. BONANNO: It is, and truthfully, I thought about mentioning that this was the anniversary of Leidy's death and perhaps requesting to reschedule, but the truth is, after I thought about it, I feel very comfortable reading this book today of all days. It feels right somehow.

GROSS: Would you tell us the story of how she was murdered?

Ms. BONANNO: Yes. Leidy was 21 years old, had just graduated from nursing school in West Reading, Pennsylvania, and was murdered by an ex-boyfriend who came into her apartment using a key, a copy of the key, we believe, strangled her with her telephone cord and left her there. And my husband and I, after phoning her for a few days and not getting an answer, became very alarmed, called the police, went up to West Reading and found out that she had been murdered.

GROSS: There's an excerpt of a poem I'd like you to read called "How to Find Out," and the poem is about you calling her and calling her and leaving messages and not getting any response. I want you just, like, describe that and read an excerpt of that poem.

Ms. BONANNO: Yes, not only had Dave and I and my sister and Leidy's friends been calling her and calling her on the phone, but we finally left her a message that said we're driving up there right now, if you don't answer, if you don't pick up the phone in a few minutes, and so we did.

We got on Route 73 and got as far as Skippack and were told…

GROSS: Now, how far away is this from where you live?

Ms. BONANNO: We live in Orland, Pennsylvania, so maybe that's - Skippack is maybe 30 minutes away. So we got a phone call then in the car that Leidy had just been spotted working her nursing shift, and so clearly she was fine, and we were so relieved, and we turned the car around and came, you know, barreling back down the road filled with a kind of giddy sense of happiness. And when we got home we called the hospital just to make sure that the spotting of her on the floor was correct, and the poem "How to Find Out" picks up at this point from there.

Ms. BONANNO: Her supervisor will say: No, no, she's not here. She hasn't shown up for work in two days. This is the time for your throat to thicken, for your fingers to get rubbery, for you to call the police and say please, please, go to her apartment, and if it's locked, please knock down the door.

GROSS: And is that what you did? Did you call the police and tell them to knock down the door?

Ms. BONANNO: Yes. They didn't knock down the door. You know, there's so much protocol in this day and age about what the police are allowed to do. They were able to pull out the air conditioner from her side window and peek in, and they saw her body, and then they were able to enter the apartment.

GROSS: And they called you?

Ms. BONANNO: Well, we had been in - after I called them, we were in constant phone contact, me saying have you found something? You know, why haven't you called us back? What's going on? And then we were finally told: Please just drive up here right now. Just drive up here. And I knew then. We all knew then that something must be very, very wrong.

We weren't asked to meet them at the hospital, for example, but to drive to her apartment.

GROSS: And when you got there, what was the scene in front of the house?

Ms. BONANNO: Well, there were police cars and ambulances, and there were many, many people on their front porches. You know, it's a block with a lot of row houses, people with their arms folded, people waiting, it seemed to me, very, very silently until we arrived, and then I realized they were waiting for her parents to arrive. That was part of what people were keeping vigil for, in a way.

GROSS: So you the were the drama. You were like the next act in the drama, you showing up.

Ms. BONANNO: Exactly.

GROSS: I feel like I've seen this scene so many times on television and in movies, and I know you must have too, and then it's like it's your scene. It's like you're the star of that scene. I mean, in addition to it being so horrible, it must have been so odd on that level too, to be playing out this scene that you've seen so many times - you've seen the cliché version, you've seen the moving version, you've seen every version imaginable.

GROSS: Yeah, and you know, it's funny. You would think that if you're going to write with some profound depth about what these moments are like that television or film would be the last reference or illusion or kind of metaphor that you would use.

In fact, it is a lot like television. It is a lot like movies in that you do feel like an actor with a script that's been given to you and you need to go through the motions, and there is some sense of observation of everything around you, as if it's playing across a screen. So, yeah…

GROSS: What was the script you felt you were given?

Ms. BONANNO: Mother of the murdered daughter. So in effect, I use - I speak directly to the reader in second person in the poem "How to Find Out" as if now that I've gone through this, I'm capable of teaching the next actor in the play. You know, I suggest that she try to be thoughtful when she sees the chief of police and not make him say the words, that she should see how human he is and that he has children of his own, and she shouldn't make him say it. She should ask: Is she dead?

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno, and she's written an incredible book of poems about the murder of her daughter. Her daughter was murdered by her ex-boyfriend, the daughter's ex-boyfriend.

I'm sure you never expected that someone in your family would be murdered. Did it change your whole calculus of how the world works to know that murder could come to your family?

Ms. BONANNO: It did, and it's not that I ever supposed that tragedy wasn't going to catch up with us somehow. I think that's part of the human condition, but this kind of tragedy, so horrifying, so grizzly and so isolating, was not something that I ever expected for our family.

GROSS: So when you knew that murder could come to your home or your daughter's home, did it change you? Did it make you more afraid, more distrustful?

Ms. BONANNO: In a way it did the opposite. When a loved one is murdered, there's a lot to do. There's a lot to do in the short term when anybody dies, anyone you love dies. There's a funeral or a memorial service, and for me I invested a lot of energy in making that and others to help make that the most beautiful service we could.

With a murder also there's this other piece. There's the criminal justice piece and the desire for justice, and so I invested a lot of time and energy, even though of course I was powerless in so many ways, but a lot of time and energy in seeing that her murderer was brought to justice, and then for many of us who are families of murder victims, we make a choice about what to do now with our time and our energy and this singular grief, and we choose to put one foot in front of the other and often choose to do good works in the name of our child or our loved one.

So that's precisely what our journey has been for my family, for my husband and I and my sister and her husband and my son.

GROSS: I think anytime someone we love dies, whether it's murder or sickness, we want to know, did they suffer at the end, and of course you wanted to know that particularly about your daughter because she was strangled to death. You have a poem I want you to read that asks that question.

Ms. BONANNO: Yes. This poem is called "Nighttime Prayer."

Ms. BONANNO: Did she suffer? Did suffer? Hail Mary, full of grace, did she suffer? Our Father who art in heaven, how much? How much? Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done. Was it long? Was it long? Was it long? Was it one? Was it two? Was it three? Was it 10? Was it this when she suffered? On Earth as it is - and how she saw, what she saw, what she saw? What last? Did she suffer? Did she? Did she? What last?

GROSS: It's a beautiful and - it's a beautiful and painful poem, and you know, hearing that poem about, you know, did she suffer, did she suffer, I just can't help but wonder: Did your mind just obsess on your daughter's murder for a very long time? Was there no room for anything else in your mind for a very long time?

Ms. BONANNO: That's a very good way to put it. There was no room for a long time for anything other than my vision of what her final moments were like, and I wanted so badly to know that it wasn't terrifically horrible for her, that her pain was somehow manageable, that her last vision was not the face of the murderer. And I'm not alone in this either.

The Parents of Murdered Children organization, which is a national organization, has a conference each year, and one of the best-attended and best-loved workshops is led by a coroner, and the workshop is entitled something like "Did Your Loved One Suffer?" And he sits down with parents, one to one, and will tell you exactly what a strangulation death is like, will tell you how many minutes before the victim loses unconsciousness, what the, you know, what the whites of the eyes looked like, what he or she felt, etcetera, from a very scientific point of view.

I found tremendous comfort in that workshop, not because the truth was easy to hear but because I was hearing the truth.

GROSS: Have you changed the way you imagine her death, or have you stopped thinking about it?

Ms. BONANNO: It's not that I've stopped thinking about it, but now, now there's so much more room for memory of who she was when she was little, what we did together, the fun times that we had, the hard times that we had. Suddenly, or not so suddenly, six years later, actually, after her death, now there's room for all that, and I'm grateful that there's emotional space for all that now.

GROSS: My guest is Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno. Her new collection of poems about the murder of her daughter is called "Slamming Open the Door." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno. She's written a new book of poems called "Slamming Open the Door," and the poems all revolve around the murder of her daughter. Her daughter was murdered right after she was about to - right before she was about to begin her first nursing job as a registered nurse, and the daughter was murdered by the daughter's ex-boyfriend.

How did you decide what kind of funeral to have for her? She was strangled to death. How did you decide what kind of funeral to have: burial, open casket, cremation?

Ms. BONANNO: We're Unitarian Universalists, and one of things I've always loved about our faith tradition is that we have memorial services, sometimes big, beautiful memorial services. We almost always cremate, and in Leidy's case, that was necessary because of the condition of her body but not an unusual thing in our church, anyway.

So we had her ashes in a beautiful, brown, walnut box. They were at the front of the sanctuary. There were tens and tens of sunflowers and daisies and beautiful drapes that - you know, beautiful drapes on the altars that one of the church members had put there. And we had quite an incredible service. I think we did her proud, beginning with music from Coldplay, including…

GROSS: Is that her favorite band?

Ms. BONANNO: It was one of her favorites, yes, and we started off, with, you know, one of our church members, Sara(ph), acting like DJ, playing the Coldplay. You know, we had music by my brother-in-law, who sang and played guitar. We had a flower communion, where we gave our flowers to people in the congregation. We had a candle-lighting ceremony.

It was big, and it was fabulous, and it was beautiful.

GROSS: Did you want to speak at the memorial, or did you not want to have the burden of having to express what you were feeling?

Ms. BONANNO: I did not want to speak, and I didn't speak, but my sister read a poem, "Poem About Light," at the memorial service.

GROSS: That's a poem of yours that ends your book, and I don't even want you to read it now because I want to end with it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BONANNO: Yes.

GROSS: So we're going to save that poem for later. There's another poem I want you to read, and this is a poem called "What Not to Say," and do you want to introduce the poem for us?

Ms. BONANNO: Sure. I think a lot of people who write about grief and loss have something to say about the wrong things that people did, or people do, or people say. I only have one short poem about it because mostly people said the right things over and over again, but I do have one.

Ms. BONANNO: (Reading) "What Not to Say." Don't say that you choked on a chicken bone once, and then make the sound, kuh, kuh, and say you bet that's how she felt.

Don't ask in horror why we cremated her.

And when I stand in the receiving line like Jackie Kennedy, without the pillbox hat, if Jackie were fat and had taken enough Klonopin to still an ox, and you whisper, I think of you every day, don't finish with because I've been going to Weight Watchers on Tuesday and wonder if you want to go too.

GROSS: Priceless.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BONANNO: You know, I'll tell you. I have these memories that came back to me when I was reading that poem that you just read, of when I was in elementary school and my upstairs neighbor's husband died and one of my teacher's husband died, and I was afraid to visit either of them because I felt like I'm not going to know what I'm going to say. I'm going say the wrong thing, it's going to be really horrible, or I'm going to say nothing, and I'm afraid to go. And I asked my parents, what do you say? What should I do? What do you say? And they said: Just say you're sorry.

Ms. BONANNO: Yes, and that's enough. You know, I mean, I think the only real mistake, barring something like what I just said, the only real mistake you can make is not saying anything at all. To say something and struggle saying it, that to me is someone blessing me. That to me is a loving act.

To be too facile, you know, in the saying, that's not comforting, you know? To see someone struggle as they find the words or to have someone write you a note and struggle with the words to say, that means everything to me.

Unidentified Man: Support for NPR comes from…

GROSS: Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno will be back in the second half of the show. Her new collection of poems about the murder of her daughter, Leidy, is called "Slamming Open the Door." Here's the Coldplay song that was played at Leidy's memorial service. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song, "Yellow")

COLDPLAY (Rock Band): (Singing) Look at the stars. Look how they shine for you. Everything you do, yeah, they were all yellow.

I came along, I wrote a song for you, and all the things you do, and it was called "Yellow."

So, then, I took my turn. Oh, what a thing to've done, and it was all yellow.

Your skin, oh, yeah, your skin and bones, turn it into something beautiful, and you know, you know I love you so. You know I love you so.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno. Her new collection of poems, "Slamming Open the Door," is about the murder of her daughter, Leidy, six years ago. The poems are about the crime, the investigation, the trial and the grief. Bonanno is a high school English teacher and a contributing editor of The American Poetry Review, where her husband David Bonanno is an editor. "Slamming Open the Door" is her first collection of poems.

GROSS: You actually put out a reward for information leading to the murderer. Why did you decide to do that?

Ms. BONANNO: We knew right away who had killed my daughter, and by we, I mean my family, my husband and I. I had talked to her on the phone the night before she died and we knew that it was her ex-boyfriend.

GROSS: How'd you know?

Ms. BONANNO: She had told me that they had broken up and that he was unhappy about it. She told me that he stole her credit card identity. He had used her credit card identity to buy some motorcycle parts, that she found this out, confronted him on it and he was very unhappy about that. She thought that he had gotten her social security number from a computer at the hospital. They both worked for the same hospital. He was a phlebotomist there.

GROSS: That's somebody who draws blood...

Ms. BONANNO: Yes.

GROSS: ...tests.

Ms. BONANNO: Yes. And so he was angry with her for finding this out. And she had already attempted to report to his superior at work that she believed he had stolen her social security number from work. And so between all of those clues - and I sensed a concern in her and even asked her not to sleep in her apartment that night, which she did anyway. She promised me she wouldn't and then she did anyway. So I knew when she was found dead who had done it.

And the question was, could the police collect enough evidence in a timely manner to arrest this man so that a conviction would stick, and that's what often takes so long in the criminal justice system. It's not that people don't know who committed the crime in the case of a murder, it's that there has to be significant evidence and the police have to be very careful about how they collect it.

GROSS: So you put out what, a ?10,000 reward?

Ms. BONANNO: Yes.

GROSS: Did it lead to anything?

Ms. BONANNO: It didn't. No one actually received the award - reward because there wasn't any moment where a specific piece of information, put forth by a specific individual, led to the cracking of the case. There were however, some very courageous witnesses at the trial. One woman in particular, who lived in the apartment above Leidy, testified that she had heard Joseph Eddy yelling at Leidy and saying that -saying, I mean the quote was, "I'll be back, bitch" the afternoon before her death. And that woman was not comfortable testifying. She lived, you know, she was from a, I think, a tough part of the city and it took special courage for her to sit on that stand and testify, not knowing what the ramifications might be for her.

GROSS: You have a poem called "Reward" that I'd like you to read.

Ms. BONANNO: Yes. "Reward." The reporters, with their caravans and collapsible equipment rush in and out, and in between adopt and earnest air and point the microphone in your direction. Oh yes, you have something to say. There is a reward of $10,000 for information leading to the arrest of our daughter's killer. And if they want to photograph you, clutching her nursing school portrait, or hugging your son, or standing by the makeshift alter gazing soberly into the camera, so what? So you let them.

GROSS: So you did it. You played the part.

Ms. BONANNO: Absolutely. Absolutely.

GROSS: Now, you explain that it's hard to find the actual evidence to indict the person who you know is the killer.

Ms. BONANNO: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: What did the police finally found that they thought was hard evidence that they could use to arrest the murderer?

Ms. BONANNO: They found the tiniest evidence of Joseph Eddy's DNA under my daughter's fingernail and it was clear that she had scratched him. In fact, he had a scratch on his face that was visible to his colleagues at work afterwards. And that tiny, tiny bit of DNA evidence is what turned the tide. There were many other circumstantial clues that would, I think, compel a reasonable jury to convict him, but that DNA did it. And I'll tell you, one of the poems that isn't in the book - and one I'm still writing - is a love poem to DNA, a love song to DNA evidence, because that kind of unequivocal signpost toward the truth is a beautiful, beautiful thing for me and people like me.

GROSS: You have a poem called "Hearsay" in which you describe things that your daughter told you before she was murdered about how her boyfriend had stolen her credit identity and bought stuff with it...

Ms. BONANNO: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...and she had reported him and he threatened her and all that. Could you say that in court? The poem's called "Hearsay," but were you able to take the witness stand and describe that phone call?

Ms. BONANNO: Well, I didn't say all of that in court because it is hearsay, but I did say some of it and that - and I said it while being questioned by the defense attorney, not my attorney. So clearly, the judge made a decision that, to a limited extent, some of that hearsay was allowable, perhaps because I was the last person who spoke to her.

GROSS: How did that come out by - with the defense attorney. It seems to me he wouldn't want to hear what you had to say.

Ms. BONANNO: Well the defense attorney was a woman, which I found interesting because so much of this is about - for me, obviously was about mother and daughter, and here I was looking into the eyes of a woman who was defending someone who she clearly knew had committed this murder. I found that - I just found that difficult. And I guess part of having your world turned topsy-turvy by murder is that who you used to think of as the heroes and who you used to think of as the enemies aren't necessarily so anymore.

I'm a liberal. You know, I'm a Democrat, I'm a Unitarian, Universalist so I thought - I always thought of police, for example, as a necessary part of society but certainly not the good guys, certainly often in the wrong or often angry. I thought of defense attorneys as the heroes, you know, sticking up for the little guy who wouldn't get a fair trial without them. Well...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BONANNO: ...I found out through Leidy's death, and through the trial, that my hero became the homicide detective. And the defense attorney, I wondered how she slept at night knowing - because particularly she's a private defense attorney, and so she's choosing to represent this person for money, when I felt in my heart that she certainly knew he had done it.

GROSS: What was it like for you to be at that trial and see you daughter's murderer? Was it the first time you'd seen him?

Ms. BONANNO: It wasn't the first time. I had met him and we had seen him at hearings previous to the trial itself. And courtrooms are interesting places. They make very little effort to separate the families of the victims from the families of the offenders. So in a hearing, it isn't unusual for you to be sitting down - for you, for example, as the mother of the murdered daughter, to be sitting down a few seats away from the mother of the murderer, or the sister of the murderer or family members. So I had seen him, seen his family, and even walked very close to him at one point during the hearing because he was seated so very close to where the public was seated. I could've reached out and touched him at some point.

GROSS: My guest is Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno. Her new collection of poems about the murder of her daughter is called "Slamming Open the Door." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno and she has a new collection of poems called "Slamming Open the Door" and the poems are all about the murder and its aftereffect - the murder of her daughter by her daughter's ex-boyfriend.

Tell us how the murderer was sentenced and what his conviction meant to you?

Ms. BONANNO: After being found guilty of first degree murder, we essentially knew that his punishment would be life in prison without parole. That is the standard for the state of Pennsylvania. So he was convicted and then, maybe a week or two later, we went in for the sentencing. He had to listen to us, as murderers do. When they are found guilty, they're required to listen to victim's statements, victim impact statements. So my sister spoke, my brother-in-law spoke, Leidy's best friend spoke - looked at him directly and said what it was that the he had done to our family and how painful it was to endure the loss of her.

During that time he didn't look at us. And afterwards, he was invited by the judge to speak to us and he refused to do so. I think out of shame or out of some persistent fairy tale representation that he was not guilty and so he didn't want to put anything on record that would jeopardize some future appeal or something like that.

GROSS: But he pled not guilty.

Ms. BONANNO: Yeah. He pled not guilty.

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. BONANNO: That's correct. Yeah. And maintains today his innocence.

GROSS: You didn't speak at the victim...

Ms. BONANNO: I did.

GROSS: Was the - yeah.

Ms. BONANNO: And the same poem that we referred to earlier, "The Poem About Light," I wrote for Joseph Eddy, I wrote to Joseph Eddy and I read to him as my victim's impact statement instead of some - instead of writing something else.

GROSS: I bet he was mystified that you were standing there reading a poem.

Ms. BONANNO: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: In all honestly, it's a great poem. I love it. You're going to read it at the end of this interview, but I'm sure he thought it was kind of odd.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BONANNO: You don't think he appreciated the metaphor and the similes?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So, you know, as you said, you're a liberal, you're a Unitarian, a Universalist, I'm sure you don't believe in capital punishment and that you're not deep into, like, retribution so what surprised you about how you felt when your daughter's murderer was convicted to life in prison without parole?

Ms. BONANNO: Well, before he was convicted, I have to tell you, I became suddenly deep into retribution...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BONANNO: ...and revenge. I mean no, there was no ambivalence in my mind that - I didn't believe in the death penalty as a state option, but I believed in the death of the man who murdered my daughter. And had we lived in a slightly different time or place, or had I been a person who had the resources or was made of the stuff to kill another human being, I would have sought him out and killed him my self.

GROSS: Is that a part of you you didn't know existed?

Ms. BONANNO: Absolutely. Had no idea that that existed.

GROSS: And what did it feel like to be introduced to this part of you that you didn't know existed, that went against what you thought you believed?

Ms. BONANNO: It wasn't as horrifying as you would suppose. It wasn't as if I looked in the mirror and said to myself, what have you become? It actually felt as if I were more in touch with some primal sense of self that had to do with love for a child and love for a family and what the tribe should do if the life - a life in the family is taken.

Luckily for us, he was found guilty and he was sentenced to life in prison without parole because - although, we would not have hunted him down, were he walking around a free man today, I don't think I would be free of that kind of rage and desire for some kind of retribution. So his being incarcerated is a blessing. And not having the death penalty on the table as an option was a blessing for us too, because we didn't have to struggle over the morality of that particular issue.

GROSS: You mentioned that, you know, in one of your poems that your minister purposed forgiveness and you say, because after all he must.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And then you describe like the hate that you're actually feeling…

Ms. BONANNO: Yeah.

GROSS: …as your minister proposes forgiveness. Do you - do you feel like forgiveness will ever be something that you're going to even consider?

Ms. BONANNO: Well, I think it's something I should consider.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BONANNO: And, I know we all know the advice about not letting - that forgiveness has to do with liberating yourself, not just some kind of redemption for the offender, for the person who hurts you. When I wrote the poem about my minister proposing forgiveness because after all he must, I meant that - in an earnest way, actually - my minister is a person who I think of as having - as a holy person having a true calling to ministry. So when he proposed that word, it wasn't coming from some place of biblical ordination that forgive - we are commanded to forgive. It really was coming from some deep-rooted place of love and humanity. That didn't stop me from…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BONANNO: …laughing and saying forget it, Kent. But, I did appreciate where that came from for him. And that was just one of many moments that the church provided for us that helped us to move forward, that really helped us to face the next day.

GROSS: You mentioned before that in the courtroom during the trial of your daughter's murderer, you and your family ended up setting very close to the murderer's family, which sounds kind of awkward. You have a poem about how after the trial you had an encounter with your daughter's murderer's mother. And I'd like you to read that.

Ms. BONANNO: I'd be happy to read this poem called, "Church Of Justice." And I should tell you that in it I use the name Johnny Early as a pseudo name for my daughter's murderer.

Guilty, say the jurors. We gasp and sigh and hug and weep, just like on TV. We walk down the aisle and a woman waits in the hallway for me, she says my name. I have studied her, Johnny Early's mother and despise her and the son she carried, and the bible she carries. She says, I am so sorry. Suddenly she is tiny, she has a tooth missing from the bottom row. She holds out her arms and what can I do? What, but hug her back. My truest other sister, she says, I am so sorry.

GROSS: I'm not sure I know what…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: …what to say about that. But did you feel any, like, empathy for her at all?

Ms. BONANNO: In that moment, I certainly did. I mean we certainly were two mothers holding each other. Each of whom had lost - lost someone very important to us.

GROSS: I really love this book of poems. And, as I was telling before we started the interview, because the poems are the narrative of your daughter's murder and your response to it, I felt like I had read a memoir or a novel just by reading this very short collection of concise poems. And I know you're a poet, but at the same time I know this is your first book.

Ms. BONANNO: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So, I guess I'd be interested in hearing how and when you decided to write these poems about the subjects you were already completely obsessed with.

Ms. BONANNO: I wanted to write a different book. I wanted to finish a collection of poems I had started. I've always written poems and wanted to get on with the business, after Leidy's death, of continuing to write. But I found that the story of her death stood in the way of every other thing when it came to writing, that no other poems could be written until I wrote about this. So, reluctantly in a way, I tackled climbing the mountain that stood in the way of the mountain, which is writing everyday for a writer.

And once I started, I had a few poems - I wrote poem about Leidy immediately after her death, and I had a few other poems from the collection that were published in the Women's Review of Books. But, one summer I sat down and said okay, now I'm going to do this and I realized early on that I wanted to make it a ride for the reader in the sense that it was a ride for us. I wanted to kind of drag, you know, get the reader by the collar and kind of pull her along with us. And I really wanted this sense of: now you're onboard and now, just like me, you can't turn around and step off until the book is over. That's what I was hoping for anyway.

GROSS: And I think it works. You know, you said that you found that you couldn't write any poems other than poems about your daughter's murder. And it reminds me of the first poem in the book when death kind of grabs you by the collar and says, from now on, you write about me.

Ms. BONANNO: Exactly.

GROSS: What are you writing about now?

Ms. BONANNO: Well, I have a couple…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BONANNO: …I have a couple of things. I have a collection of about 27 poems. So, it isn't a book yet. It's kind of chapbook, but I think it should be a book, and the working title is "Frankie Spinelli's(ph) First Kiss." And those poems really are, all of them, in some way a love song to the universe. They're hopeful. They're about love, romantic love and other kinds of love and discovery and rebirth. So, I'm working on that collection. And I have some other ideas. I have a few poems about suburbia. I've an idea about a suburbia collection. And now, I'm really committed to the idea of a book of poetry as narrative or, you know, a kind of real thematic unity, not just, kind of, well, these are the best poems I could write so that's why they're all in this, you know, this book. So, we'll see what happens.

GROSS: Having the poems tell a story.

Ms. BONANNO: Yes, yes.

GROSS: My guest is Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno. Her new collection of poems about the murder of her daughter is called, "Slamming Open the Door." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno. She's written a new collection of poems about the murder of her daughter, Leidy, called, "Slamming Open the Door."

Well, I want you to close with the poem called, "Poem About Light." And again, this is the poem that you wrote for your daughter's memorial service and your sister read it. And it's also a poem that you read at the sentencing of your daughter's…

Ms. BONANNO: Correct.

GROSS: …murderer. And I think it closes your book and I think it's the way to close the interview.

Ms. BONANNO: Thank you, Terry. Poem About Light: You can try to strangle light, use your hands and think you found the throat of it, but you haven't. You could use a rope or a garrote or a telephone cord, but the light amorphous, implacable, will make a full of you in the end. You could make it your mission to shut it out forever, to crouch in the dark, the blinds pulled tight. Still in the morning, a gleaming little ray will betray you, poking its optimistic finger through a corner of the blind. And then more light - clever, nervy, impossible, spilling out from the crevices, warming the shade. This is the stubborn sun choosing to rise like it did yesterday, like it will tomorrow. You have nothing to do with it. The sun makes its own history, light has its way.

GROSS: You wrote that pretty early on in your loss for the memorial service. Did you really feel that then, that there was something eternal and worthy of optimism?

Ms. BONANNO: I did. I even felt that then. Even in the furrows of some dark, dark hole that I was standing in, I did believe this. I did feel this too. I felt it all the way through. You know, it's always been the underside that turns into the overside of the experience the - there's a Japanese proverb that the reverse side has a reverse side. And I think of that as the heads and tails of a coin. You look at the heads but you're conscious that there's a tails underneath which is - which has its heads on its reverse side. And grief and mourning and loss of a daughter is like that. It's dark but it's light.

GROSS: Kathleen, thank you so much for talking with us. It's really been, you know, a pleasure to talk with you and thank you for your book.

Ms. BONANNO: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno is the author the new collection of poems, "Slamming Open the Door," about her daughter Leidy's murder. Bonanno is a high school English teacher and a contributing editor of The American Poetry Review. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

I'm Terry Gross.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.