A few days after Thanksgiving, I received in my East Carolina University mailbox a letter from one Richard E. Hamilton, inmate #123846, addressed from the Union Correctional Institution in Raiford, Florida. Hamilton writes that he “was born and raised in Greenville, N.C., only blocks from the E.C.U. campus.” Hamilton, who has “been locked up for 23 years,” writes poems in his cell on Florida’s death row. According to prison records accessed at About.com, Hamilton resides there because, in 1994, he and “Anthony Wainwright escaped from a North Carolina prison, stole guns and a Cadillac and traveled to Florida. On April 27, 1994, the car overheated in Lake City, FL, and the two kidnapped Carmen Gayheart at gunpoint from a Winn-Dixie parking lot and stole her Ford Bronco. The two raped, strangled, and shot Gayheart twice in the back of the head.”
In his letter to me, Hamilton explains how he has been writing poetry for 32 years and would like me to help him to get his manuscript published. “My poetry is about my life,” he writes, “and it’s touched many people over the years. I’d like to be published as a way to give something back, leave something behind.” One might well be quick to respond that Hamilton has already left “something behind,” a painful void his actions forced upon Carmen Gayheart’s loved ones. In a blog called Life on the Row, Gayheart’s sister, Maria Tortora-David, writes that, during the trial, “Hamilton was extremely cocky blowing kisses at me and rocking back and forth in his seat shooting Carmen's husband the bird.”
Anyone would be right, I think, to feel that his absolute disregard for human life and his horrible crimes deserve our disgust and that he should be punished accordingly. No body of poetry can make up for what Hamilton has stolen from Gayheart and her family. That said, however, I can’t help but wonder what might have been had Hamilton been swayed by different forces as a young man, if he had turned to the page earlier, if the possibility and hope Reginald Dwayne Betts found in creative writing had found Hamilton before it was too late. Listen: I’m not trying to sugar-coat anything. What I am trying to say is that there are many paths one might follow toward a life of utility and joy, and creative writing is surely one of those paths. There are many writers who generously and selflessly give of their time and energy and provide writing workshops in prisons and other underserved at-risk areas. There ought to be more. I ought to do more. There ought to be more stories like Dwayne Betts’ and fewer like Richard E. Hamilton’s.
I can’t help Hamilton get his book published. We judge many things with sliding scales, and so it should be for creative endeavor. I might consider the hand-written poem Hamilton included with his letter not in terms of contemporary academic expectations but rather as a creative expression giving voice to a soul who has so badly mangled his life and has made such awful choices that nothing remains but the long wait for death and the language of possibility and hope that poetry can offer, an expression that may allow for some greater redemption than is possible on the human plane. In that way I might allow that Hamilton’s “The Beat of My Pen” is indeed poetry. For isn’t it true, as we jog off big Thanksgiving and holiday meals, as we goof around with superfluous gifts and perhaps moan about those things we wanted but did not receive, isn’t it true that as we reflect upon the year we leave behind and how we acted in it, that we, too, like Hamilton, might feel ill at ease about how we’ve lived our lives: “Looking in the mirror and seeing / what everyone has failed to see, / wondering at each day’s end if / anyone will think of me. . . .” The things that those who size us up often fail to see can be both positive and negative; that particular ambiguity raises these lines, for me, to a level of language that works like poetry.
In an October, 2006 Washington Post article by Lonnae O'Neal Parker, “From Inmate to Mentor, Through Power of Books,” Dwayne Betts is quoted as saying, “‘It takes focus and resources and people to help you develop character’, to grow into ‘who you want to be in the world.’" I think poets can help to provide some of these resources; I think poets can be people who help. Who knows what life we might have a hand in saving?