Sammy David Roberts of South Carolina had no last words, other than to thank a chaplain who had come to help him make peace before he died.
After eating a final meal that included salad, fried shrimp, french fries, hush puppies and Coke, Roberts, 40, was strapped to a gurney and given a lethal injection of drugs which stopped his heart — a more peaceful death, some might say, than that of his three victims, almost 20 years earlier.
Roberts and two other men were convicted of killing Kenneth Krause, 23, Bill Spain, 25, and Louis Cakley, service station attendants whom they had robbed in June 1980.
One of the murderers testified against the others in exchange for immunity, while the third died of natural causes on death row. Roberts had allegedly denied his role in the murders until he died.
St. John’s poet Shoshanna Wingate, as a 10-year-old in South Carolina, knew Roberts. Her father did prison work and would take her to visit inmates, especially Roberts, with whom they struck up a particular friendship. She remembers Roberts being kind to her, telling her he was serving time for an armed robbery his girlfriend had pushed him to commit before later turning him in to police.
Wingate never knew what had become of Roberts after she moved from South Carolina, and, as an adult with her father deceased, decided to look him up.
She was surprised to learn the truth about Roberts’ crimes and struggled to understand how it would have ever been possible for her to come in contact with a death row inmate. She later learned, through a lawyer friend of her father, that the state’s court had struck down the death penalty for a period of two years in the 1980s, and death row prisoners were moved into the general population in high-security prisons.
Wingate has written a poem, called “The Murderer,” about her contact with Roberts.
“A lot of the poem is about trying to come to terms with a child’s imagination of what happened to him, with the adult realization of what actually did happen,” she said.
The poem will be included in Wingate’s upcoming book of poetry, “Radio Weather,” to be published by Véhicule Press this fall.
Another piece from the book deals with Wingate’s father, who died as a patient on the AIDS ward of San Fransisco General Hospital. The poem speaks of the mixed emotions of an abused daughter caring for a father dying a painful, difficult disease that carries a lot of stigma.
“This is the bed, empty again
next to the man dying. This is
the strap that ties down
the man that lies next to the empty bed.
This is the daughter untying the strap
that restrains the man that lies
in an empty room where he is dying
on a floor full of rooms, emptying.
This is the daughter who speaks
to the man who can’t remember her
who brings him grapes he cannot eat
and refuses the gloves from the nurse
and kicks the mask under the bed
in the empty room where the man
is dying on a floor full
of emptied rooms.”
Wingate, who has a master of fine arts degree in poetry from the New School in New York, is a founding editor of local literary magazine “Riddle Fence,” and published a poetry chapbook, “Homing Instinct,” in 2011. She has been writing poetry for the better part of 20 years, she said, but mainly shied away from using her own life experiences as inspiration, feeling the subject matter might be mistaken.
“There are so many writers, especially when they’re young, who use titillating material as a way of getting attention for their work, and that’s what I was afraid of,” she explained. “I was afraid of using murderers and AIDS and I was afraid that if I didn’t have the skills to do it well, it was just going to be a wreck. It probably took me 10 to 15 years of constant work to get to the skill level where I felt like I could pull off the contradictions in the subject matter, where I could pull off the nuances and the fact that I was exploring the grey areas of not judging a situation.
“It’s very easy to take this subject matter and write too heavy-handed until you’re beating people over the head with it, and that’s what I was afraid of. I think it took me a long time to find those subtleties.”
An admitted perfectionist, Wingate tosses 80 per cent of what she writes, and can easily go through 25 drafts of a single poem.
Getting her manuscript accepted by Véhicule, she said, led her, ironically, down a path of creation, daring to write the things she had spent years avoiding. Some of the poems ended up being among her favourite pieces.
Finally letting go of the work — and the personal subject matter — for public consumption isn’t cathartic for her.
“I went through therapy. That was cathartic. This is hard,” she said, laughing.
At the same time, she’s looking forward to beginning something new, and that something has already come along.
This week, Wingate was accepted as a participating artist in “Wild, Pure Aesthetic Wonder,” an exhibition of fibre art exploring the wonders of Gros Morne National Park, which will open at the Craft Council Gallery in St. John’s in February next year, before travelling to Gros Morne to be displayed at the Discovery Centre Gallery in Woody Point. It will close at the end of the 2015 Fibre Arts NL conference in October.
Wingate will write poetry about various plants that grow in Gros Morne, then use them to make a series of eco-prints, embroidered together in a wall-hanging.
She is drawing inspiration, she explained, from quilts with hidden symbols, made by slaves in the United States as private maps.
“I’m not a craftsperson. I don’t do crafts,” Wingate said.
“My kids were little and I was sleep-deprived from all the night nursing and I wasn’t concentrating and getting really frustrated that I was creatively blocked. I went to Chapters one time and looked at the craft books, and I picked up a book called ‘Eco Color’ by India Flint. I just had this instantaneous emotional response; I had never seen anything as beautiful in my life and it was amazing.”
Wingate has taught herself how to print silk using plants found in her back garden or along walking trails, including roses, eucalyptus, Labrador tea and onion.
Steam draws the pigment from the flora onto the silk, which is cured for a short period of time.
Wingate has already created a collection of delicate, gently-hued silk scarves under the name Shoshi Designs, which she sells at craft events and in The Rooms gift shop. She has taught her oldest daughter to recognize specific plants, and her husband, a wildlife biologist, will often bring leaves and flowers back to her from the woods.
“I never intended to make a business out of it,” Wingate said. “I just actually love it. I find it really peaceful.
“I get bored easily and I feel like if someone else has already done something and they’ve done it well, what’s the point? I do believe in art for art’s sake, but for myself as an artist, I feel the need to create things that have value to me. I guess I like to feel like I’m engaged with the world, and that my art is pursuing that engagement.”
Wingate’s chapbook, “Homing Instinct,” can be purchased online at www.froghollowpress.com.
See her Shoshi Designs creations at www.facebook.com/shoshiscarves.