Friday, April 17, 2015

Poetry, Murder and True Crime: a guest blog by Anne Carroll Fowler

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Maine is well known as a safe place to live. There are the usual property crimes - especially if your property is meth or marijuana - and occasionally the lobstermen mix it up with each other over poaching, but according to the Urban Institute, Maine is the second least-crime-prone state in the union, behind number one Vermont.

So the murders we do have are newsworthy, and shocking, perhaps none so much as the October 5, 1976 killing of Anne Payson Holt. Daughter of one of the oldest and most influential families in Maine, wife to a well-respected war veteran and lawyer, Mrs. Holt was related by blood and marriage to some of the most recognizable names of the old-money WASP hierarchy. But she was also a grandmother, a gardener, a volunteer at her local church. Her murder - at home, in her bed - by a pair of drunken ne'er-do-wells who had broken in to steal her television appalled and terrified her friends, family and community.

One of those deeply affected was her granddaughter, Anne Fowler. The author of several collections of poetry, Anne has shaped the events, moments and emotions of her grandmother's death into a unique work: a true crime story, by an intimate witness, told in a series of linked poems. I read THE CASE OF THE RESTLESS REDHEAD (Perry Mason fans may recognize that title) for a possible quote, and was bowled over. Today, Anne shares part of her process, her family's story, and one of the poems from THE CASE OF THE RESTLESS REDHEAD.

I remember exactly the day I decided to write about my grandmother’s murder. It was the very beginning of my August month of vacation from my work as a parish priest. I said to my husband Sam, “I think it’s time to write about Granny.” 

My grandmother was murdered in a home invasion in Falmouth, Maine, in 1976. She was 80, and we were about to celebrate that momentous birthday. My grandmother and I were very close; I was named for her and I loved her very much. My mother said once, bitterly, “Of course I’m jealous; you’re the daughter my mother always wanted.”

Young Anne "Nancy" Carroll Payson
What happened next was eerie. First, I had a visit from a friend and colleague who had done prison ministry early in her ordained life. She asked if I was curious about what had happened to the men who killed my grandmother, and I said, “not really.” But her question did make me wonder, and when my next visitor was a young woman who did opposition research for a living, I asked if she could find anything out. A couple of days later she called and said, “I didn’t want to send this news in an email. Leon Rich (the killer) was released from prison on July 28 of this year.”

Nancy Holt in her middle years
I’m not a mystic or a psychic. But I do believe in a fourth dimension, or a collective unconscious, and this weird sequence of events only confirmed that belief.

So began a journey into territory I’d never traveled before. The Victim’s Advocate in Maine Attorney General’s office sent me a huge pile of documents: crime scene photos, witness statements, police reports, the autopsy report, and the statements of all but one of the 6 participants in the crime. The killer made no statement, either when he was arrested or at the trial, which I had attended.

One of the last pictures of Nancy.
Our family, my grandmother’s family, has been prominent in Portland, Maine, for many generations. A number of my grandmother’s letters to her mother and father are archived at the Maine Historical Society. Reading them gave me a poignant picture of her life as a young wife and mother. And of course I knew her very well for 30 years.

Now, my genre is poetry. My challenge was to transform this vivid material into poems. I studied a number of poets who had worked original documents into books of poetry: Maggie Nelson, Catherine Sasanov, Martha Collins, to name just a few. I spent the rest of my summer vacation sitting on our dock or on the beach, reading and writing.

Window to the bedroom where the murder occurred.
The project took seven years from that August beginning to the book’s publication this month, and demanded more from me as a woman and a poet than I would have imagined. Even now, I can barely believe that the book came out of me.
The book is called The Case of the Restless Redhead– the title of the very first Perry Mason episode, which of course was in black and white. My grandmother had red hair, and red runs through the book like a trail of blood.


Dr. Charles F. Branch, Post Mortem Report

One’s first impression
is that this lady
had auburn hair.

But rinse away
the stains. Wipe
away the dried
blood bathing
her whole
head and neck.
You find

this comely, slight,
elderly female
had curled
gold white hair
very well kept.


  1. It's difficult to find words for something so horrific, so tragic, so heartrendingly sad; for such an overwhelming loss.
    Your grandmother must have been a very special lady indeed. I shall be adding your book to my to-be-read pile.

  2. Anne, that poem gave me shivers. Your leading to write this book was obviously a true one. I hope it wasn't too painful for you to learn all the details of her death, and I look forward to reading the book.

  3. Anne, I was moved by your reading from this book last Friday evening at the Crime Wave conference opening event at the Portland Public Library. I've been talking about it ever since, and I only heard the two minute excerpt you read so beautifully.

    I admire you for taking on such a challenging project, and spending seven years transforming it into the book it is today. I will not only buy and read it, I will hope to cross paths with you soon so you can sign my copy.

  4. Anne, I am so sorry for your loss, even all these years later. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to return to those memories and documents to research this book.

    But with that one poem as an example, it seems to have been destined.

    I very much look forward to reading the entire work. Poetry is something that most of us stop reading after school (at least those of us who were English majors had to read poetry in school). I do occasionally pick up a book of poetry to revisit the practice of reading poems.

    Just a few years ago there was a beautiful book of poems about the senseless murder of Matthew Shepard, called October Mourning (by Leslea Newman) in which each poem took on a different point of view - including one from the perspective of the fence to which Matt was tied.

    That book ended up being on my blog's Top Reads of that year list. I also love the poems of Sophie Hannah (a crime fiction author as well).

  5. Wonderful discussion of the hard work that went into exploring, shaping and creating this book. I hope it reaches far and wide!

  6. Beautiful, and touching. And yesterday, Susan Cerulean talked about her journeys, too, and ours. I so agree in the collective unconsciousness, and listening to what the universe is telling us.
    It is inspirational that you are such a brilliant listener, and that you are so brave.
    Thank you, so much, for this.

  7. Wow. This is an amazing post, Anne. It's what we writers do at our very best, take pain and turn it into poetry.

  8. Good poetry pares down experience, emotion to a distilled essence that is incredibly hard to achieve, but when done well, it has the power to reach us in ways that other forms of literature cannot hope to emulate. I applaud your courage in tackling this immensely personal and painful subject and your ability to live with it and shape it over the course of those seven years.

    And then, of course, to stand in the public eye and read it. I salute you, Anne! Bravo!

  9. Anne, what a difficult but important job you had to put into words this tragedy that befell your family. I can't begin to imagine the horror and pain you had to relive. It does indeed seem as if the timing was right for it. I'm a big fan of stories, both true and fictional, told through verse, so I am certain that I will be reading this one. I feel so bad for you, losing your precious grandmother that way, but you have honored her well with this book.

  10. I love narrative poetry books, and they are not plentiful, so this is exciting. I am so sorry about how you lost your grandmother, but I am looking forward to reading how you transformed something horrific into something beautiful.

  11. My grandmother was indeed special, strong, beautiful, and an inspiration to me in life and in death. The book feels like a burden lifted, and a tribute to her. I hope you will be moved by the story. Thank you

  12. My grandmother was indeed a beautiful and strong woman – an inspiration in life and in death.

    I hope you will be moved by the story.

  13. My grandmother was indeed an inspiration in life and in death. I hope her story will move you

  14. Edith, although I went to the trial, reliving it all through police reports and witness statements, and by researching her younger life,
    I went much deeper. A transformative experience

  15. I am so grateful for all these empathetic comments. I will reply individually once I can figure out how to do that! Thank you, Anne

  16. Brenda, I'm so glad you were moved by the poems. I loved Two Minutes in the Slammer, and I am certainly going to try to arrange a fuller reading at the Library and perhaps the Historical Society, and I do hope we will meet,

  17. Kristopher, I am very much hoping that people who don't generally read poetry will find and appreciate this book. It's narrative, and for the most part accessible to general readers.

  18. Thanks, Wendy, and thanks for all your help in getting this book to come into being.

  19. Hank,thank you so much. I think I inherited a good deal of my courage from my grandmother. I did feel that I internalized some of her qualities more fully after she died: a form of eternal life, I believe. Courage, generosity, and a deep interest in people were some of her virtues.

  20. Thanks, Hallie. Yes, I think of poetry, mostly, as pain management. And this project took me to far deeper levels of empathy and imagination than any previous work.I think it transformed me, as well as the story.

  21. Anne--I, too, heard you read in Portland on Friday night. Both my husband and I were blown away by the poems you read and cannot wait for the whole book.

    Talk about genre-bending--poetry, true crime, biography, memoir. It is amazing what you've done in letting the barriers fall away.

  22. Barb, that's how I felt when I read THE CASE OF THE RESTLESS REDHEAD. Anne is a talented poet,but even moreso the way this work smashes the barriers between genres.

  23. Denise Ann, you can get it from Antrim House, or, pretty soon, from Amazon. But Antrim, the publisher, and I both come out better if you order from them. Thanks so much, Anne

  24. Barb, I sent my cover artist a note about the reading and the genre bending award, and he wrote back about the "gender bending " award. I told him I think my gender bending days are over. But I did try to get inside the minds and souls of both my grandmother and the perps, and that certainly involved some bending and twisting. Thanks, Anne

  25. To all of you who talk about my courage, I think I discovered a new dimension of that after Granny died. I wanted a George Herbert (17th C poet and Anglican priest) to be read at the funeral, as I was working on a doctoral thesis about Herbert and he is who really drew me towards ordination. I volunteered to read the poem at the funeral, and that was my way of saying that our family would not be vanquished by this event. But then, exploring the lives of the perps, and trying to imagine what was like for Granny to die, took me to new depths, or heights, of courage.