Should acclaimed prison writer profit from tragedy?

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Coldwater — With prisons full of writing programs, many inmates have tried their hand at penning fiction and nonfiction.

But few are ever published. Even rarer is a prisoner signed by one of the top publishers and praised by such literary luminaries as Joyce Carol Oates.


Michigan inmate Curt Dawkins did it on his first try. “The Graybar Hotel,” a collection of short stories about prison life, was published in July by an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Then again, he may be the only prisoner in the United States with a master of fine arts degree.

But the acclaim has raised troubling questions.

Dawkins is serving a life sentence without parole because, while high on crack cocaine, he killed Tom Bowman of Kalamazoo in 2004 by shooting him in the heart.

Some wonder if it’s proper to praise a person involved in such a heinous act. Can the art be separated from the artist, extolling one and reviling the other?

Bowman’s brother, Ken, said Dawkins shouldn’t be allowed to publish anything or feel any satisfaction in his life. He wishes Michigan had the death penalty, which he would have been happy to administer himself.

“I’m a Marine. I was taught to kill,” Ken Bowman said. “I would have killed that son of a (expletive) and enjoyed every second of it.”

Others see Dawkins as a story of redemption. He took something horrible and made something beautiful, they say. By giving such an insightful glimpse into the life of prisoners, the book gives a voice to the voiceless.

Still, they struggle to reconcile his two personas, the paradox at the heart of his own story: creator and destroyer, writer and killer.

“You (normally) don’t see that in the same person,” said Nate Harrison, an Ann Arbor writer who was deeply moved by the book. “It’s hard to wrap your head around.”

Prison bookworm candid

Dawkins, 49, is a wisp of a man: short and slight with sad-looking eyes.

During a two-hour interview at Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater, he rarely made eye contact but was candid and sometimes blunt. In his prison blues with an orange cloth across the shoulder, he looked like the bookworm he is.

“The Graybar Hotel,” Curtis Dawkins’ collection of short stories about prison life, was published in July by an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

Dawkins said he struggles with guilt and sorrow over what he did every single day. For 13 years, he has tried to understand why he shot a stranger.

The drugs had rendered him psychotic but weren’t the only reason for the killing, he said. Dawkins described a festering anger that he said has chased him since childhood.

“There’s some rage there, anger and rage, from being an outsider,” he said.

In prison he got a chest tattoo with the opening lines of “Gravity’s Rainbow” by Thomas Pynchon. The novel describes a descent into madness.

The story of Curtis Warren Dawkins begins with a poem.

During college, he read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a T.S. Eliot poem about a man whose isolation from society leaves him disillusioned.

He immediately identified with the character. Dawkins was an introvert who always felt weird in social situations. Forever anxious and insecure, he had trouble connecting with people.

“He’s not a super social person,” said Bridgett Jensen, 50, a longtime friend from Olney, Illinois. “I never knew him to have a wide variety of friends.”

Struggles with liquor, drugs

The first time Dawkins felt like part of a group was when his father held a work party to celebrate his grocery store/meatpacking company winning a national award for best sausage. Dawkins, who was 12, got blind drunk.

He continued to drink throughout his life, dropping out of college, but then sobered up and received a bachelor’s degree in English from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. Before graduating in 1996, he wrote a short story that won an award from the Illinois Arts Council.

Then he began to drink again.

Ironically, tough times never tempted him to drink, he said. It was just the opposite. When he felt good about something, he figured he would feel even better by topping it off with whiskey.

The Prufrock poem continued to be his lodestar. It had made him realize how writing could seize a reader’s emotions. It had made him want to be a writer.

Curtis Dawkins with his family when they visited him in prison in 2006.

Dawkins went to an addiction clinic, returned to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and enrolled in a graduate writing program at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. He met Kim Knutsen, who was working on her doctorate in English.

He moved in with Knutsen, who had a son, and they quickly had two more children. After graduating in 2000, he sold cars and then plastic meat cases, traveling along the East Coast.

After the intensive writing program at WMU, he enjoyed the break from writing. The traveling salesman job paid well. He was happy.

On a business trip, Dawkins said he was sitting in a motel in Reading, Pennsylvania, when he read an article about how the sativa strain of marijuana wasn’t addictive. That launched a nighttime search of the city for the drug.

He said he moved onto ketamine, prescription painkillers and muscle relaxants before settling on heroin, experiencing several overdoses along the way. Knutsen kicked him out of the house.

She said the same sensitivity that makes Dawkins a good writer also makes him vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the world. Her novel, “The Lost Journals of Sylvia Plath,” is loosely based on their life together.

“Sensitive genius that he was, his moods ranged from nervous to enraged and back again, with occasional uneasy stops at happiness,” she wrote about the Dawkins character.

If it wasn’t for the murder, Dawkins eventually would have killed himself through drugs or alcohol, Knutsen said.

Devil’s Night killing

On the day before Halloween 2004, Dawkins had an amiable visit with Knutsen and the children. They ate dinner together and made plans for trick-or-treating the next night.

After leaving at 10 p.m., he felt like getting high and partying, he said. He bought crack cocaine, which he had never tried before, and drank , the first time he had alcohol in years.

He put on a gangster costume and evil leprechaun mask and grabbed his Smith & Wesson .357-caliber revolver. He had gotten the gun for protection when he bought drugs.

At 1:40 a.m., he approached a group of people in front of a home near the WMU campus where a Halloween party was being held, according to court records.

Dawkins confronted Tom Bowman, who was smoking a cigarette on the porch of a two-story Victorian home that had been converted into apartments. After Bowman refused to give him money, Dawkins shot him from 10 to 15 feet away.

The two men didn’t know each other. Bowman, 48, a house painter, was divorced with no kids. He was well-liked, serving on neighborhood watch and often giving extra groceries to the elderly, said relatives.

Dawkins went to the second floor of the home and began banging on the doors of other apartments, according to court records. When a tenant opened his door, Dawkins pointed the gun at him and told him to kneel. He asked if the man was afraid to die. He told him to get ready to meet Jesus.

Dawkins held the man hostage for two hours before surrendering to police.

The whole time he felt like the event was happening to someone else, he said. It never occurred to him he was responsible for it.

“I remember bits and pieces of it,” he said. “I can’t say why or what it felt like while it was happening.”

Cellblock coping

When Dawkins went to prison, it was all he could do to stay alive, he said. The danger wasn’t other inmates. It was the lifetime of tedium that awaited. He wanted to kill himself.

To get out of his head, he turned to writing. It let him escape, to live in an imaginary world, Dawkins said. Although most of his writing is about prison, it’s a fictional one, easing the burden of being in a real one.

“It gets me away from the world I’m trying to turn into fiction, if that makes any sense,” he said.

He wrote short stories on an electric typewriter sent by his parents. He mailed them to his sister, a legal secretary who retyped them and submitted them to literary magazines. Most were rejected.

Jarrett Haley, the editor of a small literary journal called “Bull,” read Dawkins’ writing in another magazine in 2009 and asked him to write book reviews for his journal. After Haley became editor of the alumni magazine for San Diego State, he was interviewing an alumnus who was a literary agent and told her about Dawkins.

The agent, Sandra Dijkstra, signed him and sold the short story collection to Scribner for a dollar amount in the low six figures. Dawkins’ share goes into a fund for his children’s education.

“The Graybar Hotel” was published on July 4, a prisoner book released on Independence Day.

“He writes like he’s talking,” Haley said. “There’s no pretentiousness. He’s a very natural writer.”

The 14 stories describe the quiet moments of prison life. Inmates play dominoes, tell interminable stories and obsessively watch sports.

One uses the prison phone to call strangers, just to make a connection. For Dawkins, it was Prufrock trying to talk to his mermaids.

Jaimy Gordon, whose novel, “Lord of Misrule,” won a National Book Award in 2010, said Dawkins’ book was the best collection of short stories about prison ever written.

“These brilliantly crafted stories — with their formal inventiveness, savory dialogue, meticulous detail, and succinctly compassionate portraiture — are as much a manual in how to write original short fiction as in how to think about prisons,” Gordon wrote.

While the victim’s brother condemns Dawkins, his mother forgives him.

Sharon Hilton, 79, a devout Baptist who lives in Crab Orchard, Tenn., said she had hoped Dawkins would do something useful in prison. She feels the book is the answer to her prayer.

“Instead of staring at four walls, he utilized the opportunities available,” she told the News. “I think it’s wonderful he’s doing that. It’s proof the Lord can take a tragedy and turn it into a blessing.”

After the trial, Knutsen and the children moved to Portland, Oregon, where she teaches English at Concordia University. She remains close to Dawkins. They talk nearly every day and call each other their best friend.

She still has trouble absorbing what happened that night. As for trying to understand why it occurred, she gave up a long time ago. There is no explanation, she said.

“It was like going to bed in one world and waking up and you lived on a different planet,” she said. “Nothing could ever be the same.”

The fact something positive could emerge from such destruction is hopeful, she said. Still, the tale is ultimately a tragedy.

“The No. 1 tragedy is that Tom Bowman lost his life,” she said. “That is the dark heart of this whole story.”