Matt Donovan speaks to managing editor Emily Everett about his prose poem “Guy with a Gun,” which appeared in The Common’s fall issue. Matt talks about the conversation that inspired the poem—an encounter with a Sandy Hook parent that highlights the complex gray area around guns and gun ownership. He also discusses how his poetry collection about the issue of guns in the US evolved from a nonfiction book proposal, his aims in undertaking the project, and his job running The Boutelle-Day Poetry Center at Smith College.
There’s the phrase once again—The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun—this time pasted on a Subaru’s fender, its rote answer tagging along in a faded Wild West font. Today, though, idling in traffic, instead of knee-jerk counterarguments and a few remembered memes, I’m thinking of a guy I met in Newtown, Connecticut, who had a son in the first grade at Sandy Hook Elementary when the shooting took place. His kid is alive—that should be said from the outset—but since the guy was teaching science at the middle school across town when the frantic texts and rumors and lockdown began, for a few hours he wasn’t sure if his son had been shot. His son is alive because the shooter chose to step into a different classroom, but at first no one knew what had happened, including the guy’s wife as she drove up to the school to build gingerbread houses and instead found an empty car blocking the road with the driver’s door open. By then she could smell gunpowder searing the air. By then there were sirens in the distance and soon a police officer held the gathered parents back as a group of children came running, one of whom was covered in blood and said, as she reached for her mom there in the crowd, I’m alright, but the other kids are dead. All of which is one reason why, when the emails and online postings began claiming that there hadn’t been a shooting, that all of these parents were lying, that the grief of Sandy Hook was being performed, the guy’s wife felt compelled to respond, to say what happened had happened. I was there, she wrote back, I was there. But the voices continued, a chorus that wouldn’t stop calling the guy’s wife liar, conspirator, no matter what facts she gave. When the threats began—I’m bad for people’s health, someone wrote on her Instagram. Wait until I find your children—the guy and his wife went to the police who said there was nothing they could do. Passwords were changed, users were blocked: the taunts continued. After she wrote The stalking needs to stop, someone responded by posting a picture of their son they had found online and wrote This is stalking, bitch. Which is when the guy renewed his permit to carry a gun and began slipping his .45 into its holster whenever he left the house. Perhaps you think you know where this is going. Perhaps this seems as predictable as any sloganeering phrase. Except this story refuses to be reduced to a single phrase. The guy kept his gun close, not knowing what else to do. When he felt its heft—running errands or driving his car—maybe it seemed as if order could be restored, a sense that he might be able to stop the worst thing from becoming still worse. One morning, the guy drove to the middle school where he’d been teaching for years and, running late for a meeting, he stepped into the building still carrying the gun in a holster under his coat. Maybe he wasn’t thinking. Maybe it was carelessness, arrogance, indifference to the rules. The guy knows that calling this a mistake doesn’t cut it. Closer would be some word that doesn’t exist for a fuck-up spilling out of desperation or perhaps a desire to shield while also circumventing grief and trying to find some kind of foothold in the wake of twenty children being shot in his hometown. But the guy isn’t interested in the words we might choose. Instead, he’s thinking about the choices he should have made instead of strolling to the photocopier to prepare for class and watching the machine’s light flare a few times across his hands as he pressed and held a book’s spine before he was approached by the principal and asked to lift up his jacket. He knew then he’d be leaving in handcuffs. He didn’t yet know that he’d lose his teaching license or that the prosecutor’s first offer would be a year in prison with a four-year suspended sentence. That without written permission he could never again pick up his son after school, or attend school events, or vote at a public school. That any future employer would see his mugshot online. That some of his friends in town would never speak to him again, and instead he’d find himself standing in a shaded corner of his yard, unemployed, listening to the traffic push past, telling his story to some guy who, for whatever it’s worth, didn’t know what words to say.