Tuesday, April 23, 2019

"F(r)iction" Literary Journal Publishes Charlie's Poem

Libby and I were delighted to receive copies of the "F(r)iction" Winter 2018 edition of this highly-regarded international art and literary journal featuring the first publication of my recent poem, "Stirs The Eggs, Scrambled," a narrative poem of my childhood.

When I got my copy of the literary and art journal at mail call, several of my fellow prisoners were immediately drawn to the beautiful cover art by Carly Janine Mazur. "F(r)iction" is filled with more art, and Tyler Champion created the illustrations going along with my poem and the other prisoners' works. There is talk of how great tattoos of his works would look. I'm not encouraging anyone to do that. Tattoos are illegal in prison, although you couldn't tell, considering their prevalence.

"F(r)iction" is an imprint of the Brink Literacy Project, an international literacy nonprofit and independent publisher, beautifully designed by Dani Hedlund, Editor-In-Chief, including works of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and graphic artwork. Helen Maimaris, C.O.O. and Assistant Art Director, has been in touch with me through emails, and gave me permission to reproduce the following pages from the literary journal. She has encouraged me to submit additional literary works for consideration in future publications, a great honor.

Caits Meissner, director of the PEN American Center Prison Writing Program in New York City (pen.org), recommended my poem and four others by imprisoned poets, for a "F(r)iction" feature, "The Pen Cries Power," stating, "PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect freedom of expression in the United States and worldwide. Founded on the heels of the Attica prison uprising in 1971, PEN America's Prison Writing Program believes in the restorative, rehabilitative, and transformative possibilities of writing, and we support free expression, encouraging the use of the written word as a legitimate form of power. We provide hundreds of imprisoned writers across the country with free writing resources, skilled mentors, and audiences for their work. We strive toward an increasingly integrative approach--aiming to amplify the voices and writing of imprisoned people to expand beyond the silo of prison and the identity of prisoner."

Click here to go to the online "F(r)iction" literary journal and read my poem: https://frictionlit.org/the-pen-cries-power/

Also, as a nonprofit, "F(r)iction" has launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. Click here to check it out: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1002171905/friction-a-fine-art-and-literature-collection  

I'm putting together a proposal to start a creative writing class through the Wellness Department here at Tomoka C. I. We have a number of budding poets and writers who've expressed interest in becoming better writers, and I hope those in charge will look favorably on this proposal. PEN American Center has supported my creative writing classes at several prisons over the years, and publishes a useful book, "Handbook For Prison Writers." Helen Maimaris has already sent us a number of back issues of "F(r)iction" for inspiration and study. Thanks, Helen.

Charles Patrick Norman



Early morning: the sun not yet shining.
Still dark. Breakfast. 

My Father sits across from me
        at the small square kitchen table
        covered with a red-and-white-checked
        oil cloth, spooning hot grits
        onto his plate—white, steaming,
        swirls of orange sharp cheddar cheese
        stirred into eddies with the melted butter,
        a shake of salt, then pepper.
He takes two buttermilk biscuits from the
        small round pan, hot from the oven,
        breaks each one open with his fork,
        dabs soft churned butter onto each one,
        sets the biscuits next to the grits,
        then scoops a spoon of molasses,
        from the little jar, dips one biscuit into
        the thick brown sweetness,
        bites, chews, and smiles at me.
He spoons hot buttered cheese grits
        onto my plate. I take two biscuits from the pan and copy him,
        move for move, as my mother turns
        from the hot stove two feet away
        black cast-iron skillet handle wrapped
        with a striped dish towel, and slides
        two fried eggs, soft, over easy,
        with the spatula, onto my father’s plate of grits.
He stirs the yellow yolks into the grits,
        dabs a biscuit into the mix
        and eats, pleased.
She turns back to the gas stove,
        blue flames flowing from the burner,
        grasps two brown eggs from
        the bowl in one hand.
        With practiced ease she cracks
        the eggs against the skillet edge,
        drops the yolks and whites
        into the bubbling bacon grease,
        stirs the eggs, scrambled­—
        I do not yet like the runny eggs
        like my father does,
        but one day I will,
        perhaps in homage to him,
        or yearning to return to that time
        when there were but the three of us
        in that little white house
        on the hill, happy, content, alive,
        before he kissed Mama goodbye,
        squeezed my shoulder,
        and drove to work,
one more time.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

LIFE IN CAPTIVITY--14,975 Days Later

April 5, 1978, dawned clear and bright in Tampa, Florida. My father was sick, at home, and I drove out to Thonotosassa, east of Tampa, to visit with him. Driving back to my apartment in North Tampa, I noticed several unmarked police cars at the Shop 'n Go convenience store down the street from my family home. Little did I know they were waiting for me.

A long line of traffic backed up behind a slow convoy of yellow buses headed for schools along the way. When I finally turned north on 56th Street, still in unincorporated Hillsborough County, miles from the city of Tampa, several of the unmarked police cars jockeyed for position like ducklings behind me. One car pulled up alongside mine on the inside lane, the passenger wielding a chrome-plated shotgun. I pulled over on the grassy road shoulder and raised my hands. Eight detectives in street clothes encircled my car, aiming shotguns at me, yelling. The shotguns were shaking. I flashed back to the final scene of "Bonnie and Clyde," where Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were slaughtered in a hail of bullets.

Hands still in the air, I shouted that I was unarmed, that we didn't need any accidents. Car windows closed, air conditioning on, I prayed they understood what I said. I asked the lead detective, Gerald Rauft, what I was being charged with.

"Murder," he said.

Murder? That didn't make any sense. I hadn't murdered anyone. I would have remembered. It turned out that the murder had occurred on February 17, 1975, over three years before, committed by drug addict and petty criminal Larry Wingate, whose wealthy father, Wingate bragged for years, had spent a fortune bribing cops and prosecutors to get his prodigal out of legal troubles. In exchange for several dropped drug charges and immunity from prosecution for first degree murder (and no telling how much money in bribes), Wingate agreed to commit perjury, testifying that "Charlie told me he shot someone." Immunity, one must recall, is given only to the guilty. The innocent don't need it.

Traffic was blocked north and south on the four-lane divided highway as I slowly got out of my car and climbed into the back seat of the nearest police car. After a confrontation between Rauft and a sheriff's deputy, angered that police outside their jurisdiction had created a huge traffic snarl in his, the police car convoy slowly untangled and escorted me downtown to the detective division.

After demanding a lawyer and phone call for a couple of hours, detectives escorted me downstairs, where reporters and television cameramen waited, just in time for the six o'clock news, live from police headquarters.

My first visitor was a famous lawyer known for being the personal advisor to Santo Trafficante, reputed head of the Mafia in Florida, who had accompanied Trafficante to the House committee investigating the Kennedy assassination, where Santo pleaded the Fifth Amendment. My girlfriend saw my arrest on the news, and called her uncle, unbeknownst to me, the Mafia boss's consigliere.

The lawyer cut to the chase. He'd already talked to the prosecutor. For a very large cash payment, the murder charge would go away. I told him that I hadn't killed anyone, that I was innocent, and didn't have that kind of money, anyway. He said, otherwise, the prosecutor would seek the death penalty, electrocution in "Old Sparky."

Many things happened. The State offered me increasingly lenient plea bargains for reduced charges and a guilty plea, avoiding a jury trial, resulting in possibly five to seven years in prison, no minimum, no mandatory, no parole.

I refused. Perhaps I should have taken the deal, and fought my conviction from "out there." My trial was a travesty. Perjured testimony by convicted felons seeking immunity. No physical or forensic evidence linked me to the shooting scene. The only eyewitness, a thirty-eight year old custodian and church deacon, swore that I was not the shooter, who was several inches shorter and many pounds lighter than both of us.

It didn't matter. The fix was in. A compromise verdict by a split jury resulted in a life sentence, minimum twenty-five years before parole eligibility. Years later we learned that the corrupt prosecutor had tampered with the jury. No matter. The beat goes on.

14,925 days later, I have survived forty-one years in some of Florida's worst, most violent prisons. I have seen thousands of men come and go to and from prison over the years, many of them due to my help. Hundreds of prisoners with life sentences and similar convictions, some with multiple murder cases, robberies, and kidnappings, have been paroled and live in freedom to this day. Not me. My parole release date remains at July 4, 2017, yet I sit in prison, still.

The corrupt prosecutor, angered that the jury did not vote death, was heard to say, "Norman will never survive a life sentence." Angered that I have so far survived, the prosecutor has repeatedly politically tampered with the parole commissioners, who, conveniently, owe their jobs to him, as the chairman of the Parole Qualifications Committee.

How will it end? It has been a long, hard struggle. I have lost virtually everything except my faith in God. I was twenty-eight years old the day I was arrested. Today I am sixty-nine years old. A few aging family members and friends have stood by my side.

I fight on.