35. The Feud

THE BITTER FEUD BETWEEN the poets Raoul Aronson and Matilda Sipowicz culminated in tragedy at a provincial writers’ festival ten years ago this month. Months previously, the two had practically been friends. They had known one another since their days at Berkeley, although Aronson graduated three years after Sipowicz. They’d sat together on the editorial committees of several journals, had edited anthologies in which each had selected the work of the other, they had been quoted praising the work of one another in various articles and reviews, they had even awarded one another grants and prizes while sitting on the juries of various literary endowments, awards and competitions. In short, while they weren’t intimates, it was no stretch to say these two mid-career poets behaved in a friendly manner at all times towards one another and seemed to hold each other in the highest possible professional esteem. In short, it would have been impossible to imagine that, within a few months, this polite and, on the surface at least, mutually respectful relationship would result in such carnage. While Aronson’s friends believe he kept a diary, police have found few clues to explain how this spoiled friendship could turn within a few short months into tragedy. Until Aronson’s diary is found (presuming he was keeping one at the time, and if so that he didn’t destroy it) the milestones of this sad saga will remain shrouded in mystery. However, from a psychoanalytic perspective at least, we would do well to remember Antonin Simonelli’s axiom that, at heart, all writers secretly loathe one another. Both Aronson (with Elephantine, published by Farrar Straus Giroux) and Sipowicz (The Ploughshare’s Revenge, Faber and Faber) were mid-career poets of some standing: they had each recently released collections that, according to their publishers and agents, were expected to be career-defining works, although both titles had been published to mixed reviews. The books contain clues as to a possible backstory to the feud. We know that, the previous summer, the poets had had a short and unfulfilling affair at the Duckwater Writers’ Colony in Nevada, which subsequently led to the breakup of Sipowicz’ relationship of twelve years with the short story writer Silvia Humphrey. Both writers included poems in their collections alluding cryptically to the affair – ‘What the Stars Will Have Us Believe’ in Elephantine and ‘Shopping for Joy’ in The Ploughshare’s Revenge. We also know the feud developed in increments at a series of provincial writers’ festivals. While promoting their respective books on the festival circuit, they had both been booked to appear (though not always in the same events) at the following festivals: the Avondale Writers’ Festival in Pennsylvania in early March of that year, followed by the Chesterfield Festival of Books and Writing in Missouri in mid-April, the Columbus Writers’ and Readers’ Festival in Ohio in early May, the Saint-Mâlo Fête des Poètes in France in mid-June, the Rapid City Festival of Words and Ideas in South Dakota a week later, the Festival de Letras y Literatura di Monterrey in Nuevo León, Mexico in mid-July, the Tallahassee Emerging Poets’ Expo in Florida in late July, the Focus on Contemporary Writing in Sheffield, UK, in early August, the Halifax Wow! Writers on Writing in Nova Scotia in September, American Voices Today in Beijing in mid-October, and finally the White Nights Festival in Anchorage, Alaska in the first weekend of December. It was indeed on the night of Saturday, 8 December in Anchorage that the murder-suicide occurred, in the gym at the Embassy Suites Hotel, at 3:16am. The murder weapon was a Taurus model 82 revolver that Sipowicz had purchased that same day for $245 at Gun Runners gun store, a block north of the hotel. It seems the poets had been wrestling for control of the gun when it discharged. Hotel guests heard a second shot within seconds. Both poets' hands were on the pistol when hotel security arrived at the crime scene. Aronson died at the scene and Sipowicz never regained consciousness. She died within hours at Alaska Regional Hospital. Neither the police nor the coroner were able to ascertain the perpetrator of the crime.