A renowned Canadian poet who had worked with the man convicted of killing an Indigenous woman 25 years ago says he won’t read the killer’s poetry at an upcoming University of Regina event amidst calls for it to be cancelled. George Elliott Clarke said earlier this week that he wasn’t ruling out reading the work of Steven Kummerfield, who was convicted of manslaughter in the beating death of Pamela George in 1995. Clarke had previously edited poetry by Kummerfield, who has changed his name to Stephen Brown.
This is a fascinating and disturbing story. In case you don’t already know about it (as I didn’t until recently), Steven Kummerfield and his university friend Alex Ternowetsky killed Pamela George by beating her to death and leaving her in a ditch outside Regina in 1995 after one or both of them had sex with her. George was a young mother of two who sometimes worked as a prostitute to support her family.
Kummerfield and Ternowetsky, meanwhile, were both young white men from well-off families in Saskatchewan, families who helped them financially and in other ways. According to one report from the trial, Kummerfield told his mother about what he had done the day after it happened, and she told him to call in to CrimeStoppers with a false tip, and then washed the clothes he was wearing that night. According to testimony from a friend, both men bragged that they had “killed a chick” and Ternowetsky said she deserved it because “she was an Indian.”
The two, who said they were too drunk to remember what happened — and maintained that George was still alive when they left her in the ditch — were given six-and-a-half year sentences and were paroled after serving only a few years. After going back to school, Kummerfield moved to Mexico, changed his name to Stephen Brown, and became a poet. At some point, he caught the eye of George Elliott Clarke, a celebrated writer who was Canada’s poet laureate. Clarke, who is part indigenous, says he has known Brown since 2005 and considered him a friend, but didn’t know about Brown’s criminal history until late in 2019. He apologized for originally telling the CBC that he “admired lots of poets who committed crimes of one sort or another.”
There are a number of examples of writers who committed horrific crimes, including William S. Burroughs, a famous poet and icon of the Beat movement, who shot and killed his wife, allegedly while attempting to shoot a glass off her head at a party. Plenty of people seem to admire Burroughs regardless, however, and consider him a huge artistic talent. Anne Perry helped a friend kill the friend’s mother when she was a teenager, and later became a celebrated mystery novelist, whose work was acknowledged even after her identity was revealed.
What fascinates me is whether someone who brutally murdered someone can ever be considered rehabilitated. Can they somehow “turn over a new leaf” and become a different person? One who is celebrated for something like poetry? In a story about Brown, one of Pamela George’s daughters said: “You did what you did and you are who you are. You’ll always be that person.” Is that true? Is Brown a killer who is trying to pass himself off as a poet, or a poet who once killed someone?