Healing through writing leads to acclaim, a center

Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno in the house in Chestnut Hill that she is transforming into "Musehouse: A Center for the Literary Arts."
Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno in the house in Chestnut Hill that she is transforming into "Musehouse: A Center for the Literary Arts." (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 15, 2011

 Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno tapped out the words to a poem about light while sitting in the darkness of 3 a.m.

Her 21-year-old daughter had been murdered four days earlier, and Bonanno, of Oreland, felt compelled to write about it.

She calls it a moment of truth-telling at a time when daughter Leidy's death had sent her reeling. Bonanno didn't foresee that that night in July 2003 would lead to an award-winning poetry book and a soon-to-open literary center for writers in Chestnut Hill.

Bonanno is preparing for the  planned Sept. 10  opening of Musehouse: A Center for the Literary Arts. The writers' retreat will host workshops, lectures, classes, and readings for writers and aspiring writers. It is a long-held dream of the former English teacher, who retired from Cheltenham High School in  June. 

"I've been talking about Musehouse for years," said Bonanno, 56. "Leidy's death reminded me that time is short, and I'm in love with the idea of offering the same kinds of courses or events that I want as a writer to others."

In May, Bonanno won a $50,000 matching grant to fund Musehouse from the Knight Foundation. She was one of 36 winners of a grant that is part of the charity's Knight Arts Challenge Philadelphia initiative, a three-year, $9 million program aimed at supporting innovative ideas in arts programming. A total of 1,752 people applied for the program, which began four years ago in Miami.

"Kathleen's idea was a great one," said Dennis Scholl, vice president/arts for the Knight Foundation. "The idea of doing a literary house was something we hadn't seen before."

For years, Bonanno's dreams of starting a literary center remained in the background as the then-schoolteacher and her husband, David, an editor at the American Poetry Review, raised Leidy (pronounced "Lady") and Luis.

The Bonannos had adopted the brother and sister from Chile in 1986.

Leidy, whom her mother described as "gregarious, smiling, and social," attended Bishop McDevitt High School in Wyncote and graduated from the nursing program at the Reading Hospital School of Health Sciences in  June 2003 . Days before she was to start her first job, Leidy told her mother that an ex-boyfriend had stolen her credit-card identity. Leidy had broken up with him, but she didn't tell her mother that he had also threatened her.

"The next day, I called her, and she didn't pick up," Bonanno said, sitting in the parlor of Musehouse, which occupies the first floor of a building on Germantown Avenue. "She didn't pick up for two straight days."

Leidy had been strangled in her apartment by ex-boyfriend Joseph Eaddy, who is serving a life sentence.

Four days later, Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno began to write what became "Poem About Light." 

 It was the first of 41 works to make up Slamming Open the Door, a compilation that won the 2007 Beatrice Hawley Award for unpublished manuscripts. The volume was published by Alice James Books in 2009, and two of the poems also were nominated for the prestigious Pushcart Prize. Slamming Open the Door went on to become a 2009 best-seller for poetry books.

What followed for Bonanno was a national tour of readings, book signings, and public appearances. Bonanno became active in victims' rights groups and often met others who used their writings as a way to heal.

All the while, thoughts of Musehouse arose more frequently.

"I knew she was ready to do it," said David Bonanno, who, as an editor at the American Poetry Review, has experience running a nonprofit arts group. "It's not going to be easy, but if anybody can make it work, it will be Kathy."

Two board members have been named so far, a course catalog is coming in August, and the center's first classes will start in September. At the same time, Bonanno is pursuing additional funding from corporations, foundations, and individuals.

She calls the experience cathartic and one that feels "so much like work in Leidy's name." She says Musehouse will "rock."

Bonanno said she suspects that her daughter would be pleased about the literary arts center.

"I think she would say -," said Bonanno, who paused for a few moments, " 'Good work, Mom.' "

'Poem About Light'

This is the poem Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno wrote four days after her daughter's murder:

You can try to strangle light;

use your hands and think

you've found the throat of it,

but you haven't.

You could use a rope or a garrote

or a telephone cord,

but the light, amorphous, implacable,

Will make a fool of you in the end.

You could make it your mission

to shut it out forever,

to crouch in the dark,

the blinds pulled tight -

still, in the morning,

a gleaming little ray will betray you, poking

its optimistic finger

through a corner of the blind,

and then more light,

clever, nervy, impossible,

spilling out from the crevices

warming the shade

This is the stubborn sun,

choosing to rise,

like it did yesterday,

like it will tomorrow.

You have nothing to do with it.

The sun makes its own history;

light has its way.


Contact staff writer Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or kholmes@phillynews.com.

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