At first, it was hard for Jennifer Sutherland to put it into words. It was such a terrible, violent thing to see, to survive. She tried many times to put it on the page, but it wouldn’t take shape. Until, in an uncontrollable wave, it flowed all at once and she couldn’t stop.

“It was a relief,” said Sutherland, a Baltimore-raised attorney and poet, in that it “forced me to walk through it in ways I had not before.”

Sutherland’s “it” was a fatal shooting at a Delaware courthouse that she witnessed in 2013. She chronicled the experience through poetry in “Bullet Points,” a hauntingly lyrical interpretation of that day. She will be featured at Saturday’s Annapolis Book Festival to talk about the work, published by River River Books and a finalist for both the Foreword Indies Poetry Book of the Year and the Eric Hoffer Medal Provocateur.

“There are things I need or want to tell you,” she writes in her poem. “I am trying. Please bear with me.”

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It is a long-form poem that reads like a memoir, with stark descriptions of the shooting, as well as a dark retelling of Sutherland’s first marriage and snippets of history, science and math. She said her initial hesitance to open up about the shooting was exacerbated by her job. “It was not just my workplace where it happened, but lawyers are supposed to be tough. I am tough.”

As a memoirist who has detailed my own trauma in writing, I recognized the peculiarities of America’s grief process, which is stunted and avoidant. We want to believe we are tough, and those who care about us need to believe we are tough, so we can all stop talking about it.

“Right after it happened, I had a couple of conversations with my mom, and I was married at the time, so there were conversations, but they were fairly brief,” Sutherland said. “It was ‘Oh, you’re OK.’ And that was kind of it.”

Except it wasn’t. Without an outlet, those nightmares stay trapped in our brain, our gut and our memory. Sutherland had largely stopped practicing law to finish her Master of Fine Arts. As she writes in her book, “I could have tried to write a memoir. But all that I could manage then (and now) was poetry.”

After many false starts, she read a book by poet Maggie Nelson called “Bluets,” itself an emotional exploration of pain and connection. “It triggered something in my head about what stanzas ought to look like. It uses boxes of text to hold them. I am hyperaware of bodies and what happens to our bodies. It kind of opened a trapdoor.”

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That door opened everything Sutherland had been holding in, and the words appeared in one swoop over the weekend. “It came out mostly formed,” she said.

Sutherland, a graduate of the Catholic High School of Baltimore and the former Villa Julie College (now Stevenson University), was a writer before she was a lawyer. The daughter of an English professor, she cut her young emotional teeth creating what she terms “teenage poetry” and took part in Johns Hopkins’ Center for Talented Youth program, which “brought talented, nerdy children together. For a kid who was introverted and into books, but not super great at making friends, it was an incredible experience.”

The attorney part came later, as Sutherland, “a little bit rebellious by Catholic girls high school standards, found my identity in pushing back on things,” she remembered. “My teachers said I should be a lawyer, and I enjoyed the work of speaking and arguing so that seemed like a fit for me.”

By 2013, she had published some poetry and was mostly doing corporate law. The case that brought her to that Delaware courthouse was a civil one, nothing that would portend danger. “I was not expecting what happened,” she said. A woman, along with a friend who’d come for support, was murdered by her former father-in-law before she could appear in court for a child custody case.

Sutherland writes about the shooting and its aftermath in stark terms, explaining in plain detail her drive to the courthouse and seeing a man fleeing the gunshots, and in intricate literary and historic metaphor. For instance, she describes the search for the shooter, Thomas Matusiewicz, as his ex-daughter-in-law, Christine Belford, is crumpled, dead, on the ground.

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“Policemen scurry by searching for him but her face is still. The fabric of her skirt lies close to the fire but doesn’t catch,” she writes, later recounting the history of Wilmington, Delaware, originally named for Sweden’s Queen Christina, the namesake of many locations in the state, who never married and was renounced by the pope. Then comes a gut-punch reminder that one of Matusiewicz’s victims, who rejected being married to his son, is an unfortunate descendent of the queen’s fight to be free.

“Many Delaware places now are named for Queen Christina: a shopping mall, a hospital, a school district. She was twelve when the ships set sail. A child,” she writes. “One of the women who will die inside the courthouse lobby is named Christine Belford.”

While it took a while for Sutherland to creatively explore her emotions after the shooting, “I think I coped with the awfulness of what happened by upending my life,” ending her first marriage and exploring her craft. When that creative trapdoor finally opened, “Bullet Points” would explore her inner life but project outward, including society’s approach to social media, “this virtual place that, at this point, we haven’t figured out what the rules are yet, and who owns what. There were parallels in history and geography that are repeating in our lives in this virtual world we are creating. It all gave me a language to talk about it.”

She also returned to practicing law, currently doing personal injury litigation at a Timonium firm whose partners “have been very supportive of me, as I ease myself back into it.”

The shooting didn’t take her away from the law, but it did change the kinds of cases she takes. “I don’t enjoy extremely conflicted situations with other people. I prefer to keep things on a rhetorical level,” Sutherland said. “I stay away from cases that involve clients who have an ax to grind against the world.”

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These days, she prefers to explore the knottier truths of human conflict on the page, currently working on a manuscript about Alcestis, a mythical Greek princess who chooses to die in the place of her condemned husband, before being rescued by Hercules. She’s also writing one about insurance, which “is something more interesting than you might think.”

I’m excited to see how that one turns out, but for the moment I’m so drawn to “Bullet Points,” to its thorny, stark truths about how we bring forth the stories buried inside, whose expulsion from our bodies are both a relief and an edict.

“A famous poet told me why I could no longer speak as I had spoken before the shooting,” Sutherland writes. “‘You’re still there,’ she said to me, ‘in the stairwell. You can stay there, or you can leave. You only have to write it one way or another. Choose your words, and they’ll propel you.’”

And in that propulsion? Therein lies the clarity.

Leslie Gray Streeter is a columnist excited about telling Baltimore stories — about us and the things that we care about, that touch us, that tickle us and that make us tick, from parenting to pop culture to the perfect crab cake. She is especially psyched about discussions that we don't usually have. Open mind and a sense of humor required.

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