Material Witness


Holly Bittner recalls with all certainty that the noise she heard that Saturday night three years ago definitely did not sound like a gunshot. But she would soon learn what many cops and criminals alike know: Gunshots don’t always ring out, "Bang! bang!"

At the time, Bittner — a graduate student in the creative writing program at Temple University — and her boyfriend were living in a second-floor apartment on the 1400 block of Porter Street. One night, Bittner heard what she described as a "muffled noise" that sounded like it originated from the apartment below.

Since the first-floor dwelling was unoccupied, she assumed the noise was her landlord showing the space.

But after hearing sirens, the couple bounded downstairs and noticed police cordoning off the house next door with yellow crime-scene tape. Then, Bittner saw her neighbor being wheeled out on a stretcher.

The two soon learned the noise they heard was a gunshot that emanated from the basement next door. It was a crime one detective called "not a cut-and-dry case." Around 2 p.m. on March 25, 2000, First District officers responded to a report of an aggravated assault at 1427 Porter St. A neighbor told police that a 32-year-old man was trying to beat his mother with an iron bar.

When officers arrived, they found a man — later identified as Scott Kent — in the basement of the house with two fatal gunshot wounds to the head. Investigators questioned but released the victim’s mother, Dolores, until a decision could be made on whether to file charges.

At the time, officials said there were "mitigating circumstances." And in the end, Dolores Kent was never arrested and charged with her son’s shooting death, an official with the District Attorney’s Office said last week.

After the slaying, Bittner stayed one more year on Porter Street before moving to two other locations in South Philly.

Today, the 27-year-old is an assistant professor in the liberal arts department at Moore College of Art and Design, where she teaches upper-level creative writing and freshman composition. Bittner’s work has appeared in the Philadelphia Weekly, Chain, ixnay and The Portable Boog Reader. In 2001, she received the Albert J. Kaplan Prize of the Academy of American Poets for her poem Personals. The artist now lives at Fourth and Vine streets in Old City with her husband, Micah, and their two cats.

Writers often find their muse in some pretty far-reaching and strange places.

Bittner didn’t have to search far for hers; the violence that erupted next door, um, triggered, the creation of Trigger, a 50-page-long poem Bittner fired off from a stream-of-consciousness piece previously generated for her creative writing class.

"Writing this poem was my attempt to understand what cannot be understood. Shortly after the event, everyone on the block — including me — was offering their speculation on what happened. And then, the television reporters kept asking me, ‘How does that [the crime next door] make you feel?’" Bittner recalls. "I had no idea how to answer that question. I had barely an inkling of what happened, let alone the chance to figure out how I felt about it."

The writer says the reporters’ questions kept haunting her as she started to record her feelings about the shooting.

"What began to appear on the page was as mysterious and complicated and unexpected to me as the incident itself. But I kept on writing because I knew the story — or at least my version of it — needed to be told," she says.

At this year’s Seventh Annual Fringe Festival, currently taking place throughout Center City, Bittner will give a spoken-word performance of Trigger. The multimedia, hour-long performance probes the crime next door through the creator’s role as more of an "earwitness" than eyewitness, she explains.

Its title, Trigger, is both clever and catchy.

"Trigger, obviously referring to the device on a gun that sets it off, and I also mean it to refer to my method of writing the piece, which is one word triggering the next, triggering the next — one thing leading to another," Bittner explains.

Her poem combines the techniques of poetry, fiction, documentary and collage, blended with discourses of journalism, street talk, police speak, memoranda and legal documents. She even quotes the Review’s Police Report from the week of the incident.

Here’s an excerpt:

son confidence ‘unresponsive’ hospital talk doom truth ludicrous man reflex tanked up consequence constructs fate rose up like fire rock bottom no forgiveness kitchen cuts basement drill break miracle unforgivable be god like breath heavy mom end world drug money found why me he whose life morbid advent stream sack sounds blame mom blame blame blame reflex bait live channel wire where’s son now new whole swallow thunder beat free over to nowhere crazed stalked rose discovery the other too many sounds to count beat means you see what want does when it knows

When confronted with the word "surreal" to describe Trigger, the author agrees yet disagrees.

"It’s both real and surreal at the same time. In fact, making the case that real and surreal are not so easily separated. The event was real, but trying to understand the events and why they happened is surreal," she notes.

Bittner’s past is riddled with poetic readings, but she’s never turned a poem into a performance piece before now. To her, the Fringe performance of Trigger is a cross between a poetry reading and a play. "I thought the Fringe would be a perfect venue for this because it embodied being in between, being on the edge, being undeniable."

Bittner is hoping her audience walks away from the performance with lots of unanswered questions.

"When violent crime is involved, especially, there are no easy answers," she says. "There is only further investigation, the infinite search for truth and understanding. But mostly, like everybody else, I just want my story to be heard."

Trigger will be performed at N3rd Restaurant, 801 N. Third St., at 7 p.m. Sept. 11, 12 and 13. Tickets are $10. For more information, visit