Monday, February 17, 2014

Guest Post: Lesléa Newman on In Writing I Trust

By Lesléa Newman
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Sometimes a book is years in the making. And the writer doesn’t even know that it is gestating.

Such is the case with my book, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard (Candlewick, 2012). Unbeknownst to me, I started writing the book on October 12, 1998.

On that Monday morning, I flew to Denver, Colorado, where I was met by a University of Wyoming student who would be taking me to Laramie. The student and I didn’t talk much. She looked tired and told me that she had been up all night. This didn’t surprise me. Her entire campus was in an uproar: that morning, a gay student named Matthew Shepard had died in the hospital where he’d been taken after being kidnapped, robbed, beaten, tied to a fence, and left to die.

Today was the start of the university’s Gay Awareness Week and I was the keynote speaker. My talk, which focused on my children’s book, Heather Has Two Mommies (Alyson Books), and how education can end bigotry and hatred, could not have been more relevant.

After giving my talk, I met many of Matthew Shepard’s friends, including the members of the school’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered Association, all of whom sat in the front row. In the middle of the row was an empty seat. I kept imagining Matthew Shepard sitting there.

Matt on the phone
Before I left campus, I promised Matt’s friends that I would do all I could to keep his name alive. But I didn’t know it would take me eleven years to figure out a way to do so.

Flash forward to 2009. I was coming towards the end of my two-year term of as poet laureate of Northampton, Massachusetts. I wanted to go out with a bang. What could I give back to the community, that had given me the honor of being an ambassador of poetry?

I created a project called “Thirty Poems in Thirty Days.” During the month of November, I would gather a group of poets together who would write a poem a day for 30 days. The poets would find people to pledge a monetary amount per poem. The money collected would go to a local literacy group. We’d end the month with a public reading.

By November first, everything was in order: 75 poets had signed up and all of them had impressive pledges. As did I. There was only one problem: now I had to come up with something to write about.

On October 12, 2009, the eleventh anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death, "The Laramie Project Part II: The Epilogue" was performed in 150 cities all across the country. I attended a performance, which consisted of monologues constructed from interviews of many of the key players in the tragedy including police officers, townspeople, Matthew Shepard’s parents, and the two murderers.

What I wanted to know was what actually happened during the 15 minutes that Matt and his murderers were at the fence. If only there had been witnesses.

Then I had the aha! moment I had been waiting more than a decade for. There were witnesses to Matt’s murder. The fence he was tied to was there. The starts were there. The moon was there. Animals were there. His clothing was there. What about the rope that bound his hands? The pistol that was used to strike him in the face?

As a poet, I could inhabit those inanimate objects, hear what they had to say, and learn what I could about had happened.

That’s crazy, I said to myself, but then the words of my mentor, Allen Ginsberg, came back to me: First Thought Best Thought. In other words, go with your idea, no matter how wacky it sounds and don’t let your own internal censor stop you. Trust the writer within.

What I learned from writing October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard was this:
  • It is important to write every day. You never know where your pen will lead you. 
  • Each of us is a treasure chest of experience, imagination, and observation. Our stories are inside of us, waiting to be told. 
  • No idea is too farfetched to try.

THE FENCE (that night)

I held him all night long
He was heavy as a broken heart
Tears fell from his unblinking eyes
He was dead weight yet he kept breathing

He was heavy as a broken heart
His own heart wouldn’t stop beating
He was dead weight yet he kept breathing
His face streaked with moonlight and blood

His own heart wouldn’t stop beating
The cold wind wouldn’t stop blowing
His face streaked with moonlight and blood
I tightened my grip and held on

The cold wind wouldn’t stop blowing
We were out on the prairie alone
I tightened my grip and held on
I saw what was done to this child

We were out on the prairie alone
Their truck was the last thing he saw
I saw what was done to this child
I cradled him just like a mother

Their truck was the last thing he saw
Tears fell from his unblinking eyes
I cradled him just like a mother
I held him all night long

October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard. Copyright @2012 by Lesléa Newman. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Cynsational Notes

Lesléa will read from and discuss October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard (Candlewick, 2012) at 7:30 p.m. March 5 at BookWoman in Austin.

 

4 comments:

Michele Weber Hurwitz said...

Thank you, Leslea, for a lovely post.

tanita✿davis said...

Thanks, Lesléa.

What a story of an intense and beautiful memorial which came from such loss. Thanks for the reminder to let our voice/art have the time it needs to form - and how I wish I could be at that reading.

Elizabeth O. Dulemba said...

What chill bumps I have. I'm so proud of the progress we've been making in society to make sure people like Matt will be able to live in a world full of love and acceptance, but it's hard to believe this was just 1998 - not that long ago - that our world was such a hateful place. It still has too much hate in it, which is why books, talks, poems like this make a difference and are so needed.

Jeri Baird said...

A beautiful post - thank you for sharing! My best friend's son is gay. Based on his experiences, yes, we've come a long way since 1998, but we have a long way to go yet.

Your poem is beautiful. Thank you.

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