Author Lesléa Newman has always felt an obligation to help the world remember Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming who was brutally beaten and left to die in October 1998. Shepard’s death brought national attention to the issue of homophobic bullying and helped galvanize anti-bullying awareness nationwide. With October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard (Candlewick, 2012), a novel in verse, Newman explores Shepard’s death in 68 poems.
SLJ talked with Newman about how she came to write October Mourning, her use of poetic forms, and the challenges of writing about this painful topic.
You have a personal connection to this tragedy. How did that lead you, over a decade later, to write this book?
Matthew Shepard’s death has haunted me since October 1998, when I gave the keynote speech for Gay Awareness Week at the University of Wyoming. Matt was a member of the school’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered Association, the group that sponsored my visit. He had planned to attend my presentation. So I feel a sense of responsibility to help the world remember him.
On October 12, 2009, the eleventh anniversary of Matt’s murder, I attended a performance of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later—The Epilogue, which brought my experience in Wyoming rushing back at me. At the time, I was serving as the Poet Laureate of Northampton, MA. I had created a project called “30 Poems in 30 Days,” which involved 75 poets writing a poem a day during the month of November to raise money for a local literacy group. After watching the performance, I knew that my poems would explore the impact of Matthew Shepard’s death.
Throughout the book, you employ many poetic forms, from haiku to found poems. What made you choose these particular styles?
A long series of poems on the same subject needs variety of form to keep it interesting.
I have always loved writing in form, because it brings me closer to my material while distancing me from it at the same time. Looking at whatever I am writing about, over and over, brings me closer to my subject. Paying particular attention to technique such as line breaks, enjambment, and punctuation gives me the distance I need to focus on language.
You write from the perspectives of many people involved, as well as inanimate objects. Why did you choose this technique?
I wanted to explore the impact of Matthew Shepard’s murder from as many vantage points as possible. We will never really know what happened at the fence that night. There were three people there. One person is dead, and the two who are still living have told conflicting stories. Since I could not find out the truth, I set out to explore my truth. I used my imagination to call upon the silent witnesses to the crime to see what I could learn, including the truck in which Matt was kidnapped, the fence to which he was tied, the shoes he was wearing, and the moon and stars that watched over him through the night.
Was it difficult to write from the point of view of the antagonists?
No. It needed to be done to complete the book. I wrote these poems in the same way I wrote all the poems in the collection: with my heart in my throat.
How does your choice of poetic form, rather than straight narrative, impact the telling of this story?
As a poet, my tool is language, so I try to use language in as many ways as possible, seeking to exploit multiple meanings of words to maximum effect. In a poem, and especially in sparse poems like the ones in October Mourning, every word counts. And many words do double duty, which gives multiple meanings to many of the lines.
Can you describe the research you did in preparation for this book?
I wrote the first draft before I did any research at all. I wanted to see what was lodged in my brain and my heart from my experience of being in Wyoming in October 1998. After I finished the first draft, I researched obsessively. I read all I could about Matt’s murder. I had seen The Laramie Project in New York when it first opened, so I refreshed my memory by reading the script and renting the movie. I watched other videos as well. Then I revised, revised, revised, and added some poems.
After many drafts, I traveled to Laramie so that I could walk on the prairie, feel the cold Wyoming wind, go out to the fence, and see the last thing Matt saw. I also pored through the Matthew Shepard archives at the University of Wyoming, which was very interesting because the coverage in the local papers was very different than in the national newspapers.
Was there anything you discovered in the course of your research that surprised you?
I had written a poem about an animal keeping watch over Matt as he spent the night alone tied to the fence on the prairie. I had an intuitive feeling that an animal was there watching him, comforting him, and protecting him. But I couldn’t figure out what kind of animal it would be.
Then I read Judy Shepard’s memoir, The Meaning of Matthew. In it, she says that one of the first people on the scene saw a deer lying next to Matt. As this person approached, the deer got up and ran off, as if the animal knew that someone had arrived to take care of Matt. And I thought, “Of course it was a deer. Deer are so gentle and nurturing.” What surprised me was that my own intuition was right. I knew an animal had cared for Matt; I just didn’t know what kind of animal it was.
Your work focuses on a real event, but you fictionalized the thoughts and feelings of the various people involved. How did you navigate between nonfiction and fiction?
I never set out to write a journalistic account of the events of the murder of Matthew Shepard. I set out to explore the impact of Matt’s murder upon the world. So while it was important for me to be as accurate as possible in terms of the facts of the crime, it was also important for me to exercise “poetic license,” as it were, to explore the emotional truth or the heart of the story. As I say in the introduction, the book is “my side of the story.” It’s impossible for me to be objective about such hate and violence.
It was important for me to include the “notes” section at the end of the book, which steers people toward sources of factual information. I hope my book inspires others to write poems about Matt Shepard’s murder, or other such events, to better understand them and to work towards making the world a safe place–so that something like this will never happen again.
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