Poets of Franklin County: 'It's my job to imagine'
Almost 16 years ago, two young men convinced a third to leave the bar where they’d all been drinking and get into a truck with them. They then drove him out to a remote spot on the high plains above Laramie, Wyo., pistol-whipped and beat him, stole his wallet and shoes and left him tied to a buck-rail fence, where he bled for 18 hours until a fourth young man happened to bicycle by and find him, unconscious and so battered that, at first, the bicyclist thought he had spotted a scarecrow.
This is the story of Matthew Shepard, a young man viciously attacked and killed because he was gay. Shepard’s story generated worldwide news coverage in 1998 because of the extraordinary violence of the crime and the obstinate hatred that fueled it. The Tectonic Theater Project’s two-part documentary theater piece, “The Laramie Project,” based on interviews with townspeople and college students living in Laramie at the time of the murder, has kept the story alive over the years.
Holyoke poet Lesléa Newman began working on her collection of poems, “October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard,” in the fall of 2009, after seeing a performance of the second Laramie Project. But Newman’s story had already become entwined with Shepard’s long before.
Newman, author of “Heather Has Two Mommies,” perhaps the first children’s book written on the subject of gay families, had been invited to the University of Wyoming as a keynote speaker during Gay Awareness Week in October 1998. Several days before she was to depart, Newman received a call from the university informing her that Shepard had been attacked, was still in intensive care and offering her the opportunity to cancel her speaking engagement. Instead, Newman got on the plane to Laramie.
“It turned out that Matt had been part of the planning committee that was responsible for bringing me (to the university), so I felt a responsibility to do something, to try to make the world a safer place so that this would not keep happening,” Newman said.
Incredibly moved by the empty seat that fellow members of the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) association had left for Shepard in the front row of the auditorium, Newman made sure that she met some of his friends and teachers.
“I made a promise to them,” she said. An essay, entitled, “Imagine,” that Newman wrote on the plane on the way home and published in over 20 LGBT publications shortly after the incident occurred, was one step in keeping that promise.
“October Mourning,” published in 2012 by Candlewick Press, is another.
Newman began writing the cycle of 68 poems in 2009, within the structure of the “30 Poems in 30 Days” project she had initiated as Northampton’s poet laureate. (Newman served in the post from 2008 to 2010.) As she began the task of writing a poem a day for a month, Newman knew she wanted to focus her poems on the story of Matthew Shepard.
She recalled being struck by how many people responded the horror of Shepard’s story by saying, “I can’t imagine ...”
But, as a poet, she felt that, “It’s my job to imagine.”
“Everyone kept saying, ‘If only there were witnesses,’” Newman continued. “And as a poet, you know, my mind works a little differently. I thought, well, there were witnesses. The fence was there; the stars were there; the moon was there. That’s how I started thinking about writing from their points of view.”
Other points of view in the book include the prosecuting and defense attorneys, Shepard’s murderers, the bartender who saw them leave with Shepard, a chorus of parents and a deer that the first police officer to arrive on the scene saw lying near Shepard as if to warm him.
“The Fence (that night)” is written in a Malayan form called a pantoum, Newman said. The repetitive form, in which some of the same lines reappear in a regular pattern throughout the stanzas, was originally meant to aid in memorization, when poetry was an oral tradition. But in this poem the repetition also invokes Shepard’s long night alone.
Though it is clearly also a book for adults, “October Mourning” was published by Candlewick Press, a children’s book publisher, and given an age range of 14 years old and up. This status has given Newman’s poems — and Matthew Shepard’s story — visibility in schools, where it has been used as a teaching aid and inspired dramatic readings and visual art.
And on Friday, April 4, 7 p.m., a staged reading will be performed at the Haydenville Congregational Church, 143 Main St., Haydenville. Directed by Chris Rohmann, community theater director and adjunct faculty at the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter School, the reading will feature the Rev. Andrea Ayvazian, former district judge Mike Ryan, and deacons and members of the church.
“Everyone has such an incredibly serious focus and intent and they’re putting a lot of energy into it,” Newman, who has attended several rehearsals, said. “They’re just putting a lot of heart into it and I’m so moved by that. …It’s going to be very, very powerful.”
For more information on the reading, contact Ayvazian at 413-584-5666 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The event is wheelchair accessible and free. Donations will be gratefully accepted, with proceeds going to the Matthew Shepard Foundation.
Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She is always looking for Franklin County poets with recent publications or interesting projects to interview for her column. She can be reached at email@example.com.