April 7, 2013

A poet's promise

Leslea Newman feels a powerful and deeply personal connection with Matthew Shepard, and has made it a mission to keep his memory alive by spreading a message of tolerance and compassion.

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Matthew Shepard

Courtesy photo

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“October Mourning” was written to honor the legacy of Matthew Shepard.

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LESLEA NEWMAN will host a reading at 7 p.m. Monday at the Peaks Island Community Center, 129 Island Ave.; and at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Decary Hall at the University of New England's Biddeford campus, 11 Hill Beach Road. Both are free and open to the public.


Newman's program, "He Continues to Make a Difference: The Story of Matthew Shepard," is an exercise she designed to help people envision a safer world. She challenges people in the audience to identify "one concrete thing they can do in one week's time to make the world safer."

Those actions may be as simple as reaching out to someone in the gay community or writing a letter to a state representative to advocate for gay rights or anti-hate legislation.

She's also witnessed much bolder actions.

"I had a high school student stand up in front of a whole school assembly and say, 'I am going to stop calling gay people fags.' He made a vow in front of the whole school. It was very moving."

Newman is in Maine at the invitation of her friend, Peaks Island writer Eleanor Morse. They teach together at Spalding University's MFA writing program in Louisville, Ky.

"She's an amazing person, and one of the most hard-working people I know," said Morse, whose latest novel, "White Dog Fell From the Sky," is getting national attention.

Morse admires Newman as a teaching colleague and for her social activism. Newman has used her writing career to address social issues important to her, and has reached generations of young people with her writing, Morse said.

Newman has written almost 60 books, and her signature work, "Heather Has Two Mommies," is considered a landmark. She has also written about body image, eating disorders, lesbianism and gender roles, and won numerous awards for her writing and her work.

"I think she has a lot to offer both gay and straight people in the community," Morse said. "She is a very warm and accessible person, and her writing demonstrates who she is as a person."

"October Mourning" is important, Morse added, because "it highlights what happens when people are consumed by hatred of 'The Other,' and how important it is to teach our children how to overcome those chasms."


Newman began writing "October Mourning" after attending the play "The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later," a follow-up to the original play. It opened Oct. 12, 2009, 11 years after Shepard's murder.

The play disturbed Newman, and kept her awake. "It brought everything back," she said.

Within 24 hours, she had begun a writing marathon.

At the time, Newman was poet laureate of Massachusetts, and had spearheaded what was known as a "poem-athon" in which she encouraged poets to write 30 poems in 30 days. She used that challenge to begin "October Mourning," but kept writing long past 30 days.

"The poems just poured out in unstoppable ways. The poems were bottled up and just had to come out," she said.

Her first poem was "Wounded," which suggests that one of the men who beat Shepard to death was motivated by his own mother's rape, abandonment and death. The story was told in the play that Newman had seen that night, and it haunted her.

She begins the poem with a quote from Russell Henderson, one of the two men convicted of the murder. "You know, my mom was killed in Laramie," Henderson told an interviewer. "She was raped, and then the guy just left her on the side of the road."

Newman wrote some 70 poems, from many different perspectives -- from the stars above that witnessed the murder to a nearby doe, the murderers' truck and the pistol that was used to beat him.

Perhaps the most powerful is "The Fence," written from the perspective of the fence that held Shepard the night he was beaten and left for dead.

"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"

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:


Twitter: pphbkeyes


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Additional Photos

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Leslea Newman

Courtesy photos


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