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

On a Tuesday night in early October 1998, Matthew Shepard was kidnapped from a bar in Laramie, Wyo., taken out to the country, beaten, bound to a fence and left for dead.

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Matthew Shepard

Courtesy photo

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

Additional Photos Below

NEWMAN READS

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.

He was found alive 18 hours later, still tied to that fence. He never regained consciousness, and died the following Monday.

One of the last things he did before he was taken from the bar was attend a meeting of the University of Wyoming's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Association. Shepard, who was gay, helped plan the school's Gay Awareness Week, which was to begin later that week.

The featured speaker was Leslea Newman, a writer and poet from Massachusetts best known for her children's classic, "Heather Has Two Mommies."

This week, Newman will be in Portland to discuss her latest book of poetry, "October Mourning," which honors Shepard's memory, and talk to people about tolerance, compassion and outrage.

Shepard's murder drew national attention. His attackers were convicted, and are imprisoned. His story became the subject of a play, "The Laramie Project," as well as several books and movies. He has been memorialized in song, and hate-crime legislation has been written and signed into law as a result of his murder.

Now, almost 15 years since Shepard's death, Newman worries that young people may not be aware of his story and that others might forget it. She believes it is her obligation to keep his story alive.

"I feel that his name is woven into the fabric of my life forever," Newman said by phone from her home in western Massachusetts. "When I was at the campus, I made a promise to his friends that I would do what I could to keep his name alive. Writing this book was a way to educate people about Matthew, to further his legacy and create a safer world."

She never met Matthew. He died the day she arrived on campus for her talk, five days after his attack.

Newman will present three programs this week, two of which are open to the public. She will host a reading at 7 p.m. Monday at the Peaks Island Community Center on Island Avenue; and will talk at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Decary Hall at the University of New England's Biddeford campus, 11 Hill Beach Road.

She also will present a program on Tuesday at The Waynflete School in Portland, though the Waynflete assembly is not open to the public.

Newman's appearance coincides with the national Day of Silence on April 19, a student-led effort that brings attention to anti-LGBT name-calling, bullying and harassment. Students who participate take a vow of silence as a way to illustrate the silencing effect of bullying and harassment.

The issue, Newman said, is as timely now as ever. Because of the brutality of his murder and the pure hatred toward gays expressed by the two young men who were convicted in his killing, Shepard became and remains a national symbol.

But there's still a lot of intolerance, ignorance and bigotry among young people, she said.

As a writer with a national audience whose own story is linked to Shepard's because of the confluence of events, she feels she has a duty to do this work.

"I feel more strongly than ever that it's important -- as an adult, as an out lesbian, as someone who has been given the privilege of being a role model for young people -- to have passion and outrage. Kids are still being bullied," she said.

"We cannot afford one more person's suicide. We have to figure out a way for kids to feel safe enough that they do not bully other kids. We must work together to make everyone feel like a valued human being."

ENVISIONING A SAFER WORLD

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."

INSPIRED BY 'THE LARAMIE PROJECT'

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:

bkeyes@pressherald.com

Twitter: pphbkeyes

 

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Additional Photos

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Leslea Newman

Courtesy photos

  


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