Interview with Leslea Newman
Matthew’s Place recently spoke with author and activist Lesléa Newman from her home in Holyoke, Massachusetts on a bright and sunny day. Lesléa is preparing for the release of her latest book of poetry, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard. We took this opportunity to talk about what drove her to write this book and how Matthew’s story changed her.
Lesléa was born and raised in Brooklyn and spent her childhood in the city and on Long Island. She chuckles as she tells me that writing started early for her, writing sad stories of dogs running away. As a teenager she had poems published in Seventeen Magazine and eventually made her way to study poetry under Allen Ginsberg at Naropa Institute.
Heather has Two Mommies, arguably her most famous book, came out in 1989 and was written because an acquaintance had mentioned that there were no books for children that mirrored a family with two moms. Lesléa took that challenge seriously, knowing that a book that featured a child with two moms had the ability to validate the lives of children with the same family structure and show them that their family is normal.
The book has traveled the world and Lesléa told me she recently heard from someone in Serbia who has read the book.
Our conversation then turned to her experience with Matthew. For many months, Lesléa had been scheduled to visit Laramie, Wyoming and Spectrum, the University of Wyoming’s LGBT student group. She would be speaking during Gay Awareness Week, but a day or two before she was due to arrive, Lesléa received a call from Jim Osborn, Spectrum President, who gave her the option of not coming. “I needed to be there all the more,” Lesléa says reflecting on that moment nearly 14 years later.
It is hard to remember exactly what happened, but she reflected; “I think I was on autopilot, just to get through my talk and being there.” Newman remembers giving her talk about equality and acceptance to a crowded room and then attending a candlelight vigil for Matt. “I really wish I could have stayed longer,” Lesléa said.
Between visiting Laramie and giving a similar speech the next day in Albany, New York, she saw the national reaction to Matthew’s story. “I met several young gay men in upstate New York who were absolutely terrified. Even though Matt’s attack had taken place 2,000 miles away, they were shaking in fear. That is when I realized the impact of [the attack of Matthew].”
On her flight back home, she started writing an essay entitled “Imagine” and published it in 20 or so LGBT regional newspapers. To this day she still shares it at the beginning of all her speaking engagements, and it became the afterword of October Mourning, her book that explores the impact of Matt’s murder in a cycle of 68 poems.
Writing October Mourning didn’t start in earnest until October 2009 when Lesléa joined audiences in theaters around the world for staged readings of The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, the epilogue to the award winning The Laramie Project. That evening, flooded with emotions and memories, she wrote “Wounded” a poem that appears in the book. More poems poured out of her as she continued a project that involved writing a poem a day to raise funds for a local literacy group.
In wanting to make sure that she explored as many sides of this story as she could, Lesléa read everything she could find about Matthew and visited Laramie twice. She wanted to create the most honest book that she could, “Only three people know the truth. One of them is dead and the other two cannot be trusted to tell the truth. So the book really represents my truth, which is not the truth, but rather my response to everything that happened.”
THEN AND NOW
Then I was a son
Now I am a symbol
Then I was a brother
Now I am an absence
Then I was a friend
Now I am a memory
Then I was a person
Now I am a headline
Then I was a guy
Now I am a ghost
Then I was a student
Now I am a lesson
Reflecting on the poem “Then and Now,” I asked Lesléa what her motivation and inspiration was. “He was just a friend,” she said. “Now he had become this symbol, this cause. I am trying to get down all of that. I was trying to bring home the fact that all of that is true, but more importantly he was a real person because everyone has those roles in life and those roles were taken away from him.”
Our conversation continued as we talked about other poems in the book and we eventually came to the final poem. “When I came to the end of the book, the last poem was about the fence being torn down [but] I really wanted to end the book in a hopeful way,” she said. “The only way I would find how to end the book was to [go back to Laramie] … I spent some time [at the location where the fence] would have been and I said Kaddish, which is the Jewish prayer of mourning. I realized that this land was holy. And the prairie is so beautiful. I wanted to end the book in prayer.” That is why she wrote “Pilgrimage.”
The land was sold and a new fence stands about fifty yards away.People still come to pay their respects.
friend of Matthew Shepard
I walk to the fence with beauty before me
Lord is my sheperd; I shall not want
I walk to the fence with beauty behind me
I walk to the fence with beauty above me
Om Mani Padme Hum
I walk to the fence with beauty
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit
I reach the fence surrounded by beauty
Wail of wind, cry of hawk
I leave the fence surrounded by beauty
Sigh of sagebrush, hush of stone
That land is holy to Lesléa and so many other people. Ending October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard in prayer is finding her own truth about Matthew’s life, attack, and death.
The book will hit store shelves September 25, 2012.
Om Madi Padme Hum translates to “I am in thee and thou art in me” Yit ‘gadal v’yit’kadash translates to “Glorified and sanctified is God’s great name”
“Then and Now” and “Pilgrimage” from OCTOBER MOURNING: A SONG FOR MATTHEW SHEPARD. Copyright © 2012 Lesléa Newman. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.