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Writing October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard: An 11-Year Journey

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Writing October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard has been a long journey, one that took me over 11 years and began with a terrible coincidence.

My journey began Oct. 12, 1998, the day I flew across the country to give a speech about the controversy over my children's book Heather Has Two Mommies at the University of Wyoming, in celebration of National Coming Out Day. That was the day the world found out about the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, the gay Wyoming college student killed in the most visible anti-gay hate crime in American history.

I imagined Matt Shepard, whose picture had been splashed all over the newspapers, sitting in the front row for my speech. I knew he had planned on coming to my lecture. I knew he had attended a meeting of the school's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Association to finish planning Gay Awareness Week the night he was attacked. I knew he had been robbed, kidnapped, beaten, and tied to a fence, where he remained undiscovered for 18 hours, all because he was gay.

That night I promised the people attending my lecture that I would do my best to make sure Matt was not forgotten. To this day, I open all my speeches on LGBT rights by honoring Matt's memory. I tucked a photo of Matt inside my wallet, which I still carry with me wherever I go. I attended a lecture given by Judy Shepard at the University of Massachusetts, and afterwards I went backstage to greet her. Though I never met Matt, he has become an important part of my life, as he has for so many others.

In 2008 something happened that made October Mourning possible: I was appointed poet laureate of Northampton, Mass. This honor inspired me to focus fully on my first literary love, which has always been poetry. In the fall of 2009, I created a project called "30 Poems in 30 Days," inviting the poets of my community to write one poem a day during the month of November, to raise money for a local literacy organization.

And on Oct. 12, 2009, the 11th anniversary of Matt Shepard's death, something else happened that was crucial to the writing of my book: the play The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later (An Epilogue) premiered in 100 cities, including Northampton. The Tectonic Theater Project had gone back to Wyoming 10 years after Matthew Shepard's murder to interview the people of Laramie once more, to see what had and hadn't changed. The play unleashed a wave of emotion in me, reconnecting me once more to Laramie, to Matt's death, and to all I experienced in that grieving community.

When I got into bed that night, I couldn't sleep. Instead, I picked up a pen and wrote the first draft of "Wounded." The next day I wrote "The Fence (that night)" (read it below). When November arrived, I knew that my 30 poems would explore the impact of Matt's death upon the world.

Always a morning writer, I found myself scribbling in the middle of the night, in the midst of bouts of insomnia. I was inspired to write about Matt's death from the imagined perspectives of the "silent witnesses" to the murder. I wanted the stars, the fence, and the wind to symbolically bear witness to the tragedy spawned by hatred, and to deliver a message of hope.

Yet something was missing. I didn't know what it was, but I knew I had to travel back to Wyoming to find it. A few months later I flew to Denver, drove to Laramie, and visited the site where Matt's murder had taken place.

As I walked across the prairie, the land felt spongy beneath my feet. Though it was April, there were still patches of snow all around. The wind was brisk and very cold against my face. The fence was solid under my hand. I said Kaddish, the Jewish mourner's prayer, and placed a customary stone on the fence. Two hawks flew overhead. I stared at the sky, so big and open, and again wondered what it had witnessed that night more than a decade ago.

And on April 12, 2010, 11 and a half years to the day since Matthew Shepard died, I flew home and wrote the last poem of the book while soaring through the air. "Pilgrimage" takes its form from an ancient Navajo prayer and incorporates lines from Jewish, Christian, and Buddhist traditions. The poem allows readers to pay their respects to Matt; it also reminds readers of the great beauty of the world and conveys a feeling of hope.

It is my wish that October Mourning will carry that message of hope, born from a horrific act of violence, to our youth. Those entering college this fall were only four years old when Matt Shepard was murdered. Those starting high school were only infants. But Matt's legacy will live on, and I intend October Mourning to be a vehicle for that legacy, to help our youth remember the lesson of his life and death: That all of us, no matter how old, no matter where we live, deserve to be free to be who we are. Hatred ended Matt's life, but love can unite us.

The Fence
(that night)

I held him all night long
He was heavy as a broken heart
Tears fell from his unblinking eyes
He was dead weight yet he kept breathing

He was heavy as a broken heart
His own heart wouldn't stop beating
He was dead weight yet he kept breathing
His face streaked with moonlight and blood

His own heart wouldn't stop beating
The cold wind wouldn't stop blowing
His face streaked with moonlight and blood
I tightened my grip and held on

The cold wind wouldn't stop blowing
We were out on the prairie alone
I tightened my grip and held on
I saw what was done to this child

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

From October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard. Copyright ©2012 by Lesléa Newman. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, Mass.