Mrs. Ada’s students at Indian River High School in Philadelphia, NY read October Mourning and sent Ms. Newman these questions. Thank you to Ms. Newman for answering and to the students for the thoughtful questions!
Was 2010 your first visit to the fence?
Yes. I had finished the first draft of my book, and I went to Laramie to do some factual and emotional research. I went back in 2011, again to spend some time at the fence, where I said Kaddish, the Jewish mourner’s prayer, and just spent some time feeling what it felt like to stand there. I also walked around the town of Laramie, toured the University of Wyoming where I sat on a bench that was erected for Matt on the tenth anniversary of his death, and visited the Matthew Shepard archives which has a lot of information including letters, newspapers articles, hospital updates, emails, etc.
Was it difficult to write from the perspective of the killers and the protestor?
These poems were not really much more difficult than any of the other poems. As a poet and artist, it is my job to use my imagination and that is what I did. It was necessary for the book so I steeled myself, took a deep breath, and wrote.
Did anything ever happen to discipline the Frat boys? I can’t imagine anyone being that hateful or ignorant.
The National Fraternity withdrew the Fraternity chapter’s charter, and Colorado State University withdrew recognition of the Fraternity (both these actions are very big deals) and 11 students were disciplined.
Are there any poems you wrote that didn’t make it into this collection?
Only one poem, which was called “The Keynote Speaker” which was about me giving my talk on campus the day that Matthew Shepard died. It seemed out of place and a bit self-indulgent, so I left it out.
What do Matthew’s parents think about October Mourning? Did you ask them for permission (or a blessing) to write their sons story?
I have been in touch with the Matthew Shepard Foundation since I completed the first draft of the book. When I first wrote to Judy Shepard, she was on the road and told the director of the foundation, “Reach out to her” (meaning me) “she’s a good person.” I had sent Judy an article titled “Imagine” which I had written in October 1998 right after her son was murdered, and published in about 20 regional gay newspapers around the country (an expanded version of that article appears as the afterword of the book). So she knew who I was. I visited the Foundation in 2010 on the way to Laramie. Judy was not there–she is always traveling–so I spoke with Jason Marsden, director of the Foundation. I asked him if he would like to read an early draft of the book. He said no, he didn’t want to interfere with my artistic vision. When the manuscript was finished, I sent it to him and he wrote an endorsement which appears on the back of the book. In February 2013, I spent the day with Judy Shepard, watching the Tectonic Theatre Company perform both parts of the Laramie Project in Brooklyn, NY and we had dinner together. I thanked her for letting me tell her son’s story. She said, “Thank you for telling it so beautifully.”
How do you feel about the current state of Gay rights in the US compared to in 1998 when Matthew was killed?
Things have really progressed! The marriage equality movement is growing daily, with more and more states recognizing same-sex marriage. DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) has been struck down. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has been struck down. We have moved forward, and we still have a long way to go. I am confident that all 50 states will recognize same-sex marriage in my lifetime.
In the afterword you challenge readers to find one thing to do to help end homophobia. What do you think is the most effective thing people can do to stand up for equality?
I don’t know that there is one most effective thing; there are many things that are effective. You can be inclusive in your language and pay particular attention to pronouns, you can march in a Gay Pride Parade, you can join PFLAG (Parents, Friends, and Family of Lesbians and Gays), you can wear a supportive button on your backpack (“Honorary Lesbian” “I’m Straight But Not Narrow” “I Love My Gay Brother”), you can join the Gay Straight Alliance at your high school (or start one), you can call out someone for using offensive language (when you hear someone say, “That’s so gay” you can say, “That’s so not okay”), you can write a letter to your school newspaper about gay rights, you can visit http://www.matthewshepard.com or http://www.matthewsplace.org and get involved. If you’re a teacher, you can use the new GLSEN/ Matthew Shepard Foundation resource guide, “He Continues to Make a
Difference: Commemorating the Life of Matthew Shepard” to make your school a safer place for LGBT students:
I suppose if I had to pick one thing, it would be to befriend an LGBT student in your community who is being ostracized. Who is being picked on at your school? Are you brave enough to go against the tide of peer pressure and eat lunch with that student? Being bullied wears a person down, often to the point where he or she loses the desire to live. Being kind to someone can save that person’s life.
This collection of poems was heartbreaking to read, was it necessary to be able to think about the events objectively or did the emotions drive the writing?
I would say both. I needed to enter the events, as I ask the reader to do, so that I could emotionally place myself in that time and place.
And I needed to take a step back to focus on language, line breaks, rhythm, and other poetic devices. I did cry a bit when when I wrote some of the poems. Then I sharpened my pencil (I still write longhand!) and dove back in.