by Lesléa Newman
For the Considering Matthew Shepard libretto, composer Craig Hella Johnson gathered and shaped a collection of texts from several writers whose words span centuries and represent significant cultural and geographic differences. These texts contribute to the telling of the story and also help create the poetic and musical structure which hold this musical meditation and reflection. Poems from Lesléa Newman’s extraordinary collection, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard created the inspiration and foundation for six movements of the Passion music section in Johnson’s work.
Lesléa attended the Austin premiere and shared the following reflection.
At right: Newman with Johnson at world premiere (Photo Samantha Clark)
Poetry and Passion: A Song for Matthew Shepard
In the four decades that I have been a professional writer, I have worn many hats: poet, novelist, essayist, short story writer, and children’s book author. But never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine claiming the title “lyricist.”
My journey to becoming an accidental lyricist began in the spring of 1998, when Jim Osborn, a member of the University of Wyoming’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Association invited me to be the keynote speaker for Gay Awareness Week. We agreed that my presentation “Heather’s Mommy Speaks Out: Homophobia, Censorship, and Family Values” which focuses on the trials and tribulations of my children’s book, Heather Has Two Mommies would fill the bill. The date of the talk was set for October 12th. Little did we know how significant that date was to become.
A few days before I was to head to Wyoming, Jim called to tell me that his friend Matt Shepard, another member of the LGBT Association, had been kidnapped from a bar, robbed, beaten, tied to a fence, and left to die.
“So,” Jim said, “I would understand if you decided not to come.”
“Why?” I asked. “Are you cancelling Gay Awareness Week?”
“No,” Jim answered.
“Then I’ll be there,” I assured him. “Your community needs me more than ever.”
I’ll never forget looking out at the sea of faces in the auditorium that night. The students of the LGBT Association sat in the front row. Their young, hopeful, wounded faces will stay in my memory forever. As will the empty seat in the center of that row where their friend Matt would have been sitting if he hadn’t died that morning with his family by his side.
Before I left the University of Wyoming, I promised Matt’s friends that I would do my best to make sure Matthew Shepard would not be forgotten. It took me ten years to make good on that promise by writing October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard.
The book started with a question: what exactly happened during the night of October 6, 1998 out on the prairie at that buck rail fence? Matt can’t tell us. Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson are convicted murderers whose stories about that night often conflict. If only there were witnesses, I thought, who could tell me the truth.
And then one night, when I couldn’t sleep, I stared out the window at a bright full moon and had my “aha!” moment. There were witnesses to the hate crime that claimed Matthew Shepard’s life. The moon was a witness. The stars were a witness. The truck Matt was kidnapped in was a witness. The pistol Aaron McKinney beat Matt with was a witness. And the fence that Matt was tied to was a witness.
What could these voices tell me?
October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard was published in September 2012. And though the sub-title contains the word “song,” I never imagined that my poems would actually be sung. Enter Craig Hella Johnson.
Craig contacted me a year and a half after my book came out, and asked permission to set some of the poems to music. He was particularly interested in the poems told from the point of view of the fence, which had, over time, become a symbol of grief, despair, hope, beauty, and peace.
Two years later, I sat in the front row of the Austin Independent School District Performing Arts Center wiping tears from my eyes as I listened to my own words being sung on stage as part of a contemporary oratorio. Considering Matthew Shepard is called a passion for a reason. Craig Hella Johnson embodied passion with every fiber of his being as he conducted the members of Conspirare from his piano bench. The faces of the musicians and singers on stage were etched with passion as they performed poetry written by William Blake, W.S. Merwin, Rumi, Hafiz, and myself. And after the performance, the audience was filled with passion to do something to make the world a safer place and erase hate crimes forever.
Matt’s passion was social justice. He spoke many languages. He traveled to many countries. He wanted to make the world a better place. He is making the world a better place by inspiring us all to carry on this work in his memory. Creating art is one way to make the world a better place. Art touches our hearts and souls in a profound way, reminding us that we are human. My beloved mentor, Allen Ginsberg once said, “While I’m here, I’ll do the work. And what is the work? To ease the pain of living.” Art — music, poetry, theatre — unites us, inspires us, and eases the pain of living by infusing our lives with hope, wonder, and love. I am extremely grateful to Craig Hella Johnson and the members of Conspirare for interpreting my poetry so beautifully and giving audience members everywhere the opportunity to share in this profound, inspiring, life-changing musical experience.
Lesléa Newman, author
October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard
Lesléa Newman is the author of seventy books for readers of all ages, including the children’s books Heather Has Two Mommies and Ketzel, The Cat Who Composed. Her newest poetry collection, I Carry My Mother explores a daughter’s journey through her mother’s cancer battle. Ms. Newman, a former poet laureate of Northampton, Massachusetts has received poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Artists Foundation. She teaches at Spalding University’s low-residency MFA in Writing program. October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard received an American Library Association Stonewall Honor and the Florida Council Teachers of English Joan F. Kaywell Books Save Lives Award. Ms. Newman works closely with the Matthew Shepard Foundation as a member of their speakers bureau. She has visited schools all over the country giving her presentation “He Continues to Make a Difference: The Story of Matthew Shepard.” She lives in Holyoke, Massachusetts. lesleanewman.com