VerseDay – Guest Blogger Lesléa Newman

October Mourning: A Song for Matthew ShepardThis week’s VerseDay guest Blogger is Lesléa Newman. Lesléa’s verse novel, OCTOBER MOURNING: A Song for Matthew Shepard contains a cycle of sixty eight poems telling the story of Matthew’s murder and the impact of this terrible tragedy on his community and the world. Lesléa uses many poetic techniques and forms in her book. In her guest post she discusses one of them: personification.

Personification is a poetic technique that gives voice to the voiceless such as an inanimate object. Personification gives the poet an opportunity to use his or her imagination to bring something to life. The poet, and by extension, the reader, relates to the object in a new way, which often brings up strong emotions.

Leslea at fence

The poet, by fence where Matthew Shepard was left to die.

In my historical verse novel, OCTOBER MOURNING: A SONG FOR MATTHEW SHEPARD, I use the method of personification many times. The novel explores the impact of Matthew Shepard’s murder upon the world. In 1998, Matthew Shepard was a gay college student attending the University of Wyoming when he was kidnapped, robbed, beaten, tied to a fence, and left to die. It was the start of Gay Awareness Week, and Matthew Shepard was murdered because he was gay.

When writing the novel, I wanted to go beyond the facts and get to the heart of the matter. So as a poet, I called upon the silent witnesses to this hate crime to give me a new perspective. For example, I thought the fence might have something to tell me, and I was right:

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

(OCTOBER MOURNING: A SONG FOR MATTHEW SHEPARD. Copyright ©2012 by Lesléa Newman. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.)

In addition to being a personification poem, “The Fence (that night)” is a pantoum. Each stanza consists of four lines. The second and fourth line of the first stanza become the first and third line of the second stanza and this pattern is repeated throughout the poem. The last stanza picks up the first and third line of the first stanza so that every line in the poem is used twice. (It isn’t as difficult as it sounds; the best way to write a pantoum is to have one beside you to use as a pattern). I find when writing about something that contains intense emotion, it is helpful to have a form or container, that can hold this strong emotion. Concentrating on rhythm, repetition, line length and meter gives me distance from the raw material. At the same time, as I keep circling back to the event, I go deeper and become closer to it. This creates tension in the poem: the reader quickly comes to expect repetition but doesn’t know exactly how the repetition will occur. And this tension heightens the emotional experience of the poem. I find that the use of personification, especially within formal poetry is an excellent way to engage the reader, especially when writing about intensely emotional material.

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