Writing for the Lament for the Dead project

About fifteen minutes ago, I submitted my poem for the Lament for the Dead project.

For those of you unfamiliar with the project, the web site states:

Lament for the Dead is an online community poetry project which will mark the death of every person killed by police this summer, and every police officer who loses life in the line of duty, with a poem.

Although I have written a few poems about some of the incidents that have been reported in the news over the last year or so, they have focused more on the incidents themselves, rather than on the specific people involved. So, I thought this would be worth attempting, and contacted the site for more information.

The way the project works is that each poet is offered a 48-hour window in which to write, with the exact date depending on what events take place during the preceding days. In the morning on one of those two days, the poet is e-mailed the name of the person to write about. The poet then writes about that person, using whatever information (no matter how incomplete) is available at the time, and sends the finished poem back by midnight. The focus is to be on the loss of that person’s life.

As luck would have it, I received my assignment this morning—meaning I would not have to write my poem on Father’s Day. I was to write about Santos Laboy, the 45-year-old man who was shot yesterday by Massachusetts State Police in Boston.

I read the Boston Globe article about the incident, and looked into other articles as well, some of which had pictures (and a little bit of video) of police pursuing him before he got to the footbridge where he was killed. The Boston Globe article was relatively restrained, alluding to the possibility of some mental health problems, and mentioning a 2010 conviction for assault with a dangerous weapon, and malicious destruction of property. Other outlets were quick to mention that police had been looking for him in connection with sexually explicit photos left at a laundromat near the Boston University campus, and harassment of women. The release of his description earlier in the week is apparently what had police watching for him on the day he was killed.

The Globe’s article included his Facebook profile picture, a Polaroid in which he is wearing sunglasses, a backward baseball cap, and showing off his chiseled physique. I decided to check out his Facebook profile (which has since been deactivated, although the Globe posted a story about it this afternoon) to get a better sense of who he was. In addition to quotes from Lao Tzu, Napoleon, and Julius Caesar, as well as several quotes about men who ‘have nothing to lose’, there were a number of posts suggesting he was either getting ready for something, about to snap, or both. Though he was clearly not without a sense of humor, the overall tone of his profile was brash, defiant, in-your-face.

Frankly, I was not sure what I was going to do with all this information. He did not appear to be an immediately sympathetic person (beyond the circumstances of his death), but I did not want to go solely by what the media were reporting about him. So, I wrote down selected lines from the Facebook page, checked a few other pages for comments and/or reactions, and listened to the police press conference, from which I borrowed a few more lines.

My first attempt was going to contrast the passive language used by police during the press conference with the anything-but-passive persona of Mr. Laboy. Two lines in, though, I found myself stuck.

For my second attempt, I incorporated lines from the Facebook posts, fragments from the press conference, eyewitness reports, and what I understood about what happened from reading the news reports. This time, I was able to write a complete poem. I was not sure if it was quite right, but I felt it was close.

I went back to Facebook for my third attempt, in which I used only Mr. Laboy’s own words, in the order in which he posted them, to write the poem. This one might have worked as a poem on its own, but did not work at all as a lament—and would have felt exploitative. So I kept going.

Subsequent attempts resulted in little more than fragments, so I went back to my first successful poem, and began refining. This process continued right up until I clicked on the ‘send’ button.

I think I managed to strike the right tone with my poem, acknowledging his humanity, and addressing him with respect, while also touching on his apparent state of mind, and describing the circumstances in which he died. Also, I am glad I wrote it fairly quickly, instead of waiting for more information to come out. With his Facebook profile deactivated, and more information about his past (including, apparently, untreated mental illness) becoming available, the poem would have turned out very differently. I think knowing less made me work harder, so the poem turned out better as a result.

I am told the poem should appear on the Lament for the Dead site tomorrow morning. R.I.P., Santos Laboy.

(2o June 2015)


Santos Laboy came up today in Facebook’s list of people I might know, so I took a look. His page is back online now—but most of the posts referenced above have been deleted (or their privacy settings changed). With the brash, sometimes troubled persona he presented before his death dialed back, that sense of something terrible about to happen is no longer there.

(31 July 2o15)