Emily Dickinson

The Dipper - November 2018

"The Dipper" is our monthly newsletter, where we highlight readings, events, calls for submission, and other literary-related news for the coming month. If you have news or events to share, let us know

 

November News

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Want to hear some gorgeous music, listen to two fabulous authors read, take part in a conversation about the writing process, and stuff your face with homemade biscuits? Well then, look no further than our own Writers’ Process Night happening this Saturday, November 3 at Open Door in White River Junction, Vermont.

Join us, Laura Jean Binkley, Camille Guthrie, and Peter Orner, and a mountain of biscuits made by Literary North’s favorite baker and all-around fan, Dr. Hermann Puterschein. Scurry over to the Event page now and claim your seat at the biscuit bar! See you on Saturday!

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Slow Club Book Club members, have you started reading our final book of 2018 yet? If not, please don’t worry; you’re in fantastic company! At least one of your SCBC hosts hasn’t started either. And guess what? That’s just fine. October always seems to be a month when everything hits the fan at once. Between finally waking up from the summer drowsies and suddenly realizing that the end of the year crazies are nigh, this time of year is often overstuffed with deadlines, new projects, school meetings, and making appointments to get winter tires put on. Never fear… Sara Maitland’s A Book of Silence will wait patiently for you to dip in as you have time, maybe while waiting for those tires to be changed.

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It always feels a bit awkward to promote one’s own stuff, but if you can’t do it in your own newsletter, where can you? So this is just to say… Rebecca has written a science book about rivers for kids aged 7 to 10, and it's coming out later this month! Rivers and Streams! is part of a set of four “Explore Waterways” books published by the excellent Nomad Press in White River Junction, Vermont. It’s packed with really fun illustrations by the very talented Tom Casteel, and it includes 25 river-related activities. If you have a young person in your life who’s into science—or even one who isn’t yet into science—check out the set, or the many other wonderful non-fiction books for kids that Nomad publishes.

November’s Shooting Stars

A cool literary find from each of us to help light up your month!

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  • Tommy Orange’s review of Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah in The New York Times was fantastic. Here’s a snippet:

“Now more than ever I believe fiction can change minds, build empathy by asking readers to walk in others’ shoes, and thereby contribute to real change. In “Friday Black,” Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah has written a powerful and important and strange and beautiful collection of stories meant to be read right now, at the end of this year, as we inch ever closer to what feels like an inevitable phenomenal catastrophe or some other kind of radical change, for better or for worse. And when you can’t believe what’s happening in reality, there is no better time to suspend your disbelief and read and trust in a work of fiction—in what it can do.”

—Shari

  • I’m in a bit of a glum mood, what with the current dreary weather and the state of the world and all, so Emily Dickinson’s Patreon page in The New Yorker is giving me a welcome lift as I put the finishing touches on this newsletter. I’ll be scraping my shekels together to afford patronage at $100 a month (“I will tell you which parts of the Bible would be made better with bees. Plus all previous rewards.”) How about you? —Rebecca


November Highlights

On Friday, November 2, at 7:30 pm, GunSense Vermont, the Unitarian Church of Montpelier, and Bear Pond Books present “Bullets Into Bells: Poets and Citizens Respond to Gun Violence.” This event features Major Jackson, Matthew Olzmann, and Kerrin McCadden and takes place at the Unitarian Church in Montpelier, Vermont.

Ed Koren

Ed Koren

You have plenty of opportunities to catch cartoonist Ed Koren in November. He’ll be at The Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont, on Saturday, November 3, at 6:00 pm; at Phoenix Books in Burlington, Vermont, on Thursday, November 15, at 7:00 pm; at Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, Vermont, on Friday, November 23, at 12:00 pm for a book signing; and at the Norman Williams Public Library in Woodstock, Vermont, on Tuesday, November 27, at 6:00 pm.

On Sunday, November 4, at 3:00 pm, poet Sue Ellen Thompson is giving a lecture on “Marriage, Metaphor, & Mortality: The Poetry of Jane Kenyon” at BigTown Gallery in Rochester, Vermont. The lecture explores Kenyon’s lifelong struggle with depression and her marriage to fellow poet Donald Hall.

Also on Sunday, November 4, the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, will be dedicating the Colony’s Library to James Baldwin, who was a resident at the Colony three times in the 1950s to work on his books. The outdoor ceremony at 11:00 am will be followed by light refreshments.

Eugene Lim will be reading as part of the Cleopatra Mathis Poetry & Prose Reading Series at Dartmouth College’s Sanborn Library, in Hanover, New Hampshire, on Tuesday, November 6, from 4:30 to 6:00 pm.

First Wednesdays, a program of the Vermont Humanities Council, brings DeRay McKesson to Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont, on Wednesday, November 7, at 7:00 pm to talk about politics and activism.

Catherine Lacey. Photo by Jesse Ball.

Catherine Lacey. Photo by Jesse Ball.

Catherine Lacey is at Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont, on Wednesday, November 7, at 7:00 pm, reading from her new short story collection, Certain American States.

On Tuesday, November 13, poet Kevin Goodan reads from his new collection, Anaphora, at Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord, New Hampshire. The reading begins at 5:30 pm.

Jeremy Holt visits Phoenix Books in Burlington, Vermont, on Tuesday, November 13, at 7:00 pm for his graphic novel, After Houdini.

Robin MacArthur will be at The Bennington Free Library in Bennington, Vermont, on Thursday, November 15, at 7:00 pm, in support of the paperback release of her fabulous novel, Heart Spring Mountain.

Kim Adrian

Kim Adrian

Poet Sidney Wade will be at the Fleming Museum of Art in Burlington, Vermont, for the Painted Word Poetry Series on Thursday, November 29, at 6:00 pm.

As part of the UNH Writers Series, Kim Adrian, author of the memoir The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet, will be reading at the University of New Hampshire, in Durham, New Hampshire, on Thursday, November 29, at 5:00 pm.

Visit our calendar for detailed information about these events and more!

 

Worth a Drive

Edward Carey visits The Odyssey Bookshop in Hadley, Massachusetts, on Thursday, November 8, at 7:00 pm to read from his new novel, Little, about Madam Tussaud. The event is free but registration is requested.

 

Worth a Listen

We're Looking Forward to These November Releases

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Calls For Submission and Upcoming Deadlines

The AVA Gallery in Lebanon, New Hampshire is looking for its next batch of true-life storytellers for its December 13 Mudroom event. The theme is “Holiday Disasters.” Storytellers of all ages and from all towns in the Upper Valley and beyond are welcome to submit their stories for consideration by November 23. In your submission, include a brief summary of the story (no more than 300 words) and a short bio (no more than 150 words). For more information and to submit your story, please visit the AVA Gallery’s Mudroom page.

Marble House Project is a multi-disciplinary artist residency program in Dorset, Vermont, that fosters collaboration and the exchange of ideas by providing an environment for artists across disciplines to live and work side by side. The three-week Artist Residency is open to artists in all creative fields, including but not limited to visual arts, writing, choreography, music composition and performance. Applications for 2019 residencies are open through December 16. The application fee is $32. For more information, please visit the Residency Applications page.

Bloodroot Literary Magazine is accepting submissions of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction for their 2019 Digital Edition through December 31. Submission guidelines are available on the Bloodroot website.

The Frost Place is accepting submissions for their annual Chapbook Competition. The competition is open to any poet writing in English. The submission fee is $28. Submissions will be accepted through January 5, 2019. For more information, please visit the Chapbook Competition page.

Applications are now open for the Dartmouth Poet in Residence program at The Frost Place. This is a six-to-eight-week residency in poet Robert Frost’s former farmhouse in Franconia, New Hampshire. The residency begins July 1 and ends August 15, and includes an award of $1,000 from The Frost Place and an award of $1,000 from Dartmouth College. The recipient will have an opportunity to give a series of public readings across the region, including at Dartmouth College and The Frost Place. Applications will be accepted through January 5, 2019. For more information, please visit the Residency page.  

Every summer, the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, awards residency Fellowships to artists in seven disciplines, including literature. A Fellowship consists of exclusive use of a private studio, accommodations and three prepared meals a day for two weeks to two months. The deadline for the 2019 Summer MacDowell Literature Fellowship is January 15, 2019. The application fee is $30. For more information, please visit the Residency Application page.


Upcoming Workshops and Classes

Do you have an interview project in mind but don’t quite know where to begin or how to proceed? The Vermont Folklife Center is offering an “Oral History: An Introduction” workshop that can help you move your project forward. The workshop will be held on November 3, from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm at the Dorset Historical Society in Dorset, Vermont. Tuition is $95-$50. For more information and to register, please visit the Vermont Folklife Center Workshop page.

The pressure’s on if you’re participating in National Novel Writing Month, the creative writing project that challenges participants to write a 50,000 word manuscript in November. Take some of that pressure off with the free “NaNoWriMo Expressive Writing” workshop, lead by Joni B. Cole on November 5, at the Norwich Public Library in Norwich, Vermont, from 6:30 to 8:00 pm. This workshop invites you to write from a prompt to develop a character….add a plot twist…or discover a scene that’s just been waiting to burst onto the page. For more information, please visit the Writer’s Center of WRJ Workshops page.

Looking for quality instruction, feedback, and inspiration in a beautiful Vermont setting? This half-day retreat on November 10, from 9:00 am to 1:00 pm, offers all that and more. You’ll have the opportunity to share pages of a new or revised work for personalized feedback, learn tips and techniques to get started and stay motivated, and reap the benefits of gathering within a supportive creative community. Both nervous beginners and seasoned authors are welcome. Tuition is $115 and must be paid in full prior to the retreat. For more information, or to register (required), please visit the Writer’s Center of WRJ Workshops page.

NaNoWriMo too easy? Become a Centurion by earning 100 poetry, essay, or short-story rejections in twelve months. Lead by R. W. W. Greene, this two-hour workshop hosted by the New Hampshire Writers’ Project will “take you through the steps of submitting your work, the mystery of rejectomancy, and the best methods of recuperation from a ‘thanks but no thanks.’” The workshop will be held on November 17, from 1:00 to 3:00 pm, at The Ford House on the campus of SNHU in Manchester, New Hampshire. $50 for NHWP members; $75 for non-members. For more information, please visit the NHWP Workshops page.

Storytelling is a powerful tool for the documentation of voices, memories, and histories. It can also be a catalyst for activism and social change. In this “Storytelling for Social Change” workshop—held on December 1, from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm at the Saint Albans Museum in Saint Albans, Vermont—we will explore the ethics and techniques of oral history, ethnography, and storytelling as activist research methodologies. Attendees will be invited to take a critical and analytical look at the history of documentary work, and will learn the basics of skills such as interviewing, story circle facilitation, and ethnographic observation. We will also cover the technical aspects of storytelling, providing an introduction to tools for minimal-resource and mobile audio recording. Tuition is $95-$50. For more information or to register, please visit the Vermont Folklife Center Workshop page.

Interview: Mary Jo Bang

The Burlington Book Festival lands in Burlington, Vermont, on October 12 to 14, with an amazing lineup including Mary Jo Bang, Dan Chiasson, Maria Hummel, Mark Leyner, Bethany Morrow, and Sharon Olds. This is the third in a series of four interviews in celebration of the Festival.

Mary Jo Bang is the author of several books of poems, including A Doll for Throwing (Graywolf Press, 2017), The Last Two Seconds (Graywolf Press, 2015), The Bride of E: Poems (Graywolf Press, 2009), and Elegy (Graywolf Press, 2007), which won the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry and was a 2008 New York Times Notable Book. She teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.

Of A Doll for Throwing, Publisher’s Weekly says, “Bang’s impeccable collection reads as a ‘circular mirror of the social order,’ reflecting the historicity of our current moment with wit, subtlety, and grace.” And The Washington Post writes, “Mary Jo Bang bends and tosses ideas as easily as one would a Wurfpuppe, a flexible doll created by Bauhaus artist Alma Siedhoff-Buscher that always landed with grace when thrown.”

Thank you, Mary Jo, for your wonderful answers to our questions!

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Literary North: Tell us a little bit about your writing process.

Mary Jo Bang: My writing practice changed when computers replaced typewriters. When I began, I kept notebooks or wrote on loose sheets of paper—when the poem felt resolved, I would type it. Now, I usually compose a poem on the computer and print it out when it feels somewhat settled. I then mark changes on that piece of paper and eventually go back to the computer and make more changes. I repeat that cycle for anywhere from minutes to weeks or months. Because it’s far easier to make changes on the computer, compared to retyping a poem from start to finish, I think the process of composing remains fluid for longer.

There is also the fact that when I began writing, I had the luxury of sitting in front of a blank piece of paper for hours or days, never knowing whether it might become something worth saving. I’m busier now and also clearer about what I want to say. I can’t imagine sitting in front of a piece of paper for days. I may not write as often but when I sit down to write, I write (meaning, I type what I write on a keyboard).

LN: What influences have helped shape you into the writer you are today?

MJB: I remain influenced by Samuel Beckett, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Sigmund Freud, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Jean Toomer, Gertrude Stein, early Eliot, my friends, my teachers, my students, The New York Times, New York City, the Surrealists, Baudelaire, Dante, Shuzo Takiguchi, every painting I’ve ever seen, my erratic brain, etc.

LN: Your most recent book of poems, A Doll for Throwing, was inspired by the Bauhaus school, and photographer Lucia Moholy. Why did you decide to write about this subject? What inspired you and influenced your writing as you worked towards its completion?

MJB: As always with inspiration, one sees or hears something, or one entertains a thought, and then there’s a next seeing or hearing or thinking. It’s all very messy and unpredictable at the beginning, but, at some point, you begin to shape whatever you’ve taken in by combining it with your pre-existing obsessions and preoccupations. In this case, I saw a rather non-descript photograph by Lucia Moholy in a museum and became curious about her name. I knew of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy—the famous Bauhaus Master-teacher and visual artist—and wondered whether she was related. I learned that she was his first wife and that she had taken most of the iconic photographs of the early Bauhaus buildings and workshop products but that those photographs came to be associated not with her but with Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus school and design movement. Her name had been all but erased from history. I felt, as a woman who has worked to establish herself as an artist against some odds (working class background, years of single parenthood), an odd kind of kinship. I eventually immersed myself in the history of the Bauhaus and used that place and era as an imagined stage from which I then wrote about my own experience of being a woman and an artist in the present—as well as my own experience of being a photographer, before I became a poet.

LN: What brings you joy?

MJB: So many things! Right now, translating Dante’s Purgatorio into colloquial English. For me, translation is similar to working an endless crossword puzzle. I never tire of it. If I could, I’d give up sleeping for it, however, whenever my disembodied mind attempts to do that, the body that houses my brain puts its foot down and insists I go to bed.

LN: What was the most memorable thing you read in the past month?

MJB: Khadijah Queen’s I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On, a delightfully subversive book of prose poems. She uses a fever-pitch stream-of-consciousness approach to construct brief narratives about growing up in Los Angeles. The poems play with received notions of celebrity, masculinity, femininity, fashion, film, and family (to name a few). The book becomes a ‘joiner’ collage of snapshots, each featuring another glimpse what it’s like to be alive in America in the present! It’s smart and funny and like nothing else you’ll read.

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Interview: Dan Chiasson

The Burlington Book Festival lands in Burlington, Vermont, on October 12 to 14, with an amazing lineup including Mary Jo Bang, Dan Chiasson, Maria Hummel, Mark Leyner, Bethany Morrow, and Sharon Olds. This is the second in a series of four interviews in celebration of the Festival.

Poet and critic Dan Chiasson is author of four books of poetry: The Afterlife of Objects (2002), Natural History (2005), Where's the Moon, There's the Moon (2010) and, most recently, Bicentennial (2014). A book of criticism, One Kind of Everything: Poem and Person in Contemporary America, was published in 2006. He has received the Whiting Writers' Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters as well as a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation.

Dan is the poetry critic for The New Yorker, as well as a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books, where he writes about poetry, pop music, and film. He was poetry editor, and later advisory editor, of The Paris Review. A Vermont native, Dan teaches at Wellesley College and lives in Massachusetts with his wife and two sons.

His 2014 book, Bicentennial is both a book about Chiasson’s childhood in Vermont and an elegy for his father. In her review in The New York Times, Daisy Fried writes, “Dan Chiasson is after beauty of a kind, so his poems are often beautiful, odd and quite moving. He seldom resorts to lilting cadences or glow-in-the-dark imagery to achieve this, and complicates any move toward traditional lyric warmth; his poetry is genially brainy, jokey, casually formal, sometimes essayistic and humorously oracular.”

Thank you, Dan, for your thoughtful answers to our questions!

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Literary North: Tell us a little bit about your writing process.

Dan Chiasson: I write in the mornings, once my kids are off to school, and before teaching or other obligations. I sit at a small, painted farm table, at a purple Eames chair I got 25 years ago. It's in the hallway of our upstairs. I look out at the main street we live on. People scurry by to the T station at the bottom of the hill. If I'm writing poetry, it comes very fast. But I am hardly ever writing poetry. Usually I'm working on a book review, which is like pulling teeth. I get a few sentences down, then a few more. The openings take me forever. Once I have an opening and I can see where the argument is headed, I take a break. Usually I go for a run and think about the sentences I just wrote, and often I think of new ones when I'm out exercising.

LN: What influences have helped shaped you into the writer you are today>?

DC: I would name two especially. Jamaica Kincaid, whom I met at Harvard, was my greatest influence. She has a phosphorescent mind, and we became instant friends—partly because of our connection to Vermont. I was trying to write fiction when I met her; she convinced me that my stories were really poems. We drank gin and tonics at the old Upstairs at the Pudding in Harvard Square and gossiped about people at Harvard. Just talking to her was a training in what words to use, how to be interesting, funny, alert, lyrical and truthful. Around that same time, 1997 or so, I called up Frank Bidart, a poet I admired. He invited me to his classes at Wellesley, where, needless to say I stood out. Frank, too, was such an easy presence, kind, passionate, and (most importantly) incapable of pretending to like things he didn't like. He kept odd hours then as he does still, so often I'd drop a poem off during the day at his apartment in Cambridge, and hear from him late at night, when he woke up.

LN: As the poetry critic for The New Yorker, you share poetry criticism with very literate readers, not all of whom know much about poetry. What goes into deciding which poets and books to share with readers each week?

DC: I think I'm a teacher by nature. A person happiest explaining things to people who are curious to learn. New Yorker readers are the perfect audience because they love critical prose. How many readers of, say, Alex Ross go to the concerts he reviews? Some, but not many. They read him because of his prose, his arguments, his distinctions. The popular music critic Amanda Petrusich may convince more people to go to a show or buy a record, but still, it's her prose, it's the quality of her mind and the cadences of her sentences. So I try to pick books that interest me, that stir up my desire to put good sentences together, that allow me to convey what's beautiful and necessary about poetry. I would suspect that only a small percentage of my readers go out and buy the books. Maybe I'm wrong, I hope so; but I would contend that criticism is its own end, its own fulfillment, and I'm probably at one extreme in that I do not see my essays as serving the books I'm reviewing, but rather the art of poetry, with the books I'm reviewing as especially rich examples of what it can do.

LN: What brings you joy?

DC: Our sons, ages 12 and 14, both bring a huge amount of cultural information into our house. What brings me joy is hearing them argue about the merits of a movie or a band or a performance, which they do constantly. I would say, animated conversation brings me joy. The discovery of a new work of art or body of work. Being in the places that mean the most to me: many of them in Vermont. I would say, swimming in Bristol Falls or at that little rocky public beach in Charlotte. Also, Al's French Frys. The old places in downtown Burlington that are still there from when I was 12 or 13 and discovering the city on my own: Pure Pop Records, Old Gold. Leunig's. Sneakers in Winooski, where I worked from 6th grade until the summer before my last year of college.

LN: What was the most memorable thing you read in the past month?

DC: I'm deep in teaching Emily Dickinson now. There's a poem that is not that well known, "I watched the moon around the house—" about tracking the moon as it passes across the windows of her bedroom. These stanzas blow my mind, comparing the moon to a severed head and then a stemless flower:

But like a Head — a Guillotine
Slid carelessly away —
Did independent, Amber —
Sustain her in the sky —

Or like a Stemless Flower —
Upheld in rolling Air
By finer Gravitations —
Than bind Philosopher —

Photo by BrianSmithBoston.com

Photo by BrianSmithBoston.com

Interview: Ivy Schweitzer (Part 2)

This is part 2 of our conversation with Ivy Schweitzer, Professor of English at Dartmouth College, and the driving force behind “White Heat,” a blog that chronicles Dickinson's creative life and poetry week by week for the crucial year 1862, and provides cultural and historical contexts to this poet’s notoriously difficult work.

p.s. You can read part 1 here.

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(continued from part 1)

R: So how do you structure the posts in “White Heat”? 

I: After we choose our theme for the week, we go off and do research for the sections called “This Week in History,” and “This Week in Biography.” The first contains snippets from newspapers and magazines we know Dickinson read, and the second summarizes relevant biographical information from letters, etc. Then, we choose a group of five or six texts, mostly poems from this period, but also letters, that illuminate the weekly theme, and write a short introduction, “On Choosing the Poems,” that talks about literary influences and important elements in the poetry. For each poem, we reprint a transcript of the manuscript, give links to the EDA, and offer some suggestions on how to approach the poem, what to look for, questions to ask.

What I'm trying to do is not give you a reading or interpretation of the poems, because I don't believe in that. My students always say, "What does it mean?" And I reply, "No, let go of that." I don't know what it means and, with Dickinson, it never means only one thing. We're never going to figure that out and it’s not the most important part of reading poetry. We have to pay attention to how the poem make its meaning and what it does to us, the readers. How does it make us feel? And Dickinson's poems can elicit a wide and deep range of feelings from frustration to existential angst to “transport,” one of her favorite terms.

R: That's absolutely one of my favorite things about what you're doing, aside from all the rich content, is that, as odd as it seems, though there are links to the poems, the poems are not central, they're all throughout, but not the only focus.

I: That’s right. I am trying to show that they're not hermetically sealed off from the history and biography, yes. And the more I work with them, the more I see how she filtered so many aspects of her world into her work. For example, I did a post on Astronomy, on the discovery of the comet, and found Dickinson wrestling with the ideas of Darwin and other prominent scientists of her day. In another post on volcanoes, she enters the raging debate at the time about geology and whether it could be squared with Christian doctrine.

S: So, you're trying to encourage people to look beyond figuring out what her poems mean...

I: Right. I say to my students, "If you try to lock down the poem’s meaning and understand it, you're nailing it down, it’s finished." You don't let all the other connotations swirl around. Also, given the variants that Dickinson provided, you are going against the little glimpse we have of how she wanted her poems read; not as finished products but as always in process, always evolving.  That's what's interesting about all the new work being done on the fascicles, including by my recent Honor’s Thesis student, Madeline Killen. She worked on Fascicle 18, put together in 1862. A chapter from her thesis was selected as the Best Undergraduate Research Essay this year from the Emily Dickinson International Society. I was so proud. Many scholars are now saying that the Fascicles are the closest thing we have to how Dickinson herself wanted her poems to be presented.

It's not really self-publication, but a kind of self-editing, or organizing. Why did she put those poems next to each other in those groups?

It’s an amazing story and the beginning of the bloody editorial history of Dickinson’s body of work. After Dickinson’s death, her sister Lavinia found the forty fascicles and loose pages in her dresser drawer. They knew she was writing poetry, but not at that rate or with that intensity. Lavinia [Dickinson’s sister] gave them first to Sue and asked her to publish them, but Sue didn’t act quickly enough for Lavinia, and so Lavinia took them back and asked a young woman, Mabel Loomis Todd, to edit them and Mabel promptly snipped the fascicles and cut them apart. Mabel had become lovers with Austin, Dickinson’s brother and Sue’s estranged husband. So, Lavinia really pissed Sue off by going to Mabel.

Mabel Loomis Todd     Image   : Todd-Bingham Picture Collection, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University

Mabel Loomis Todd

Image: Todd-Bingham Picture Collection, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University

R: That's snipping apart of the fascicles is a really interesting mindset...

I: It is. Of course, we have to love Mabel because, with the pull of Higginson, she published several volumes of Dickinson’s poems after her death, while Sue didn’t publish any of the hundreds of poems she received in letters; her daughter took that on. Martha Nell Smith makes an argument that Sue was preparing a volume that was much more wholistic about Dickinson and that Mabel's volume is much more literarily edited and conventional. I know there's the Camp of Sue and the Camp of Mabel and never the twain shall meet, but I like them both. I think both did good things and not-so-good things to the Dickinson editorial history, which is complicated and, as I said, bloody––hence, the mutilations, probably done by Mabel and Austin who wanted to eradicate any trace of Sue in Dickinson’s work.

While Mabel got Dickinson’s work out there—the first Poems 1890 sold out quickly––she also went around lecturing and portraying Dickinson as the “White Myth of Amherst.” And she regularized the poetry to conform to current standards of taste. But Dickinson was a maverick, a rebel (that’s why I love her). As I mentioned earlier, Sharon Cameron's brilliant book Choosing Not Choosing argues that Dickinson deliberately chose not to choose. It wasn’t that she couldn’t decide. She deliberately chose, not indeterminacy, but multi-vocality, dynamism, freedom… I think she didn't want us as readers to be tied to a final version. She deliberately set it up so that we had to see those two words or phrases—the variants—working in a poem. It's kind of like hypertext before hypertext. It's like saying, okay, well, you can read the poem this way, you can read the poem that way, or then you could…

R: Choose your own adventure…

I: Exactly! I mean it's really like digital before the digital.

S: Do your students take turns with you writing? Or how does the collaboration work?

I: I'm not a control freak and I think the more the merrier. But I do like getting in there and being able to do it and I have a vision of how I want the posts to be and I don't want it to be super scholarly. I want it to appeal to scholars, but…

S: You want it to be accessible.

I: Exactly. And I want to reach all those zealous Dickinson fans out there who don't know what "performative" might mean or who don't know what structuralism is. I don't want to scare them away with that jargon. Even the post about the Dickinson’s meter . . . I was nervous about not getting too technical, but I think some technical is good.

R: I like the way you did it because you include a little bit of the technical information and then you give a link. You're saying, "Here, if you want to know all about meter, go over here."

I: That's what a digital site is great for. You can do layers and give options. This is how we worked. Each team member picked out which themes we wanted to work on. That person then writes the short overview in the beginning about the theme and suggests a few poems/letters that will work with it. Then we kibbitz back and forth on what poems we want, etc. So, for the first six months we were really writing the posts together. This summer, with the students away, I've been doing the posts myself, with Emily providing the historical material. I have also been asking friends, colleagues, and scholars to write the reflections, so there is a kaleidoscope of views and voices.

S: There're so many side projects you could do in addition to what you already have.

I: I really want to add lots more. Harriette created a White Heat YouTube channel and we've started uploading videos of my daughter Rebekah Schweitzer singing the Aaron Copland song cycle of 12 Dickinson poems set to music. It’s really challenging stuff, but she is doing a great job, accompanied by Annemieke McLean on piano. I want to include more audio because Dickinson was a skilled pianist and improviser. There's one whole post on Dickinson and music.

I have to say the other part I'm really loving about this project is the linking. Of course, this is dangerous because you don't know when your links are going to disappear. I've linked a lot to Wikipedia, because, frankly, I don't think Wikipedia is going to disappear. And lots of people start with Wikipedia. I don't think we should end there, but it's not a bad place to start.

S: Right. You want to make it accessible to people, like you said, who don't necessarily come with a scholarly background.

I: Exactly. And they can go from there and get into it more deeply if they want. So, the links to me are really important, to be able to read along and be able to just click and find out what you need to know…

I really wanted this site to be cultural. I wanted to be able to see images and picture Dickinson’s world: what members of her family and friends looked like, what Frazar Stearns looked like, what the Confederate cannon looked like that they sent to Amherst in his honor, what the Homestead looked like. I'm fascinated with that. But it's touchy because if the pages go away, then there are broken links. People hate broken links. When we do the eBook, it might be that I have to scale down a little bit or choose where I link to.

Frazar Stearns

Frazar Stearns

The fun part is feeling like you have it all at your fingertips. This is what the web was meant to do, to give us a sense that it's all here. And we use it for the larger purpose of creating a very rich context for the poems, to help us read these challenging poems in a more informed way. I think Dickinson has been read in little vacuums. We read an individual poem that blows our mind. I'm trained as a close reader. I love to do that, but when you read poems in a larger context like the Fascicles, or the context of the Civil War, or Dickinson’s relationship to Higginson or Emerson, or Thoreau, or her knowledge of volcanoes, then the poems take on a totally different, richer meaning.

So that's part of what I’m trying to do, to expand our view, because I am sensitive to the power of the “myth” and I want to counter it. When I introduce Dickinson to students and ask, "What's your image of her?" they say, "She was a recluse and she lived in her dad's house for her whole life and she never married and..."

R: And her white dress.

S: And her white dress.

Photo   : Jerome Liebling, Mt. Holyoke Art Museum

Photo: Jerome Liebling, Mt. Holyoke Art Museum

I: And her white dress. That's what they say. "The Belle of Amherst!"

I really want to provide a different version. Look at the post on “White” and you will see how resonant this color is in her work. It doesn’t just mean purity or innocence but is a very multi-faceted symbol. I want to present Dickinson in the World. A citizen of the World, even if she was just living in her father's house. She traveled the world in her imagination. She was networked. She wrote to everyone who was anyone, she received mail from around the world (from her missionary friends).

R: She wasn't oblivious to what was going on outside that house.

I: No. And in fact, there's a lot of evidence for her connections, if you look at the letters—the letters are amazing. That has been a real revelation to me. I'm trying to do a lot more with the letters to bring them to readers’ attention because she was a brilliant letter writer and that was another form of her creativity. They're aesthetic texts in their own right, you know what I mean?

What you see through the letters is that when she starts to go into seclusion in the 1860s, she starts to write to everybody and her letter production expands. She is withdrawing physically, but she's actually expanding verbally or textually, and she is really in touch with many people. I think there was a trade off for her and that's what Adrienne Rich says in her amazing essay from 1975, "Vesuvius at Home." That Dickinson knew that her genius wouldn't make it out there, that she would be misunderstood, criticized, or ignored and really driven mad by the restrictions. I think she knew she was sensitive, and she decided, "Ok, I'm not doing that. I'm going to be in here. I'm going to have my safe space. And I am going to write whatever I want to write in whatever way works for me.”

She could really control her life in the sense of keeping away the very negative parts. This is another thing my students don't really understand: how hard it was to be a woman in the 19th century. She had some things easy because was a member of an elite class, she had servants, but the constraints on women physically and psychologically were enormous. The whole “cult of true womanhood.”

I include in one post the image of a woman wearing the mourning dress of the times and it looks like a burqa. It's essentially a 19th century burqa, except she doesn't have the little eye holes.

Mrs. Howes in deep mourning, c. 1860s

Mrs. Howes in deep mourning, c. 1860s

S: She can't even see...

I: Right! What was it like to walk around like that? We forget how restrictive 19th century gender conventions were for women. So that's the context for the white house dress. Dickinson decided, "I'm not going to wear all that fancy, heavy stuff," I'm going to wear essentially what is the jeans and t-shirt, or sweatpants, of the 19th century! That's what she chose to wear.

R: With pockets.

I: Yeah, with pockets, so she could carry her little pencils and scraps of paper to write on in there. And buttons down the front so she didn't need somebody to help her dress.

S: That is radical.

I: That's why the context is important. Also, white was an important color to her, it had deep symbolism for her and also at a historical moment when the nation is fighting over slavery. You can’t ignore that. She wrote several poems scholars think are about racial issues; for example, “The Malay took the Pearl,” and “The Black Berry – wears a Thorn in his side.” Dickinson picked the white dress because it was easy and because she didn't want to walk around in corsets and stays or in black because many people around her were dying. Perhaps it was also a way to refuse the color of mourning.

There are so many layers, so many connections. This project has been a real mode of discovery.

One thing I’ve learned about teaching—and I learned this from my collaborator Pati Hernandez and from my spouse Tom Luxon— is that teaching should empower people. Knowledge should empower people, not humiliate them or intimidate them. And that's what I want this project to do. I know Dickinson can be really hard—and maybe that's why I picked Dickinson, she's hard, there are riddles, the center is missing, there's complicated symbolism, allegory, there is so much she's not really telling us... but, it's our responses to the language that's important. How does it make us feel? What does it do to you? Emily Dickinson is one of our great poets because she questioned everything. Her poetry is profoundly moving. The more we let go of “solving the riddle,” of what it means, the more it gives you.

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Ivy’s Tips on reading the poems

Read them out loud. As you read, think about how the words and images and dashes and rhythms make you feel. Look at how the poem makes its meaning. Let the poem speak to you in its form, in its layers. What happens when the rhythm falls apart? Circle the words that interest you - go to the Emily Dickinson Lexicon to see how Dickinson uses and reuses words, what they meant to her. Circle places where you begin to stumble and ask why? Maybe she wants you to stumble there, to stop and think about it. She is a disrupter, a maverick. Look at the breaks in sentences; she wants to make her point using the literary tools available to her.

Recommended Online Resources

  • The Emily Dickinson Archive (EDA) – This site makes high-resolution images of Dickinson’s surviving manuscripts held in multiple libraries and archives available in open access. The present version includes images for the poems identified in The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Variorum Edition, edited by R. W. Franklin (Cambridge: Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1998), and allows you to search by poem number, first line or words, acting as a virtual concordance to the poems.

  • Dickinson Electronic Archive 1 (DEA 1) and Dickinson Electronic Archive 2 (DEA 2) – These two websites (the second is an expanded version of the first) are “a scholarly resource showcasing the possibility of interdisciplinary and collaborative research and exploring the potential of the digital environment to reveal new interpretive material, cultural, historical, and theoretical contexts.” The DEA devoted to the study of Emily Dickinson, her writing practices, writings directly influencing her work, and critical and creative writings generated by her work. It contains archives of manuscripts by Dickinson and members of her circle, as well as critical essays and teaching resources.

  • The Emily Dickinson’s Lexicon, edited by Cynthia L. Hallen – This website helps illuminate Dickinson's word choice by examining the meanings recorded in Noah Webster's An American Dictionary of the English Language (1844 printing of 1841 ed.), which she used throughout her writing life, and also listing the usages of words in Emily Dickinson's writings. Indispensable.

  • The Emily Dickinson MuseumThe home of Emily Dickinson, a National Historic Landmark owned by the Trustees of Amherst College, and well worth a visit. Their web site also includes information about the Evergreens, home of Susan and Austin Dickinson, and provides a good introduction to Dickinson and Dickinson-related topics.


Recommended Books

Below are just a sampling of books about Emily Dickinson. Books marked with an asterisk (*) are some of Ivy’s favorites and a great place to start if you’re just beginning to plunge into the deep waters of Emily Dickinson studies.

Primary Sources

 
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Biographies

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Critical Works

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Fun Stuff

And more…

For even more resources, see DEA’s Emily Dickinson Bibliography.