Here’s a number for you: 1,789. That is the number of poems Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) wrote in her lifetime. Of those poems, only 10 were published. I really wonder what she would think about her poetry success today? Not only is she one of the most popular American poets, but her poetry has been translated and taught around the world.
This week is the “Tell it Slant Poetry Festival” sponsored by the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amhurst, Massachusetts. It is once again a virtual festival filled with seminars and workshops and historical tours! It is also the marathon reading of all her poems … one by one in two-hour segments over the course of the week. And, once again, I am a panelist for the poetry readings. This is my second year to be involved, and I am thrilled and honored to take my virtual place among so many Dickinson scholars from Harvard to Oxford. The readers come from all over the United States, the UK, India and an assortment of other countries.
You would think that starting my second year with this event I would not be so nervous, but I am! I get everything ready before the quarter hour that we need to log in. We have been instructed to wear white this year as a nod to Emily. (She always wore white.) I light candles, make tea, place the skull (a plastic figure head) of Yorick from Shakespeare’s Hamlet on my table (for good luck, I guess!), get my video camera in the exact place and wait to log on.
Once I do, I am assigned a number. There are no more than 20 readers in a two-hour session. We do a practice round giving our name and where we live. I love hearing the locations, Nepal, London, New York, Austin, San Diego and many from Amhurst and Boston. Of course, there I am from Angola, Indiana.
After I announce my name and location (have any of the panelists ever been to Indiana?), I add, “northern Indiana.” Then it is time to let in all the other folks who are just listening to our Zoom chat room and we are off.
On the side of my screen are the videos (we are instructed to keep our video camera on) of the readers. Next to that is the on-going chat that is filled with comments even before we start. Then, most importantly, the poems pop up. We read them in the order scholars believe Emily wrote them; although she did not date any of her poems. Scholars have determined the dates by the change in her hand-writing as the years passed.
There is no time to rehearse the poem, or even look it over for that word or two I might not know! I always panic a bit and hope nothing turns up that will make my Indiana roots less than those from other places. I need not worry. My name lights up the chat room as they love my readings. Truthfully, I love my readings. I am so in love with these poems that I absolutely pour my heart into it.
I do have my favorites, of course. Last year I never got one of my favorites! Oh, I love them all, but just didn’t get one that really speaks to my heart. But this year on Wednesday evening, “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” popped up on my screen. It was my turn, it was my poem. I know I gasped. Sincerely, I know I did. Then I said to the audience, and our host, Harvard University, for the evening, “This is my favorite poem. I love it so much.” Then I began to read.
By half way through I was trying to hold back the tears, but by the end, I just let them roll down my face. I am always touched by this poem, but there was something about the night. It was raining and it was the first day of autumn. The candles were brightly burning in my studio, and there it was, my poem. Of course, the on-line audience did not know that I would be reading that poem to my classes on Thursday as we begin our eulogies. Of course, the audience didn’t know I spent a week at the Dickinson homestead a few years ago. Of course, the audience didn’t know I have planted most of the flowers mentioned in her poems for my Dickinson gardens.
Of course, they didn’t know, but now you do.