Posts Tagged ‘Emily Dickinson’

Berkeley poet Chana Bloch: “There’s no point in wanting to be a different kind of a writer than you are.”

Saturday, December 19th, 2015
Share

Chana Bloch-Peg SkorpinskiWe’ve written about Berkeley poet Chana Bloch before (here), but it’s been a few years since I spoke with her at the university, so I was happy to get an update at the “Talking Writing” website. Poet and translator Bloch, who has just released a “new and selected” Swimming in the Rain this year, was a longtime professor at Oakland’s Mills College. This first question (or rather, a comment, really) caught my eye – I’m constantly chastising myself because I’m not the fastest, most prolific, most profound writer in the English-speaking world. Apparently I’m not alone. Then I was caught by her list of favored poets.

Excerpt from her Q&A with Carol Dorf:

TW: I’m a slow writer.

CB: Slow is not necessarily bad. There’s no point in wanting to be a different kind of a writer than you are, though I must admit I’ve envied poets who are quicker, more prolific. I myself rarely stay with my early drafts. I tend to go over and over a poem—revising, distilling, trying to get at the essence.

TW: Most of your poems are brief lyrics. How do your longer sequence poems function compared with those that represent a single moment?

CB: I tend to write very short poems. Most of them fit on one page. Sometimes, a group of those poems asks to be stitched together. For example, I wrote a number of poems about my experience of ovarian cancer in 1986 that were then published in various journals. At some point, I realized that, by bringing them together in a sequence I called “In the Land of the Body” (from The Past Keeps Changing, Sheep Meadow Press, 1992), I could offer differing perspectives on the experience: that of my then-husband, our children, the radiologist, the surgeon.

TW: Which poets have been especially important to you?

swimmingInTheRainCB: George Herbert, Emily Dickinson, Yehuda Amichai, Tomas Tranströmer, Elizabeth Bishop, Zbigniew Herbert, Wisława Szymborska, Charles Simic, Gerard Manley Hopkins—not necessarily in that order.

George Herbert was an early influence. In grad school, I fell in love with his work. We made a very odd couple. I was a Jewish girl from the Bronx, and he was a seventeenth-century Anglican minister. But his poetry was about the inner life, and that drew me. There was a human depth in his poems that I found very appealing. He wrote about the self with an unsparing candor—about his irresolution, his inner contradictions. And I loved the music in his poetry.

I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation about his work, and then a book—Spelling the Word: George Herbert and the Bible (University of California Press, 1985)—about how he transforms the biblical sources in his poetry. Seeing him take a verse from the Bible and combine it with something from his life was like watching a mind in the very process of creation.

Read the whole thing here.

Best Christmas carol ever? Christina Rosetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter”

Sunday, December 6th, 2015
Share

A guest post from Los Angeles poet (and Stanford alum) Timothy Steele, on a Christmas theme:

tim120

Tim Steele

When in 2008 the BBC asked choirmasters in the United Kingdom and United States to name their favorite Christmas carol, Harold Darke’s setting of Christina Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter” topped their list. The poem first appeared in 1872 in a holiday issue of Scribner’s Monthly, which had asked Rossetti for a contribution appropriate to the season. Though she never collected the poem in a book, her brother William included it in the edition of her Poetical Works that he published in 1904, ten years after her death. The poetry-loving Gustav Holst recognized the poem’s choral possibilities and in 1906 did a setting of it that some prefer to Darke’s, which dates from 1911.

rosetti1

She was troubled. (Photo: Lewis Carroll)

For all its lovely directness, “In the Bleak Midwinter” reflects Rossetti’s troubled religious faith. An Anglo-Catholic influenced by Calvinism and Adventism, she found God the Father terrifying and remote but identified with the humanity and suffering of Jesus. In describing the nativity, she mentions the attendant celestial spirits but stresses the earthier elements of the scene—the tangible milk and love that Mary gives her child and the comforting companionship of the animals in the stable. This attraction to natural manifestations of divinity may remind us of Emily Dickinson, who was Rossetti’s nearly exact contemporary and of whose work Rossetti was an early champion. (Both poets were born in the bleak, midwintery December of 1830—Rossetti on the 5th, Dickinson on the 10th—though Dickinson died in 1886, eight years before Rossetti.)

Below is the text of Rossetti’s carol, plus a performance of it in Darke’s setting.

“A Christmas Carol”

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow has fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter,
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty
Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Throng’d the air,
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,—
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.

– Christina Rossetti (1830 – 1894)

My amazing Miłosz legs

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014
Share

legs3Can poetry matter? At a time when poetry is put on subway signs and the backs of buses, in a desperate attempt to show its relevancy to our times, I decided to vote with my feet. Or rather with my legs.

Okay, okay … I know it was a bit naff. But when I saw poet Molly Fisk‘s Facebook post about a woman in Israel who makes Emily Dickinson tights, I knew I had to have a pair. But given a choice among poems to choose … with myself as a sort of billboard… what could I do?

The international package arrived a few days ago from “Coline” in Netanya – elegantly wrapped and tied with a red ribbon. Black letters on dark gray tights, in a photo taken by my artiste daughter, Zoë Patrick. (Here’s the link for Coline’s magic tights – here.)

What did I choose? Who else but Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz! It’s poet Jane Hirshfields favorite poem, and soon became one of mine – she reads and discusses the poem in the video below. Not the usual thing to have on one’s legs, admittedly but it’s a great poem for the middle-to-the-end of life, and a great poem as we roll into a California winter. So here’s what’s written on my legs (translation by Robert Hass):

Winter

The pungent smells of a California winter,
Grayness and rosiness, an almost transparent full moon.
I add logs to the fire, I drink and I ponder.

“In Ilawa,” the news item said, “at age 70
Died Aleksander Rymkiewicz, poet.”

He was the youngest in our group. I patronized him slightly,
Just as I patronized others for their inferior minds
Though they had many virtues I couldn’t touch.

And so I am here, approaching the end
Of the century and of my life. Proud of my strength
Yet embarrassed by the clearness of the view.

Avant-gardes mixed with blood.
The ashes of inconceivable arts.
An omnium-gatherum of chaos.

I passed judgment on that. Though marked myself.
This hasn’t been the age for the righteous and the decent.
I know what it means to beget monsters
And to recognize in them myself. …

 

Read the rest here. Or listen to Jane below:

Emily Dickinson onstage this weekend with poems, letters, songs

Monday, October 1st, 2012
Share

The three K's: Kirsch, Kelsey, Ketchum

All this talk about Emily Dickinson and new photos that may or may not be the poet, and so on, inspired a letter from a reader, Laura Dahl:

I recently read your blog about Emily Dickinson with special interest. On October 7 [click on date for details], the A. Jess Shenson Recital Series at Stanford is very excited to present  “This, and My Heart,” a theater/concert performance combining dramatic readings of Emily Dickinson’s poems and letters with song settings by American composers [Aaron] Copland, Tom Cipullo, Lori Laitman and Steve Heitzeg. Performers are actress Linda Kelsey (Lou Grant Show, M*A*S*H*, Rockford Files, Murder, She Wrote, etc.), Soprano Anne Marie Ketchum and pianist Victoria Kirsch.

Well, we couldn’t have put it much better ourselves.  Except to add that Kelsey appears to be an old hand at Dickinson.  There’s a 2009 write-up in the L.A. Weekly here.  Moreover, decade ago, she also performed the one-woman show Belle of Amherst in Minneapolis (she’s a native of St. Paul).  The Star Tribune added that she was selling “a self-published book of Dickinson’s poetry.” (Where is an editor when you need one?)

The Star Tribune had a more sensible write-up here, describing the play’s reference to Dickinson’s signature “Black Cake” (recipe here).

Says Kelsey:

Famous Black Cake

“I get the first laugh after I say, ‘Two pounds of butter,’ ” said Kelsey. “And, when I get to ’19 eggs’ and ‘you’d better leave it in the oven for six to seven hours,’ I get a lot of laughs.”

It probably takes a front-row seat – and a pair of finely calibrated opera glasses – to determine that the Black Cake Kelsey eats on stage isn’t the genuine article. It’s a prop substitute. Chocolate, perhaps?

“I can’t give away all our secrets,” she said. “But it’s very black looking, and quite delicious.” Why not the real thing? “I don’t think the expense associated with five pounds of raisins is in the Park Square budget,” Kelsey said. …

But counterfeit or legit, the cake is a key plot device. In the show’s final moments, Dickinson pours tea and shares a few last thoughts with the audience. “Oh, and when you make my cake, please tell me how you like it,” she says. “And when next we meet – I’ll give you my recipe for gingerbread! Gingerbread! Now there’s a word to lift your hat to.”

Not-so-famous Coconut Cake

I actually don’t care for the William Luce play, which makes Emily sound dotty and eccentric – an interpretation that’s been blown apart by recent books on the steamy life of the Dickinsons.  But while visiting her old digs in Amherst, I did pick up her recipe book (according to this website, it is now “out of print with limited copies available on line” – how can there be limited copies if it’s online? Oh well, it’s that editor thingumme again.)

I tried making her coconut cake.  That’s a cake for people who are serious about their coconut.  At least the way I made it, guessing quantities from the poet’s very imprecise instructions.


No, no, this is the real Emily Dickinson…more photos, more theories

Friday, August 31st, 2012
Share

 

I have joined the “world’s top thinkers” at last.  A few days ago I discussed the investigation into whether the woman on the left in the portrait above is Emily Dickinson, with her friend Kate Scott Turner at right.  The post received several comments, more tweets, and some other pick-up.

Janet Lewis, as she looked about the time I met her.

Yesterday, the post was mentioned on BigThink, which describes itself as “Blogs, Articles and Videos from the World’s Top Thinkers.”  I’m grateful to the post for something other than the promotion, however:  Thanks to my fellow “linkees” cited in the article, I found the putative portrait of Emily Dickinson, circa 1860, that I had tried to find several times in the past without success.

Here’s why:  Sometime in the 1980s, I made a visit to the Los Altos home of Janet Lewis, the poet, author, and widow of Yvor Winters.  The immediate reason for my interview I cannot recall – in any case, the article was never published, and remains somewhere in my garage on a 5″ floppy, along with the interview notes. I knew too little about the octogenarian writer at the time, but I am glad now I had the opportunity for the meeting, for whatever the reason – and yes, I remember the Winters’s legendary loquat tree.

"a gypsy face"

I also remember gazing up a photo in her kitchen, displayed high on the wall. Janet Lewis followed my gaze, and asked, “Do you recognize who that is?”  I didn’t.  “That’s Emily Dickinson, grown up.”  It was a matchless photo, attentive and sensual.  She told me it was included in the Richard Sewall biography of the poet, and that she had torn it out from the book and put it on her wall.  Years later I ordered the biography online precisely to recover that portrait.  But it had apparently been debunked in the meantime, and removed from later editions.

Now the photo has a new champion, poet Daniela Gioseffi, and author of a new biographical novel about Dickinson. From the comments section of an article about her book she writes (with some light editing on my part – it needs more):

The foreword to my book Wild Nights, Wild Nights, The Story of Emily Dickinson’s Master (at http://www.Amazon. com and plainviewpress.com) explains exactly how I researched the photo to include it. There is no doubt in many Dickinson scholars’ minds that it is Emily Dickinson at thirty years, as the features match when sized against that old 17-year-old photo that every one knows above, when the images are sized alike and put one over the other. What many non-scholars of Dickinson who have not read as fully as I have do not understand is that the well-known photo of her was taken when she was a sickly 17-year-old just arisen from a sickbed. She herself in later years is described by those who saw her a bright-eyed, clear-skinned, attractive and womanly. Yes, she was diminutive all her life, but she described herseld as having “a gypsy face” and this photo fits her own description of herself that her sister Lavinia agreed with.

I want the portrait to be true because I like it, and because it connects me, in an odd sort of way, with Janet Lewis.  To admit such a biased and unscientific judgment in writing, however, risks my removal from a blog for the “world’s top thinkers.” I am in something of a quandary.

"small, like the Wren..."

So let me throw in another red herring – the portrait at right that would date to about the 1850s.  Its defense is here, and the image would appear to fit Emily’s self-description: “[I] am small, like the Wren, and my Hair is bold, like the Chestnut Bur – and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves.”

And what about the new discovery above?  According to Austin Allen, one of the world’s top thinkers over at BigThink:

Of the two women, Kate is the one with a thousand-yard stare. (She’d been recently widowed.) But look closer at her friend: there’s something peculiar about that gaze. The pupils are asymmetrical, as they are in the known photo—Emily may have suffered from both astigmatism and iritis—but they’re also large, dreamy, and a little amused. Dickinson once compared her eyes to “the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves”; the woman in the picture just about lives up to the simile. …

Look: the mystery woman has even thrown an arm around her friend, a gesture we can hardly imagine the Recluse of Amherst making. If she was on the cusp of crisis, it doesn’t show yet. In my heart of hearts I doubt it’s Emily—that chin just doesn’t match up—but pending further reports on clothing samples, image records, nasolabial folds, etc., I’ll keep believing and disbelieving at once, which, as Emily said, “keeps Believing nimble.”

At least I’ve recovered the photo of “my Emily” at last.

Postscript on 9/5:  Some nice pick-up from the Poetry Foundation here.  I’m not only a W.T.T., but an “amateur sleuth” as well.

“It will change our idea of her”: Is this the grown-up Emily Dickinson?

Thursday, August 16th, 2012
Share

Is she?  Or isn’t she?

Amherst College Archives and Special Collections have uncovered a new daguerreotype that it figures is the real Emily Dickinson, all grown up.

The Emily we know, at age 16

So far, the evidence tallies in its favor, “including computer work with detailed scans of the original daguerreotypes (1847 and 1859) and an ophthamological report facilitated by Polly Longsworth in March, 2010.”

Certainly the addition of a second sitter of whom there are multiple images in existence helps the case: if one can show that it’s Kate Turner, a known friend of Dickinson, then it increases the chance that the other sitter who looks like Dickinson is Dickinson. One sure point of contention is the clothing: people will note that the dress “Dickinson” wears seems to be out of date for a late 1850s photograph. However, that evidence may be of less significance when one considers the 23-year-old Dickinson’s comment to friend Abiah Root in 1854, “I’m so old fashioned, Darling, that all your friends would stare” (Johnson letter 166).

Kate Scott Turner, who would have visited the poet in Amherst about 1859, seems to match another one found of Kate as a young woman. Anyone with information, fir or agin’ the supposition that this is Emily D., is invited to contact Amherst.

If the daguerreotype is eventually accepted as Dickinson, it will change our idea of her, providing a view of the poet as a mature woman showing striking presence, strength, and serenity. She (whoever she is) seems to be the one in charge here, the one who decided that on a certain day in a certain year, she and her friend would have their likenesses preserved. In fact, even if this photograph is not of Dickinson and Turner, it has still been of use in forcing us to imagine Dickinson as an adult, past the age of the ethereal-looking 16-year-old we have known for so many years.

Oh, you’re wondering which one is Emily?  She’s the one on the left.  Her friend Kate, a recent widow, was in mourning.

Read more here.

Postscript on 9/5:  More photos, more theories, more possibilities here – including the poet Janet Lewis‘s vote.

Ken Fields, 113 crickets, and “the sound of life”

Friday, June 22nd, 2012
Share

Lunch-mate

“Digital humanities,” of course, is the buzzword du jour here in Silicon Valley – but that’s hardly the only drive to blend high-tech and the non-tech.  The brand-new quarterly journal 113 Crickets offers a new take on combining books and bytes. It attempts to “promote connections between the disciplines of technology and literature through the publication of both technology-orientated books and works of fiction.”  The journal is part of Hillary Johnson‘s “genre-agnostic” publishing venture called “Dymaxicon” (dynamic + maximum + content), explained in the Huffington Post here. The journal is hoping to build a relationship with the Stanford Creative Writing program in its subsequent issues.

113 Crickets came into my hands via poet Ken Fields, during a long lunch on the patio of the Faculty Club.  He handed the spring issue to me.  “The Stanford connection is me,” he said.  The editor of 113 Crickets is  Ken’s friend, Tobias Mayer. Here’s another connection:  Ken has some poems in the debut issue.  Five poems in the series “West of Amherst” conjure the shade of Emily Dickinson.  He saved the best for last, though.  The excellent “Meditation,” stands alone and is the final work in the volume, dedicated to the Franco family, in memory of Doug Franco.

“Doug Franco took several classes from me when I first started teaching.  A math major, he was interested in poetry and painting.  He remained in Palo Alto as a business man, with a strong sense of community.  He, his wife Betsy, and three sons, one of whom is the actor James Franco, are all artistic,” Ken wrote to me later.  “I saw Doug often, and his wife Betsy, a writer, sat in on a couple of my classes.  Doug was a memorable man who died this year, far too young.”

Here’s the poem:

Meditation

for the Franco family

Breathe in. Breathe out. This is the sound of life –
Music and sex, the cry we enter with,
The sigh as we leave.  We are a swinging door
Through which the wind blows, even in sleep.
Hum it, and cherish it, and let it go,
Syllable floating on the empty deep.

In Memory of Doug Franco

Literary resolutions for 2012 … and a review of 2011, a “Festival of Sleaze”

Sunday, January 1st, 2012
Share

We all feel a little burned out after New Year’s celebrations, and I’m no exception. So here are some notable literary resolutions to fortify and inspire you for the coming year:

No commas, please

Ben Greenman, author of the short story collection What He’s Poised to Do: “I want to reread all the Emily Dickinson poems, in order, at a slow enough rate that I understand them but a fast enough rate to keep it exciting. It’s not as easy at it sounds. And I also plan to think about why, in a time of reduced attention spans, short stories aren’t getting more traction.”

Elissa Schappell, author of the short story collection Blueprints for Building Better Girls: “It’s the Russians. It’s always the Russians. Oh yes, I’ll read the Russians in the summer months. Two summers ago, I developed such a bad case of Tolstoy‘s elbow from hauling around War and Peace I could barely flip through a magazine. The summer before Crime and Punishment doubled as a drinks tray at a lawn party, and when I got spooked staying alone at a friend’s summer house, I kept it by the door as a weapon. This year, however I’m more hopeful–I’m starting, more appropriately, in winter. Beginning tomorrow I’m going to make Anna Karenina my new BFF.”

The Russians are coming

James Hannaham, author of the novel God Says No:  “This year I want to figure out why, when an author says the phrase ‘working on a story collection,’ as in ‘I’m working on a story collection,’ everyone in publishing reacts as if they have instead heard the phrase ‘molesting several children.’ And I will continue to pray for the demise of e-books, or at least the demise of the stupid fear that they will replace printed books.”

Richard Lange, author of the 2013 novel Gather Darkness (Mulholland):  “I’m going to reread Moby Dick, Crime & Punishment, and The Scarlet Letter. Every time I go back to books that I loved as a kid, I learn more about myself as a writer now.”

Marisa Silver, author of the short story collection Alone With You: “Read more poetry. Use fewer commas.”

Read the rest at the Los Angeles Times here.

Meanwhile, Dave Barry reviews 2011: “It was the kind of year that made a person look back fondly on the gulf oil spill”:

Multiple committees, strongly held views

This was a year in which journalism was pretty much completely replaced by tweeting. It was a year in which a significant earthquake struck Washington, yet failed to destroy a single federal agency. …

But all of these developments, unfortunate as they were, would not by themselves have made 2011 truly awful. What made it truly awful was the economy, which, for what felt like the 17th straight year, continued to stagger around like a zombie on crack. Nothing seemed to help. …

As the year wore on, frustration finally boiled over in the form of the Occupy Various Random Spaces movement, wherein people who were sick and tired of a lot of stuff finally got off their butts and started working for meaningful change via direct action in the form of sitting around and forming multiple committees and drumming and not directly issuing any specific demands but definitely having a lot of strongly held views for and against a wide variety of things. Incredibly, even this did not bring about meaningful change. The economy remained wretched, especially unemployment, which got so bad that many Americans gave up even trying to work. Congress, for example.

Read the rest here.