Tag Archive | poetry

The Emily Dickinson Museum

During my trip to Massachusetts over fall break, I spent one afternoon in Amherst, where I visited Amherst Books. But the main reason for my outing was to visit the Emily Dickinson Museum, which consists of the house Emily Dickinson lived in, her brother’s home next door, and the grounds between them.

I don’t remember when I first learned about Emily Dickinson, but I do remember pretty clearly an assignment (possibly an exam) in 11th grade AP American Literature for which we had to compare two poems about spiders, one by Emily Dickinson and one by Walt Whitman. The Dickinson poem was very compact and spare, like most of her poems, but what I remember so clearly is how, by reading the poem over and over and pondering the words, I found that its meaning unfolded, for me. That is, I discovered so many more possibilities for interpretation than I could see before. Now, maybe you’re thinking that’s just how textual analysis works; you have to go over the words again and again. And I would say that Dickinson’s poems, because of their compactness, require this kind of tenacity more than some other texts. But I remember genuinely enjoying this process of cracking the nut, if you will, and feeling like, because English class had made me, I’d gotten to experience this pleasure that I otherwise wouldn’t have because I wasn’t a huge poetry fan and didn’t read poetry for fun. It was like the difference between briefly looking at an old village church on the side of the road and walking on and spending a long time forcing the door and getting in and seeing the stained glass windows from the inside as a reward for your persistence. (I have no idea where that analogy came from.)

Despite that experience, I did not go on to become a diehard Emily Dickinson fan. Over the years, I have been mildly interested in Emily Dickinson the writer, this reclusive New England woman poet who never married. And not long before my trip, I heard about a new film, Wild Nights with Emily, which portrays Dickinson’s romantic relationship with her friend and sister-in-law, Susan. So, finding myself in Western Massachusetts and not knowing when I might ever return, I decided a trip to the museum would be worth it.

The Evergreens

I arrived on a sunny afternoon, walking down Main Street past a park and an old stone Congregational church that I later learned all of Emily’s family except her attended. I first passed the Evergreens, the house her father built for her brother Austin so that he wouldn’t head west. That was where Austin, Susan, and their children lived. A little farther on was the Homestead, the house where Emily Dickinson was born and lived for most of her life. (During her late childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, her family lived in a different house in Amherst because her grandfather lost the Homestead. The family later bought it back.) I walked up the drive, feeling a bit like I was intruding on someone’s home. There were workmen engaged in repairs of some type on the yellow house. I followed the signs around back and entered through the screened porch, and soon I had secured my spot on the 3:30 tour. (Twice while in Western Mass., once at this museum and once at Guild Art Supply in Northampton, I got discounts for being a teacher! I was always asked if I was eligible, and I didn’t have to furnish any proof.)

In the garden, with the Homestead in the background

I had about forty-five minutes before my tour, so I looked at the books in the gift shop, went out into the garden, and came back inside to explore the exhibit on the posthumous publication of Emily Dickinson’s poems. It was a complicated affair involving, at different times, her sister Lavinia (a cat lady!), her friend and sister-in-law Susan, her niece Martha, her brother’s mistress Mabel Loomis Todd, and others.

Typesetting Emily Dickinson’s poems for publication

Our tour guide (whose last name was Shumway, like the composer Nehemiah Shumway in The Sacred Harp) found us in the exhibit; there were only two of us on this tour! One of the first things she asked us was whether we’d read any Emily Dickinson; she was to read us several poems during the tour.

She first led us into the parlors, where there was a piano like the one the Dickinsons had. Our guide told us Emily stopped playing the piano after hearing someone who played better than her! There was also a copy of the famous photo of Dickinson at age 16, looking extremey severe. But on the wall was a reproduction of a portrait of the three Dickinson children, in which Emily has very short (apparently red?) hair. Our guide told us she’d once briefly described her appearance to a correspondent and we can guess her height from the length of her coffin.

We crossed the hall to the library, where our guide told us about Emily’s happy childhood, going to parties and whatnot, and her schooling, including her one year at Mount Holyoke. We saw reproduced pages of an herbarium she’d helped make; the plant names were in her handwriting. Our guide also told us about her many correspondents, when she was an adult. It sounded like she just wrote to people who interested her, and if at first they didn’t reply, she persisted until they did.

We ascended the staircase to the second floor, where we visited Emily Dickinson’s bedroom, restored to look as it might have when she lived (and died!) there. It was cozy and sunshine-filled. There was a very small table set under one of the windows, where she presumably wrote her poems. Apparently the neighbors remarked to her father that there was often a light in her window very late into the night, and his response was, So, what? Though Emily’s life seemed reclusive, the museum and our guide emphasized that she still had lively relationships with her family, neighborhood children, the household servants, and her correspondents.

The Homestead, home of Emily Dickinson

The house Emily Dickinson lived in hasn’t been a museum for that long. At a certain time, it was faculty housing for Amherst College, so young professors could’ve lived there! I’d love to be able to say I lived in a house that had once been home to a great American poet.

We left the Homestead and crunched across the leaf-strewn lawn to the Evergreens. Our guide had told us how Emily had written poems to Susan and how they were childhood friends. You know how sometimes you meet someone and you just click? That was how it was for them. On the way to the Evergreens, she said Emily might have been a little jealous to have to share her best friend with her brother after they married. I’d been wondering whether the exhibit or the tour would touch on a possible romantic relationship between Emily and Susan, but neither did. Back in Emily’s bedroom, our guide had told us about her later-in-life romance with a friend of her parents, who was a judge from Salem. The judge wanted to marry her, and Emily apparently loved him, but she didn’t marry him.

The Evergreens is interesting because it’s still in a state very close to what it was when Austin Dickinson and his family lived there. His daughter Martha hired an assistant who came to live in the house with his wife, and his wife only moved out in the very late 20th century, and she hadn’t changed anything. The décor, furniture, and artwork were all original (and showed their age), and the kitchen hadn’t been modernized, so it looked very old-fashioned.

Our guide closed the tour with a last poem and an entreaty to check out more of Dickinson’s poetry. I’m very glad I visited the museum; it was a kind of literary pilgrimage, like visiting la Maison de Balzac. Shortly after I returned from Massachusetts, I read about this new TV show about Emily Dickinson (but set in the present?), which seems to depict her as a much more interesting and complex figure than the conventional view of her. She was probably much cooler than I am!

 

 

Kaveh Akbar@Grinnell

A couple of weeks ago, I went to another poetry reading. (I don’t even go to all the Writers@Grinnell events! Just…most of them.) It was in the evening; earlier that day I’d been to Kate Manne’s scholars’ convocation on epistemic entitlement, mansplaining, and gaslighting. Somebody I went to college with is now Kate Manne’s advisee and had always spoken highly of her, and the talk and, especially, the following Q & A were excellent. I am rather enjoying being at a small liberal arts college again, where I might see the same people at a philosophy talk in the morning and a poetry reading in the evening. But anyway!

The poet was Kaveh Akbar. In his introduction, we learned he writes an advice column for The Paris Review, in which he prescribes poems to suit the letter writers’ particular needs. He also told us early on that when he was young he read Kathy Acker’s Don Quixote thinking it was the novel on all those lists of Novels You Must Read.

That evening, he told us he would mostly be reading new stuff. He had a sheaf of papers in his hands. After the first poem, he added that by new stuff he meant work from the past couple of years or so. The first poem was entitled “How to Say the Impossible Thing.” He said it was the only poem he’d written in the last six months, and this was the first time he’d be reading it in public. So, how does one say the impossible thing? The first word of the poem was “plainly.” There was another line I noted: “I don’t trust myself.”

Akbar had told us he’d also be reading some poems by Not Him, and the first was one by Suji Kwock Kim. I had to look up the title, but it’s “Fugue.” The poem is about the birth of a child, and I was struck almost from the beginning by the magic of wordsmithing, how the right words combined the right way, by their sound and their meaning, create the most perfect phrase or image. That “skull-keel and heel-hull” is almost tactile. And then there was the line, “Memory, stay faithful to this moment, which will never return”; I doubt I’m the only one to relate to wanting to hang on to a beautiful moment, to be assured of never forgetting any detail of it, because it’s already so precious as it’s happening.

The last poem he read was a long one, “The Palace,” and so he invited people to lean their head on a neighbor’s shoulder (with enthusiastic consent, of course). Danez Smith issued a similar invitation to hold hands when he read his last poem of the night. The lines that struck me most in “The Palace” were: “Mistyping in an e-mail I write, / I lose you so much today, / then leave it” and then the reprise at the very end: “Lose me today, so much.”

In the lovely Q & A that followed the reading, somebody asked Akbar about writing as a lonely pursuit. He said, “I am a person who can be lonely at a table of friends.” Then he said (and I’m passing over swaths of his answer) that art is defamiliarization, and that loneliness, that not-being-among, gives one a vantage point that’s really useful to an artist. Some amount of loneliness is essential, but you have to learn how to harness that loneliness (and also take care of yourself).

A religious studies major asked him about religion in his poems, and he talked about praying in Arabic with his family as a child, reciting in a language that none of them spoke. Today, he sees poetry as having the same function as those prayers did, namely, thinning the membrane between oneself and the divine (however that’s interpreted). Someone else asked him how he viewed the poems in his first collection now, and he said that anyone who’s ever written a book will tell you they’re not the person who wrote that book by the time it’s actually a book. He sees his older work as a portal to a person that he was. I’m not sure I feel that as strongly, but certainly I can see how the stories I’ve written in the last couple of years reflect facets of my life in that time.

Danez Smith@Grinnell

One of the perks of being at Grinnell is getting to experience Writers@Grinnell, the English department’s visiting author series. The first visitor this year was the Minnesotan poet Danez Smith. I’m often not much of a poetry person (whatever that means), though occasionally I’ll stumble upon a poem that really resonates with me (see Gina Myers’ “Memorial”), but I was interested in Smith’s visit because 1) they’re from Minnesota and 2) their next poetry collection, coming out next spring from Graywolf Press, is about friendship.

Another new professor told me she was going to the afternoon roundtable, so I decided to go too, though I wasn’t sure what to expect (I was hardly going to participate in a craft discussion about poetry!). It turned out to be a Q & A with mostly students (as it should be). Now, going in, I thought I’d never heard of Danez Smith before, but as they opened the roundtable by reading one of their poems, I was suddenly certain that they had written a poem I’d discovered a few years ago and loved. It was about being in California and missing the Minnesota cold (and something deeper). Later I checked, and I was right (but I’d been certain); the poem is “I’m Going Back to Minnesota Where Sadness Makes Sense.”

Smith kept reading, and the poem mentioned Hague St., and I started because when I lived in St. Paul I lived on Hague Ave., and Smith was from St. Paul. Was it…?

After reading one more poem (with audience participation), Smith fielded questions from students. The following are some bits of answers I liked best or found most intriguing (filtered through my memory):

  • Joy is hard to make special. So maybe this is why there’s less writing about happiness?
  • You should write about the things you think you’re avoiding because good writing is dangerous.
  • At the same time, while you find your voice in the place that scares you, you also find it in the spaces where you feel safety, love, and intimacy.
  • Your best work should surprise you.
  • Poetry is about being immortal, not inaccessible. (That is, poetry shouldn’t be abstruse work produced by members of a small elite for one another.)
  • They said they were excited for their next book, Homie, because it was going to force people to ask them about their friends (among other things).

In the evening, I went to Smith’s reading in the auditorium at Hotel Grinnell. It was very well attended, and this being a small town and a small college, I recognized all sorts of people I’d met in the less-than-a-month I’ve been here. They came from all manner of departments too. (I think this reading encapsulated exactly what I meant when I tried to express what appealed to me about small liberal arts colleges to faculty search committees!)

The reading was lively, powerful, alternately raucous and still, and Smith had no trouble engaging us all. Among the most memorable poems was “my president,” about all the people they would be proud and happy to call their president (celebrities, family members, and so on). Sometimes I felt like Smith was not talking to me, that I was on the outside looking in, because I’m not black, but this felt right in a way, because not everything we say is for everyone.

The most moving moment of the night, for me, was the reading of the last poem. Smith said they’d posted on social media asking people to give them a very brief description of when they knew their best friend was their best friend. I believe the responses fed into the poem, which is entitled “acknowledgments.” It was funny and beautiful and poignant, and I loved it.

Blackout Poetry and West LA Zinemaking

At the latest meeting of the artists and writers collective, our warm-up activity was blackout poetry. To create a blackout poem, you take a printed text and black out all but the words you want to incorporate into your poem. It’s a kind of constrained writing, and it’s rather tricky because you have to see something of your own in the midst of someone else’s text. We used pages ripped from the author’s note of this year’s UCLA Common Book, The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantú. (I picked up my free copy in January and read the book then; I recommend it.) In the end, I found it easiest to dispense with the vast majority of the words on the page, and I came up with: “the absence of stories is the crisis / nothing else frees us from anonymity”.

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My local library, the West Los Angeles Regional Library, recently launched a zine collection and has also begun holding monthly zinemaking workshops. Isabelle and I went for the first time last month and recently went again. Thanks to these workshops, we’ve discovered the library has a second floor (!), hung out with cool librarians, and used an old-fashioned typewriter (much cooler than my inherited electric typewriter). Over the two workshops, I also completed my newest zine, Confessions of an Obsessive Journaler (also available to print and download under Other Writing).

Poetics of Location

Two Sundays ago, my friend Isabelle and I went on a walking tour of Downtown LA with Mike Sonksen, a.k.a. Mike the Poet, who recently published a chapbook called Poetics of Location. The tour began at the Central Library of Los Angeles, a place both of us had been curious to see but had yet to visit. We arrived a bit early and went inside to see the mosaics and (very colonialist) murals in the soaring rotunda. Then we joined a handful of other tour participants outside the library’s north entrance. Mike greeted us and presented us with our signed copies of his new book.

The first stop on the tour was in fact the library, but this time we used the grand entrance on the west side of the building. My favorite part of the library was the steps outside this entrance, which were inscribed with phrases in various languages (English at various stages of its development, French, Korean, Chinese, and Esperanto, among many others), as well as the digits of pi, an integral, a passage of music, and much more.

Once we left the library, Mike the Poet proceeded to regale us with tidbits about the various buildings in the neighborhood. These included the Library Tower, once the tallest skyscraper in LA; the Biltmore Hotel; and the Gas Company Tower. He made scads of movie references that I didn’t get. He also told us about the literary history of LA, reading to us from John Fante in John Fante Square (just an intersection next to the Gas Company Tower) and telling us about Carey McWilliams in Pershing Square.

The tour was punctuated by Mike’s performances of some of his own poems, as well as performances and readings by his poet friends who also came on the tour. There was F. Douglas Brown, whom I’d heard at the Mixed Remixed Festival earlier this year; the brother and sister pair Dante and Monique Mitchell; and one of Mike’s students, a high school senior.

The tour took us through part of the Jewelry District, past movie palaces and a vaudeville hall, and into the charming St. Vincent’s Court. It ended at the Last Bookstore, a famous independent bookstore I’d wanted to visit for ages, mostly to see its iconic book arches (they’re like flying buttresses!). It did not disappoint. The place was a warren of books. In the center of the ground floor, there was a low stage surrounded by leather furniture oozing stuffing. We gathered here for a last reading. Mike, Dante, Monique, and F. Douglas Brown all performed more poems. Monique’s was inspired by the Valley of the Dry Bones in Ezekiel.

After the reading, Isabelle and I wandered the bookstore for a good while. I began in the music section, where I found one of Cecil Sharp’s collections of English folk songs and the complete scores of Handel’s concerti grossi (I did not buy either). In the children’s section, I found Adam Gidwitz’s The Inquisitor’s Tale, which I’d heard a lot of great things about. So of course I picked it up. (But I’m still reading Dream of Red Mansions! Will it never end!) Upstairs, there was science fiction, fantasy, foreign languages, and much more, as well as the famous book arches! There are also galleries, studios, and shops on the second floor, including a yarn shop that was, alas, closed. Several artists’ work was exhibited in the narrow corridors. There were a bunch of painted wooden whales hanging on one wall. I particularly liked the illustrations by kAt Philbin. The artist bio said her work was reminiscent of Edward Gorey’s. I’m a Gorey fan, and I could see the resemblance in some of the pieces.

When I got home, I looked up the Last Bookstore and noticed that there was going to be a cello concert there the next day. Steuart Pincombe, a cellist with whom I wasn’t familiar, was going to be playing three of the Bach cello suites. Sadly, I couldn’t go to the concert, but I learned that Steuart Pincombe once had a project called What Wondrous Love Is This? in which he and other musicians played and sang early American music, including the shape note tunes Wondrous Love, Restoration, Ecstasy, and Russia, in a hollow square (the way shape note singers sit)! For that I would’ve gone all the way back to the Last Bookstore for the second time in as many days.

Angel Island and Muir Woods

Wildings just got a lovely review from Publishers Weekly!

The day after the opera, my parents and I visited Angel Island with some friends. We took the ferry from Tiburon to the island.

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Angel Island was once home to an immigration station that processed hundreds of thousands of immigrants, most of them Chinese. Due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinese immigrants were detained for weeks, months, or even longer on Angel Island. They carved poetry expressing their hopes, disillusionment, melancholy, and despair on the walls of the detention barracks, and some of these poems can still be seen today.

I was particularly excited to find a poem written by a Yee (余) from Taishan (台山) because my mother’s surname is 余 (Yee) and her family is from 台山! I could imagine that this poem was written by a distant relative of mine.

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The poem in Chinese

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The English translation

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The poem itself on the wall (the end and the signature)

For a lovely story about a character from 台山 who spends time on Angel Island, read S. Qiouyi Li’s “Her Sacred Spirit Soars” in Strange Horizons.

The following day, we visited Muir Woods, a pocket of primeval forest in the mountains north of the Golden Gate Bridge. We arrived just after the park opened and walked among the towering coastal redwoods before too many hordes descended upon the wood.

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