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Tell It Slant: Modern Women Writers Reflect on Emily Dickinson’s Influence

In the 1800s, American poet Emily Dickinson was considered an eccentric for being a woman in that era with unique writing capabilities. Many of her poems deal with themes of death, immortality, gender, family, and societal constraints. Her slant rhyme schemes inspired generations of female writers to break boundaries, personally and creatively. With the launch […]

In the 1800s, American poet Emily Dickinson was considered an eccentric for being a woman in that era with unique writing capabilities. Many of her poems deal with themes of death, immortality, gender, family, and societal constraints. Her slant rhyme schemes inspired generations of female writers to break boundaries, personally and creatively. With the launch of AppleTV+ new series Dickinson, THR interviewed seven women writers on how Dickinson has inspired their craft.

Alena Smith, creator and showrunner of Dickinson

Smith looks back on the spark that became her Apple show. “I wrote poetry in high school and always was a fan of Emily Dickinson. Then in my early 20s I read a biography of her, and something about her coming-of-age story, her adolescence and early 20s, really resonated with where I was at that time in my life. Like a lot of young artists I felt trapped in my often-boring outer circumstances and yearned to express myself in a bigger way and to find someone who would actually understand me. I was also drawn to the way Emily Dickinson uses irony in her work, and to the ironies of her life story — most centrally the fact that she wrote nearly 2,000 poems, one of the greatest bodies of work in the English language, and almost none of it was published while she lived. She was a true weirdo outsider artist who reinvented the rules of poetry and managed to contain infinitely huge ideas on miniature scraps of paper.”

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Martha Nell Smith, professor of English at the University of Maryland

Part of what makes Dickinson feel so contemporary is its take on the gender dynamics that continue to influence how writing is perceived. Smith is an English professor at the University of Maryland whose work’s main focus is the life and poems of Dickinson. Smith wrote, “Even in 2019, the bias against the female and femme genius is as strong as it is surprising — or perhaps not as surprising as one might assume. Many assume women’s stories won’t be as interesting as men’s stories, not unless the woman’s story is actually focused on a man or on men. I actually thought that by this point in time we’d be over this, but we’re still stuck in this sexist world, aren’t we?” Even these days, a woman sometimes feels constrained if she talks too loudly or forcefully (that’s often reductively characterized as “shrill”). Smith has written about Emily’s romantic relationship with her sister-in-law Susan, also portrayed on the show. “When I found the powerful story of love between Susan and Emily Dickinson, I was not about to be quiet about it. Some told me not to write about Susan and Emily Dickinson, and to that I responded, ‘I have no choice! How can I not try to tell the story of this powerful love sustained over decades, love that generated art that sustains us still?’ I didn’t go to Dickinson’s work looking for that story, but when I found it and saw it so clearly, I knew I had no other choice but to tell the remarkable story so powerfully lain in Dickinson’s words, the story of their lifelong love. And the fact that Emily Dickinson went her own way, as it were, gives me strength time and again to do the same, to refuse the advice and admonitions of naysayers. Dickinson’s work has repeatedly given me confidence to write what I want to write, to observe carefully and listen to my own druthers rather than try to please others.”

Kristen Tracy, poet and acclaimed author

Tracy, a writer from Idaho who writes books for teens and tweens, recalls feeling smothered by her surroundings as a young writer, like Emily feels growing up in Amherst, Massachusetts. “I grew up in a small Mormon farming community in Idaho near Yellowstone Park where I often felt trapped, and so I imagined escaping and going to college in a city and becoming wildly successful and never coming back to those hay and potato fields spotted with cows and coyotes. I read Emily Dickinson in high school and I thought she was totally wild. Her poems were rhythmic and alive and clever and surprising. I always wanted my own writing to have that wildness. I always felt like she gave her writing so much energy, as if she were emptying herself onto the page, but in a very precise and careful way.” That precision inspires her own work. “I don’t like poems that read like emotional trash cans, where the writer empties everything in there and calls it done. A lot of the poem’s success depends on what you leave out, and Dickinson has been a good guide for me for that.” Dickinson’s subtle reflection of the current era’s sexual politics isn’t lost on Tracy. “My teacher emphasized how isolated Emily Dickinson was in her life, and I think an idea grew in my head that writers were isolated, sad, anxious people, working in attic spaces without their parents’ approval, and that idea captivated me, especially since we didn’t have an attic, and pretty much all my artistic endeavors lacked my conservative parents’ support.”

Megan Falley, queer-femme author & poet

Falley writes, “My private fantasy world as a teenager was swept up in romance. I saw the movie Titanic when I was 9 and cried so hard the woman behind me suggested to my mom that I leave the theater. I thought heaven was Leonardo DiCaprio waiting for me at the bottom of a staircase. I was love-obsessed and constantly searching for it, casting people in the role of the muse who didn’t necessarily do any work to get there.” Falley is glad to live in the present, when women writers can be published in their own lifetime. “There is a part of me that exists almost as Dickinson’s antithesis. I think much of it is personality-based, but a lot of it is a sign of evolving times. Women writers before me have paved the way. Emily’s quiet musings, I believe, made a path for my public expression. And I feel similarly about queerness. Writings and speculation leads many (including myself) to believe Emily was in love with her sister-in-law, Susan, who was edited out of her writing. As a queer, femme poet, where Emily was both closeted in her writing and her sexuality, I am constantly passing through a revolving door of “coming out” — and share my queerness and my art loudly, with gratitude for the women writers and the queer activists who were brave so that I could be loud.” Falley believes Dickinson would be much happier now. “My personal world is very different from Emily Dickinson’s world of the 1800s, but that is largely a privilege, and I recognize is not the experience of every queer woman writer. I am in an openly queer relationship where I get to perform my queer poetry with my queer partner who is also a poet on stages often with hundreds of people in the room and connect to them after. Our worlds are almost entirely opposites. And in writing this I do wish Emily Dickinson to see all that became possible after her.”

Evie Shockley, 2018 Pulitzer Prize finalist

Shockley first encountered Dickinson as an undergraduate. “I still have my copy of Final Harvest with the numbers of the assigned poems highlighted in pink,” she says. However, Shockley’s connection with Dickinson wasn’t immediate. “I didn’t see myself as being anything like her or as writing anything like her. Later, I began to value her ability to create work that was both “traditional” (rhymed and metered lyric poems) and “weird” (distinctive, rule-breaking, elliptical). I also later discovered that who she was might be more complicated than the narrative of the shy, virginal recluse that I had been taught. Emily Dickinson became important to me as the one woman poet working before the 20th century who was indisputably part of the canon.” But Shockley says her early discouragement as a young writer “had more to do with race than with gender” and cites Gwendolyn Brooks as an important inspiration. “Brooks was a huge figure for me during those college years. I went to college in the Chicago area, so she loomed large and was respected by everyone. I didn’t yet fully appreciate her work, but I recognized that whatever her weirdly wonderful vocabulary and syntax meant, it was trying to capture the lives and concerns of black people. This was true of Langston Hughes, too, but it was important to me that Brooks was a woman.”

Shockley foregrounds the historical Dickinson’s transgressiveness to reframe the transgression of her poetry. “It’s damaging to young writers to be told that subjects foregrounding women, women’s lives and women’s work are trivial and not worthy of being written about. Behind it all is the fact that men felt (and, in some cases, still feel) threatened by powerful women. I had fun playing with this idea of Dickinson as dangerous in a poem I wrote last year, (re)imagining her as vampire!” Dickinson demonstrates that the world has not changed in many ways from the one where Emily Dickinson was expected to be married off and put her artistic ambitions away. Shockley says the present is “not different enough. For instance, nowadays, it’s not women’s fathers and mothers insisting that they get married, it’s all the magazine articles, TV ads and other social cues that make women feel like something is wrong with them if they aren’t dying to get married.” Her favorite moment from Dickinson is “after all the interruptions of her mother, after the obstacles thrown up by her father, after finding out the woman she loves is both wholly orphaned and going to marry her brother, she finally gets a moment to return to the poem she’s been writing in her mind. I love that we get to see her inner imaginative life at different moments throughout the show, but my favorite moment is when we see the satisfaction of having the ideas, feelings and images come together in the language of the poem. ‘Nailed it!'”

Colleen Hoover, best-selling Young Adult author

Hoover isn’t totally sure when she first read a Dickinson poem but says it was probably ‘Hope Is the Thing With Feathers’ sometime in school. Hoover hadn’t thought much about herself in relation to Emily Dickinson until watching the show. “Knowing more about Dickinson, there are definitely parallels to her path to publishing — her trying to publish poems but not being entirely brave enough to do so, and me having this writing dream and ultimately gaining a readership through self-publishing,” she says. “What was available to me was not available to her in her time.” Hoover adds that she’s benefited from a strong support network of female friends, relatives and fellow authors, but also: modern healthcare — which Dickinson’s family desperately needed — and changing social mores! “I mean, medical advances! All of her friends and family who died tragically and caused her so much misery would probably have been OK with some of the easy fixes we keep in our medicine cabinets. And some of her alleged relationships would hopefully have been no big deal in 2019. The themes she explored will always be relevant — death, pain, mental anguish — as long as people are terrible to each other, her words will be familiar.” Dickinson reminds viewers that these female voices exist to us throughout time, and we can always come back to them, but also to look for new voices. “Discovering new women writers and supporting them however I can is really important to me. Because again, that’s how I got to this place I’m at, and if I ever forget that, please knock me over the head with a very heavy book.”

Deborah Landau, American poet, essayist and critic

“Like everyone, I read her first in school, where she was presented as a kind of quaint nature poet,” recalls Landau. “It was many years before I had a sense of the searing, singular power of Dickinson’s poems — which are more like bombs than flowers.” The bomb-like sense of her newness, depicted visually in Dickinson‘s fantasy sequences, is what’s stayed with Landau. “So much of what I hope/try to do in my poems I learned from reading hers — the strange jolt of the language, the compression, the coiled power, the electrical charge and heat. Like many writers, I return again and again to Dickinson’s often-quoted description of the power of poetry: ‘If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?'” She names “Toni Morrison, Anne Carson, Lucille Clifton, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath and Sappho” as models for female genius. Landau isn’t sure she can picture Emily in today’s world, as it would be so strange to her. “Radically different, right? Can you imagine Emily tweeting out her poems on an iPhone? That would seem to be the antithesis of keeping one’s fascicles in the bedroom, as Dickinson famously did.”

Dickinson premieres on AppleTV+ Nov. 1, introducing viewers to the world of young Emily Dickinson, her crush Susan, and the obstacles that get in Emily’s way on her path to becoming an artist and growing into a woman.