'Dickinson' Boss on Using Poet's Sexuality, Political Context to Tell a Modern Story

[The following story contains spoilers for the first three episodes of Apple TV+'s Dickinson.]

Just as Emily Dickinson's poetry has been thoroughly analyzed for more than a century, Dickinson's sexual orientation has also been the subject of a fair amount of debate.

A number of scholars, notably Martha Nell Smith, have argued that Dickinson had a romantic relationship with her close friend Susan Huntington Gilbert, who ended up marrying Dickinson's brother, Austin.

And the first three episodes of Apple TV+'s half-hour comedy Dickinson seem to strongly lean into the theory that the poet (played by Hailee Steinfeld) and Gilbert (played by Ella Hunt) were in love, with a triangle developing with Austin (Adrian Enscoe) by the end of episode three as Gilbert takes off for Boston.

"It's hard to dispute that there was a passionate relationship there just given the way that Emily writes to Sue, but how we frame that and how we interpret it is of course going to be based on our own understandings of what can transpire between two women," Dickinson showrunner Alena Smith tells The Hollywood Reporter of her understanding of the women's dynamic. "It's funny because I think there are going to be people who think the representation of Emily and Sue in this show is not queer enough just as much as the opposite."

Smith argues that Steinfeld's Dickinson, who also has love affairs with men (and death), has a more fluid sexuality, just one of many ways she hopes the young 19th century poet resonates with young people in the 21st century.

"I'm very interested in the idea that sexuality in the 1850s didn't have the same categories that we have today," Smith adds. "And perhaps there was a kind of freedom and maybe a resonance with a generation coming of age today that also is freeing itself from certain boxes around gender and sexuality."

Indeed, Smith says that while she thoroughly explored Dickinson's poetry, biography and historical context, it was all with the aim of using those details from the past to illuminate the present.

"Always in this show, in this version of Dickinson, the goal is to reflect on where we are today, so my representation of Emily and Sue's relationship in the show has less to do with what I think the literal truth of Emily Dickinson and Sue Gilbert's historical relationship was and more to do with what I want to say about young women and their relationships in today's world," Smith says.

She adds, "My concern with this show is not to give a book report on the truth about Emily Dickinson. It's to use Emily as an avatar for looking around us at the world that we're in today."

That extends to the show's volatile, pre-Civil War 1850s political climate, which Smith found increasingly resonant with the present day.

Speaking with THR, Smith talks more about Dickinson's sexuality and relationships with both genders as well as her larger goals for the recently renewed series, how Apple Music was key to the soundtrack and whether the tech giant pushed back on politically and sexually charged moments.

Generally, how did you decide what to include from Emily Dickinson's biography and history and where you could take some artistic liberties?

I guess that was sort of guided by whatever sparked my interest as an artist. I mean I think that in a certain way I approached this whole thing a little bit like making a collage. And I got to immerse myself in the biography, in the historical context of the period and also in Emily Dickinson's work, and I think that plots and story points and character ideas sprang from all of those. It was almost like I was searching through the stuff for anything that sparked my interest and then putting it together in the show, perhaps in unexpected ways. I think that story points come from her poetic images as much as they come from the facts of her life, although I definitely do draw from the facts of her life quite a lot. Sometimes it seemed impossible that it could be true but it was true and it was a line of the biography that just struck me. Sometimes the weirdest details turn out to be the true ones.

The show seems to lean very strongly into the theory that Emily and Sue had a romantic relationship. It's something that some scholars have concluded, but there's still a bit of a debate. How did you decide to embrace this view of Dickinson's sexuality and why did you make it such a central part of this character?

One thing we do know about Emily Dickinson is that she was always searching for someone who would understand her — not that anyone ever perfectly understood her, but I think if anyone came the closest, it was Sue. The reason we know this was such a central relationship in her life is because there's so much documentation left behind in the form of the letters and poems that she wrote to Sue. Sue was a childhood friend of hers that married her brother and then moved into the house next door. For Emily's whole life, she kept writing to this woman who lived across the lawn but, in a certain sense, a world away in that Sue chose the normative path for a woman of marriage and childbirth whereas Emily remained alone and devoted to her art.

Would you say that the version of Emily Dickinson that Hailee plays has a more fluid definition of sexuality?

I think so because certainly her core soulmate I think is Sue, but she has a number of other love affairs in just this season with men and even with death. And one of the ways that I thought about the story we were telling over the season is that if she was a normal girl and if this was a normal Victorian, coming-of-age female story, it would be all about how Emily got a husband. She would go through a variety of suitors and choose the right guy and then ultimately the story would end with her getting married and leaving home. But because she's Emily, she subverts every opportunity she has to get married, basically because she fears that even if she married the nicest guy in the world, he would probably end up trapping her into the status quo and not allowing her to have even the tiny scrap of freedom that she has fought and won for herself in her father's house. It's very important to me also in this show that Emily's not a victim. She is in very confined, very restrictive circumstances but within those circumstances, she claims as much agency as she possibly can and fights fiercely for the right to express herself.

Do you see Emily continuing to be opposed to marriage?

This first season of Dickinson is centrally about the question of love and marriage. We definitely look at it from all angles, and I hope we go on a sort of complicated journey this season about it. Then I think in potential future seasons, I don't know if that would so much be the focus anymore. I think there's other themes of Emily's that I would like to explore.

You also visually realize some of Dickinson's poetry. For the first three episodes, there's at least one poem per episode and the poem gives the episode its title. How did you choose which poems to feature? And, these are artistic works that have been open to interpretation (there are probably students right now working on papers about Dickinson's poems); how concerned were you about presenting a definitive vision of her poetry?

I don't think that we're ever presenting anything definitive either about Emily's poems or about Emily herself. I think that what makes a poem great is that it is sort of inexhaustible in its meanings and particularly Dickinson, who is so enigmatic and each of her poems are kind of little riddles. So I would definitely say these are creative responses to her poems, and I think she wrote so many great poems, and it is such a wealth to choose from. There are 10 episodes in season one and that would be 10 out of 2,000 poems. So it's barely a tiny percentage out of the poems she wrote [that we featured in season one], and we definitely got to pick some of my favorites, but there are so many others left to choose from. We use the poems in all kinds of ways in the show. In the first three episodes, I believe that she writes the poem in the episode [that is titled after the poem], but that stops being true and we sometimes use a poem as a title where the poem itself doesn't appear in the episode or a different poem does. Sometimes her poems are encountered in the metaphorical experience of riding in a carriage with death but sometimes they are encountered as the actual dramatic experience she had when one of her poems did get published and sometimes they're just used as jumping-off points for us to explore life in the 1850s, because she was reflecting on her world and her context through these poems. The poems are embedded in the show in all kinds of ways. People who have a huge familiarity with her body of work will have fun hunting for them because they appear in all different kinds of ways.

With respect to the political climate of the 1850s, you've said it was such a volatile time and you found a lot of resonance with that now, and you can see that even in the first episode when her father's talking about running for Congress and he's saying he doesn't want to take a radical position, he wants to compromise. As you're exploring the political reality of that time period, how conscious were you about trying to reflect the present-day political climate?

Always and completely. This is probably a way that my work diverges from Emily Dickinson because ultimately if you look at that historical truth of it, I don't think Emily Dickinson was particularly political, right? I don't think that was her bent. But I am not a poet. I'm a playwright and TV writer, and I am very concerned with the social context that we all exist in. So I'm definitely interested as much in the era as I am in her. I think the more I have gotten into the 1850s, the more it has been revelatory as a lens through which to see our society today. One of the main storylines of season one is that Edward Dickinson (Toby Huss) runs for Congress.

Working with Apple, because they're a big company, was there any push-back on the political elements with this show?

Not ever. The show isn't necessarily saying one thing or another politically; I think it's just opening up questions. And I never heard anything other than that they were excited about the restaging and reclaiming of history that we were trying to do in the show.

There are a couple of fairly intense sexual situations in the first couple of episodes, but it's been rumored that Apple wants their content to be family friendly. Were there any guidelines in terms of what you could and couldn't show?

No, and I'm not sure that all of those rumors about Apple were ever actually true. I mean I kept hearing them when we were in production and I didn't think they were actually coming from the people at the top of Apple. That never happened to us. For me personally it didn't feel necessary in our show — one of the things that was cool about exploring this intimate relationship between women in the 1850s is that I didn't need nudity to create what I feel are some very erotic moments. That was always my choice and led by me as a feminist showrunner. If I had thought something was important to fight for, I always fought for it. But I felt like the vision of sexuality that's being presented in the show was very firmly in my hands. I was also very conscious working with young female actors that it's really about empowering them. I want this to be their story too. I'm never going to go with them to a place they don't want to go, but I'm always going to go where they do want to go.

Music is such a big part of the show, and Hailee has a song in series. Since this is a show for Apple, which has Apple Music, has that helped at all in terms of integrating the music?

Yeah, that was definitely one of the best parts, for me, of the partnership with Apple in making this show, just because obviously music is so important to them and music is such a big part of the show and we use the contemporary songs to show the inner consciousness of Emily and how it's sort of bursting out of the seams of her time and in a way the more current and up-to-date the songs are, the better for us. [Apple music executive] David Taylor sent me this Billie Eilish song that's in the pilot, and he sent it to me before the song came out and I'd never heard of Billie Eilish. Meanwhile, all of my 22-year-old actors knew who she was completely. I listened to the song and I was like, "This sounds like it was written by Emily Dickinson." The whole story of Billie Eilish in that she was recording this stuff on Soundcloud in her basement at 17 years old — it's so resonant — and writing songs about death and gothic subjects. It couldn't have been more of a perfect match, and we got to use that song 1,000 percent because of Apple Music. And then Hailee wrote her own original song for the show as her response to Emily, not from an acting perspective but from an artist perspective. We hope to do more and more of that if there are future seasons of the show, getting people to write original music for the show. We're kind of suggesting in certain ways that poetry might have been like the pop music of its day, which is not untrue. People memorized poems and they were published in newspapers. The irony about Emily Dickinson never publishing is that really nothing would have been easier for her. She lived in a completely literary context. Everyone around her loved to write and to publish. And she had access to all of that, and so the great mystery of her life is why didn't she do it and I think the show hopes to unfold that mystery in lots of different ways.

Obviously some of this is out of your control, but as you have a larger vision for the show, how many seasons and how far into Emily's life could you see it going?

I don't really have a specific number of seasons in mind, but I know that I do hope that we get to do it at least until we get into the Civil War because I really want to tell that story both as a reflection of where we are now, but also because those were really the most important writing years of Emily's life. That was when her brain was basically on fire. She just wrote hundreds of the most incredible poems. For me it's just really interesting to think about what it meant that such a sensitive and gifted artist living in such a volatile, combustible time. And people think of her as being so cloistered, but I really want to explore the idea that perhaps in subconscious ways, it was all getting to her. She was picking up on these frequencies of violence.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.