August in Emily’s House

“I dwell in Possibility– / A fairer House than Prose–” (F.466)

It’s August, which for me means writing a poem a day and putting it in the mail to a fellow-poet, who may be waiting in Seattle, or Bellingham, or Australia to hear from me.

Every year I begin by reading a lot of short poems. Haiku are good. And I recently picked up a book by Kay Ryan, which does an excellent job making short = depth. But depth is something that my old friend Emily Dickinson does so well, and this year I found myself sticking close to her.

Inspired by the month-long postcard meditation on peace that I did back in February, I had already decided to choose a single topic to explore. Then it occurred to me that I could choose Dickinson as my “single” (and so not singular) topic. This choice opened up all sorts of inspirations. After the first postcard, I decided that I needed some guidelines, so here are a few I cooked up:

  1. Every poem has to start with reading Dickinson. I recently purchased the big book The Gorgeous Nothings from New Directions, and it has proved a fine place to launch from.
  2. Every postcard begins with a scrap from Emily Dickinson’s work, either an epigraph or a quotation in the first line.
  3. The postcard itself — whatever it is — has to suggest the direction I go in my explorations. I have a set of literary postcards that I impulse-bought last year, and I’ve been using a key word from the quotation to generate a search through Dickinson for what she has to say on the same theme.
  4. I borrow freely from Dickinson’s lexicon (“resonance,” “balm,” “chanticleer”), putting anything borrowed in quotation marks, just to be clear.
  5. Color words are a bonus, and needn’t be quoted unless they’re really stunning (“emerald,” “cochineal”).
  6. Dashes are mandatory — of course.
  7. In that light, I decided to find poet Heather McHugh‘s essay, which I think is called, “What Dickinson Makes a Dash For,” and reread it.
  8. I’ve also been browsing some other poets’ work influenced by Dickinson (Visiting Emily, from University of Iowa Press, and Kelli Russell Agodon‘s Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room are two books in my possession).
  9. I was recently so disappointed by the new Dickinson movie, that I decided to begin rereading Richard Sewell’s amazing biography of the poet. Maybe I’ll watch (again) the Voices and Visions documentary, too.
  10. If you’re on my address list, remember that these are drafts — the goal is write ’em and mail ’em. Later I’ll see what they add up to.

I’m looking forward to reading the 31 postcards that wing their way to my mailbox!


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