Running a Dickinson Marathon, Part 1

Entry begun Sunday, February 22, 7:15 am         

I had never run a Dickinson Marathon before.  The first question was how much time it would take.  Cindy Dickinson, director of interpretive programming at the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, has run several recently, and she said theirs usually takes 14 to 15 hours.  To be safe, I decided to run ours for 15 hours, from 9 am to 4:30 pm on two consecutive days.

The next question had been exactly when to hold the Marathon, around which our whole Arts Fest would be based.  Looking at the Spring Semester schedule, Valentine’s weekend seemed perfect.  This would help our readers remember when to come, and it would be a nice tribute to Emily’s unknown love life.  The first poem in her Complete Poems is in fact a Valentine, written during “Valentine week, 1850,” and beginning with these words:

 Awake ye muses nine, sing me a strain divine,

Unwind the solemn twine, and tie my Valentine! (J 1)

Emily was then nineteen years old, about the age of some of my students who would be reading in this year’s Marathon.

I had decided early on to use the Johnson edition of Complete Poems because Franklin had imposed an entirely new numbering system when adding a few poems to the 1775 poems published by Johnson in 1955.  Bringing both editions into play would have been a nightmare.  We had plenty of copies of the Johnson edition on hand, thanks to the generosity of John Campbell and the Cold Spring branch of the Campbell County Public Library.

Student artist Kelsea Miskell reading on Friday

Student artist Kelsea Miskell reading on Friday

Emma Rose and Matt and I arrived at 8:30 on Friday morning to get everything set up for the 9 am start.  Jonathan from IT had arrived well before us and had moved the digital monitor used for Claire’s talk the night before to the other end of the Reading Room, where the four student videos in our exhibition would be playing in a continuous loop for the rest of the Arts Fest.  Keeping the podium in place, we moved the comfortable chairs into the semicircle for the readers, and left only a few rows of chairs from the reading the night before.  The intimacy of this arrangement was enhanced by the four fabric pieces on the nearby wall.  We were ready for our first readers–Sharyn Jones, chair of our Anthropology, Sociology, and Philosophy department, and Roxanne Kent-Drury, my colleague in the English department.

From right: Sharyn Jones and Roxanne Kent-Drury prepare to read as Matt adjusts the video equipment

From right: Sharyn Jones and Roxanne Kent-Drury prepare to read as Matt adjusts the video equipment

Also arriving before 9 am was our first shift from the student groups who were helping us run the Marathon.  Megan Beckerich was here from Honors, and she was ably assisted by her friend Constance McCafferty.  Throughout the morning one would be at the reception table to sign in readers and distribute catalogs to student artists, while the other sat near the readers and signaled the end of each ten-minute time slot.

Megan Beckerich and Constance McCafferty

Megan Beckerich and Constance McCafferty

At the registration desk, we asked each reader to announce the number of each poem before reading the poem itself. This would make it much easier for everyone to know exactly where we were.  Sharyn Jones had the honor of reading “Number 1.”

Sharyn and Roxanne getting us off to a good start

Sharyn and Roxanne getting us off to a good start

I could not hear all of the readings because there were so many other things to attend to, and so many students, friends, and colleagues to greet.  On that first morning bits of Emily came in snatches.  I was surprised early on to hear Daniel Boone’s name in one of the poems (J 3).  It was wonderful, among the early verse, to hear Emily’s first heartfelt tribute to her friend Sue (who may have been the love of her life before Sue married Emily’s brother Austin):

One Sister I have in our house, / And one, a hedge away (J 14).

And then, still very early on, came two extraordinary poems that remain among her best-known today, “Heart! We will forget him!” and “I never lost as much but twice” (J 47 and 49).  Hearing poems such as these surface among the lesser-known ones was one of many pleasures this morning.

Another pleasure was to see former students such as Sara Moore Wagner, from my first graduate class in Dickinson and James, who had since been chosen as a resident poet in Amherst.  It was also a pleasure to hear Sara reading Dickinson poems again, as she had done in the classroom.  She was reading in a sequence with three of my English department colleagues, Steven Leigh, Tonya Krouse, and Bill McKim.

Marathon readers from left: Steven Leight, Tonya Krouse, Sara Moore Wagner, and Bill McKim

Marathon readers from left: Steven Leigh, Tonya Krouse, Sara Moore Wagner, and Bill McKim

I was also happy to meet Sara’s husband Jon and son Cohen, seen from behind in the above photo.  Sara has a second child on the way, who maybe heard some soothing prenatal rhythms while his expectant mother listened to several subsequent readers.

Sara Moore Wagner and family listening to subsequent readers

Sara Moore Wagner, with husband Jon and son Cohen, listening to subsequent readers

Another highlight this morning came when we got to poem 148, “All overgrown by cunning moss.”  Katherine Frank, our Dean of Arts and Sciences, was the reader.  She was as surprised as I was to find herself reading Dickinson’s tribute to Charlotte Brontë, who had died in 1859.  Katherine had visited the gravesite of the Brontë sisters near the Haworth Parsonage when researching the juvenalia they had written as part of her dissertation.  It was a true delight to see her face light up after reading these lines that end this poem:

Oh what an afternoon for Heaven, / When ‘Bronte’ entered there!

Dean Katherine Frank (with Honors Director Belle Zembrodt) realizing she has a Brontë poem

Dean Katherine Frank (with Honors Director Belle Zembrodt) realizing she has a Brontë poem

As we got close to lunch time, I decided to make a run upstairs to Einstein’s Bagels in our library lobby to get lunch for myself and our student helpers.  The convenience of this reminded me of our first decade at NKU in the 1970s, when the only food in campus buildings came from vending machines.  Megan and Constance were on duty until 1 pm, with Kaitlin Mills and her Loch Norse colleagues arriving at 12:30 for for the transition.  The Marathon went on without a break while we had lunch, sharing good impressions of the day so far.

Megan and Emma Rose at Registration Desk (with video monitor behind Megan's head)

Megan and Emma Rose at Registration Desk (with video monitor behind Megan’s head)

One notable event during the afternoon was the reading by Taylor Ross, the music major who had sung two of Aaron Copland’s Dickinson songs at her recital back in October.  As she is Matt’s girl friend, that gave him an opportunity to sit next to her as she read.  Before Taylor left, they accepted my invitation to stand for a photograph near Matt’s Cleaving Mind painting.

Taylor Ross (reading) with Matt Ruiz

Taylor Ross (reading) with Matt Ruiz

Soon after Taylor read I had the pleasure of greeting Janet Arno, who had coordinated all the support we received from the Cold Spring branch of the Campbell County Public Library.  She brought two other Marathon readers from her reading groups at the library, Gail Blair and Sean Delisch.  It was wonderful to have this kind of support from out in the community, and all three read the poetry very well.  Janet and Gail were preceded by my English department colleague John Alberti, who, like many readers, followed along for quite some time after completing his reading.  By this point, Kaitlin Mills and Keight Versluis of Loch Norse had taken over the monitoring positions from Megan and Constance.

Janet Arno, Gail Blair, and John Alberti in the reading chairs as Keight Versluis (seated) and Kaitlin Mills follow

Janet Arno, Gail Blair, and John Alberti in the reading chairs as Keight Versluis (seated) and Kaitlin Mills follow

I would have liked to hear all of the readers and all of the poems, but at some point in the afternoon I had to break away to the concert hall to see how John and Jonathan were doing in delivering and positioning the ten screen panels for the concert that night.  John had indeed completed and delivered all the screens, and the news that there would be no marimba allowed more space for deploying them.  In part because of the scaling down of the number of works to be performed, it had been decided to invite the audience to sit on the stage near the piano and performers, making the presence of the screens even more desirable.  Having the audience on stage, there would be no need for me or Kurt Sander to use a microphone when introducing the program, and therefore no need for the sound check I had expected to have this afternoon.

Bare stage, piano, and screens, on Friday afternoon

Bare stage, piano, and screens, on Friday afternoon

One very nice surprise when I returned to the Reading Room was the appearance of Kiana Berry, who had been assigned to cover the entire Arts Fest for our school newspaper, The Northerner.  She was interested in all elements of the Fest, and particularly in Emma Rose, Matt, and the student artists whose exhibition of classroom art had provided the occasion for everything that was happening this weekend.  Last night she had been conducting video interviews with Emma Rose and Matt while the rest of us were heading downstairs to meet with Kathleen and Claire in the Archive.

Kiana Berry with Emma Rose and Matt

Kiana Berry with Emma Rose and Matt

Late in the afternoon, as we approached 4 pm, another moment of serendipity transpired. Richard Hunt, a member of our Steely Library Board, was reading.  Richard is owner of Roebling Point Books and Coffee in Covington, and he publishes books in addition to selling them. I was pretty excited when I heard him begin to read number 709, one of my favorites, “Publication—is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man.”  One problem with the kind of Marathon we were conducting, running through the entire body of work in sequence, is that no reader (except for the first one) has any idea what poems he or she will be reading.  But that also makes possible these wonderful surprises.

richard hunt

Publisher Richard Hunt reads “Publication–is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man”

Our last scheduled reader on Friday was Camilla Asplen Mecher, who had been well into her ninth month of pregnancy when our group of Moby students and alums had attended Know Theater’s production of Moby-Dick in October.  Camilla had been one of my Dickinson students too, and Emma Rose and I had chosen her multi-media drawing from my Fall 2001 class, I took my Power in my Hand, for the front cover of our catalog.  Camilla and Dan’s son Jude had been born in November, so he was getting some early exposure to the arts today.

Camilla Asplen Mecher arriving with son Jude

Camilla Asplen Mecher arriving with son Jude

It was wonderful to see Jude’s Facebook persona face to face.  Camilla kept bouncing him up and down in a soft springing motion to keep him occupied–and relatively quiet–as she waited her turn to read.  During her reading, she was sometimes holding Jude’s head in one hand and Emily’s book in the other, a wonderful way to end part 1 of our Marathon Reading.

Camilla holding Judes head and Emilys book as she reads

Camilla holding Jude’s head and Emily’s book as she reads

For a first-time experiment, Day 1 of the Marathon went very well.  All forty-five of the ten-minute slots were filled, and everyone seemed to enjoy both reading and listening.  The last poem Camilla had read was no. 771, “None can experience stint / Who Bounty—have not known.”  Those of us who had seen Claire’s presentation the night before particularly enjoyed Camilla’s reading of no. 762, “Presentiment—is that long Shadow—on the Lawn.”  Artists who create something memorable in response to a Dickinson poem enrich our experience of that poem forever.  That had been doubly true of Camilla’s artistic response to poem 540, “I took my Power in my Hand,” which inspired the title of our exhibition as well as the cover of our catalog.

scan dickinson front cover

When Day 1 ended on poem 771, Emma Rose and I were a little worried that we might not be able to complete our run through all of the poems the next day.  The mathematical midpoint of 1775 would have been 888, and we were more than a hundred short of that even though our readers had been reading without a break all day.  Many of Dickinson’s later poems, however, are much shorter than the long poetic Valentines with which Sharyn launched us this morning.  The Valentine poem from 1850 which began the Marathon has 40 lines, all of which are themselves very long.  The Valentine poem from 1852 (the one that includes the line “Hurrah for Daniel Boone!”) has 68 lines in 17 stanza of four lines each.

For now, we could only hope that the numbers would even out the next day.  As for this day, the Exhibition Walk began as soon as part 1 of the Marathon had ended.


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