Books News & Features
12:27 pm
Fri November 25, 2011

Emily Dickinson Takes Over Tucson

Originally published on Wed November 23, 2011 5:14 pm

Emily Dickinson is all over Tucson, Ariz. Reading, lectures, classroom lessons — it's all part of the Big Read Project, a National Endowment for the Arts project devoted to "inspiring people across the country to pick up a good book." In Tucson, people aren't just picking up Dickinson's poetry books — they're celebrating her in reading, dance and even desserts.

"You don't want to put somebody up on a pedestal and pay homage ... that's not very interesting," says Lisa Bowden with a laugh. Bowden is a publisher and poet, and the organizer of Big Read Tucson.

One of her ideas was to hold open recording sessions for anyone to read Dickinson's poetry and letters. Restaurants and coffee houses then play those recordings to stimulate conversation and creativity.

And why not give those restaurants something to serve? Dickinson was also an accomplished baker. So chefs are making Dickinson-inspired dishes.

"I'm geeked out," says Devon Sanner, chef de cuisine at Janos Restaurant in Tucson. "It's very exciting to ... take my small part in this project."

Sanner (who also has a degree in literature) teamed up with his pastry chef to create a dessert around this poem:

I had been hungry all the years-
My noon had come, to dine-
I, trembling, drew the table near
And touched the curious wine.

Sanner's dessert comes with a copy of the poem, which mentions bread, berries and glass. The chef made bread pudding studded with currants and golden raisins — topped by panes of sugar glass and cassis ice cream. It's just one way to help people connect with the poet's work.

"How do we make her appealing to Tucson in the 21st century?" Bowden asks. "Especially teenagers. How is she relevant to those people's lives?"

Dickinson was famously reclusive and thought of as eccentric. But Bowden thinks she's a natural fit for this citywide celebration of her work. Sure, she was lonely and isolated and an "oddball," Bowden says, but she was also "superbrilliant and really creative and rebellious in her own way."

Today's texting teens may have more in common with Dickinson than they think — 150 years ago, Dickinson was already using unconventional punctuation and capitalization.

Big Read Tuscon has set up an Emily Dickinson hotline — (520) 329-4958 — where community members can call or text their Dickinson inspired work. Some participants have taken Dickinson poems and imagined what they would sound like as modern-day text messages.

This Dickinson poem:

Good night, because we must,
How intricate the dust!
I would go, to know!
Oh incognito!
Saucy, Saucy Seraph
To elude me so!
Father! they won't tell me,
Won't you tell them to?

Might sound like this:

Bye, Bye for now.
Basically in the clear, homie.
Tell it like it is, big beautiful woman.
Got to go.
Parent alert.
I have a question.
Friends forever.

The submissions go up on the Big Read Tucson website. There have been Spanish translations, a chess tournament and a dance performance inspired by Dickinson's poetry.

The Big Read Tucson ends Dec. 10 with a party to celebrate Dickinson's birthday. In the meantime, you can stop by Rocco's Restaurant for a slice of Dickinson-inspired pizza.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The National Endowment for the Arts wants people to pick up a good book. It's a project called the Big Read. And this project explains how the words of a great American poet are coming alive all over Tucson, Arizona. Here's NPR's Ted Robbins.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: Emily Dickinson is all over Tucson. Reading, lectures, classroom lessons. But, really, if you want to inspire people, you've got to do more than that.

LISA BOWDEN: You just don't want to put somebody up on a pedestal and pay homage. You know, that's not very interesting.

ROBBINS: That's Lisa Bowden, publisher, poet, and organizer of the Big Read Tucson.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROBBINS: One of her ideas: hold open recording sessions for anyone to read Dickinson's poetry and letters...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: To Samuel Bowles, Amherst, August 1858.

ROBBINS: Then have restaurants and coffee houses use the remix as background and maybe stimulate conversation and creativity.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: My friends are my estate. Forgive me then the avarice to hoard them.

ROBBINS: And why not give those restaurants something to serve? Emily Dickinson was also an accomplished baker, so chefs are making Dickinson-inspired dishes.

DEVON SANNER: I'm geeked out. It's very exciting to be - to take my small part in this project.

ROBBINS: Devon Sanner is chef de cuisine at Janos Restaurant in Tucson. He also has a degree in literature. Sanner and his pastry chef created a dessert around this poem.

SANNER: I had been hungry all the years. My noon had come to dine. I, trembling, drew the table near and touched the curious one...

ROBBINS: The dessert comes with a copy of the poem, which mentions bread, berries, and glass. The chef made bread pudding studded with currants and golden raisins, topped by panes of sugar glass and cassis ice cream. But that's fine dining, and this is the Big Read - a community-wide effort.

BOWDEN: People who are riding the buses or who listen to the radio or, you know, high school kids - how do we make her appealing to people in Tucson in the 21st century, primarily teenagers? How is she relevant to those kid's lives?

ROBBINS: Well, there's Emily Dickinson the person - famously reclusive, thought of as eccentric. Organizer Lisa Bowden says she's a natural fit for teenagers.

BOWDEN: Someone who's lonely or isolated or sort of an oddball and super-brilliant and really creative and rebellious in her own way.

ROBBINS: Emily Dickinson used unconventional punctuation and capitalization. That fits current language usage too.

KRISTIN NELSON: So one of the things you can do is translate an Emily Dickinson poem into text message format.

ROBBINS: This is a workshop for educators, led by Kristin Nelson and Frankie Rollins. Reimagining Dickinson's poetry from this...

FRANKIE ROLLINS: From good night, because we must, how intricate the dust. I would go, to know. Oh, incognito. Saucy, saucy Seraph to elude me so. Father, they won't tell me. Won't you tell them to?

ROBBINS: To this...

NELSON: Bye, bye for now. Basically in the clear, homie. Tell it like it is, big beautiful woman. Got to go. Parent alert. I have a question. Friends forever.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROBBINS: There's a phone number to text translations to. The messages go up on the Big Read Tucson website. There have been Spanish translations, a chess tournament and a dance performance inspired by Dickinson's poetry.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: The spider as an artist has never been employed.

ROBBINS: The Big Read Tucson ends December 10th with a party to celebrate Emily Dickinson's birthday. Meantime, you can stop by Rocco's Restaurant for a slice of Dickinson-inspired pizza.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

INSKEEP: You hear Ted right here on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.