Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Summer Reads: Chapter & Verse

On Friday, I announced a new series of posts called "Summer Reads: Chapter & Verse." Thanks for all of your comments and interest! I'm still looking for guest bloggers to share novels they have read this summer, paired with a poem that complements the book.

If you'd like more information, you can find a full explanation of the series and a sample Chapter & Verse pairing at this post.

When Walter Dean Myers passed away a few weeks ago, I was in the middle of one of his recent novels, DARIUS & TWIG.

Local indie bookstore Politics & Prose has it!
Teenagers Darius and Twig are best friends with big dreams. Darius is a gifted writer. Twig burns up the sidewalk, training to be a runner. Both boys know their gifts could be a ticket to college and out of their Harlem neighborhood. But they struggle against discouraging teachers, shootings and racism, and classmates who don't seem to want anyone to succeed.

DARIUS & TWIG was released in 2013 (Amistad Press). I had to look up the date of my poem match, "We Real Cool," by Gwendolyn Brooks. Though Brooks' poem was first published in 1959, she speaks in the voice of Darius and Twig's modern-day classmates.

We Real Cool

BY GWENDOLYN BROOKS

The Pool Players.
        Seven at the Golden Shovel.


            We real cool. We   
            Left school. We

            Lurk late. We
            Strike straight. We

            Sing sin. 

Read the poem's conclusion and listen to a recording at the Poetry Foundation.

Reading the novel and revisiting this poem has me thinking about the culture of urban poverty. Looking at the two side by side makes me wonder how much, if anything, has changed in the 50 plus years since "We Real Cool" was written. In Walter Dean Myers' novel, Darius and Twig hear the voices and feel the pull of characters like Brooks' pool players. Going to college means leaving home and an entire culture behind -- the kind elders and close friendships as well as the violence and sense of hopelessness.

Walter Dean Myers obituary at CNN.

Do you have a Chapter & Verse to contribute? Let me know. Instructions are in this post.

Just following along? Here's how you can use the Chapter & Verse series:

Recommended Reads -- If you're on a summer reading binge (I am!), and you're looking for something new and different to take to the beach, look no further.

Back to School -- Already planning lessons for the school year? Add some poetry to your reading units. The pairings in this series are perfect for jump-starting classroom discussion.

Next up: Janet Wong's Chapter & Verse is a double dose of Spinelli. Look for Janet's guest post on Poetry Friday.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Poetry Friday Announcement: A New Series

Hey there, Poetry Friday crowd. I'm starting a new series today. Anyone can join in. If you'd like to  guest post, leave me a note in the comments.

Find more Poetry Friday
posts at Poetry for Children.
My favorite part of summer isn't the beach (we haven't been there yet), the hot weather (I prefer blizzards, thank you), or no school (can I have my routine back yet?) It's summer reading.

My nephew, demonstrating that a book
can be enjoyed anywhere, even
sitting on the floor by Auntie's front door.

I've been on a Sharknado-worthy reading binge, chomping up novels, gliding through the library looking for delicious fantasies, never roaming far from shore without an audio-book to satisfy my story-hunger.

Sometimes, I have to remind myself to slow down and *enjoy* what I'm reading. Taste the flavors. One way to stop my book-hopping and think about each novel I'm reading is through poetry.

The idea for this series dates back to my years teaching high school. My ninth graders were about to do a unit on Betty Smith's classic coming of age novel, A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN.

Find it here.
I wanted to add more poetry to my lessons, so I used the poem "The Lake Ilse of Innisfree" by William Butler Yeats to help introduce the themes of the novel. The class talked about dreams, especially dreams of place.

When we finished A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, we went back to the poem. What a rich discussion we had. The students' ideas about dreams and the importance of place had developed as they read the novel. Circling back to Yeats' poem gave them a way to focus their thoughts.

How about you? During your summer reads, have you come across a book that made you think of a favorite poem? That's what this series is all about.

Summer Reads: Chapter & Verse

To participate, you can go simple and share a pairing of book and poem. I'll post as is, giving you credit for the contribution!

If you want to step it up, include a paragraph about the book you read and a few lines about why you paired it with a particular poem.

For those of you who really want to dig in and discuss your Chapter & Verse, write a blog post of 500-750 words. Tell us what you liked about the novel you're sharing. Expand on what made you think of this poem as you were reading the book. How does one complement the other? Explain how reading the poem with the book deepens your understanding of novel, poem, or both.

Here is a sample pairing from my own summer reads.

Author Amok's Chapter & Verse

Find it here.
Genevieve Valentine's retelling of "The 12 Dancing Princesses" is a historical YA novel, set in 1920s New York. Here, the dancing princesses are society sisters. The Hamilton girls are locked in their ritzy home by a misogynistic father who is embarrassed by his large family and lack of male heirs. The girls sneak out several nights a week to dance at New York's speakeasies and get a taste of life outside their father's walls.

I'm pairing THE GIRLS AT THE KINGFISHER CLUB with Edna St. Vincent Millay's most famous poem.

First Fig
By Edna St. Vincent Millay
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!
The Hamilton girls are burning the candle at both ends. What I love about this pairing is how the poem emphasizes the balance between frenetic joy and risk. That's what keeps drawing the twelves sisters back to the dance floor. It can't (and doesn't -- gasp!) last forever.

If you'd like to share your Summer Reads: Chapter & Verse, leave me a note in the comments or send an email to mrspoems@gmail.com. I'll post another sample next week.

Have fun out there, book sharks!

Find it here.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Where You'll Find Me... Guest Blogging

I'm having a Pisces kind of day today ... swimming in two directions.

From Communityhealing.net
This is in my writing life. Add kids, work, the usual stuff of momness, and I feel more like an octopus than a fish.

So: Two directions. (Not to be confused with boy band.)

Really?
Today, you will find me elsewhere.

Direction #1

Children's author me is thrilled to be visiting Brenda Drake's blog today. Brenda interviewed me and my good friend/writing mentor Joy McCullough-Carranza for her Pitch Wars Success Stories series.

I think our story is like Cinderella. Joy is the fairy book-mother who helped get my manuscript ready for the ball. It felt like everyone wanted to dance with my book, but midnight came with the end of the Pitch Wars contest, and my book went home with no agent to love. Until that glass slipper moment when Stephen Barbara returned. As an agent, he's been a perfect fit.

How to make these mirrored platform shoes:
DYI "The Fairest of Them All"
Click to read the Pitch Wars Success Story interview with Brenda Drake here.

Direction #2

Poet and editor me is blogging at Little Patuxent Review's website today. Submissions for our Winter 2015 issue, Food, open on August 1. To warm up your taste buds, I am sharing what I call "Pesto: A Love Story."

Pesto from The Italian Dish.
It's about falling in love with a guy, a culture, and a green pasta sauce all in the same summer. Now -- when your basil plant is full of leaves -- is the perfect time  to try my recipe for pesto sauce. Great on pasta, but also delicious to top chicken or salmon on the grill.

I'll be back at AuthorAmok for Poetry Friday. Meanwhile, keep swimming!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Poetry Friday: 5 Questions for Debbie Levy

Greetings, Poets!

Last Friday, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act with Debbie Levy's new picture book, WE SHALL OVERCOME: THE STORY OF THE SONG. [Read the post here.]


Find it at IndieBound
As promised, Debbie is here in person to tell us more about the book, which explores the history of this Civil Rights anthem in free verse. But first...


This week's Poetry Friday blogroll is brought to you
by my friend and fellow Marylander
Tabatha Yeatts-Lonske
at The Opposite of Indifference.
I'm thrilled that you're here today, Debbie! I am so curious about the genesis of both the song and the book WE SHALL OVERCOME that it was hard for me to stick to five questions, so let's dive in.


What was the genesis for the idea that became WE SHALL OVERCOME? I’d like to know more about the concept that songs have back-stories. Why did you choose this particular song’s story to tell?

I began gathering string on the life of this song years ago. “We Shall Overcome” and issues related to “We Shall Overcome” kept popping up during research on other books for young readers that I wrote—a book about bigotry, a biography of Lyndon Johnson, and a book about the lives of enslaved people on southern plantations. So I began filing my discoveries away.
Find it at Amazon.

Find it at IndieBound.

What went into the file, especially early on, wasn’t specifically or only about the song “We Shall Overcome.” In working on my children’s book about plantation slave life, for example, I was captivated by first-person narratives of formerly enslaved people describing their music. And I was struck by this observation by Frederick Douglass, from his autobiography:

I have often been utterly astonished . . . to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by tears.

The precise words and tune of “We Shall Overcome” don’t date back to slavery days, but for me there is an undeniable connection between this song, which has so frequently been sung to embolden those fighting for justice and to comfort those who have suffered, and the songs of which Frederick Douglass spoke. I found, and the book chronicles, a history of voices upon voices singing songs that evolved into “We Shall Overcome,” with people making changes in the lyrics and melodies to suit their circumstances. I wanted to create a book that could reach even the youngest readers, and put them in touch with the history of an activity they all know something about: singing.

What role does music play in your own life? Do you listen to music when you’re writing?

I don’t listen to music when I’m writing. (Do you?) I like quietness.

[AA: I’m with you, Debbie. I love listening music, but find it too distracting when I’m writing.]

But music has played a large role in my life. I’ve played piano since I was a little girl. I don’t play well—I play worse now than I did as I child—and my sight reading of music is abysmal. But having a piano in my life feels necessary. In this I know I am influenced by my grandmother, Rose Salzberg, who was a piano teacher when she was a young woman in Poland and Germany and whose playing in our home and in her own home was a constant soundtrack in the life of our family here in Maryland. Certain Chopin pieces, which were her favorites, bring me to tears.

Rose's Sheet Music
(Courtesy of Debbie Levy)
If musical talent skipped a generation in my case, it did land squarely on my sons’ shoulders. My eldest is a jazz musician working in New York and abroad. My youngest is a talented singer, although it’s not something he chose to make a career of. It’s awfully sweet when they visit and the house is full of live music again.

What was involved in tracing “We Shall Overcome” back to its beginnings in slavery, but also in tracing its progress in more recent history as the song spread around the world?

My research for this 32-page picture book was as far-ranging as any research I’ve done, and I’ve done a lot of research as a lawyer, editor, and writer. The sources range from songbooks to academic studies; from decades of newspaper articles (here’s a favorite headline from a 1967 New York Times article: “Popularity of U.S. Rights Hymn Irks German Reds”) to liner notes from LP records; from books about the civil rights movement to articles about African American song traditions to interview transcripts.

Remember the file I mentioned earlier, in which I started collecting the bits that helped me conceive of and write this book? Another signature item that went into the file was the text of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s speech in March 1965 urging passage of the Voting Rights Act after Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, in which he echoed the words of the song:

What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.

Then when I found video of that speech and actually heard his distinctive twang saying these words—very moving to me. (Here’s the text and the video: http://millercenter.org/president/speeches/detail/3386.)

One more tidbit: before I started my research, I had no idea that “We Shall Overcome” has been sung by schoolchildren in India for years. I believe that you are more likely to find kids in a school in Mumbai who know this song, and who have sung it at school assemblies, than if you go into a school in this country.

I loved your book THE YEAR OF GOODBYES, which looks at early Nazi Germany through the eyes of your own Jewish family. Threads of that book’s focus on history and human rights appear again in WE SHALL OVERCOME. Do you have a personal connection to the song?

Thank you for loving THE YEAR OF GOODBYES, Laura, which has a special place in my heart since it’s about my mother. As for a personal connection to the song “We Shall Overcome”—I have the same connection any other human has to a song with such rich history, significance, and power. Maybe my response is sharpened by my roots in a family that experienced persecution during the Nazi era. But you know, a picture book is collaboration. 

The illustrator of WE SHALL OVERCOME, Vanessa Brantley-Newton (http://oohlaladesignstudio.blogspot.com/), has distinct and personal memories of being subject to the injustices of segregation during her 1960s childhood, the types of injustices that gave rise to the use of the song as a civil rights anthem. Working on this book was a deeply personal experience for her. And the editor who first acquired the manuscript of this book—her roots are in India, and the song’s story resonated for her in part because of the connection she felt personally to the tradition of singing “We Shall Overcome” in that country’s schools.

What are some ways that classroom educators might use your book to introduce a unit on the American Civil Rights movement?

I’d suggest that educators begin with a kid-appropriate discussion of the type of injustices that underlay the rise of “We Shall Overcome.” In my own interactions with young students around this book, I have been finding that they don’t necessarily grasp the notion of racial bigotry at first. (I don’t view this as a bad thing!) But we do need to introduce them to this part of our history, which, as we adults know, isn’t really a thing of the past.

So I like to begin by talking about unfairness, with some “what if?” questions. What if . . . you couldn’t go to your favorite park because of hair color? Had to sit apart in school or on bus or in movies because you go to a different church—or don’t go to church? Couldn’t go to the place where they serve the best ice cream in town because only blue people can and you are orange?

They giggle, but they get it. And then I talk about how, not so long ago, restaurants could refuse to serve you a meal if you were African American. I explain that, in those days, if you were African American, if you were Mexican American—you could not drink out of the same water fountains as white people in some parts of the country. I share photographs of these and other segregationist practices. They are pretty striking.

And I ask: if you were being treated so unfairly, or if someone you loved were, how would you feel? We can agree that being treating this unfairly could make you so angry and frustrated that you might want to fight. But fighting with your fists could create even more problems for you and it probably wouldn’t get you what you wanted.

We discuss other ways to fight—not with your fists but with your brain. You could join with others who are treated unfairly. You could tell everyone out in the world about what was happening. You could march in protest. You could quietly, but firmly, demand your rights.

Miami University Freedom Summer
(Courtesy of Debbie Levy)

I explain, again showing photos, that this is exactly what African Americans, and others who wanted to help fight the unfairness, did. They fought with their brains. And I explain that there was another important way that people fought with their brains. Yes, they marched, they sat in at lunch counters, they protested. But they did something else.

Anti-segregation March
(Courtesy of Debbie Levy)

THEY SANG! We talk about how singing shows the people who are treating you unfairly that you are strong, that you are a human being, and that you will be heard. And if inside you are feeling a little scared or sad, singing can give you courage and can lift your spirits—especially if you’re singing with others.

I’d also encourage educators to read the book aloud and, where the lyrics are excerpted, sing them. I’d encourage them to go to the online sources listed in the back of the book and on my website to hear the song being sung by different people, and in at least one different language.

Once the students have read the book and had discussions like the ones I’ve described, I love to ask them to come up with new verses that would apply to their lives today, in their schools or neighborhoods—and we sing them together.

Thanks for your questions, Laura!



Thank you so much for answering them, Debbie. I think you captured the heart of WE SHALL OVERCOME with these words: “Singing shows the people who are treating you unfairly that you are strong, that you are a human being, and that you will be heard."


Debbie Levy is the author of the picture books We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song (2013); Dozer’s Run: A True Story of a Dog and His Race (2014); the young adult novel Imperfect Spiral (2013); The Year of Goodbyes: A True Story of Friendship, Family, and Farewells (2010); and other books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry for young people of all ages. The Year of Goodbyes was a Kirkus Best Book of 2010, a Parents’ Choice Award recipient, a VOYA Nonfiction Honor Book, and a Sydney Taylor Award Notable Book, among other honors.  We Shall Overcome has been named a 2014 Jane Addams Book Award Honor Book, a Bank Street College Best Book, and a 2014 Notable Social Studies Trade Book.  www.debbielevybooks.com

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Poetry Friday: We Shall Overcome

Last week was the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It’s the perfect time to read poet Debbie Levy’s new picture book WE SHALL OVERCOME: THE STORY OF A SONG.

Read more about it at Debbie's website.
I’m featuring the book for Poetry Friday today, but be sure to stop back next week when Debbie visits Author Amok. She’s joining me for “5 Questions for the Author.”

Today's host is my friend
Linda Kulp at Write Time!
I picked up WE SHALL OVERCOME for several reasons:

1.   Debbie Levy is a local author whose work I’ve enjoyed and admired. 



2.   “The Story of a Song” is an intriguing topic for a picture book.

3.  This is the kind of book I like to recommend to educators when I visit our diverse local schools.

WE SHALL OVERCOME lived up to my expectations on all three counts. But it also made me cry. Like big, blubbery, I-can’t-see-what-I’m-reading-because-tears kind of cry.

With a deceptively light tough, WE SHALL OVERCOME traces the song that became a Civil Rights anthem to its roots in American slavery. The book opens with these lines:

Back in slavery times—
when enslaved people worked long days
with no pay and no say,
no freedom, no fairness,
no choice and no change—
the people sang.

They suffered, yet they sang—
to soothe the hurt,
to fight the cruelty,
to declare that—yes!—they were human beings.

Each spread shows how the song moved from cotton fields to black churches, from community to community, evolving over time. “I’ll overcome” became “We will overcome” during the early years of the Civil Rights movement.

They started to protest.
They brought a church song, “I Will Overcome,”
to the streets.
But since they were marching and working together,
they sang “We will Overcome.”
We, together, will overcome.

We see the song’s power to comfort protesters at segregated lunch counters. It is taken on the road by a group called the Freedom Singers, and sung at the historic 1963 March on Washington. But the story doesn’t end when the Civil Rights Act passes. Debbie continues to follow “We Shall Overcome” as it travels to South Africa and throughout the world.

I loved this book’s combination of music, history, and human rights. But I think what made me cry was how Debbie gets this point across: the words of “We Shall Overcome” represent a deep faith in humanity and in our ability to—someday—value all human beings as equals.

Debbie was kind enough to provide this wonderful photograph of herself and the book's illustrator, Vanessa Brantley-Newton, at the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, DC.


King incorporated the words "We shall overcome" into his speeches.
A spread from WE SHALL OVERCOME
from Vanessa Brantley-Newton's website.

One feature of the book I’d like to highlight comes after the text. WE SHALL OVERCOME includes an easy-to-follow timeline of the events mentioned in the book. Thumbnails of Vanessa's wonderful art brings these dates to life.

Thanks to Debbie Levy for giving me permission to post excerpts from WE SHALL OVERCOME today. For more information about the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, visit the Civil Rights 50 website.

Next week, Debbie will be here in person to tell us about her writing process. I can’t wait to hear how she developed, researched, and wrote the story of this important song.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Poetry Friday: Owl Feathers

A few Poetry Fridays ago, I wrote about a bear that had been visiting my dreams.

Maybe something similar has happened to you. Every morning, while the tea is steeping, a blue-jay comes to rest on the butterfly bush outside your kitchen window. Or you keep seeing red-tail hawks circling every time you take your dog for a walk. For three nights, you dream about jellyfish. Perhaps, suddenly, you notice foxes everywhere -- in advertisements, songs, peeking out from the raspberry bushes in your back yard, on people's license plates (1FXY LDY).

When this happens to me, I begin to wonder if the animal is trying to tell me something.

A few weeks ago, Sam and I were walking in a nearby field.


Sam says, "What will we find today?"
We found two feathers, a few yards apart.


Guesses were: hawk, turkey, and owl.
Research and Facebook friends confirmed these were probably barred owl feathers. Exciting! Hadn't I heard an owl call earlier that month, when I woke at 5 am to drive Julia to a field hockey tournament?

That night, I was cleaning out an old file of papers. A greeting card, opened but still in its envelope, fell out of the file. It was from my favorite professor from graduate school, Muriel Becker. Muriel was a legend in the New Jersey education scene, but she was also a huge fan of good writing, particularly science fiction and fantasy. Because Muriel passed away many years ago, I checked the postmark. The card had been sent in 1993. Nice, I thought.

[There is a literary award in Muriel's name. One of the winners passed away this week, poet and children's novelist Walter Dean Myers.]

It wasn't until the next morning that I connected card to feathers.


A card from Muriel, sent around the time
of my graduation from Montclair State University,
where she trained generations of English educators.

I choose to believe that the owl feathers and card were meant to tell me that Muriel's spirit is around. I'd been thinking about a work-in-progress during my walk with Sam. Maybe this was Muriel's way of saying: I like this idea! Keep working on it.

The practice of taking nature walks is a nourishing one for me, as a human being and as a writer. That's why I'm such a fan of Amy Ludwig Vanderwater's book FOREST HAS A SONG.


Cybil Poetry Award winner! Available at B&N.

The poems in Amy's book take a path through a year of seasons. Along the way, the reader finds seeds, fossils, and ferns. There are things to see, hear, smell, and touch on this nature walk. And there are animal visitors.

I'd like to thank Amy for giving me permission to post a poem from FOREST HAS A SONG today.

First Flight
by Amy Ludwig Vanderwater

Mommy, I'm scared to be this high.
     All owls are scared on their first try.

My tail feathers feel so tingly with fear.
     You can do it. Calm down. Careful now. Steer.

I can't see a thing through all this black.
     Just go to Spruce and come right back.

FLAP FLAP FLAP FLAP FLAP FLAP--WHOOOSH!
FLAP FLAP FLAP FLAP FLAP FLAP--SWOOOSH!

Look, Mom! I made it! Wow! I can fly!
     I knew you could. You were born for sky.

From FOREST HAS A SONG (Clarion, 2013)
Posted with permission of the author.

Do you think the feathers Sam and I found tumbled from the sky when a juvenile owl took its first flight? Or maybe they are Momma Owl's feathers, shaken off as she followed, just-far-enough behind.

As I transcribed Amy's poem today, the words of the poem had a different meaning for me. I'd been feeling like the little owl -- afraid of trying something new with my writing project. And there was the memory or spirit of my mentor, Muriel, saying "You can do it... You were born for sky."


Thanks for taking a walk with me
on Poetry Friday. We're celebrating
Independence Day and
honoring the work
of Walter Dean Myers
at Heidi's blog this week.
Stop by My Juicy Little Universe
for more poetry links.
If you'd like to learn more about animal spirits or animal medicine, I recommend the book ANIMAL SPEAKThe Spiritual & Magical Powers of Creatures Great and Small, by Ted Andrews.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Being Emily Dickinson

Last Friday was my daughter's final day of middle school. I want to enjoy the summer with her, before high school begins -- and while she still likes hanging out with me. (My mom-cred went up considerably when this happened.)

Between sports camps and school orientations, we are making time for something we both love: the performing arts.

Our plans include:

·         Our traditional family night at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's outdoor performance space. (This year: As You Like It)

·         A wicked Broadway weekend with Nana.

·         Seeing my friend, poet MiMi Zannino, perform as Emily Dickinson.

MiMi in period costume.
Photo: Ron Shrewsbury

MiMi is a fellow Maryland State Arts Council artist in residence. For the past few years, she has been performing a one-woman show as Emily Dickinson. This summer, her Emily Dickinson is part of Chautauqua's "Creative Women Breaking the Mold" series, which also features separate programs on Frida Kahlo and Georgia O'Keeffe

I've invited MiMi [on Twitter she's @MiMiAsEmily] to stop by for Poetry Friday. It's the perfect occasion to chat about how MiMi wrote the script for her show and what it's like "being" Emily Dickinson.



Be sure to visit Buffy's Blog today. Buffy Silverman is hosting the Poetry Friday round up. 

Now, on to MiMi and Emily! Here are five questions for the performer.

 

1.       Why is Emily Dickinson a good fit for the Chautauqua program? In what ways do her story and her poetry connect with the audience?


Emily Dickinson is a natural for Chautauqua because her poetry is alive and relevant as much today as when she wrote in the mid-1800s. Humans are ever on a quest to unravel the mysteries of Life, Death and Love. Her observations, assessments and interactions with people, the natural world, and the psyche are fiercely honest and precise. Her life story as well as her poetry and personal letters have more layers than a Smith Island cake.

Oh, you poor, deprived non-Marylanders.
This is what you're missing --
10 layer Smith Island cake. A recipe is here.

I highlight her playfulness, wit, and sometimes flirty side. Chautauqua audiences come to these performances expecting to transcend time and space, to enter the world of a fascinating historical character, and to have the opportunity to ask the character questions directly. What could be more thrilling than to have a conversation with Emily Dickinson!

2.      How did you develop your one woman show about Emily? What were some of the sources you used and how did you thread them into your performance?

My one woman show began with a gravitational pull towards Emily Dickinson’s poetry. There are about 1,800 poems from which to choose. So I swam in them, rolled in them, fell asleep with them lying on my chest and awoke with them beside me. My play condenses about 30 years of her life from age 25 to 56, when she died, so one must move with me along the space-time continuum. Suspending reality is part of the fun for everyone. My research began six years ago. My writing began about four years ago. My performances began a little over two years ago. The facts of her life are culled from many sources. [AA: You’ll find an abridged list of MiMi’s sources at the end of this post.]

3.      Is there a particular fact about Emily Dickinson’s life that surprised you, or changed your view of poetry and/or your view of what life was like for women in the 1800s?

Initially what surprised me were her personal letters. Her loyalty to life-long friendships. Her adventurous nature in pursuing new friendships, on her own terms, and well into her early 50s. After discovering her private thoughts by sampling the 1,000 letters that have survived, her voice began to inhabit my being. She is writing the script, not I. She whispers which details will sparkle like the facets of a long-buried sapphire. True, I shape the script, and thread the poems and the letter-excerpts so that the tapestry tells an engaging story. My goal is to allow her, finally, to speak for herself, free of the judgment, expectations and gossip of her day and free of the limiting and confining descriptions that are finally being replaced by the solid research of contemporary scholars. In a way, I ask her soul’s permission to tell her truth as honestly and accurately as possible. I trust that audiences are ready to hear and experience her dazzling spirit. And they do!

4.      What is the response from audiences like? Why do you think people still connect with Dickinson’s biography and her work in the 21st century?

Audiences invigorate me to no end. Sometimes, as I’m reciting one of her poems, audience members recite them, from memory, along with me. After the performance, they tell me that they first learned that particular poem in 5th grade, or that their mother loved Dickinson and read to them as a child. These engaged and astute individuals are in their 80s and 90s. Younger audience members are transfixed by the music and imagery in her poetry, the sheer audacity at the heart of her expression. People often say that they are surprised to learn about the depth and breadth of her personal relationships.

I admire her fearless honesty in exploring the depths of human emotion, particularly across the spectrum of Love and Grief. Yet she renders understanding of these complex emotions in startlingly original and unsentimental ways. This is her universal appeal.

An 1860 photo suspected to be
a late portrait of Emily Dickinson.
Source: PoetsUSA
Perhaps the greatest feedback I’ve received during my two years of performing in the Mid-Atlantic area is from a gentleman who is a member of an Alzheimer’s therapy group: “Your words stick, they don’t evaporate into the air, they have substance. Your words stay with me,” he said while tapping his hand to his heart. I nearly cried with joy. This person was a retired attorney—ironic, because Emily’s father and brother were lawyers. Such responses tell me that Emily Dickinson is alive and well, and relevant, and still reaching people with her poetry, her cultivated flowers, her homemade cakes, and her personal notes.

5.      How has studying and playing Emily Dickinson affected your own work as a poet and performer?

I am immersed completely in the development of my script. I continue to research and add lines of her poetry, letter-excerpts and historical facts. So I am now a hybrid poet/playwright, or a dramatist. The research, composition, direction, rehearsals, performances and marketing of this one woman show is all-encompassing. And my husband, Thomas Dickinson Law, has been instrumental in the success of every phase of the production. He is both Muse and pragmatist. And a New Englander, to boot! It remains to be seen whether this experience affects my poetry. It certainly has affected my life. I am breathing Emily Dickinson, and am in awe of every new discovery.

BONUS:
Please share one of your favorite Dickinson poems and tell us why and how it speaks to you. We’d also love to read a poem of yours that was inspired or influenced by a poem of Dickinson’s.

982 Fr. (written about 1865)
By Emily Dickinson

If I can stop one Heart from breaking
I shall not live in vain
If I can ease one Life the Aching
Or cool one Pain

Or help one fainting Robin
Unto his Nest again
I shall not live in vain.

This is one of Emily Dickinson’s simplest poems on all levels, so it resonates with children as well as adults. Yet, the simplicity speaks volumes about the purity and focus of her heart’s desire. She is saying that “IF” it is within her power, she will use words and actions to stop a heart from breaking, to ease emotional aching, and to help fellow humans or creatures to find the way back home. Home can be literal or figurative. These conscious choices give her a sense of certainty that her own life is well-lived. It’s an entire philosophy in seven concise lines of poetry.

This poem likely marks my earliest curiosity surrounding the mystique of Emily Dickinson:

Emily
by MiMi Zannino ©1987

Why does
            the wounded deer leap highest

spurred by lance
                        the one she loves

only those who mean most
            are equipped with
shafted weapon
            to slay emotion

            die or rise
            weep or leap

Here is "Modern MiMi" --
looking glamorous as herself.
Photo: Leo Heppner
Thanks for visiting, MiMi. Many of the poems that stay with me – no matter who the author – channel your observation about Dickinson’s work. “'IF' it is within her power, she will use words and actions to stop a heart from breaking, to ease emotional aching, and to help fellow humans or creatures to find the way back home.” Well said!

If you live in or near Maryland, I hope you'll come out for one of MiMi's shows. They are free! Her website is www.emilydickinsonlive.com

Information on Chautauqua’s 2014 Program

CHAUTAUQUA 2014
Creative Women: Breaking the Mold
Free living history performances of Emily Dickinson

Sunday, July 6 - Emily Dickinson written and performed by MiMi Zannino
GARRETT COLLEGE, 687 Mosser Road, McHenry (Near Deep Creek Lake)
7:00 PM, under tent – if severe weather, program will be held indoors in Garrett College Auditorium

Tuesday, July 8 - Emily Dickinson written and performed by MiMi Zannino
CHESAPEAKE BAY MARITIME MUSEUM, 213 N. Talbot Street, St. Michael’s MD
7:00 PM, outside by Steamboat Building – if severe weather, program will be held in the CBMM auditorium

Wednesday, July 9  - Emily Dickinson written and performed by MiMi Zannino
THE COLLEGE OF SOUTHERN MARYLAND, 8730 Mitchell Road, La Plata MD
6:45 PM, outdoors– in case of severe weather, program will be held indoors in FA Building Theatre

Thursday, July 10    - Emily Dickinson written and performed by MiMi Zannino
MONTGOMERY COLLEGE-GERMANTOWN, 20200 Observation Drive, Germantown
7:00 PM, Globe Hall Theater, High Technology Building
           
Saturday, July 12 - Emily Dickinson written and performed by MiMi Zannino
THE COMMUNITY COLLEGE OF BALTIMORE COUNTY, (DUNDALK COLLEGE)
7:00 PM, 7200 Sollers Point Road, Dundalk, College Community Center Theatre
           

Made Possible By
The Maryland Humanities Council
in partnership with the National Endowment for the Humanities
For further information, contact the Maryland Humanities Council at 410-685-4185 or jdobbs@mdhc.org
or contact MiMi Zannino at mimizannino@gmail.com

MiMi’s Abridged List of Sources

The Letters of Emily Dickinson. ed. Thomas Johnson and Theodora V. Ward. Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1958.

The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Variorum Edition. ed. R.W. Franklin. Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1998.

Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson’s Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson. Ed. Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith. Paris Press, 1998.

The Gardens of Emily Dickinson. Judith Farr. Cambridge: The Belknap Press at Harvard University Press, 2004.

Reading the Fascicles of Emily Dickinson: Dwelling in Possibilities. Eleanor Heginbotham. Ohio State University Press, 2003.

White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Brenda Wineapple. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.

The Life of Emily Dickinson. Richard B. Sewall. Harvard University Press, 1974, 1980.

My Wars Are Laid Away in Books. Alfred Habegger. New York: Random House, 2001.