April 12, 2016

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.

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:

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

Information on Chautauqua’s 2014 Program

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
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
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
or contact MiMi Zannino at

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.


jama said...

Thanks so much, ladies. Fascinating to meet MiMi and so heartening to hear how her Emily performances are touching and inspiring so many.

Buffy Silverman said...

Great interview Laura and Mimi--I love that "If I can stop one heart..." and the Smith Island cake analogy. That looks delicious!

Tamera Will Wissinger said...

How fascinating to hear how MiMi was able to transform Emily's writing and biography into performance art, and then perform! What a gift! Thank you both; long live

Tabatha said...

Loved every bite, I mean bit, of this, MiMi and Laura! I hope to come to the July 10th performance.

Anonymous said...

I'm confessing my unpopular opinion that I've never been an Emily Dickinson fan. But I'd love to have the chance to see MiMi perform, and maybe sway my opinion.

Author Amok said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Author Amok said...

Thanks, All! Tabatha -- that's great. Please introduce yourself to MiMi. She's such a warm person and a fellow poet.

Monica, I have my favorite Emily Dickinson poems, but find others difficult to follow. I guess that's true of any prolific poet.

Violet N. said...

Wow, am so impressed with MiMi's dedication to and love for Emily Dickinson and this project. Her enthusiasm is contagious. If only I were several thousand miles closer (or kilometers, as we say in Canada) I'd be at one of those performances.

MiMi said...

Your generous thoughts, one and all, are truly appreciated. I hope to meet you at one of my performances, and those who live afar might be able to see the streamed shows. Best to eAch of you in all that creates joy for you,

Mary Lee said...

MiMi even LOOKS like Emily D.!

Michelle Heidenrich Barnes said...

Wonderful interview! (Especially liked Mimi's response to #2-- rolling in those 1800 poems....) Wish I could see the performance.

GatheringBooks said...

Iphigene, one of the GatheringBooks ladies, positively adores Emily Dickinson - she would love this post, Laura. Gorgeous photos of MiMi too. Plus, her selected Dickinson poem "If I can stop one heart from breaking" is my favourite too. Great minds!

Debbie Levy said...

I love Emily and I loved this interview. And I've missed every one of MiMi's performances mentioned here, so I hope there will be more in the future. Thanks, Laura and MiMi for a great read. I've loved, and been awed by, "A Wounded Deer Leaps Highest" (with its layered meaning) forever.