How would a literary icon of the past navigate today’s world? The website The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson explores just that question by teasing out aspects of the poet’s life with humor and insight. Dickinson’s persona has been reimagined and transposed in various contemporary contexts—on Twitter, with an online dating profile—in pen and ink mini-narratives done by Rosanna Bruno, a visual artist based in Brooklyn, New York. Dickinson’s pronouncement “Tell all the truth but tell it slant …” anchored the concept and fostered Bruno’s artistic license.
Bruno, 45, ultimately intends to publish the illustrated series, some of which appeared in the spring issue of BOMB magazine, in book form. In the meantime, she communicated with The Daily Beast about upending literary rumors, balancing facts with whimsy, and what Emily Dickinson would have been like as a Facebook user.
What triggered the idea for this project?
The idea first came to me in a looser form when I was introduced to Emily Dickinson's work in high school (yes, that long ago). I was so floored by the immediacy of her voice and her use of language. Her poems were so different from the others I had read. But I also found the myth surrounding her life fascinating and somewhat comical. I think everyone is taught that she was this reclusive spinster who lived with her family, dressed all in white, and wrote in her room all day. This was funny to me and it seemed so incongruous to her work. I drew a comic for Because I Could Not Stop for Death first, and the image I have now is very similar in spirit and humor to the one I came up with back then. But I didn't actually start this project until last spring, at a residency at Yaddo in upstate New York. I was in the woods, with the birds chirping loudly, which seemed like the perfect place for this.
Do you read a lot of poetry aside from Emily's? Contemporary or older?
I read old and new, though I can't say I am up on all the contemporary poets. I love Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Creeley, Marianne Moore, Patrizia Cavalli, James Wright ... too many to name. I often go on the Poetry Foundation website and listen to poets reading their work. There is an incredible recording of Elizabeth Bishop reading “Filling Station,” which I could listen to all day. While I was working on this book at Yaddo, I was surrounded by great poets—Cleopatra Mathis, Marianne Boruch, and Jane Hirshfield. Aside from loving their work, they were so insightful about Emily Dickinson.
Your website states, "I present Emily as someone you might friend on Facebook." How did you come to equate her with modern technology?
Well, on the Facebook comic I did, the caption is "because every recluse should have a Facebook page." In a way, I am sort of making fun of what technology has done to us more than what it would do to Emily. We have become captive to it in ways that keep us from real experiences. She already stayed inside and limited actual social contact. I think various forms of social media can replace actual socializing for many people.
But I was also saying that if Emily would rather stay inside, wouldn't she most likely take advantage of the site if it were available to her? And I was thinking of her as the obsessive correspondent that she was—writing frequent letters to all her family and friends. Here she is communicating online like the rest of us. It's funny, because that comic was originally posted on Emily's Vintage/Anchor Facebook page, where Emily has something like 350,000 likes! Thousand of people "liked" the comic and shared it on their pages, but the slew of comments and arguments in response to the work were hysterical. People argued that because she lived with her family, and they would have had only one computer, that they couldn't all be on Facebook at the same time. Um, well, they would not have had a computer at all!
One commenter did not find it funny because she herself is a recluse. She was the first one to comment. It sort of proved the point, though my intention was not to insult people who cannot leave the house.
Emily wrote poetry without seeking a readership, although as you mentioned she did have many epistolary exchanges. Does anticipating an audience factor in when you're being creative?
I guess the idea is not to feel that you are working in a void. Some days I can buy into that, but other days I think you really need to just free yourself up completely and not think so much about any audience. For some people, even an imagined audience gives them a drive, or motivation to continue. It's not easy keeping the faith! But I feel the most free when all thoughts of anyone else or their opinions disappear from my mind. Afterwards, when someone sees it and really gets it, then it is just icing on the cake.
Dickinson is a great example of someone who was completely free. As you say, she did reach out to people and shared her poems in letters, but only 10 or 11 poems were published in her lifetime, and some anonymously. She wasn't much interested in publishing. She wrote a poem that addresses this and the first two lines are: Publication — is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man —.
You include a lot of funny elements regarding Emily Dickinson's entourage. In her Facebook feed, Ralph W. Emerson likes W. Whitman's status, and two of her siblings are active presences; in her OKCupid profile, ex-minister and soldier Thomas W. Higginson is suggested as a match. How elaborate did you get in imagining not just her interior world, but those adjacent to her?
My favorite pieces of those comics are the various references that can operate on many levels depending on how much of the backstory you know. For instance, a Judge O. Lord is featured as a possible match on OKCupid, too. First of all, I just love the play on his name there—Judge, O Lord! He was a friend of Emily's father and around his age. It was rumored that he and Emily had a romance and that her infamous "Master Letters" were written to him. Emphasis on the word "rumored." Scholars have been writing about her possible lovers for ages, and we still don't know anything for sure. As her relationship status on Facebook says: It's complicated. I do like reading about these various players in her life and inserting them into different scenarios. The more absurd, the better.
How key is research, versus imagination?
In this case, the research provides me with the raw material to get my imagination going. Sometimes I will read something and just write a few key words on the kraft paper covering my desk. I need to really carve out a chunk of time to look through books and be patient, because it isn't always so fluid. And really, I need to be in a different mindset to draw than to read.
Some days I don't know which aspect of her I want to pursue. Do I pick up the letters, the poetry, the biography, look at pictures of her house, her room? I also reverse it and think up some modern scenario and see how I can fit Emily into it and then looks for her words that would go with that image. One of the things I do when I am stuck is look at the index of first lines. That's when you discover, wow, she wrote a lot about bees! How can I make that funny?
Several pages worth of your drawings are currently online, but this project is something you imagine as a book. What length and format do you have in mind for it?
The drawings are complete, full-page vignettes. I have about 46 of them completed and I envision doing around 60 or so, with several transitional pages that are purely visual. I thought about organizing them with section headings like they used in the first edition of her work published after she died: Nature, Love, Death, etc., only I would include headings like: Technology, Socializing, Correspondence, etc. Maybe a paperback book in large format. I am currently working with an agent to get a trade edition out there and next fall a limited-edition book with some selections will be printed by a small fine press.
There have been conflicting approaches regarding the capitalization, punctuation, and editing of Emily's work. What's your favorite publication, or what you see as a "definitive" volume?
I am not an expert, but the Thomas H. Johnson edition is the one I have been reading because he mostly restored the poems to how Emily had originally written them. They are untitled and just numbered and all the dashes and strange capitalizations are there. I love looking at images of the actual manuscripts online at the Amherst College archive. She used to put a little "+" next to a word and at the bottom of the page there would be alternate words that she considered using instead. It's great seeing things like that because it gives you an idea of her process. Sometimes changing a word or two really shifts the poem thematically.