A McSweeney’s Books Q&A Between Paul Legault, Author of The Emily Dickinson Reader, and Emily Dickinson.
Perfect for the poetry fan who is short on time, The Emily Dickinson Reader offers Paul Legault’s ingenious and madcap one-line renderings of each of Dickinson’s 1,789 poems. Today we feature a conversation between Paul and the poet who inspired his book, Emily Dickinson.
EMILY DICKINSON: When were you first introduced to my work?
PAUL LEGAULT: Your poem about a snake [“A narrow fellow in the grass”] became a high-school-English-teachers’-meme. It was the kind of writing you could teach like a riddle; i.e.:
Q: What is narrow-minded, vegetal, and something you’re afraid to have sex with?
A: The public school system’s pedagogical treatment of poetry.
But luckily I came back to it / you. Alone. Unprotected. And then you dominated me.
ED: How did the idea of translating my work come about?
PL: I was in a seminar about you in which we would sit around reading your most private thoughts, trying to disassemble your psyche like a time-bomb.
At first I got defensive. It seemed ok to interpret the love letters you wrote to your sister-in-law, but I thought your poems couldn’t be reduced to simple ideas—without removing their lyric intensity / ruining them; i.e. my version of #72:
It’s my birthday!
But then I thought it’s nice that you have a birthday. It’s nice that you were a human and would be one if you weren’t dead. That you would get a twitter account were you alive—and not tend to it. That you wrote a poem about every idea I’ll ever have. That some of those ideas are stupid (but true); i.e.:
485. Death is mean.
Why not say it two ways? #485 [“The Whole of it came not at once”] is still a poem — no matter what I do to it.
And death is mean. So I wrote that down.
ED: Is The Emily Dickinson Reader a poetry book with humor, a humor book with poetry, or the definitive Dickinson translation of all time?
PL: I sense some sarcasm in this question, Emily, but I would never presume to be the pre-eminent writer of your verse: you are.
That said, any reading of your work is inherently a translation of it. The rantings of an American prophetess scrawled on intricately stitched pamphlets—which you stashed into a trunk to be burnt after your death—is different than the book they ended up as.
Your sister Vinnie translated said oeuvre into thematically arranged poems about Life, Death, The Seasons, &c.. Johnson’s edition retranslated it into a proper tome. R. W. Franklin arranged your poems chronologically—converting them into a timeline of your life. And I translated that.
Is it funny? I guess you put it best in #1750:
Sometimes I pretend that sad things are funny, even when they’re not. Ha.
ED: One thing that struck me about your book is that even with all the silliness I came away with a better sense of Myself, Emily Dickinson, and My poetry. The book sort of works as an introductory primer to Me, to lay people at least. Was that your intention?
PL: The book was my attempt at understanding what you meant—poem by poem—as a lay person, so: yes. And I do hope my fellow lay people can use it too—to get back to the original source.
You have an intimidating appearance—at least in that one photo of you—and your poems are as intricately constructed as firearms. I wanted to point out that even if you don’t know how to construct a gun, it’s easy enough to pull the trigger
ED: Have you received (or, do you think you will receive) any push back from Dickinson scholars about the book?
PL: Every Dickinson scholar I’ve met has been one of the fiercest human beings put on this Earth, and I shudder to think of going against any one of them in an arena — where Dickinson is the only weapon, and only one man/woman may leave.
My friend Jen Bervin fits that bill—and when I nervously handed her an early draft of the Dickinson translations, I shook a little.
There’s no way it could stand up to the rigor of her own project (of hand-stitching all of E.D.’s punctuation marks (into large white cloths (with the same red thread Dickinson used to bind her original fascicles))) [see: Bervin’s The Dickinson Fascicles]. But she said she would read my Reader. And I love her. And the last time I saw her in the street she didn’t shove me.
Susan Howe, one of the greatest living poets—and the author of My Emily Dickinson—gives me hesitation as well. My translation of #764 [“My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun"] simply reads:
See My Emily Dickinson, by Susan Howe (pp. 76 – 120).
Which you should indeed see. There’s a lot of territory that’s been very well mapped out—and I’m extremely grateful for it. But you, Emily, remain invincible to any offense I might make. The poems still exist to go back to. This book is simply my My Emily Dickinson.
ED: Some people are a little intimidated by poetry. Is incorporating humor a way of luring people to the form who otherwise would be too daunted to give it a try?
PL: Fools! Before they know it, they’ll be in too deep to swim back.
ED: A bobolink vs. a zombie: who wins?
PL: You know better than me that whoever wants it most wins the fight.
Let’s just say that if the zombie were you (you did come back from the dead for this interview after all), and the bobolink were me, I’d run.
Then preen myself.
Then you’d destroy me.
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