UB gears up for 14-hour-long marathon reading of Emily Dickinson’s poems during National Poetry Month

Emily Dickinson.

Some 1,789 poems by Emily Dickinson will be read during a 14-hour-long marathon reading to be held April 13.

Local luminaries to take part on April 13

By: Ern Teck Chua

Release Date: March 18, 2013

“This is a wonderful and fun way to get to know the extraordinary corpus of Dickinson’s poems. Hearing the poems read in different voices brings to life the many ways they can be spoken and understood. ”
Cristanne Miller, chair of the UB English department

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Community members will get the chance to celebrate National Poetry Month in April by paying homage to the poems of 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson in an epic community marathon reading in which all 1,789 of Dickinson’s poems will be read aloud in 14 hours.

Organized by the University at Buffalo’s Department of English, with Just Buffalo Literary Center and volunteers from the community, the reading will begin at 8 a.m. April 13 in the historic Westminster Presbyterian Church, 724 Delaware Ave., Buffalo.

The event is free and open to the public. Anyone is welcome to come and read or just attend and listen. No pre-registration is required. Participants will sit in a circle and take turns reading the poems.  Attendees may sample “black cake,” an Emily Dickinson fruity treat, while at the reading.

There is no formal schedule of readers, but two familiar names will kick off the reading at 8 a.m.: UB President Satish K. Tripathi and Stephen McKinley Henderson, UB professor of theater and dance. 

Henderson, an accomplished Tony Award-winning actor and director, recently appeared in “Lincoln,” Steven Spielberg’s 2012 critically acclaimed film.

“This is a wonderful and fun way to get to know the extraordinary corpus of Dickinson’s poems,” says Cristanne Miller, PhD, SUNY Distinguished Professor and chair of the UB English department. “Hearing the poems read in different voices brings to life the many ways they can be spoken and understood.”

All 1,789 poems will be read in the order they are published in “The Poems of Emily Dickinson,” edited by Ralph W. Franklin, copies of which will be provided at the event. Independent bookstore Talking Leaves Books also will sell editions of the poems and books on Dickinson.

The marathon will break for a musical performance at 1 p.m. A musical group made up of Buffalo residents and UB graduate students called “Bolts of Melody,” borrowing a phrase from one of Dickinson’s poems, will sing five songs set to Dickinson’s poems, two of which were written by the late composer Leo Smit.  A professor in the UB Department of Music from 1962-84, Smit set more than 100 of Dickinson’s poems to music.

Tea, coffee and food will be available to readers at various times during the day. Readers also will be able to sample the Dickinson delicacy “black cake,” a molasses-based raisin cake made from the poet’s recipe. Event organizers encourage readers planning to stay for several hours to bring a bottle of water.

Two hundred and fifty people showed up to read at the first Dickinson marathon in 2009. Organizers expect an even larger group this year.

Speaking of her experience organizing the previous reading, Miller, an eminent Dickinson scholar, says hearing Dickinson’s poems read by people of all ages in various styles and voices can be a rewarding experience.

“One reader was a 7-year-old girl who came with her mother. She had trouble with some of the longer words,” Miller says, “but with some help from the other readers she delivered an excellent reading, of which she was rightfully proud.”

Much has been said about the dwindling popularity of literature in general and poetry in particular, but Miller believes Dickinson’s poetry endures and endears because of its lyric power.

“Dickinson helps to remind us as a community of the many profound things that matter in our lives,” Miller says, “through both the art and music of the poems’ language, and through the themes that recur, including joy, pain, death, grief, the variety and vitality of nature, and the particular wonders of each season.”

For someone like George DeTitta, professor of structural biology at UB who is helping Miller organize this marathon reading, reading Dickinson is an earnest and sober pursuit that reflects the themes Miller describes.

DeTitta has been in the midst of an Emily Dickinson reading project since April 2009, two days after a friend dear to him and his wife passed away.

“Every day I come into the office or lab and read one poem and then post it online on my Facebook page,” DeTitta says. “If my calculation is right, I should be getting to the last poem around December 2018.”

Such admiration of Dickinson would not be lost on people familiar with the film version of “Sophie’s Choice,” which featured one of Dickinson’s poems.

That poem, “Ample make this bed,” is beautifully read by the romantic but schizophrenic Nathan Landau, played by a youthful Kevin Kline, to Meryl Streep in an Academy Award-winning role as the eponymous Sophie Zawistowska, a Polish Holocaust survivor recently immigrated to New York.  This scene — tender, loving, heartfelt — movingly evokes a theme central to both Dickinson and the movie: the inevitability of death.

Marathon readings of Emily Dickinson’s poems are common around the country. They most often are held in celebration of Dickinson’s birthday on Dec. 10. Miller chose the more forgiving month of April, in part because it is National Poetry Month.

“This event is really wonderful because it combines a celebration of poetry and of local community in appreciation of one of the world’s greatest poets,” Miller says. “Hearing her work read, for example, by a 7-year-old, a high school teacher, a lawyer and a retired person from the community in a single event brilliantly illustrates the many voices in her poetry.”

For more information on the reading, Emily Dickinson’s biography and poems, or related events, visit www.edmarathonreading.com.

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