American Poet: Who Was Emily Dickinson?

Hello, our names are Jason, Heather, and Jayson, and we are making this blog to give student perspectives on this year's Big Read event, hosted by SUNY Fredonia and The Chautauqua Cattaraugus Library System. Our goal is to provide information about the Big Read events taking place March 8th - April 30th. The Big Read is designed to increase literacy throughout the United States, and to educate about a certain author. This years focus will be the American Poet, Emily Dickinson. Please come join us in learning about this author while having a lot of fun along the way!

At the start of this project we recorded our preconceived notions of who Emily Dickinson was and how familiar we were with her poetry. As a way of bringing this journey to a close we thought we would reassess our opinions of Dickinson and her work, reflecting on what it is we have learned through attending these great events.


I began this project with one question in mind, “Why Emily Dickinson?!” and after a month and a half of presentations, plays, poetry slams, music, community talks, and chats with event coordinators I think I have found my answer. My answer is this; Emily Dickinson is a strange mystery. Although we have over 1700 poems, and even more manuscripts of letters, and telegraphs she still eludes our understanding. I think this is what made her stand out from her poetic peers during the 19th century. She is shrouded in mystery that people in her time were intrigued by, and almost 150 years later we are still fascinated by her.

Although I am still critical of her poetry, I have an immeasurable respect for her, the impact she has left, and the poets that she has inspired. The example she has made is astounding and awe inspiring. In my mind, Emily’s poetry is important because of the mystery of its author. I feel that I have learned so much, and learned to appreciate more of what I do not know. Because Dickinson is such a mystery that we know so much, and so little, about I feel that what I took away from the Big Read is a rich and overwhelming knowledge of the community that Emily helped create. A community that loves poetry and literature, a community that, I think Emily would agree is much more important than any one author. So in the end I have to say, “Why not Emily Dickinson?!”


Originally I knew very little about Emily Dickinson as either a poet or a person. Engaging with the events put on as a part of this year’s Big Read has greatly widened my knowledge of Dickinson’s legacy. The mystery that surrounds this widely talked about figure has kept me interested in finding out more and more about her, something which will stick with me even though this project has come to a close.

I fell lucky to have learned so much about one literary figure, but still wonder as to why this specific female poet from the 19th century has maintained so much fame while other writers from her time go relatively unknown. Hopefully I have come out of this with the ability to critically think about the debates surrounding an author and how to keep the author connected to their work rather than thinking of them as separate entities.


Coming into this project I had been exposed to Emily Dickinson’s work just enough to be intrigued to learn more. I was interested. I was energized by the prospect of engaging her work through a community based effort. I was also engaged by the opportunity to learn that had presented itself.

From the very first event, right down to the very last that I had attended, I learned more and more about Emily Dickinson and her writing. I can say, with all honesty, that I now have a deep admiration and love for her writing. I feel that I have gained such an intimacy with her words, and have found them to be incredibly relevant to my life. After enough events, after hearing people read her poems over and over, there was a certain type of pleasure in hearing my favorites-I’m nobody! Who are you? I felt a funeral in my brain. Wild nights - Wild Nights! Time after time, and every time, I learned something new about Emily Dickinson, these lines became saturated with meaning for me. 

However, what I was most surprised by during the course of this project was the overwhelming community support. People came out, and they came excited and eager to learn. I was surprised in the enthusiasm expressed by individuals who decided to come together in support of reading and literacy initiatives. It was a powerful thing to see faces at more than one event, to become familiar with certain people through these events, and to see the support the Big Read received from the surrounding community. I can’t believe I hadn’t participated in previous years, and I definitely will encourage underclassmen to go to next year’s events.


Our keynote event, “Layers of Erasure: Emily Dickinson and the Problem of Recovery” was a major success! Randy Gadikian introduced our speaker, Alexandra Socarides, who spoke about the presence of women’s poetry in history and in the 21st century.

Professor Socarides’ lecture was incredibly informative. Socarides’ lecture was focused on the “erasure” of women poets (particularly those of the 19th century) from our contemporary culture and tradition. She cited Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” poem (famously attributed to the statue of liberty), and Julia Ward Howe’s “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” as primary examples of poems that exist, with great popularity, in our contemporary imagination but that have been all but stripped from the history and context of their women authors.

It was fascinating to hear the professor bring to life the stories of these women, and to learn so much about pros which we so often take for granted as being neatly packaged and male produced.

The following day’s talk was equally as interesting as we got to ask professor Socarides about these women and other women like them. What was especially interesting was hearing about the professor’s current interest, and hearing about how her current work is related to telling similar stories to those of Lazarus’ and Howe’s.

I was so glad to go to this talk. It was a wonderful opportunity to be opened up to these stories in this way. It really sparked my interest and kept me engaged. The event made for a wonderful keynote, especially for such a celebrated series of events held throughout this season’s Big Read events.

- Jayson

Taking inspiration from Emily Dickinson’s love of baking, we thought we would try our hands in the kitchen with some of Dickinson’s recipes. The three of us baked both her Gingerbread and Coconut Cake. While we didn’t have antique sifters on hand nor did we churn our own butter, I think our replicas were quite delicious. It was an interesting experience to find ourselves using the recipes a past American poet had written, especially after having learnt so much about her life over the past weeks.

If you get the chance, I suggest you give her recipes a try as well. We would love to hear about your adventures baking with Dickinson!


A few weeks ago SUNY Fredonia hosted an Emily Dickinson Poetry Slam which was well attended and well received. For the first time all three of us were able to attend, all taking on different roles at the event. We thought this gave us a unique opportunity to share our impressions of this event from our varying perspectives.

Jason (a judge): At my first poetry slam I was an audience member, so I thought it would be beneficial to be more active from a different perspective. Being a judge was a wonderful experience. I found myself in a place where I was much more critical of the poems and presentations. I felt like I was able to appreciate the poetry in a much more academic and analytical way than I could ever be as an audience member. What I was most surprised by was that I felt a similar level of engagement as a judge as I did an audience member. A poetry slam allows everyone to be active and involved, either judging the poetry or trying to sway the opinions of the judge. Poetry slams are a great representation of the beauty and unity that can be brought by literature, and also the love that still exists for literature today.

Heather (an audience member): This was my first ever poetry slam and it definitely has sparked in me an interest to attend future slams. From the perspective of an audience member hearing other people read their own work was very intriguing and it felt as if you got a glimpse into their very personal lives, I cannot fathom the amount of courage it would take to put yourself into a place of vulnerability in front of both strangers and friends. I felt inadequate as a writer in the best way possible, and was inspired to start writing more even if no one else will ever hear it. Getting to hear other people read Emily Dickinson’s poetry out loud was very beneficial. The tone or inflection they used gave these poems, no matter how short, new life and had me thinking about them in ways I hadn’t previously when on my own.

Jayson (a participant): Participating wasn’t something I planned on taking on at this slam. The idea just kind of hit me last second, and I thought it would be a good way to support my friends and their event. I rushed to a printer right before the slam started and I printed out a couple of pieces I had written which were gathering dust on my computer. At first, reading was terrifying (I don’t know how anyone does it). Slowly, though, my nerves began to settle. As long as I focused on my breath and on my shoes I knew I could get through the words I was holding in my hands. Overall, it was a really positive experience in that I’ve never shared anything I have written with anyone in such a public way. I have never “read” for a group of people. It was affirming to be able to open up to strangers and friends alike, and to know that I would still be alive on the other side of reading. 

As part of the Big Read program Jason Paton and Andrew Tomidy put together an audio-documentary about Emily Dickinson, entitled “A Little Madness in the Spring: The Life and Work of Emily Dickinson”. Not only does it features readings of some of the poems featured in the booklet “The Poetry of Emily Dickinson,” but it also included expert analysis of her works and insight into Dickinson’s life and the world she lived in. 

One purpose of this audio, which featured soothing background instrumentals that brought to life that 19th century feel, was to break the misconceptions that weigh down our imagining of Emily Dickinson. While she did keep to her house the majority of her life, she wasn’t as lonely as we might think. She exchanged letters with many friends and relatives, including her sister-in-law who lived in the house right next door. 

Information about Dickinson’s time at school, her dynamic with her father, the losses she suffered, those famous dashes, and feelings of longing were all included in the analysis. Another topic of interest was the issues that arise with publishing the poetry of a poet who earnestly did not want fame or publication. The question of how we rectify this disparity every time we read some of her work, how publishing her very personal poetry is a sort of violation to her wishes, was raised. A suggested solution was to keep this information in the back of our minds as we read and appreciate Emily Dickinson.

If you haven’t had a chance, I highly suggest you take the thirty-eight minutes to give this great collaboration a listen, you won’t regret it!



Christina Rausa portrayed Emily Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst, performed at the president’s house last week! Here she is with President Horvath and Randy Gadikian, alongside her captivated audience! Many thanks to all who attended.

Jayson took these amazing photos and wrote a great reflection on The Belle of Amherst. This event was unique in that it had such an intimate setting. Audience members were situated in rows of chairs mere feet from Rausa as Dickinson, who brought life and energy to a literary figure who is commonly thought of as withdrawn.

If you were not able to attend any of the performances but love learning about Emily Dickinson, there is a film version of The Belle of Amherst available on Netflix. Although I haven’t personally seen it and am sure it is a great rendition, I can assure you that it’s nothing like seeing the performance acted out live.


Related Post: Love for Poetry found at Prendergast Library 3/19


The Big Read Poetry Slam and Kick Off

What is a poetry slam? A poetry slam is a competition at which poets read or recite original work or the work of others. The performances were judged on a numeric scale by previously selected members of the audience. Brandon Williamson, our MC for this event is the founder of Pure Ink Poetry Slam of Buffalo, recent winners in Toronto and Albany Poetry competitions.

Each poet presented two poems, one by Emily Dickinson, one original work. Poets had 3 minutes in which to present a poem. Poems were judged on a 10.0 point scale by 5 randomly selected judges. The highest and lowest scores were dropped. The middle scores served as the final score for the poem. Costumes and special effects are not permitted in poetry slams. First and second place prizes were awarded for the highest combined scores.


Okay, sooo the poetry slam… I was really nervous first going in there because it was a brand new experience for me, and I honestly had no idea what to expect. Maybe finger snapping and bongos being played in a dark and smokey corner. But no, it was the complete opposite (and we actually made fun…

Thank you so much! The first Big Read poetry slam really opened our eyes as well to the latent beauty in poetry. For our group, I think we have all been more inspired to learn and write more poetry. It was amazing how open and welcoming the entire event was. I know there is talk of a monthly poetry slam in Jamestown. I will be there to give my full support; Jamestown needs more poetry and poets!


Tonight is a big event; it is our Keynote Speaker, Alexandra Socarides presenting “Layers of Erasure: Emily Dickinson and the Problems of Recovery”. Women’s poetry was widely read in the 19th century. Socarides is presenting the issue that plagues 19th century women poets. The issue is of their poetry having disappeared from literary history. Emily Dickinson has been one of the last women poets to be taught in classes or read by a wide audience. Socarides will be suggesting a new path for discovering poetry from the 19th century, which will bring a better appreciation for poetry and time of 19th century women!

Come hear her Keynote address tonight at the Fredonia Opera House, Village Hall, Fredonia, NY 14063 at 7:30-8:30.

If you cannot make it out to the Opera House tonight, Alexandra Socarides will be at the Reed Library at SUNY Fredonia for an informal chat about her research and thoughts  on literature and recovery. Her informal talk will be Thursday April 24, 2014 from 9:30AM-11:00AM in the Reed Library, Fredonia, NY 14063.


The Freeman Library poetry slam was a great success. There was not a huge turn out or many poets, but that didn’t matter or slow the energy. Brandon Williamson and Autumn Echo brought an energy that even inspired a new poet to present his work. The poetry slam transformed into a poetry marathon where each poet took turns in rapid succession presenting their poetry. There were no scores just support and appreciation as poem, after poem, after poem, after poem cascaded like a flood into the ears of the audience. Several members of the audience were inspired to present poems from their favorite authors. It was a great time. It almost felt like the poets would perform as the muses of poetry stirred their spirits. The sunlight through the window acted as the spotlight for each poet and the room echoed with metaphors and messages. Brandon Williamson said, “Maybe we’ll get some church right here.” He was right. This event was uplifting and inspiring. Each poetry slam I attend I am more enraptured by the power and impact poetry can have. I thank Freeman Library and the Big Read for hosting this event. Pictures will be coming soon of the poetry marathon!



Randy Gadikian, left, Christina Rausa, center, Virginia Horvath, right.

Last night’s performance of William Luce’s “Belle of Amherst” at the presidents house was fantastic. The one woman play was funny, witty, and entertaining. Christina Rausa did a wonderful job of keeping the audience engaged and laughing, while presenting the full range of Emily Dickinson’s complex personality.The house made for an intimate setting. Three rows of chairs were wrapped around the fireplace and there was no stage separating Rausa from the audience.

Organizers of the play explained that Emily Dickinson continues to be an “enigma” in American literature. In respect to this year’s Big Read author, Emily Dickinson, they felt it was appropriate to stage a play which coincided the works of Emily Dickinson, while also shedding light on her life.

The show was a celebration of the author’s life while still managing to be incredibly captivating and at times heartbreaking. All of Emily’s greatest conflicts where present in the play, young love, the difficulty getting published, her relationship with the church, and lastly death.  

Audience members left both with smiles on their faces but also with a great deal of knowledge and insight into the life of Emily Dickinson.This was because the show was not just entertaining but it was also educational. 

If you have missed the many performances of the play this Big Read season, be sure to catch Jamestown Community College’s final two performances April 23rd and 24th. It’s a show you won’t want to miss. 

- Jayson

The Big Read and Farman Free Library will be hosting a poetry slam! A poetry slam is a competition for poets to show their art and a chance to meet a community of poetry lovers. Farman Free Library is in Ellington. Brandon Williamson, who was the MC at the Prendergast Library, will be the MC for this event. Brandon is the founder of Pure Ink Poetry Slam of Buffalo. He is a published poet and a graduate from our SUNY Fredonia! We had a great event and turn out in Jamestown and hope to see the same energy and familiar faces at Ellington!

Farman Free Library is in Ellington, NY at760 Thornton Rd., Ellington, NY 14732. The poetry slam will take place Thursday, April 17, 2014 at 6PM-7:30PM. Come join us to hear great poetry or perform your own and the poetry of the famous Emily Dickinson.

The Rules: Each poet will present two poems, one by Emily Dickinson, one original work. Poets have 3 minutes in which to present a poem. Poems are judged on a 10.0 point scale by 5 randomly selected judges. The highest and lowest scores are dropped. The middle scores serve as the final score for the poem. Costumes and special effects are not permitted in poetry slams. First and second place prizes will be awarded for the highest combined scores. **It is suggested that participants should be at least 14 years of age.


The Belle of Amherst is a one-woman play inspired by the letters, poems, and diaries of Emily Dickinson. This unique look into the life of America’s most widely read female poet was written by William Luce, and is performed by the actress Christina Rausa. I look forward to seeing this play about Emily Dickinson, who was never famous and had only a few published poems during her life. This play is said to give new appreciation to Emily Dickinson, even to those who are familiar with her work. The play will be followed by a reception with time to speak with the artist.

The play will be performed three times.

The first showing will be at 7:30-8:30 on April 16, 2014 at the President’s Residence, 194 Central Avenue, Fredonia, NY 14063. This event is by reservation, since there are a limited number of seats. To reserve a ticket, Email:, or call 518-779-0504.

The second showing will be on Wed, April 23rd, 2014 at JCC in Jamestown. The show will be held at 7PM – 9PM in the wonderful Scharmann Theatre 525 Falconer Street Jamestown, NY 14701.

The third showing will be on Thursday, April 24, 2014 at JCC on the Cattaraugus County Campus— Cutco Theatre, 260 N. Union Street, Olean, NY 14760. The play will be 7PM-9PM.


A few Saturdays ago was “An Afternoon of Poetry: From Her Words to Yours,” hosted by the Dunkirk Free Library. Jayson took some great photos of participant generated poems and even included the transcript of his own poem inspired by Emily Dickinson’s writing techniques and the seasons.

Personally I found the most enlightening aspect of the discussion to be hearing different, but just as valid, interpretations of the different poems by Dickinson included in the booklet, “The Poetry of Emily Dickinson.” We were able to take a poem like ‘“Why do I love” You, Sir?’ and dissect it word by word. While some thought this poem suggested a secret male lover of Dickinson, others thought the poem took on a more religious meaning. Support for this was given by the capitalization of “He,” and the knowledge that Emily Dickinson had a religious background. Neither side was vicious towards the opposing views but rather everyone worked together to try and generate support for all arguments. 

Another valuable aspect of this event was the experience of hearing different individuals read Dickinson’s poems out loud. With the different readings, where there is different pacing and emphasis on certain words and inflection, you can have a-ha! moments where the pieces start to come together. It’s not always enough to silently read a poem, sometimes it needs to be spoken out loud for it to really come to life.



Students in ENGL 332, Romanticism in American Literature, researched archives of Emily Dickinson’s original manuscripts, which are digitized and accessible on the internet.

They designed these posters to exhibit selections of incredible hand-written letters, poems, and even dried flowers from Dickinson’s own collection.

Working with Dickinson’s manuscripts brings to life her poetic process and her life story in exciting ways. These posters are designed to share glimpses into the remarkable life and legacy of a great poet.

This exhibit is available for viewing in the Friends of Reed Library Lounge, which is directly across from the main entrance to the library (Reed Library hours). All are welcome to come take a look at these great posters, whether you are a student of SUNY Fredonia or just an interested member of the surrounding community.

Dr. Emily VanDette’s students did a fantastic job pulling from the archives to assemble these varying posters. Focuses vary from the different word choices Emily Dickinson struggled with to her love of flowers and nature to the content of the letters that she shared with numerous friends.

Hopefully reading these posters will provide a spark of new interest in Emily Dickinson and her fascinating life!