In the spirit of the season and in honor of the birthday of the great American poet Emily Dickinson, Write On is happy to make a special gift to you! Psychologist and writer Jane Ewens and poet Dion Kempthorne offer the workshop The Psychology and Poetry of Play on Saturday, December 9, 1 – 4 pm. On Sunday, December 10, at 2 pm, we present a special tea in honor of Emily’s birthday. Both programs are offered free, but registration is required by December 7. In advance of their visit, we had the opportunity to talk with Jane and Dion about the workshop and their admiration of Emily Dickinson.
Write On: Dion, you have lead a workshop as part of the Writing On The Door poetry conference and read as part of our collaboration with Midsummer’s Music this past summer. What were those experiences like for you as a presenter? Jane, what was your experience with those programs as an audience participant?
Dion Kempthorne: I found audience-participants to be attentive, appreciative, and enthusiastic in their embrace of poetry as a life-affirming art, with readers and writers alike eager to create an uplifting spirit of community. There’s nothing quite so gratifying as discussing good writing with good readers.
Jane Ewens: The workshop and the music program were lively, fun, and informative. Dion’s poem written in response to the music changed the way I heard the music. The poetry workshop, filled with good questions and conversations, pushed me to become a better reader.
WO: Your upcoming workshop combines elements of psychology and poetry. What can participants taking the workshop expect?
JE: Picasso said it took him his whole life to learn to paint like a child. Dickinson suggests that play is the soul at work. What are they talking about? Why does play matter? How is word/play/poetry connected to the earliest form of play in infants? Why is the inability to play a serious problem? How can the research on play lead us to a better understanding of our own efforts to live and write well?
DK: After Jane presents the science of infant play in language development, I plan to define what I mean as wordplay in poetry and then discuss its place in a few of my poems and a few by others and then some by Dickinson, all of which will be aimed at surmising the origins of imaginative language and explaining its aesthetic and literary effects. Workshop participants will be encouraged to discuss the purpose of wordplay and to offer their own examples of how our use of language makes a difference not only in literary but in social and political ways.
WO: In your description of the workshop, you quote Emily Dickinson, “It’s easy to work when the soul is at play” and you’ll explore some of her poems during the workshop. What appeals to you about the work of Emily Dickinson?
JE: Dickinson seems to have maintained the best of childhood connections to the world. Her language echoes the wonder of naming and the unique first-word combinations characteristic of early speakers. She gets at that level of experience before words—and does it by using words. We can watch very young children turn a block into a truck at about the same time they first use the “truck” word. The more they play with the block, the more things it can be named. This process can seem magical. Dickinson’s work has this same kind of unexpected joy.
DK: Dickinson always fascinates. Her language is idiosyncratic, eccentric, somehow alien yet familiar, not unlike the unique speech of preschoolers, whose innate genius lies in their original view of a new world in a new language. Hers is thus an authentic voice, at once difficult and delightful, like trying to discern what an inspired two-year-old is trying to tell us. What are you trying to say? What do you want? What do you need?
And of course there is wide appeal in her solitary way of dwelling on and in poetry to reveal and conceal meaning, to explain and sustain life. For instance, her famous “I’m Nobody” poem invites all of us lonely nobodies to see how we are the ultimate somebodies. Looking deep inside herself, she sees into each of us, often seeming to understand us better than we understand ourselves, reading us better than we read her.
WO: Your appearance at Write On coincides with a celebration of Emily’s birthday, including a tea on December 10, her 187th birthday. What is your favorite Dickinson poem and why?
DK: Perhaps because I watched my mother die when I was ten, I always come back to “I heard a fly buzz when I died,” hooked on it by the way Dickinson speaks from an imagined afterlife in a context that precludes immortality, for the way the fly arrives as a domestic pest and a sinister angel of death, for the way Dickinson takes language to its outer-and-inner limits of what can be seen and said, and then at the very end amplifies meaning and mystery by simply saying “I could not see to see.”
JE: Two Dickinson poems I really like are “Tell the truth but tell it slant” and “To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee.” I can’t really say why I like them. Maybe it’s because I love the sound of them yet I continue to wonder what they mean.
WO: In addition to Dickinson, are there other poets whose wordplay you admire?
JE: Once you start thinking about wordplay, you can see it everywhere, sometimes probably giving the poet some undeserved credit for cleverness or complexity. I’m fascinated with how children play with words as they are learning language—so they are the poets I start with. Just this morning I overheard an argument between two four year olds. After Luke called the floor “bad” because it hurt his head, Matthew declared “you can’t say bad because bad is a bad word.” Had Dickinson been there, she may have found a word they could agree on.
DK: I look for wordplay in every poem I read, and whether or not it seems intended by the poet, I usually find it there. If not, I put it there. To me wordplay and wordwork are essentially the same activity, part of the natural dynamic of conversation, of reading and writing, neither of which is necessarily hard work or easy play, but which together might well require a kind of hard play— as in tennis or football, with nets and goal lines, with winning and losing, with being lost and found in words. To me the simplest pun is not simple but rather as complex—and sometimes as alarming—as the buzzing of a bee.
Dickinson is like Shakespeare in her genius with wordplay. “Words, words, words,” Hamlet says. “The play’s the thing,” he says. And as Macbeth says, we are all “poor players who fret and strut” and life’s “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” At which point you start to think that maybe nothing is not nothing but a great big something, perhaps even an everything, just as in Dickinson a nobody may be a transcendental somebody, perhaps even a universal everybody.
WO: What advice would you like to share with aspiring Write On writers?
JE: I don’t know how to even start to give advice. Whatever Dion says in response to this question will be a good beginning.
DK: In her poem “It is easy to work when the soul is at play,” Dickinson identifies the soul as a child at play doing joyful work. All children are poets until what’s authentic in their voices is muted by academic and social and political platitudes and by ubiquitous greeting-card sentimentalities. So I’d suggest that a writer must always try to start anew, with an open mind and an open heart, with eyes wide open to see what might be done with words to bring dead things back to life. In this endeavor every writer may want to begin by being a child again.