Jerome Charyn – A Loaded Gun
In his latest book, A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century (Bellevue Literary Press), Jerome Charyn dispenses quickly with the image of a virginal, reclusive “Belle of Amherst” in favor of a more seductive and subversive Emily Dickinson, “fierce–and cruel,” who wielded language as a tool, plaything, and weapon.
In the pursuit of this more complex–and conflicted–Emily, Charyn draws upon Dickinson’s letters, poetry and fragments, as well as numerous biographical accounts and the work of artists who have found themselves similarly bewitched and inspired by Dickinson’s life and words. A Loaded Gun is a fascinating meditation on an individual’s relationship to language and her place in the world, and Charyn’s quest will appeal not only to poetry lovers and Dickinson fans, but to anyone who understands the joy of immersing oneself in a puzzle to which no definitive “answer” yet exists.
ANNE RASMUSSEN: Many of us encounter Emily Dickinson for the first time in grade or middle school, where that hackneyed image of her as a harmless, virginal spinster persists. With the ongoing culture war over what literature can be included in K-12 curriculum it’s easy to see how convenient a disguise that image provides, even today. But so much of what makes Dickinson’s poetry alive and dangerous gets swept aside in deference to that cliché. To dive in and truly engage with her work, we must first unlearn this story, which for many is the first thing we were taught about her. Can you recall your own first encounter with Emily Dickinson and how you responded to her work? And when and in what context did you become aware of the complexities concealed beneath that reductive portrait?
JEROME CHARYN: I actually discovered her poetry long before I discovered Emily Dickinson, she remained a phantom in my head. In junior high school we were all sentenced to one hour of library time. I was sitting there alone, a book fell off the shelf, clocked me on my head, and behold it turned to a page of poetry. The first line of the poem was “Success is counted sweetest”– it’s about the nature of failure and it appealed to a boy from the Bronx surrounded by failure, poverty and deprivation. What was so enticing was that the poet was never named, it was only years later that I found out that Emily Dickinson herself was the culprit.
When I began reading her poetry in college, I knew very little about her bio. It was at a time when the real punctuation of her poetry was missing, and they were like sheets of secular music, but I felt entranced by her music. Of course the notion of her spinsterhood began to creep into my head, but that was of no interest to me. When I decided to write a novel about her, I read every bio I could find, and there we see poor frail Emily, the ghost of a ghost. But when I visited her room in Amherst, I realized that I was the ghost, not she. And the greatest revelation was reading her letters. They were every bit as powerful as her poems, even more powerful perhaps because the variety and complexity were so unexpected. She was both a flirt and a shrew, a kind of redheaded Cleopatra, and with this image in mind, I began writing The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson.
AR: I love the idea of poetry as “secular music.” And your comment about punctuation makes me think of the chapter where you talk about The Gorgeous Nothings, a facsimile collection of Dickinson’s poems and fragments written on scraps of paper and envelopes. You note that since Emily didn’t exercise control over the printing of her poems, various editorial and production choices, from spacing and punctuation to how much white space surround the printed poems, may have altered the original intention or emphasis of a piece. And these choices end up replicated and passed down through the years. How do you feel about that balance? Does what gets lost in the process of widely producing and distributing an imperfect “translation” get paid back, because its wider reach—a junior high school library in the Bronx almost a century later, for example–will bring more readers into the fold?
JC: Yes, you’re right. I never would have discovered Emily Dickinson if the book that fell on my head was a facsimile of the poems as Emily presented them on the page. They would have seemed like an exotic flower or the map of a foreign country. I would have been fascinated and seduced, but wouldn’t have understood a word. They might have helped me in my own desire to become an artist, but I wouldn’t have sensed that delicious feeling of failure in “Success is counted sweetest.” But how sad it would be if the earlier neutered texts were the only ones we had, without Emily’s mystifying dashes. It’s thrilling to see the actual pages, how the poems are literal works of art, how her handwriting defines the bend of the poetry itself. And we have to kiss the ground that we’ve been able to locate these wondrous flowers.
AR: You took on the voice of the poet herself in The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson. Emily narrates your 2010 novel, which begins during her formative years away from home at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Can you talk a little bit about the difference for you in taking a fictional versus a nonfiction approach to understanding Dickinson’s life and her work? What was it like to inhabit that voice, and in what ways did exploring Dickinson’s story through fiction subsequently inform your approach in writing A Loaded Gun?
JC: I was lucky enough to discover Dickinson’s extraordinary letters, perhaps the greatest letters in the English language, and from the letters and the poems I was able to sculpt a voice with a particular music. At first it was very strange writing in a women’s voice, and then it wasn’t strange at all. It’s not even about discovering the female side in oneself, because Dickinson was male and female at the same time, as all great poets probably are.
But I wasn’t totally satisfied after writing the novel, there was so much more to learn and to discover, particularly about her bisexuality. I felt more and more that her voice was unique as Shakespeare’s, that it came out of some whirlwind that was impossible to comprehend. And yet, I needed and wanted to comprehend it. And that’s how A Loaded Gun began.
AR: Is the new book in any way a response to readers who may have been taken aback by how your fictional portrait strays from the vague sentimental narrative of Dickinson we grew up with? In A Loaded Gun, you write, “she was a celestial knife thrower, hurling blades at our heads. One of her favorite weapons was the oxymoron, for want of a better word…” It occurs to me that Emily’s voice in first person may not have given you the narrative flexibility to fully express all you had to say about her. What were some surprises you encountered in writing the second book?
JC: I think you are setting a trap here. What you say is absolutely true. I didn’t have the flexibility to look beyond the dream of her own voice, but that’s not what inspired me to write the new book. I had not seen the second daguerreotype when I wrote The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson. Had it been revealed to me, the novel might have taken a very different voyage, and Tom, the Handyman, might have become a seductive female creature. There are hints of Emily’s bisexuality in the novel, but the narrative would have moved much further in that direction.
I also became a kind of explorer. I discovered the writing of Susan Howe and Marta Werner, and with their help, I was able to push deeper and deeper into the poetry and move right into the whirlwind of her art.
AR: I loved the mention of Joseph Cornell’s infatuation with Dickinson, who inspired a series of his shadowboxes. You cite Charles Simic’s poetic exploration of Cornell’s obsessions, Dime Store Alchemy which got me thinking about the artistic process and how we cross-pollinate, find inspiration in artists from other disciplines and eras. Cornell’s fixation with Dickinson and with prima ballerinas reminded me of Edward Gorey, who attended every performance of the New York City Ballet. Your chapter on Cornell and Dickinson made me notice how people who operate outside of expected social norms are mischaracterized as reclusive or antisocial, in spite of clear evidence to the contrary. You write, “[Dickinson] wasn’t the ‘eccentric, quivering, overstrung recluse’ that Deborah Solomon writes about (…) nor was she trapped in her Amherst prison-house, as Rebecca Patterson would have us believe. And Cornell was even less reclusive than Dickinson.” Why do you suppose this idea of the “recluse” is so closely tied to our perception of eccentricity, even when the opposite may be true?
JC: Great art is often threatening. We have no idea where true inspiration comes from. Therefore, when we have artists such as Cornell and Emily Dickinson, it makes us feel safe if we present them as being reclusive. What was it that drove Cornell to Dickinson’s art? He read Rebecca Patterson’s book, and saw someone who was searching for her own “BLUE PENINSULA.” Thus, it’s not strange that in Cornell’s boxes, the poet has already disappeared. Great art is a disappearing act.
AR: You and many others have put countless hours into understanding Dickinson’s life and work through painstaking review of her letters, poems, fragments and ephemeral jottings, as well as the historical record and accounts left by relatives, contemporaries, promoters and detractors. Even with all this amassed scholarship the theme of unknowability is a constant throughout A Loaded Gun. (Regarding a recently discovered daguerreotype which may feature a more mature Emily and her possible lover, “Condor Kate” you write, “Even if we found a certain ‘provenance’ for that 1859 daguerreotype, genuine proof that she loved Condor Kate, it might utterly destroy that stale image of a sexless, reclusive mouse, but we still couldn’t solve the great riddle of her art.”) It is precisely the unprovability of her intentions that seems, paradoxically, to make the study of her words and life so compelling. Can you talk a little more about this tension between the unknowable and your quest to know more?
JC: Like Shakespeare, Dickinson fascinates us and eludes us. Language arrives out of lightning and disappears into that same lightning. And we, as common mortals, are mystified. We always want to know more. It frightens us to realize that the unknowable remains unknowable, and yet, like Don Quixote, we still search and tilt at windmills, without ever changing the course of the wind.
If I could understand one fraction of Dickinson’s genius, it would give me a kind of safety zone. And this is what I strove for in A Loaded Gun.
AR: Your subtitle is Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century. Given how many of Dickinson’s choices in life and in her work were arguably shaped by the constraints of 19th century social mores and the limited spheres in which 19th century women (married or otherwise) were permitted to move, how do you imagine her personality and work might have developed had she come of age during a later era, or even today? Are there contemporary writers or artists whose work reminds you of the same combination of play, rebellion and formal innovation that you’ve observed in Dickinson’s poetry?
JC: I tried to answer this once, in a fugitive chapter of the book, and I was immediately shut down.
I cannot imagine any other artist of this age or any other age replicating Dickinson’s art. But I did uncover one possible sister: her name is Maya. She appeared in a film called Zero Dark Thirty, where she – Jessica Chastain, a true freckle-face like Emily Dickinson – plays a CIA analyst, hunting for the shadows of bin Laden. Maya, I felt, had some of Emily’s genius. She was able to put all the dots together on a CIA analysts’ map with Dickinson’s lightning facility. When I wrote this fugitive chapter, everyone screamed at me, saying I was condoning torture, when I wasn’t condoning torture at all, I was speaking about a woman with lightning in her head.
AR: In addition to this idea of Emily as a “double agent” in her own life, you also explore in great depth the sense of “serious play” in Dickinson’s work, whether imagining an envelope poem unfolded and taking flight like a migratory bird, or viewing her writing as a series of elaborate puzzles and encoded mysteries. You liken her to “a very perverse Alice with a pencil in her hand.” How has getting to know Emily and her work in such an intimate, even tactile way influenced your own creative process as a writer and scholar?
JC: I’m not a scholar, and I never considered myself to be one. What I imagined was little Alice coming back out of the rabbit hole and introducing us to a Wonderland of words. The notion of the poems taking flight is very powerful to me and revealed how unstable all art is. Great work is often about migration – from place to place, from sentence to sentence, from love to love.
I myself am a double agent, in that I found a curious, demonic twin in Emily Dickinson; even though I cannot move with her lightning speed from image to image, this is what I adore and strive to do. It has been a difficult journey of over 50 years. Like Emily’s migrations, the journey never ends; the texts are always there and ready to take flight.
Charyn’s essay imagining a modern Emily as CIA analyst, Zero Dark Emily is readable at this link:
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Jerome Charyn is the author of more than fifty works of fiction and nonfiction, including Jerzy: A Novel (forthcoming from Bellevue Literary Press in 2017), A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century, Bitter Bronx: Thirteen Stories, I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War, and The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson: A Novel. Among other honors, he has been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, was named a Commander of Arts and Letters by the French Minister of Culture, and is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award for Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in New York. For more information, visit www.jeromecharyn.com. Author photo by Jorg Meyer.
Anne Rasmussen holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. She has taught writing in jail, advised graduate students, and constructed giant bear costumes worn by Rockettes. She edits the Late Night Interview column and reads fiction entries for Sundress Publications’ annual Best of the Net. She sympathizes with unreliable narrators.