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ENGL439D - Spotlight on Major Writers; Dickinson, Erotics, Poetics, Biopics: Some (Queer) Ways We Read Poetry

This course in American major writer Emily Dickinson contextualizes her and her poetry and other writings in several ways.

First we’ll read her poetry with some by poet Walt Whitman, her contemporary, to explore the archives of their queer lives and queer status in American literary history, the 21st-century digital archives and editions produced about their work and lives, the physical archives of their work that one finds in special collections of libraries, and the archives of our attentions as readers. Then we’ll contextualize her work through lens of poets who are more our contemporaries. Doing so, we’ll examine queer inscriptions in the legacies of American poetry and culture Dickinson and Whitman have inspired. On the surface the odd couple Dickinson and Whitman appear to be exaggeratedly female and male in their personal and poetic self-presentations, but a closer examination of their influences reveals that their literary performances are not quite so simple.

Probing especially how Dickinson’s work and her legacies are evident in poetic heirs (see Titanic Operas: Contemporary Poets’ Responses to Dickinson’s Legacy, as well as how she has been translated into different media (films, TV shows, drama, multimedia performances, rock & roll) and how those are inflected by issues of race, gender, class, and high/low culture, we will scrutinize ways in which the performances and receptions of this icon of American literary history may challenge and modify (rather than perpetuate) national and international cultural mythologies. Two feature films and an Apple TV series have recently been produced about Dickinson.

We will study one of the films—Wild Nights With Emily starring SNL alum Molly Shannon as a funny, passionately queer Dickinson—and the televisual Dickinson (starring Hailee Steinfeld as a twerking, opium tasting, decidedly queer Dickinson) to analyze what has evolved in our literary culture and understandings of her poetic ambitions to enable these bold, blatant erotic, profoundly humorous and serious depictions to emerge in the first decades of the 21st century. Both the film and the tv series will be made available at no cost to course participants so that we might plumb more deeply questions such as how have ways we engage literature changed, how have our expectations changed, and what’s so important about these liberations of contemporary filmakers’ imaginative energies in their responses to this icon formerly depicted as staid, sad, timid? Class participants will be able to converse (mostly likely virtually) with the film and tv series directors. Written assignments will be two 1-2 pp. response papers, a 2-3 pp. proposal essay for a longer, more ambitious essay (7-10 pp.) exploring in depth some aspect raised by our course of study.