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Rhyme, reason behind Emily Dickinson marathon reading

Emily Dickinson circa 1847
Emily Dickinson circa 1847

If you haven't done something to celebrate National Poetry Month, there's still time.

You can, for instance, take part in the Emily Dickinson marathon reading, which begins at 8 a.m. Friday and continues all day and through most of the night. It will take that long, at least, to read each of the Belle of Amherst's 1,789 poems — in sequential order.

The all-Emily event is the brainchild of Erika Scheurer, a Dickinson scholar who teaches literature and writing at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. But she admits she didn't originate the idea.

"It's been done several times back East — and, of course, at Amherst," Scheurer said. "I'd heard from others in the Dickinson world about how interesting and fun it is."

A populist model
Scheurer says, however, that her marathon is somewhat different from the typical Dickinson poetry fest, which often features celebrities or scholars reading the poems before an appreciative audience.

"We decided instead to go with a populist model," Scheurer explained.

That means some of the people who show up will be invited to read whatever the next poem in the sequence happens to be. There will be no stage — just groupings of comfortable chairs.

The marathon begins in the O'Shaughnessy Room at the university's Frey Library on the St. Paul campus — described by Scheurer as a homey room with a fireplace. After 8 p.m., when the library closes, the marathon will move across the quad to the Koch Commons Fireside Room, which sounds like it's much the same.

Both locations are on the main St. Paul campus near the intersections of Cleveland and Summit avenues. "We'll have signs up everywhere (on campus), so people will be able to find us," Scheurer said.

She expects people to come and go throughout the day and evening. To make sure somebody is always willing to read, Scheurer recruited more than 80 "ringers" who agreed to be present at specific times — "two per hour, minimum," she said. But she thinks plenty of willing readers will show up.

"They won't have to bring anything," Scheurer added. "Common Good Books donated 10 volumes of Ralph W. Franklin's 'The Poems of Emily Dickinson,' so we're covered."

Groupies galore
Are there really that many Emily Dickinson fans around here? Apparently so.

Back in 2000, for example, the Emily Dickinson International Society held its annual meeting in St. Paul, largely because two of its most ardent members lived here — Scheurer and Eleanor Heginbotham, then a professor at Concordia University. Heginbotham, who retired a few years ago and moved to the Washington, D.C., area, is coming back for the marathon.

"Back then, Ellie did most of the work for the society meeting," Scheurer said. "We (in the local Dickinson community) have really missed her since she retired, so we're thrilled she decided to come back for our event."

The apparent local popularity of Dickinson (1830-1886) begs the question: Are we Minnesotans preoccupied by such subjects as death and immortality?

"She wrote about a lot more than that," Scheurer said. "She wrote about love, lust, books and about every possible mental state you can imagine — even seasonal affective disorder: 'There's a certain slant of light on winter afternoons.' We know all about that around here."

Friday's marathon won't be entirely poetic. Those who want to take a break can don earphones and watch a continuous showing of "The Belle of Amherst," the 1976 film version of the stage play with Julie Harris portraying Dickinson.

Students from Scheurer's senior-student seminar on Dickinson also are putting up imaginative displays. One, for instance, lets you "Create Your Own Dickinson Poem" from sliced-up lines of poetry.

What will be the response, Scheurer was asked, if someone shows up and insists on reading a poem by, say, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow?

"I never thought of that," Scheurer replied. "Somehow, I don't think that will happen. But if it does, we're a democratic bunch."

What: Emily Dickinson marathon reading
When: starting at 8 a.m. Friday, April 25
Where: University of St. Thomas. Event runs from 8 a.m.-8 p.m. at Frey Library, then moves to Koch Commons until midnight — both buildings near Cleveland and Summit avenues, St. Paul.
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