Could be you've already seen Emily Dickinson around town. Inside a Sun Tran bus, perhaps, or projected onto a downtown building at night. Maybe you noticed a high school student painting her portrait. Or a local pastry chef presented you with a "poetry-inspired" recipe. Perhaps you scratched your head as you observed someone (a crazy person?) reciting a poem in front of the Tucson City Council.
Sounds fun, but Dickinson's arrival stems from another woman's desire to heal.
The Tucson shooting rampage of Jan. 8 killed six and wounded 13 others. The event hurt many more in our community—on a spiritual and psychic level. We each dealt with the horror differently, but poet and Kore Press co-founder Lisa Bowden did something unique by helping transmute shared pain into collective celebration.
She applied for a competitive grant with the National Endowment for the Arts. Her proposal was selected, making Kore the first Tucson arts organization to receive NEA funding for a project of this size and significance.
"I wanted to launch a project that would reunite our community," Bowden says. "Reading is a pretty democratizing activity, and I'd already developed wonderful partnerships in Tucson. But I wanted to do something really big this time, something that would involve as many different arts communities and as many types of readings and readers as we could bring together into one festival."
Makes sense. After all, the event is called The Big Read, and it's an NEA-created initiative "designed to restore reading to the center of American culture," according to the agency's website. Reaching out to the Old Pueblo's larger cultural community sounds like a fantastic idea.
But what literature, which authors, to emphasize, especially given that Kore is a press dedicated to publishing works by voices traditionally underrepresented in the literary mainstream—namely, women?
Well, the NEA provided Kore with a list of 30 American-lit classics. Bowden was asked to choose one—and only one—around which to base her programming. Three of the books were poetry collections, one penned by a woman.
Her name? Emily Dickinson.
"Dickinson is a great example of a successful artistic woman writing at a moment when her choices were going well against the status quo," says University of Arizona art professor Barbara Penn, who last month presented a talk at MOCA on A Certain Slant of Light, her Dickinson-inspired art installation.
Dickinson's poetry is a powerful vision, conceived by a daring Victorian-era woman who was able to step outside of the conventions of her time. She bent 19th-century expectations, roles and viewpoints; her work takes risks by breaking the skin of life, getting under surface details to reach the source of human existence.
"There's so much to learn from Dickinson that connects to our current moment," Penn insists. "Taking time to stand back and imagine ideas that transcend from simple moments is what Dickinson does so well. Her poems awaken us. Her words offer truth, wit, purpose and spirit about life's pleasures, bewilderments and failings. From Dickinson, we sense once again what it is to be human."
The end result is an expansive, interdisciplinary lit-focused event that's rippling across Tucson. Forty-plus groups and individuals are bringing their talents to bear on the master poet. Dancers, artists, writers, scholars, musicians and educators—anyone and everyone who loves Dickinson (or who's curious to learn more about her verse)—are participating and collaborating and striving to derive meaning from her work. The citywide event has drawn bright locals as well as national and international talent, including Eva Heisler, a noted poet/scholar/art critic/art historian who lives in Germany.
But beyond all of this, The Big Read thrusts reading and poetry into plain and unvirtual view at a time when the Internet blitz often erases the act of reading. Indeed, Kore drafts the city's culture-makers into fusing reading and poetry with creativity and invention.
"The idea is to get people to discuss Dickinson's work again, and to get people who don't normally read to start reading," Bowden says, "to get visual artists to start thinking about reading and writing in new ways."
Founded in 1993, Kore has a long history of community programming and activist programs here in Tucson. So seeing what this valuable arts organization is doing is really no surprise to those who follow the local lit scene.
"Our underlying mission is to help make reading accessible to as many people as possible," Bowden says. "Whether through afterschool reading programs or an event like The Big Read, we want to educate young people on the importance of literacy and literature."