Dickinson on Stage

by Barry Spacks

Worlds scoop their Arcs —And Firmaments — row  — Emily Dickinson, as quoted in poet David Starkey’s play How Red the Fire.

Poets like to write about their promethean forebears. But David Starkey, noted poetry master, anthologist, teacher, and widely published, told me that earlier in his career he didn’t like Emily Dickinson, who’s the subject of his new play, How Red the Fire, which opens February 22 at SBCC’s Fé Bland Forum. The work centers on the fantasy of how the rest of the poet’s life would have gone and what we’d be deprived of if Dickinson’s writing had burned away without a trace. I recently talked to Starkey about his play.

How did you break through to an appreciation of Miss Emily? I used to think of her as precious and willfully difficult. But a few years ago, I gave her a fair rereading, and I did, indeed, “feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off” — her test for true poetry. Wow! She’s the smartest poet since whom? Milton maybe? Certainly a genius in the old-fashioned sense of that word.

Plays are long-term works-in-progress, aren’t they? What’s the history of this one? Scott Wagner, the literary manager at North Coast Rep in San Diego, asked me to turn a long one-act into a two-act play, and I did another revision which eventually found its way into the hands of the folks at Yellow Taxi Productions in Nashua, New Hampshire. They asked me to streamline it for performance in high schools and colleges. It’s the most worked-on of my plays, and I hope that polish will show in the City College production.

Reading the play, I was struck with its deft shifts from our contemporary scene — where a student winds up with a B– on his Dickinson paper but eventually “gets” the poet — to the contrasting language and mood back in Amherst with Emily and her sister Lavinia. Yes, those distinctions in historical tone are crucial. I’m really pleased that Jinny Webber will direct. She’s smart, creative, and a great listener to the ideas of both playwright and cast. And what a terrific cast it is, with the formidable Michelle Osborne as Emily, Serena Bottiani as a young professor trying to make her mark in the academic world, and the talented Seth Baumhover, Adam Trent, and Kelly Peinado rounding out the ensemble.

Two brief moments from the play allow us to touch on both sides of the story. The brash student Teddy has this to say to his English teacher about Dickinson: “Does she have any, like, really good poems?” And here’s Emily, in mid-19th century, chatting with her sister Vinnie:

emily: (Sighing) Vinnie, when I am gone, what will become of my poems? vinnie: Leave them to me, sister. (Grandly) I will show them to the world. emily: Thus far, the world has not been dreadfully interested in my poetry.

But oh, how that would change!

AND MORE: In other poetry news, fans arrived with their smiles on when Billy Collins returned to town to read at UCSB’s Campbell Hall last Sunday. If you failed to catch a vintage Billy-show, do not mourn; we’re sure to see him in Santa Barbara again in not too many years. As well, nominations are in for selecting the second in the new series of Santa Barbara Poet Laureates. The successful candidate will be formally decked with laurels at the City Council meeting on April 3. I myself have had an energizing run during the past two years in this post, and look forward to working with the next poet to center up Santa Barbara’s vigorous and various poetry scene.

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