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
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
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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