By Lynn Wagner
Before I ran off to grad school, I worked in what I call Library Land, where, among other things, I was involved in the digitizing of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln’s papers. Pretty cool, seeing young George’s geometry notes. But that was microfilm, and it was a while before I saw the real thing with the curators at the Library of Congress.
I’ve seen many archival documents, although it’s always the writer’s handwritten drafts, typescripts, notes and letters that excite me. Especially with the poets, I feel much closer to them after reading their letters. When I moved to Denver, a friend gave me the letters of Marianne Moore, and I entered into the weird triangle of mother, brother and poet who within their family correspondence addressed each other as characters from The Wind in the Willows. Then there’s One Art, Elizabeth Bishop’s selected letters, which deepen the private pain that many of her poems so quietly uncover.
In 2017, I’ll be re-reading Emily Dickinson’s Selected Letters because there is no better locomotive to Emily’s secret world than her notes to friends. Here Emily is witty, passionate, concerned and intense. Of course she’s a genius, but you wouldn’t know how funny, and yes, joyful she was without reading her in prose. Perhaps Dickinson would have never continued in poetry had she not reached out in1862 in a letter to Thomas Wentworh Higginson, editor of The Atlantic. Higginson never advised her, but listened and received her letters and poems in friendship. Here’s Dickinson writing to Higginson in July 1862:
I had no portrait, now, but am small, like the wren; and my hair is bold, like the chestnut bur; and my eyes, like the sherry in the glass, that the guest leaves. Would this do just as well?
The letters to Higginson reveal just how self aware Dickinson was:
I had no monarch in my life, and cannot rule myself; and when I try to organize, my little force explodes and leaves me bare and charred.
I’m pairing the letters with Jen Bervin and Marta Werner’s The Gorgeous Nothings, a beautiful edition of Dickinson’s later literary fragments known as the envelope poems. The original-sized, full color reproductions with transcriptions show Dickinson’s mind at work, tuning to the size and shape of paper scraps to capture her thoughts.
This calls to mind the art I have the privilege of witnessing at Lighthouse. Whether it’s reading early drafts by students or examining drafts of Donald Hall’s “Ox-Cart Man,” as we did in a recent Reading as a Writer class, ultimately it’s about tuning into process—of making and reading. The conversations that we have on the porch, the prompts and drafts and revisions, that’s where the secret life of writers resides.
This post is part of our annual Lit Counts series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop—is important to them. If you agree, consider supporting Lighthouse on Colorado Gives Day. Mark your calendar for December 6 or schedule your gift now. Thank you!
Lynn Wagner is an instructor at Lighthouse and the author of the chapbook No Blues this Raucous Song. Her work has appeared in Shenandoah, West Branch, and Cavewall.