The Emily Dickinson Poetry Marathon: A Q&A with Michael Medeiros

by Laurin Macios | August 2016

The Emily Dickinson Poetry Marathon, part of the Amherst Poetry Festival, is fast approaching (Sept 15-17), so we sat down with Michael Medeiros, the Public Relations Coordinator for the Emily Dickinson Museum, to get the scoop and hear about some of his favorite moments!

How did the Emily Dickinson Poetry Marathon get started? How did you come up with the concept of reading all of ED's poems/how did the format come about?
The Emily Dickinson Poetry Marathon began in 2004, a year after the Emily Dickinson Museum was formed. Community groups were recruited to do the reading as part of a larger program called "A little Madness in the Spring." The poems were read over three or four days that year, and in the eleven subsequent years, the marathon has continued to evolve, varying from being one-day or multi-day readings that took place on the Museum grounds or throughout the Amherst area. This year, it's a one-day reading that starts in Emily Dickinson's parlor at 6 a.m. on Saturday, September 17 and wraps around 10 p.m. under our garden tent (following a tribute to Amherst poet James Tate) as a segue into our late night garden party.

The first Amherst Poetry Festival was held in 2013, presented by the Emily Dickinson Museum and the Amherst Business Improvement District. We decided to connect it to the Emily Dickinson Poetry Marathon as a way to celebrate Emily Dickinson's poetic legacy alongside some of today's greatest poets. This year we also are joined by the Jones Library and The Common literary magazine as sponsors. 

We've featured over 200 poets in the past three years, with the majority coming from western Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Poetry Festival (where we were lucky enough to read in 2016 from our new publication A Mighty Room, a collection of contemporary poetry written in Emily Dickinson's bedroom) does an incredible job highlighting all that's happening in the poetry world each year. For us, we try to focus on the literary scene that continues to thrive out west in Emily Dickinson's backyard. From small presses and publications like the Naugatuck River Review, Perugia Press, the Common, jubilat, and Hedgerow Books (the poetry imprint of Levellers Press just a few blocks up from the Museum), to the poetry programs at area colleges to the National Poetry Slam-certified Northampton Poetry, the work that's being done out here is proof that poetry and poets are thriving and creating works that can hold their own with the immortals like Dickinson.

Do you have any favorite moments from past marathons/festivals?
The thing I like most about the marathon is that we have a dedicated group of regulars who participate nearly every year. When the doors open for the first poem, you know they'll be there, and most likely they'll be there as we hit the 1,789th. The community that's involved with this is so welcoming. It's an event that anyone can participate in, whether for a couple of poems or a thousand. And another great thing is that we have people travel from all over to read Dickinson's work here. It's a special experience.

As for the festival, I think the thing we strive to do is surprise people with poetry. We have some incredibly heavy hitters, some of the best poets in the world, but we also make sure to offer things that may draw in new crowds. That's why we created events like Doughnuts and Death: A Baker's Dozen of Emily Dickinson's Most Depressing Poems. It's a walking tour of West Cemetery, where Dickinson is buried, and it's a fun way to introduce Dickinson and the history related to her to people who might not otherwise be interested in a long-dead poet. The fact that we offer gingerbread doughnuts (based on her recipe) might help draw a crowd too.

Another one I really enjoyed was Beowulf Walks into a Bar. We packed the High Horse, a downtown Amherst bar, for this reading from Beowulf and other Old English and Nordic poetry by some of the area's top medieval literature scholars. It could have been dry, but it became an incredibly atmospheric event, hearing the likes of UMass professor Stephen Harris reciting in Old English following a quick lecture and with moody musical backing from his students while drinking beer. 

The Amherst area is lucky enough to be the home of some of the world's best poets. We were so fortunate to have James Tate as one of our featured readers for the festival's first two years. Dara Wier, his wife, has been one of our biggest supporters from the beginning, and a reading with James, Dara, and Peter Gizzi (who will read this year on Sept. 17) at Amherst Books that first year sort of encapsulated why we put this festival on. But so many of our readers have given readings and talks that have impacted me and so many audience members. Martín Espada, Karen Skolfield, Richard Michelson, Lori Desrosiers, Paul Richmond, Jennifer Militello, Burleigh Muten, and the many others who've read are just wonderful and badass and use their words to make magic. That's why we love to hear them. 

What would you say is the value of such a marathon and celebration? What do attendees--and what do readers--take away from it?
I hope everyone leaves with great poems stuck in their heads (I think metaphorically, but whatever). There are lots of poets out there who should be heard by more people, and our aim is to share them with as many as possible.

Also, one of the main things that makes the Amherst Poetry Festival and the Marathon special is the location. We're able to do these readings in the place where Emily Dickinson wrote nearly all of her poems, tended her flowers, clomped through the fields and hills with her dog Carlo, and (in between the doldrum days) went through ecstatic happiness and the worst sorrows you can imagine. It's a charged environment, and I think it would be sad if these two events didn't exist to celebrate it and open it up to poets and audiences who understand that electric kick of the place. It's like a baseball player going to Fenway or Wrigley Field, or a band getting to play Red Rocks or CBGB. Ha, maybe that's a little hyperbolic, but then again maybe it isn't. I'm in Dickinson's house almost every day, and it always feels special. I hope it feels that way for everyone else, too. 

What's your personal favorite ED poem?
Can I name 70, and also pick out a bunch of her letters (which are just as good as the poems)? Here's a favorite short one:

That Love is all there is,
Is all we know of Love;
It is enough, the freight should be
Proportioned to the groove.

I love that phrase, "Proportioned to the groove." I'm surprised Deee-Lite never used it for a single in the mid-90s.

Get more info about the Emily Dickinson Poetry Marathon and plan your visit here!