A guest participates in the Emily Dickinson Reading Marathon at O'Shaughnessy-Frey Library on April 26, 2017.

Emily Dickinson Marathon Attracts Many Poetry Fans

It’s a hectic world we live in. Whether we’re students, faculty, staff or community members, we all have busy lives: classes, homework, jobs and countless other responsibilities to juggle.

That’s part of why the Emily Dickinson Marathon held in the Leather Room of the O'Shaughnessy-Frey Library all day April 26 was special; whether for hours or just for a few minutes, participants of all ages and occupations paused to enjoy poetry together.

“We have so many draws on our time, in our working lives, and I like to provide an opportunity for people to just take pleasure in literature and poetry,” said Dr. Erika Scheurer, the associate English professor who organized the marathon. “It’s pretty powerful, the fact that so many people would come and participate in such a thing. Somehow it feeds you. It feeds people’s souls.”

The marathon was held from at 8 a.m. until approximately 9:30 p.m. In that time, all 1,789 poems written by Dickinson were read aloud by a rotating crowd of about 200 people. Newcomers entered the room, picked up a copy of Dickinson’s collected works and joined the circle of readers.

“Nothing else happens in that room except that. So those are the only words heard for however long it takes, Emily Dickinson’s words,” Scheurer explained.

The way she sees it, one important audience of this event is Dickinson lovers in the community: “When else do you get a chance to just immerse yourself in her language this way?”

But Scheurer also believes it is important for those participants who may not be very familiar with Dickinson – “the un-initiated, the extra-creditors,” as she puts it – to experience a variety of Dickinson’s poems and see past the stereotyped understanding many people have of her.

“People always associate her with those Hallmark greeting card poems, and she’s got some of those,” Scheurer said. “Or people associate her with these really morbid topics, and yes, there are a lot of death poems. But she’s got so much more.”

Guests participate in the Emily Dickinson Reading Marathon at O'Shaughnessy-Frey Library on April 26, 2017.

Marathon participants learned more about Dickinson through several projects on display outside the Leather Room. Created by students in one of Scheurer’s graduate-level courses, they covered topics such as Dickinson’s home life and her descendants.

One project, by graduate student Stephanie Smith, allowed listeners to experience one of Dickinson’s poems set to music. Through being immersed in Dickinson’s poetry in the seminar, Smith said she started noticing that many of her poems had a strong melodic quality.

“I started thinking about her as not just a poet but as a creator, and what that means,” Smith said. “I learned that she played piano, she liked to sing, that music was a big part of her life. And I got this picture [in my mind] of her in her room as she was writing poetry, not just writing this but hearing this.”

Smith said she also drew inspiration from the fact Dickinson was a private person, as well as the importance of creation and creative space, not just the recognition that comes from being published. Working with her father in a basement studio, Smith recorded a song with lyrics from a Dickinson poem in what she called a “fleeting impulse of creativity.”

“It was just a lot of fun to take these gorgeous lyrics and this visual that she’s creating, and try to create that mood,” Smith said.

Scheurer also noted that Dickinson did not receive recognition for her writing in her lifetime. She believes that made the marathon all the more important.

“How powerful it is, that over a century later, we have 200 people coming together to breathe life and power into each one of her poems,” she said. “[This is] a democratic marathon. Whoever comes can read as long as they want and then leave when they want to leave. And it’s not a focus on the reader being an expert reader. What I enjoy when I’m at the marathon is listening to Dickinson’s poems in all these voices.”

This year’s marathon is the third Scheurer has organized, with others taking place in 2008 and 2014. She said she measures the success of these events not in the number of people that attend, though that has grown since the first one. For her, it’s all about the experience of the readers.

“[They] experienced the power of lending their individual voices to an ambitious group effort,” she said. “And they also experienced the power of embodying Dickinson's voice and bringing it to life.”