Emily Writes Copy

Posted in poetry on November 11th, 2012 by admin – Comments Off on Emily Writes Copy

“Faith” is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see —
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.

It’s a great poem but, per usual, poetry does nothing for the economy

So how about this version penned by Emily Dickinson A.K.A BT Shaw:

“Faith” is a fine invention
For Gentlemen who see!
But Proof will burn — like Phosphorus —
Those Sexting — secretly —
Cell Phone Spy Recon for Blackberry and Android, $198.95

Emily Dickinson takes freight elevator

Posted in poetry on September 15th, 2012 by admin – Comments Off on Emily Dickinson takes freight elevator

There was a reward at the end of the arduous journey by freight elevator.

It was the world premiere of An Emily Dickinson Sense Surround which had a sublime audience of nearly 50 New Yorkers.

With LitCrawl NYC programs in hand, those game literature-seekers braved long white echoing corridors on the way to the 7th floor at 195 Chrystie Street, HQ for ArtStar Gallery arriving to:

A very different take on that literary super-star Emily Dickinson…

Figs and flowers to smell and touch,

Emily’s cake recipes – and poems that resembled recipes – to listen to,

Coconut cake – from Emily Dickinson’s family recipes – to taste,

While listening to the poet’s food-inspired and more guilt-trippy letters,

Downing of old fashioned apple cider as if pressed in Emily’s home kitchen (well, it was hard cider at Emily’s house),

And singing along with songs from her own playbook.

The crew providing the sensate materials to the lit-mad crowd: Marta McDowell, Cindy Dickinson, David Giovacchini, and Aífe Murray.

Thank you co-sponsor Emily Dickinson International Society; LitCrawl NYC volunteers including Suzanne Russo and Sinéad Cloughley; ArtStar.com‘s Chrissy Crawford; Documentarians Tom Good and Nadja Good; and the kind support of Michael Radetsky and Lois Giovacchini.

Wow! LitCrawl NYC really popped tonight. Photo proof coming…

Next up NYC: Tenement Talk 9/18 this Tuesday when Emily D. shows up with her maid Margaret Maher. We think it will be Downton Abbey meets The Tenement Museum.

Can I come in costume?

Posted in poetry on May 3rd, 2012 by admin – Comments Off on Can I come in costume?

“Can I come in costume?!!”asked Library Commission President Jewelle Gomez.

“Of course,” I said, “Some readers will probably wear white — or (fake) fur. You know, like Emily’s dog Carlo.”

We were talking about San Francisco’s first Emily Dickinson Poetry Marathon to be held 12-1-12 at the SFPL – for the poet’s 182nd birthday!

If the president of the San Francisco Library Commission is planning to dress up for a chronological reading of Emily D’s opus, you can too.

Come for the all day read of ED’s poems on Saturday, December 1. Your sponsors – Litquake, the Emily Dickinson International Society, and the SFPL – will have copies of the complete poems on hand.

No experience necessary!

Join us in the Hispanic / Latino Rooms after 10 a.m. and all day on Saturday, 12-1-12.

Volunteers needed to spread the word & help on marathon day. Contact Aífe: marathon [at] aifemurray [dot] com.

Updates here, for now, and -soon- on FB, Twitter, and sponsors’ sites.

Good poetic karma!

I don’t bite . . . much

Posted in poetry on April 26th, 2012 by admin – Comments Off on I don’t bite . . . much

Thanks Kevin Killian for the story – told at the Adrienne Rich memorial reading held in the SFPL Hormel Center last evening – about Kathy Acker and Adrienne Rich meeting for the first time.

It was at a fundraiser for Small Press Traffic in the 80s (see March 30, below).

“She hates me” Acker said of Rich when told they’d share the bill.

“She hates me” Rich said of Acker.

Face to face, meeting for the first time, prior to going on stage:

“I don’t bite–” said Rich.

I don’t bite,” said Acker.

“–Much, ” finished Rich.

And thanks to Ali Liebegott and Kevin for reminding us about the 1974 National Book Awards.

Prior to the ceremony, Audre Lord, Adrienne Rich, and Alice Walker prepared a joint statement. Should any one of them be chosen, they’d read it together. Rich won the award and they accepted it jointly.

After Kevin read us that joint statement, there was a collective sigh in the Hormel Center, murmurs about 1974, that golden era – even by people like Ali who had only turned three but knew a good thing even then.

My Ideal Reader

Posted in poetry on March 30th, 2012 by admin – Comments Off on My Ideal Reader

Hundreds of women students crowded into Hampshire College’s back dining room, circa March 1974, to listen to Adrienne Rich articulate “urgent dispatches from the front.” My politics were grounded in Rich’s poetry. I listened avidly, riveted by the public reading on a wintry night in Amherst, Massachusetts.

A dozen years later I helped put on a fundraiser for Small Press Traffic at Fort Mason in San Francisco. Adrienne Rich shared the bill with Kathy Acker and Susan Faludi. Right before this stellar event, I had a few minutes with Adrienne Rich to stumble over how important her poetry has been to my life.

Two dozen years after that I asked Adrienne Rich if she would read my book, a labor of love and reclamation, and possibly endorse it. She wrote back, from Santa Cruz, that she didn’t usually endorse books but she was intrigued and said yes she would do it. She wrote a beautiful endorsement of Maid as Muse.

She also wrote me a letter describing in greater detail what my book meant to her.  I cried when I read it. I didn’t know until that moment that all along I had been writing the book to her. After years of re-reading her essays and poetry, I was, with Maid as Muse, at last holding up my part of the conversation and responding back.

It felt like a miracle, after the lonely hours and years, to receive such a response from Adrienne Rich. I thought that making the book was the soul satisfying part. But now I understood what it is to have readers and without knowing it at the time I was writing the book to her as my ideal reader.

In the past several days the text messages and e-mails have flown back and forth. Renata wrote: “It would be nice to do something. Perhaps we could have our poetry group get together and each read a Rich poem” and Suzanne texted “I am building an altar in my living room. Do you know she is the first poet whose work I memorized?”

I was in Santa Cruz for a family get-together two days after Adrienne Rich passed away. On Friday, March 30th, I made my way to her house to pay my respects to the place on the globe from which, for several decades, she sent out her “news in verse.” Because she was Jewish, I left some stones piled on the ground beside the mailbox which is nestled in a tall hedgerow fronting her small bungalow. Then I cried.

What Did Emily Eat?

Posted in poetry on January 8th, 2012 by admin – Comments Off on What Did Emily Eat?

The quest early in the new year was to discover “what would Emily eat” if she were to travel to the Modern Language Association meetings in Seattle.

The schedule was arduous and the quest declared a success.

A great walker, Emily would have ambled up from downtown Seattle, across the freeway sending up gusts of tailwind that slightly mussed her hair, to Melrose Avenue. Here she entered the amber glow of Terra Plata.

I’m fairly certain she would have taken along her sister Vinnie and sister-in-law Susan so they could sample the blistered shisito peppers, roasted brussel sprouts (shallots, maple, rosemary), scallops, two faced bleu cheese, and the plumpest mussels that tasted hours from the sea. Kombucha? No, the three would have washed it all down with the best from a nearby micro brewery, say, within a 50 mile radius.

After strolling the waterfront, with umbrellas in tow, and grabbing brother Austin and colleague Elbridge Bowdoin, I have on good authority that they’d have dungeness crab cakes (over almond romesco, greens, and pickled raisins) at Etta’s. With a table by the window, they could watch the rain in the flicker of streetlamp. Single malt scotch for the men. Seattle is that kind of town.

A good night sleep and the desire for a bracing cup of tea with something hearty would send our small party, Emily in the lead, to The Crumpet Shop. Careful. The butter tends to drip down the arms. Lemon curd anyone?

Emily might just order a savory crumpet like Green Eggs and Ham named for a book of children’s poetry that will be written many years after her own poems have become posthumously famous. Imagine Emily skipping the brick streets of the Pike Place Market singing out lines from Dr. Seuss. A happy belly can do that  which is what results from an interlude at The Crumpet Shop.

After roaming the market and stocking up on pears and apples, the best of Washington’s orchards, Emily might need to refuel. What better place to do that but at Matts in the Market. Gilled octupus on a bed of olives and chickpeas. She’s not a shy eater. It’s a good place for her to compare their malmsey wine, made from Washington grapes, with the one she concocts in Amherst. How lovely it tastes with the bread pudding and salted caramel ice cream. By this point Emily is glad that the seamstress left some give in her seams.

Why not take a trip to Paris via Le Pichet, that cafe offering the deal real onion soup and the freshest salade verte with mustard and hazelnut vinaigrette. And ooh la la style. Did that waiter really have a belt of twine tied in a bow and a compass peaking through the buttoned opening of his shirt? Yes, this is the place Emily would take Abby Wood who would pick at a plate of olives marinées (with pastis, orange and garlic) while Emily would indulge her love of amandes à l’espagnole (almonds sautéed in olive oil with coarse sea salt). Bowls of milky coffee, peering at each other through the steam.

Helen Hunt Jackson, that dear old friend from Amherst, now of Colorado. A perfect place for a reunion, Seattle, perhaps by the site of the future space needle. Then, because Helen too is of good appetite, they’d wander south to Capitol Hill and into the back room of Cafe Presse to each tuck into a soul-filling and belly-filling platter of ragout of green lentils with kale, winter squash and brown butter-garlic cream. Helen ordered hers with the crispy duck confit leg. Emily, thinking fondly of her own chickens in Amherst under the care of her maid Margaret Maher, had her ragout topped with a farm egg. The yolk as yellow as the Colorado sun Helen declared. Not Seattle’s laughed Emily.

Tie the Strings

Posted in poetry on December 10th, 2011 by admin – Comments Off on Tie the Strings

Blair puts Emily Dickinson to music at Detroit’s Institute of Arts for The Big Read

Tie the Strings to my Life,

My Lord,

Then, I am ready to go!

Just a look at the Horses –

Rapid! That will do!

Put me in on the firmest

side –

So I shall never fall –

For we must ride to the

Judgment –

And it’s partly, down Hill –

But never I mind the steepest –

And never I mind the Sea –

Held fast in Everlasting Race –

By my own Choice, and Thee –

Goodbye to the Life I used to live –

And the World I used to know –

And kiss the Hills, for me,

just once –

Now – I am ready to go!

-Emily Dickinson, written about summer 1862

poem appears with ED’s original line breaks

Printed here on the poet’s 181st birthday

Art of Service – part 1

Posted in poetry on November 12th, 2011 by admin – Comments Off on Art of Service – part 1

I set out many years ago to find Margaret Maher

to have this housekeeper’s life and longings come into focus.

– to see Margaret Maher in as sharp a focus as that of her employer Emily Dickinson.

Using mixed media installation I sought

to create a social moment

a place and time for two women – maid and mistress – to inhabit.

At first I couldn’t “see” Margaret.

What came first was the work environment

the tasks of everyday life

that Margaret and Emily were engaged in

– together and side by side .

It turns out I needed Emily

– to help jiggle the developer tray:

– run fingers over the imaging paper

until out of that murky fluid emerged the persons I was seeking.

When Margaret’s co-workers as well as Emily and her peers came forward:

Margaret, Betty, Dennis, Amos, Stephen, Henry, Tom, Charles, Delia . . .

I was able to pick them out as individuals – and find the story

And of course in doing so I found a part of myself.

How did I do this?

Through book-making and inviting into the investigation the men and women who today clean the Emily Dickinson Museum, tend its gardens, and do the minor repairs.

In the 1990s they included Judith Sherman Atwood, John R. Bator, Richard Beauregard, Robin Dagenais, and Henry Paul Hebert.

I conducted a long distance “interview” from California to their Massachusetts workplace with questions such as:

“what is the nature of your work?”

“how long have you done it?”

“what is the poetry or art of your work?”

Their responses became the hand-sewn books Art of Service (covers pictured).

These books resembled Emily’s own hand-stitched poem books.

After Emily Dickinson’s household came under the capable hands of their first long term maid, Emily began grouping her poems and copying them into small booklets.

Emily bound these with thread that was hand-tied.

Or as maid Margaret Maher remembered years later:

They were done up in small booklets,

probably 12 or 14 tied up with a string

On a March afternoon in 1997 Art of Service came off the Vandercook press at  Dale Going‘s Em Press in Mill Valley, California.

I took needle and thread to bind the pages of the first copy.

I cried when I held the first sewn book.

Margaret Maher and the many “unseen” Dickinson workers

came closer when Judy, John, Robin, Richard and Herbert signed my copy of Art of Service.

Come soon: Art of Service – part II

I set out many years ago to “find Margaret Maher,” to have her life and longings come into as sharp a focus as that of her famous employer. I used mixed media installation to create a social moment for those two women to inhabit. Even then, I couldn’t quite see Margaret, although I learned more about her and about Emily’s work environment. As it turns out, I needed Emily — to have her help me jiggle the developer tray and run fingers over the paper until out of that murky fluid emerged the person I was seeking. The whole community, in fact, was what made that happen. It was when all of Margaret’s colleagues and employers came forward that I was able to pick them out as individuals. I found Margaret and of course in doing so I found a part of myself.

At the end of this long journey I sit in a cabin with the door swung wide above the Pacific. It’s nearly June. Insects wing in and out of the doorway, birds trill in untended plum trees. Hummingbirds, in a “rush of cochineal,” revolve by the spears of [purple stalks; get name of plant#] This story came to me in the California Margaret yearned for but seems never to have reached, a promise that hovered like the “evanescence” of a hummingbird. California animated her just as she animated me and so I headed back to Sunderland and sat at a dining room table with two of Margaret’s great grand nieces. Their grandfather was the “Willie” Emily patted on the head when he returned from one of her errands, calling him a “good boy.” Mrs. Evans asked if I wanted to go out to the cemetery and, though we had no inkling where Margaret’s grave was located, we drove via the back road to “Hamp” (Northampton). It narrows through corn and tobacco fields and a crop of new houses in Hadley, making two unnerving ninety degree turns around cultivated fields and an old farmhouse — much the way this tale was uncovering itself.

I was overwhelmed with the size of St. Mary’s cemetery, the task before us and the oppressive glare. I headed off down half of one row, striking out for another in my own haphazard way, until I heard Mrs. Evans call out “I found it.” She, in the meantime, had walked methodically until she came to a deep red, four sided obelisk. It felt like a miracle to have Margaret become this tangible. Then a month or two later I discovered, neatly tucked below my California doorsill, a pale blue mailing tube with Mrs. Evans’ rubbings from the intricate patterns of the grave stone. Gifts like this, of one sort or another, kept arriving.

I interviewed the men and women who clean the Dickinson museum and tend its gardens now: Judith Sherman Atwood, John R. Bator, Richard Beauregard, Robin Dagenais, and Henry Paul Hebert. I asked them how their work was like art and put those responses into small hand-sewn books; not unlike the fascicles Emily created of her poems. When the first copy of Art of Service came off the letterpress, I took needle and thread to bind the pages and cried when I first held this materialization of my vision. A few months later Judy, John, Richard and Robin along with Mrs. Evans helped me narrate a public tour of “Margaret Maher’s Amherst.” There were nearly 170 people stopping traffic on North Pleasant Street as we scooted across to the cemetery. At Emily Dickinson’s grave I spoke of her pallbearer choice and asked how many were descended from those men. It was another moment of grace to look around the crowd and see over forty hands in the April air.

Book – Burns sure – within

Posted in poetry on September 23rd, 2011 by admin – Comments Off on Book – Burns sure – within

The Lamp burns sure – within –

‘Tho’ Serfs – supply the Oil –

It matters not the busy

Wick –

At her phosphoric toil!

The Slave – forgets – to fill –

The Lamp – burns golden – on –

Unconscious that the oil

is out –

As that the Slave – is gone.

-Emily Dickinson, written in about the latter half of 1861

The 2010 book about Emily Dickinson’s housekeepers, stablemen, gardeners, and laborers – Maid as Muse –  is part of my larger mixed form project – Kitchen Table Poetics – realized as installation, performance, maps, poetry, essay, artists’ books & book.

My silkscreened Japanese baseball shirt, shown here, with text and clothespin is one piece from Kitchen Table Poetics.

In this “book” the segments of a baseball shirt become pages.

(Nomura, see below, is the name of one of the world’s largest stock brokerages – appropriate for a family, the Dickinsons, who made money through shrewd investments and whose house smelled of rice straw. Tatami, used to wrap their imported goods, became Homestead floor coverings.)

Silkscreened on one page is of the Dickinson poem – above – “The Lamp burns sure – within -”

On the other side of the silkscreened shirt – or book cover – is an 1891 letter written by Dickinson maid-of-all-work Margaret Maher to Emily Dickinson’s cousin, Clara Newman Turner.

I once gave all my talks wearing this text-clothespin-baseball shirt – especially to talk about how the words “slave” and “serf” are elided in the above Dickinson poem.

Servant and serf had a sting in the 19th century for those who were domestic  or household workers.

It was akin to being a slave.

The poem’s narrator-writer, dependent on the invisible slave and serf, depicts the lamp as representing the creative force, that inner-driven spark which burns no matter what.

It’s not affected by ministrations of serf, the fuel itself, or the wick.

It is unaffected by a forgetful slave who in the end turns out to be not forgetful but escaped.

Toward the end of her life Margaret Maher, after over 40 years as a maid, no longer signed letters with her family name.

She identified herself by her employment and possession by her employer.

In the upper corner of the shirt you may be able to make out the words Margaret Maher used to close her 1891 letter:

Miss. Emily.s and



A Word is Scrubbed

Posted in poetry on September 4th, 2011 by admin – Comments Off on A Word is Scrubbed

Embedded in the sidewalk of New York City –

A plaque of this 1862 Emily Dickinson poem:

A word is dead, when it is said
Some say –
I say it just begins to live
That day

Where the word is scrubbed

by Maid as Muse author Aífe Murray

It just begins to live that way –

(Happy Labor Day)