Sarah Parson checks out her new, free copy of “The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson” during The Big Read, Tuesday evening, at the Roswell Museum and Art Center. (Mark Wilson Photo)
With a folk song and a commercial jingle, Annemarie Oldfield, director of the High Plains Writing Project, hoped she was not committing literary blasphemy for the sake of making Emily Dickinson poems more accessible.
“Is it sacrilege … to sing some of these (poems) to these lighthearted tunes?” she asked the audience at the Roswell Reads kickoff event at the Roswell Museum and Art Center, Tuesday evening.
As it turns out, many of Dickinson’s poems can easily be put to popular songs. Oldfield led the audience through a rendition of Dickinson’s Poem No. 1263, to the tune of “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony).” She then led the audience to sing Poem No. 986 — a cryptic poem that refers to nature and fear — to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”
The event’s keynote speaker, Colette LaBouff, said Dickinson’s poetry is rife with musicality — and this was done on purpose. LaBouff, a Dickinson scholar, said the poet adopted the common hymn form in her writing.
For LaBouff, her first encounter with Dickinson’s poetry was not love at first sight.
“I remember the first time I read Emily Dickinson’s poems as a student … I was in high school,” LaBouff recalled. “I really thought (Dickinson’s poems) were uninteresting, to be honest.”
Year’s later, LaBouff read Dickinson’s poem that begins, “After great pain a formal feeling comes.” The last two lines of the poem reassures the reader that emotional distress can and does pass: “As freezing persons recollect the snow/First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.” The poem proved to be what prompted LaBouff to want to study Dickinson more.
“One poem is all it takes,” LaBouff said. As community members come together to read and discuss Dickinson through the Roswell reads program, LaBouff said she hoped they too would have a similar experience.
“I hope that we all find a poem that we love,” she said.
Heidi Huckabee, coordinator for Roswell Reads, said the program is in its ninth year and it had always focused on novels or biographies — until now.
“We felt poetry was more accessible,” Huckabee said of the decision to focus on Dickinson’s work.
The event also announced the winners of an Emily Dickinson essay contest. The adult winner was Kate Davis. The winner in the 11th- and 12th-grade category was Krista Macias. For 9th and 10th grade, the winner was Gus Liakos.
In the 7th- and 8th-grade category, Fuchsia Sharp received top recognition. In the 5th- and 6th-grade category, Logan Mathison’s essay was chosen as the top contender.
Oldfield said Roswell Reads grows a bit every year. She said that aside from boosting academic success there are not-so obvious ways that reading enhances life, such as by increasing a civic and social sense.
“Books change lives for the better,” Oldfield said. She added that reading is a social equalizer.
“Poor people can read books and rich people can read books.”
Roswell Reads selects one work to be read, discussed, and most important, enjoyed every year. Participants and coordinators will meet several more times to discuss Dickinson in several locations throughout Roswell.
Roswell Reads will provide free materials — including copies of the complete poems of Emily Dickinson — at events. Aside from teacher workshops at the New Mexico Military Institute’s Daniels Leadership Center Saturday at 10 a.m., the next event for all participants will be Tuesday at the Roswell Public Library, from 6 to 7:30 p.m.