My Year With Emily
– Essay & Poem by Daniel Gleason –
Around the second week of April 2020, I realized that my relationship with Twitter needed an intervention. The World Health Organization had declared COVID-19 a pandemic only a few weeks prior, and like many people, I was charting a new normal. As an English professor abruptly shifting from face-to-face teaching to distance learning, I had more than ever to do, but somehow more difficulty filling the time in the increasingly sprawling days. I found myself taking more breaks from work on Twitter, but those sessions were becoming mindless scrolling, eyes glazed not reading the words that drifted past. On my feed snippets of text and fleeting images flashed as I rhythmically flicked my forefinger across The Chronicle of Higher Education, gestures of frantic political punditry, and debut authors promoting their books—all of which I barely saw and left me feeling as more isolated and less engaged with the world than before I had logged on. I was ripe for redirection.
For one of the courses I was teaching, I had my students participating in National Poetry Writing Month, and through that program, I stumbled upon the weird and wonderful world of poetry Twitter bots including accounts featuring Sylvia Plath, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Richard Siken. I didn’t know exactly what a bot was (I’m still not entirely sure how they work), but I became fascinated by how these accounts generated lovely distillations of poetic inspiration daily. I wondered if I could create something in a similar vein that could function as a personal intervention, something that I could tinker with as a break from work, something that felt enlivening rather than lobotomizing. What I created become @yearemily.
@yearemily is an account that tweets the entire body of Emily Dickinson’s work in 365 days, and it’s far from being a bot. I tweet every line and word in the order they were written. Dickinson wrote that “Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind.” With this account, I’m trying to use 240 characters or less at a time to gradually dazzle myself and anyone interested in following.
Before committing to the project, I needed to see if it was feasible. Time for some math. Emily Dickinson wrote 1,789 poems that we know of. In R.W. Franklin’s beautifully arranged edition, they comprise about 636 pages. Based on roughly 32 lines per page, that worked out to tweeting about 52 lines per day to complete Dickinson’s oeuvre in a year. Fortunately, Dickinson’s line length (usually iambic tetrameter trimeter) and her heavy use of quatrains, make it possible to compose a tweet that contains a singular thought and still preserves original lineation. I was surprised to discover that typing the poems into a google doc and copying and pasting them into tweetdeck for preloaded delivery amounted to only about 15 minutes a day. There it was: my intervention. Rather than zoning out on Twitter flotsam and jetsam, I’d zone in on Emily Dickinson, and perhaps my intervention might become someone else’s as well.
Despite being a century and a half removed from us, something about Emily Dickinson uniquely speaks to contemporary readers. Even those who have nearly no exposure to literature recognize her name and have at least a vague sense of her mystique. I witnessed Dickinson’s ability to enthrall when I taught her work for years to teenagers in rural Tennessee. They may have been bored with almost every other author in the 11th grade textbook, but something about Dickinson consistently resonated. Perhaps her self-confidence paired with eccentricity hit home for them in an aspirational way. Perhaps her exclusivity (“The Soul selects her own Society / Then shuts the Door”) reminded them of searching for their cliques at cafeteria tables every day.
But Dickinson’s solitude seems to be the most resonate aspect of her work. She is America’s most famous recluse who became known for wearing a white dress and refusing to allow even her own doctor to see her face to face for treatments. Dickinson knew her poems were of the highest caliber, but she often indicated that she wished to receive her laurels after death rather than experience the intrusion of readers seeing into her soul while she was still alive. Dickinson once opined, “Publication — is the Auction / Of the Mind.” Privacy and solitude were an art form perfected by Dickinson, an art form that many of us desperately need lessons in during these lockdowns and shelter in place orders.
As I approach 1/3 of a year for @yearemily, I’m stepping back to see what I’ve learned and to take stock of what effect this project is having on me. For one, my relationship with Twitter has changed a lot. I’m definitely not on it less, but hopefully I’m on it in a way that heightens my senses rather than dulls them. Most significantly, though, I’ve noticed a change in my relationship to typing, which I didn’t expect. Typically, my typing consists of rapid fire email missives or hastily written “strengths” and “areas to strengthen” as feedback on student papers. Typing Emily Dickinson’s poems is a totally different experience. I have to slow down to catch all those em dashes and eccentric spellings. I have to fix my eyes primarily on the paper and ink of the book I’m using rather than on the screen. I’ve learned that accuracy, not urgency, yields speed. Along with the balm of Emily Dickinson’s hauntingly beautiful content, the physical act, the soothing rhythm, the predictable certainty and control of fingers on a keyboard provides a kind of salve for these unpredictable and isolating times.
When I started @yearemily, I figured that by August, COVID-19 would be a dim memory, and that I’d complete the project as a feat of endurance, but as we march on, I’m beginning to reconfigure my aims. What will I need from @yearemily after the 365 days are over? Perhaps year two could be a chance to dive deeper, retool the format, and invest further in interacting with likeminded souls on the platform. Whatever comes next online and in real life, I’m sure Emily Dickinson will be more than ready to rise to the occasion for as long as we need her.
Elegy for my 8th Grade Typing Teacher
What I do remember is the sound
of 40 hands clacking on white keyboards
that faded into a mantra—OM—
home row lulling hormonal minds and bodies
into a state of ease, even of pleasure
for 50 minutes to start the day.
We learned to wait to correct our errors,
how to keep our eyes on the source, not the screen,
that our posture would yield our product.
Our teacher seemed invisible, a voice
without a body that rarely even spoke.
Still, she fostered a billion future key strokes.
What does it take to be a teacher
who doesn’t mind being erased
so long as what’s being taught stays in place?
Dr. Daniel Gleason is an Associate Professor of English, Humanities Department Chair
Director at Bryan College, in Dayton Tennessee.