“And our new Hands / Learned Gem-Tactics—”

Sep 09 2011

In Eva Heisler’s workshop “Gem-Tactics,” we played with Dickinson’s words and techniques to generate our own “gems,” our own beginnings and pieces of future poems. This wasn’t true sacrilege, as Eva explained, because Dickinson herself enjoyed such play and possibility in the form of her variants. Though many collections edit away these variants, Dickinson herself chose not to choose between these alternatives, but placed them directly below the text.  With these variants in mind, we took famous, often over-used, first lines and quotes from Dickinson’s poetry and combined two or three together. We got such strange lines as “Zero at the Hope” and “I’m a Mermaid! Who Are You?”


Our surprise deepened with the remaining exercises: taking more obscure Dickinson lines and reversing them, according to our own free-associations and near-opposites (rather than binaries); describing a person looking at Emily Dickinson’s iconic portrait and imagining a physical context for the viewing, the time of year, etc., as well as the possible internal monologue of the beholder; making a list of questions to ask Emily Dickinson’s ghost; and, finally, creating a three-part poem with the following sections: 1) Describe Dickinson’s hands doing a concrete action 2) Describe a foreign place 3) Ask Dickinson a question and show that she only partially understood the question from her response.


This last exercise was my favorite because it allowed my mind to create secret connections between the seemingly disparate. All these exercises were useful in, to quote Eva, “getting away from habits of process,” “backing into poems,” and setting “constraints, arbitrary rules to find new pieces of language.” I also appreciated how much closer to Dickinson I felt after the workshop; playing with her words made intimate her crystalline phrasing and faceted legacy.


-Nicola Fucigna, Kore Press Intern, MFA Student at U of A

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