Spring 2015 was my first semester at the University of Arizona as a transfer student from Pima Community College. I had recently made the bold decision to follow my heart and major in English Literature at the age of twenty-six after working for over five years in the beauty retail industry. I had graduated from beauty school and earned my aesthetics license in 2007 with the hopes of helping others feel beautiful in their skin, but unfortunately timing and the economy had other things in store and I found myself working behind a makeup counter instead. Now while I did learn a lot about myself and the business side of this industry, and I met some amazing people along the way, with the ever changing face of retail and pressures to make sales figures, I could tell that my heart was no longer in my work.
So on the evening of April 30, 2015, in the depths of work uncertainty and contemplating my future, I ventured to the University of Arizona Poetry Center for a reading by Jen Bervin who would be discussing her work and contributions for the recently published book The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems.
Jen’s opening remarks revealed how it was at the Poetry Center where she listened to her first poetry reading, and briefly described herself during that time as having recently graduated from college and feeling like a kind of “refugee” as she was in the midst of trying to figure out what she was going to do next: “[I was] very much in need of what this place has to offer.” It was greatly evident throughout her lecture that it was an honor for her to be standing here now to discuss her recent work, and the warmth and gratitude of this moment was infectious as I sat and listened attentively for the next hour.
In discussing the envelope writings of Emily Dickinson, Jen spoke about how some scholars still refer to them as simply “scraps”, but that she would define them as a “small fabric” reciting the verse on envelope A 636: “Excuse / Emily and / her Atoms / The North / Star is / of small / fabric but it / implies / much / presides / yet” (Dickinson Gorgeous Nothings 160-161). While Jen recited, an image of the envelope was projected onto the screen behind her, so that the audience was given both the verbal and visual beauty of the fragments. One could see the delicate, small pencil scrawling of Dickinson and reflect back to Higginsons’s comparison of Dickinson’s handwriting to that of “bird tracks.” Earlier Jen had spoken about the process in which Dickinson would cut, open and ultimately reshape the envelope, emphasizing this manipulation with an image of Emily Dickinson’s lap desk and its wooden surface covered with fine cuts. This process displays the planning and effort that went into Dickinson’s writing, stressing how it was not simply her grabbing scraps when a moment of inspiration struck, but rather reaching for the ready materials at hand.
“When we say small, we often mean less. When Emily Dickinson says small, she means fabric, Atoms, the North Star.” - Jen Bervin
After the brief lecture and Q&A I waited patiently in line to get my book signed, holding my copy of Gorgeous Nothings close – easy to do with its coffee-table sized dimensions – and felt a great sense of excitement as the past hour only reaffirmed that I was in the right place; the academic anxieties I had been experiencing earlier in the day had dissolved. As I approached the signing table Jen smiled brightly at me, and I was pleasantly surprised when she suddenly extended her hand out to shake mine and formally introduce herself: “Hi, I’m Jen” she smiled, and I quickly introduced myself, briefly telling her that I was a student majoring in English Literature, trying to navigate my life both inside and outside of school, and how I could relate to what she said about the Poetry Center providing a kind of guiding force. I was deeply touched by her attentiveness (“Wow she’s actually listening to me and appears to care!”) and her sweet smile and words about how special the space of the Poetry Center is and how she hoped I would continue to follow my heart for literature.
I couldn't have realized it at the time, but for the next two years I would reflect back on this evening’s events for both solace and inspiration. I also would have no idea that a year later, Spring 2016, I would be working closely with this book for my junior pro-seminar project, where I would have to put these fragments of Emily Dickinson’s envelope writings together to produce a sound that could be heard, while also trying to find my own voice. During this time, however, I experienced an unexpected family loss. As anyone who has had to endure the sudden loss of a close family member can understand, a shroud of grief and great loss consumed me. But being in the middle of a school semester I immediately poured myself back into my studies, hoping to lose my grief between the pages of assigned readings, The Gorgeous Nothings fortunately being one of them.
Immersing myself in the process of analyzing Dickinson’s envelope writings was like a healing tonic as I slowly but surely put the loose fragments of paper together and discovered that by reshaping and reconstructing the fragments of household items available to her, Dickinson had created a sacred space in which to transcribe her words within the small surfaces, a delicate voice that demands to be heard.
A 320: “One note from / One Bird / is better than / a million words / A scabbard / needs / has – holds / but one / sword” (Dickinson Gorgeous Nothings 82-83).
Reflecting on all of this presently only reaffirms what the Poetry Center represents to me as both a student and a writer. The Poetry Center may appear to be small in scale when compared to other buildings that stand on the vast campus of the University of Arizona, but I believe everyone who has had the pleasure of walking through the door and taking in the sight of its abundant collection of poetry, floor to ceiling windows, and peaceful atmosphere, will agree on the majesty that is felt when standing within the space of the center’s walls. As a student, the Poetry Center has been my North Star, providing me guidance while in the midst of uncertainty, solace when in the middle of midterms and finals, as well as a small haven when I need a place to go for a few hours in between classes. It’s also the place where I have had the privilege of participating in education programs like Family Days and Writing the Community, which allows me to teach the values of writing poetry in a third grade classroom at a local public school. It has been an exceptionally enlightening experience as it has allowed me to learn from mentors, students and teachers, as well as gain valuable insights into how I may help others. With one year left to go until I graduate, and an Honors Thesis underway, I know I have a space to turn to when a need arises.
A 252: “In this short Life / that only [merely] lasts an hour / How much – how / little – is / within our / power” (Dickinson Gorgeous Nothings 62-63).
Samantha Montes recently took part in the Writing the Community course at the University of Arizona Poetry Center.