By Brynn McNab
A few weeks ago, I attended a workshop by Kristien Van Den Brande, a researcher based in Brussels, currently investigating the connection between tools, thinking, and writing. She presented the idea of the “chance support”, and its effect on the subsequent text. Support in this context being the material on which the text was written on. In particular, she spoke about the writing of Emily Dickinson, who often wrote her poetry on scraps of paper, old envelopes, and letters, none of which were published with her permission or attribution during her lifetime.
The archive which she presented is managed by Amherst College, an institution that has long had connections with the Dickinson family. A donation made by Millicent Todd Bingham in 1956 included 850 poems and fragments and 350 letters–the largest collection of Dickinson manuscripts in the world. This archive is entirely available online. There is also a beautiful hardcover book featuring matte facsimiles of many of the envelopes entitled Gorgeous Nothings which is available from New Directions.
If you are familiar with Dickinson’s published poetry, you may know her as romantic, highly concerned with both ephemerality and Eternity (her capitalization, always), and often through the experience of nature. I myself have a much dog-eared copy of her selected poems which I pawed through exhaustively during that era of quiet darkness that girls tend to rise towards before puberty grounds them too much in their own bodies.
from Soul’s Storm:
“I thought that storm was brief,–
The maddest, quickest by;
But Nature lost the date of this,
And left it in the sky.”
from In Vain:
“And were you saved,
And I condemned to be
Where you were not,
That self were hell to me.”
Encountering this voice again, as an adult, was startling. The affective presence of the support, even more so. As a handful of us sat at a table, and transcribed scraps of her handwriting from the digital archives, I gradually began to immerse myself in her cadence. The script itself was at times hurried (as if she were worried the words might have slipped away from her), and others formalized (structured in a sort of contemplation or pause). She provided multiple options for some words, sometimes for whole stanzas. Depending on her mood, she used capital E’s rather than lowercase scripted ones. R’s and V’s were virtually interchangeable.
The envelopes make palpable the absence of the other, of in fact, a reader at all. The writing tapers off towards the end of the triangle, often leaving a single word at the point for her final line. Her correspondence is in a much more formalized cursive, whereas the poems are private, printed in comparison. The writing seems to reflect upon, but shrink away from, communication.
She is hesitant. There are passages crossed out. I wonder what shame she would experience to find them as public domain. There is a doughnut recipe, from Kate, which I dare not try. Some are clearly not poems but observations made poetic by their lines’ brevity. Again, the fault of the support of the writer. A support that is certainly not as widely acknowledged as that of the painter, sculptor, or any other plastic, medium-based form.
Van Den Brande speaks about a Walter Benjamin passage, that compares the writing or transcribing of a poem versus the reading of a poem with flying over a landscape versus walking it. The overall structure is visible from the air, but there are nooks and dips in the path which are only experienced with the perspective associated with the activity of walking. This to me seems like a sentiment with which Dickinson would feel kindred.
I myself have been thinking about the type of writing that occurs when the support is digital, inherently public and communicative. To be brought back to a strictly formalist, materialist plane that is negotiating the same schemes is both admonishing and refreshing. It is as if these stray surfaces have caught vast impulses of information the poet emitted, involuntarily, in a valent net. I see through this collection, and through Van Den Brande’s workshop, that without a doubt the format of support greatly influences the writing. This idea makes the medium of artists’ books rich with possibility, and calls for greater variety in format, and more radical methods and practices of writing. The collection, for me, further calls into question the validity of text produced outside of intent to publish. That we are, in actuality, producing information in the form of text constantly, and that this production of text begs to be considered; is subject to sleuth, is a punctum, a trace.
However, re-writing Dickinson in order to parse her script has muddled me again. Does writing a thing differ so greatly from the reading of it? Can transcription change the way you read? How does one transcribe the digital note? Is all writing even possible to read? What do we really learn from these traces or clues? Yes, we inhabit them in our re-performance. I feel a ghostly intimacy with Dickinson. However, because of this, I am acutely aware of her distance from me, how I insert myself into the text. And I realize we can assume this of any textual medium: in many instances, the polysemous word or the options of diction in these marginalia could just as easily be a loss of connotation or translation in a typewritten text, or of context in a digital one. The constant of ambiguity in language is certainly frustrating, a curse of communication; but it also has the opportunity for potential, for play, and possibly a space for the rendering of the self.
Images courtesy of Amherst College