Fans of Emily Dickinson gather in Amherst this weekend for a conference arranged by the Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst. Out-of-town attendees will enjoy a series of private lectures, tours and other activities, while being hosted in the homes of local UUA members. But several events are open to the public, so local Dickinson aficionados can join in the study and appreciation of our most celebrated neighbor.
Saturday afternoon, October 14th, a bus tour of significant Dickinson sites leaves from the Unitarian Meetinghouse at 121 North Pleasant Street at about 1:30. Conducted by Carolyn Holstein, co-chair of the conference weekend, the tour will include such highlights as the site of the house the Dickinsons moved to when bankruptcy forced them to temporarily vacate the Homestead; the former site of Amherst Academy, where Emily attended school; previous locations of the First Congregational Church, where the family worshipped; the grist mill where they ground their grain, and the Mabel Loomis Todd house. Those wishing to join the tour should be at the Meetinghouse before 1:30, and a small contribution is requested.
At 4:00 Saturday afternoon, the Jones Library will host a poetry discussion with Dickinson Scholar Jane Donahue Eberwein, editor of An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia and author of Dickinson: Strategies of Limitation.
Saturday evening at 7:30 is a concert and performance at the Unitarian Meetinghouse, which Holstien calls “the highlight of the whole weekend.” It will feature Dickinson poetry set to music by local composer Lloyd Craighill, including three pieces making their world premier. Tenor James Mead will be accompanied by Linda Greenebaum on violin – the violin Craighill created with wood from the elegant Katsura tree that stood in front of Grace Church for more than 100 years. Providence-based actress and Amherst native D’arcy Dersham will then perform selections from William Luce's "The Belle of Amherst." Admission to this event is $8 for adults and $5 for students.
Sunday morning, October 15th wraps up with what Holstein calls “not really a religious service – more of a secular talk” at the Meetinghouse at 10:00 a.m., featuring a presentation by Harrison Gregg entitled “The Show is not the Show – Emily Dickinson as satirist,” as well as readings and choral performances of her poetry.
What is it about the enigmatic Emily that endlessly inspires us today?
Harrison Gregg, who describes himself as “a recovering English major,” is drawn to her poetry for its “commentary on religion, preachers, and society’s sense of position and rank and so forth, in light of the mortality we all share.”
He first became interested in her through a graduate school professor who convened the annual spring walk from the Dickinson Homestead to the family plot at West Cemetery. Gregg eventually began convening that walk himself, which lead to his participating in seminars, workshops and organized discussions of her poetry through the Homestead, which he continues to do. He has presented talks on her poetry to various groups, and addressed the last Emily Dickinson Weekend put on by the UUA two years ago.
While divining her work for meaning and intent may be challenging for many of us, composer Lloyd Craighill says that setting it to music wasn’t so difficult for him.
“The meter is established. The rhythm and patterns are those of the poetry,” he explained. “What’s missing from the poems is melody, so a good part of the work is already done for you.”
The three new pieces he has composed for this event he chose by first studying the play,
“I went through the full text of ‘The Belle of Amherst,’ and picked three poems where the metrical patterns had the greatest clarity for interpreting as song,” he said, adding that he also sought text with which “the singer would be able to project meaning with clarity.”
Those he selected were: Some keep the Sabbath going to church, Will there really be a “Morning,” and This is my letter to the World that never wrote to me.
“I have chosen a rather archaic way of constructing melodies, using modes that were common 800 years ago,” said Craighill, explaining that being limited to major and minor chords requires a lot of harmonization. “If harmony is minimal – such as a solo violin accompaniment – the melodic line needs to be a bit unusual and interesting.”
All are invited to experience the debut of Craighill’s compositions, and to attend these other weekend events. More information is available by calling 253-2848 ext. 1, or by sending e-mail to email@example.com.
-- Stephanie O'Keeffe