The Big Read Blog (Archive)

In the Community: The Big Read Tucson Brings Dickinson?s Words Into the Dance Studio

Tucson, Arizona

Dancer and writer Kimi Eisele. Photo by Jade Beall

Great writers are said to "make words dance," but in Tucson, Arizona, two artists are teaching their community to make dance from words. As part of Kore Press?s Big Read, dancer/writer Kimi Eisele and poet/publisher Lisa Bowden will lead ?A Glee Possesseth Me: Making Dance Out of Poem,? a workshop that will use movement to give participants a greater understanding of Emily Dickinson?s poetry. I spoke with the artists by email to learn more about the relationship between words and movement and why Dickinson?s poetry is especially useful for this exercise.

NEA: Can you tell me more about this workshop and how you developed the idea for it?

KIMI EISELE: The workshop was a natural step based on work I've been doing for years exploring ways to combine words and movement. Several years ago I began using a method called "Moving Stories," which pulled from work I'd done as an editor/mentor helping teen writers tell their stories and the tried-and-true techniques of Liz Lerman's Dance Exchange and Bill T. Jones. I am interested in the many ways we can create movement from words and also the ways movement can help us access words, whether those be words that share personal memories, momentary insights, or flash poems of beauty or even horror. I've used these techniques in the development of several performance projects at New ARTiculations Dance Theatre involving community performers, using dance to illuminate timely issues such as the food system, urban revitalization, and gay marriage. I've also used it extensively in my work as a teaching artist, having found that adding movement to any writing or poetry experience is particularly effective in engaging young people.

For this workshop, we wanted to give the community a window into some of the process we've been using to create works for "If My Verse Is Alive...," the evening-length performance we are creating about the life and poetry of Emily Dickinson. We live in a community where the audience for modern dance is somewhat limited. We have a strong literary community here, and while there are some dance patrons, my observation is that by and large many people (even artists working in other genres) feel alienated or confused by contemporary dance. That is such a shame. So part of the impetus for this workshop was to invite people to have a more intimate, personal experience with movement vis-a-vis poetry, in order that they perhaps expand their appreciation not only of performance, but also of their own ability to dance and express things with the body.

LISA BOWDEN: Kimi and I are part of the Movement Salon ensemble so we have worked together for about three years making time-based improvisational compositions with dance, language, and sound artists in the studio and in performance. We also have collaborated together using dance and writing as co-directors of a 25-artist, site-specific, series of improvisational explorations of public spaces in downtown Tucson. Getting artists together from different genres to create work is super compelling for me, and that is why I curated the Kore Big Read with dancers, musicians, and visual artists, in addition to slam poets, writers, scholars, as well as readers. As a poet interested in the body's role in writing, and someone who uses both movement and words in my ensemble work, working with Kimi on "A Glee Possesseth Me" was a natural extension. She and I had talked about how to make both the dance-making process and the poems of Dickinson more accessible, and so we paired them up. Unveiling the mystery of art-making and poem-reading---it helps to develop all kinds of literacies in our community, and brings lots of joy. What does this poem, phrase, or word "feel" like? Where is it in your body? How does it make you want to move? Jorie Graham talks about how lots of people are afraid of poetry---they feel they can't read it and "get it" on their own, that they need it explained or taught to them. Well, a lot of teachers feel that way, too. This workshop, along with the other Big Read projects, are designed to bring you up close and personal to Dickinson's poems, to encourage folks to get to know them through their own experiences with them. What better way to do that than with your own body? There are no wrong answers! Graham also talks about how in the French school system you grow up learning poetry by heart and reciting it in each grade in order to pass to the next level, no matter what you are studying. Learning poems by heart and reciting them out loud makes you know them in your bones and they become part of you. It's a different kind of understanding that is a great to share.

Lisa Bowden, poet and publisher and co-founder of Kore Press. Photo by Krista Niles

NEA: How will this workshop give participants new insight into Emily Dickinson's poetry? Is there anything particular about Emily Dickinson's poetry that lends itself to this sort of exercise?

EISELE: For me, dance, particularly modern dance, and poetry are very aligned in terms of process and expression. In poetry, we create an arrangement of words to convey a feeling, an image, an occurrence, attending to the sound and rhythm of those words. That's also what we do in dance/choreography. Emily Dickinson's poetry is robust and compressed, all at once. It deals with the macro (death, love, light) and the micro (insects, flowers, interiors). The body can also tune into things great and small. The breath alone is both gigantic and miniscule, for instance. In the workshop, we hope to give people a visceral, bodily experience of Emily's words, rhythms, and expressions, so that they might gain a deeper understanding of who she was and how she worked. Of course, we cannot know any of that for sure, but by embodying some of her poems, we can perhaps feel our own way into them, relating our own experience to hers in a very tangible and sensory way. We want to invite people to then re-translate that bodily experience into their own explosive and compressed poetry.

BOWDEN: If we are close reading poems and getting to know lines with our bodies, breath, and movement, I think we'll all walk away from that experience feeling much closer to Dickinson---her person and her poems, or letters. She does have a lot of breath in her work---those long dashes---and music. Dancers often move to sound, so what would it look like to move to the sound of her poems as a sonic landscape?

There's so much to do with enacting space in Emily Dickinson's poems, and so much that is visceral. She seemed to breathe and live with her work as she did with her furniture or family. So much dailiness, the more you read her, the more time you seem to spend with her in her days. Getting to know the poet through their poetry, through the body.

NEA: Do you feel there are similarities between the process of creating a dance and the process of writing a poem?

EISELE: In some ways, yes. Choreographing using other dancers is a little like choosing words and arranging them. But the words are malleable, changeable, and moving! And because they are other people, you have less control...or rather, you get to be surprised by the inherent nature of a word, i.e. a dancer and the particular way she interprets a movement. I'm not a precision choreographer, so I like that variation and am delighted by it.

When it comes to composing for/on myself in movement, I do that mostly in my weekly improvisation practice, which I do in an ensemble with other dancers and some poets. To me, the process of improvising movement---following impulses, exploring particular sensations, finding ways to move a particular theme or concept---is very much like finding my way into a poem. I experiment with movement, in the same way I might experiment with a set of words, trying various combinations, listening deeply, and responding to an internal gauge to steer me. In that kind of ephemeral composition, I've also explored spontaneous spoken poetry quite a bit, letting words come from the movement that either I'm doing or that someone else is doing. It's interesting that with both poetry and movement you can interpret both broad, abstract strokes and tiny, specific points, often all at once.

I enjoy the solitude of writing a poem and the joy of letting a word reveal itself that arises in that solitude. I love watching a page go from blank to "colored" with words, images, and concepts. I love the equivalent of that process in choreography---watching an idea or word or concept come alive with the body. I also love the collaborative nature of dance-making. I have brought that sense of play and collaboration to writing experiences, with many people sitting in a public place composing poetry together. I love borrowed lines and gifted words and the poetry chorus that comes out of group writing.

BOWDEN: As a language artist and kinesthetic learner, I love thinking about how a syllable or phrase is carried in the body, how a poem feels, the weight words have on a page, how much space they take up in the mouth, in the ear, in the room and the mind. The writing or poem-making process feels very different to me than movement making, and I am not a trained dancer, but I do move and work creatively with my body. I think the improvisational composing process is more akin to developing a poem as you follow what is there, what has resonance, good timing, shape, and interest. And then you follow it.

NEA: Have you had any other experiences with using a piece of art to inspire another art work in a completely different genre?

EISELE: Hmmm. I don't think so. Dance and words, mostly.

BOWDEN: I write ekphrastically off of visual art and write through, with, or in response to music.

NEA: Anything else you want to share about this project or your Big Read program?

EISELE: It's been exciting to read Emily Dickinson so closely. I think that if I were not making dances based on her life and work, I would not be reading her in the same way. Certainly not as deeply and certainly not in a way that would have me looking for where she or her words "move." But by bringing the body into my reading, I'm reading her poetry and connecting to who she was---or at least how I interpret who she was---in a very visceral, sensorial way. I think all of the dancers I'm working with in the project are having a similar experience. We are bringing her verse to life, literally, through our own bodies. That seems particularly significant for a program that is hoping to inspire a community to read and appreciate a writer who was never read until after her death.

BOWDEN: It is a thrill to see so many artists' imaginations ignited by the work of a poet who was unknown in her lifetime. In addition to dance artists like Kimi Eisele and other New ARTiculations dancers, there are 40 other local geniuses helping to make Kore's Big Read exciting and unique here in Tucson. We have scholars, teachers, librarians, arts, and literacy organizers, slam poets, pastry chefs, musicians, DJs, sound engineers, graphic artists, MFA students, high school and middle school kids, writers, a visiting poet/art critic from Germany, visual artists, chess players, bartenders, pizza joint owners, and other businesses partnering here in Tucson to light up the city with the writer's visionary words. You can get a poem on a coaster when you order a beer at The Shanty or with a dessert at Feast restaurant designed after one of Dickinson's 19th-century recipes. You can read a poem posted among the ads while riding the public bus system, or hear one broadcast on the public radio station or piped into local cafes as part of a mix made by a local DJ. Ambient Emily D.---for ten weeks, she will be everywhere!

?A Glee Possesseth Me: Making Dance out of Poem? will take place on Saturday, October 15, 2011, from 10 a.m.?noon. For more information, visit the Kore Press?s website.

Want to bring The Big Read to your community? The Big Read is now accepting applications from not-for-profit organizations to develop community-wide reading programs between September 2012 and June 2013. Visit The Big Read website for guidelines and application instructions.

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