The Academy of American Poets in partnership with the Housing Works Bookstore Café in New York City presents a free conversation series each fall exploring how different art forms engage with poetry. These conversations pair some of today’s most celebrated poets with accomplished artists from other disciplines. On November 13, 2019, the series featured a conversation about the life and work of Emily Dickinson with poet Marie Howe, author of Magdalene and The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, and Madeleine Olnek, director of the 2018 film Wild Nights with Emily. Read Academy of American Poets Executive Director Jennifer Benka’s introduction and listen to an audio recording of the event.


Tonight we’re excited to present a poet—Marie Howe— and a playwright and filmmaker— Madeleine Olnek— both recipients of Fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation whose work speaks to Emily Dickinson’s legacy and impact on American poetry and culture. 

Marie is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, the former NY State Poet Laureate, and the author of the poetry collections Magdalene, which was long-listed for the National Book Award; The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; What the Living Do; and The Good Thief, which was selected by Margaret Atwood for the 1987 National Poetry Series.

The poet Stanley Kunitz described Marie’s poetry as "luminous, intense, and eloquent, rooted in an abundant inner life”— which sounds like it could have been said of Emily Dickinson, right?

She writes in her poem, “The Moment”

The whir of I should be, I should be, I should be 

slows to silence,

the white cotton curtains hanging still.

Marie’s ability to distill experience and present it on the page with startling honesty places her work in conversation with Dickinson, who modeled for us an ability to turn inwards— like an astronomer of self. Through poetry, we can not only imagine new worlds—and new ways of being in the world together— we can also discover the heart of our own matter. 

Madeleine is the author of more than 20 plays and the creator of feature films including “The Foxy Merkins” and “Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same,” which premiered at Sundance and was screened at MoMa. Her film “Wild Nights With Emily,” a comedy/drama about Emily Dickinson starring Molly Shannon, was released last March. 

The film presents a version of Emily in sharp contrast to the isolated, shut-in spinster of Amherst. Madeleine’s Emily is an ambitious, assertive, playful, queer woman in lifelong love with her sister-in-law, Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson.

A few scholars and writers have found substantial evidence to support this portrait of Emily and the fact that her queerness was obfuscated by Mabel Loomis Todd who sought to make a name for herself as the editor and publisher of the poet’s work—

from The Riddle of Emily Dickinson by Rebecca Patterson, published in 1951; to Open Me Carefully by Martha Nell Smith, published in 1998; to Figuring by Maria Popova, published earlier this year. 

It is more than possible that Emily wrote her poem #249, which begins, “Wild Nights! Wild Nights” to Sue:

Rowing in Eden –

Ah, the sea!

Might I moor – Tonight –

In thee!

Here tonight to talk more about poetry, film, and Emily Dickinson, please welcome Marie and Madeleine!