My Experiments with Dickinson and the Memorywriter

Monday, April 14th, 2014 by lasu9006

Tonight I went to the MAL to try out a little experiment. In the editor’s note to The Gorgeous Nothings, Jen Bervin encourages her readers to attempt to cut envelopes in the same ways that Dickinson did, so as to understand her industriousness and creativity with her medium. I decided to slice up some envelopes, but also to take my experiment a step further. I wanted to see how the poetry shifts in meaning—or if it shifts at all—once a new medium is introduced. So I revisited my old friend, the Xerox 6016 Memorywriter, and attempted to type Emily’s poetry onto sliced up envelopes, staying as true to her spacing as possible.

The first poem that I attempted to replicate (what a loaded word replicate is) was A202, which is on page 53.

Here is a picture, taken hastily with my phone, of that replication. So far, there are already so many mediating devices present in this experiment: the envelope, the pencil, the typewriter, the scanner, the book, the phone…. But more on that later.


A 202 (p. 53)

It didn’t come out so hot. I had a particularly difficult time because I had no way (that I know of) to increase the text size of my typewritten text. Therefore, no matter how I spaced the words or letters, the spacing still was not recognizably analogous to Emily’s sprawling scrawl. But this first transcription did give me some practice on how to manipulate text using the Memorywriter.

Because I had a difficult time with Emily’s larger handwriting in A 202, I next tried to reproduce A367, which featured tight, miniscule text. I was drawn to A 367 too because it was originally written on an envelope that had been flayed in a pretty cool way. So I set about slicing up my own envelope, and it was so neat to see how Emily did it, because I don’t think an ordinary, contemporary person would think to cut and open the envelope in that way. I sliced it down the two sides of the envelope, so that the center kind of yawned open. I didn’t have a pocketknife with me, so my cut isn’t nearly as fastidious as Emily’s. But in cutting it myself, I felt a connection to the paper in a way that I haven’t felt since first learning to make an origami paper crane. Paper is so multidimensional, so manipulatable. It’s so flat and blank and open, and so physically shapeable. It’s a vessel.

Here’s my replication of A 367: 


A 367 (p. 105)

I’m realizing now that the pictures aren’t very clear–apologies! I’ll bring my replications to class tomorrow in case anyone wants a better look. 

This project showed me the extent to which Emily was engaged with her medium, and the extent of her intimacy with it. My project features a fundamental departure from Emily’s work in that my envelopes were unused. I can only imagine how the medium and its message would shift with the use of envelopes that had traveled, had been physically handled by others, that bore the mark of another human, of a friend or loved one.

I lastly attempted to transcribe A 449, because I had a leftover triangular flap from attempting to replicate A 317 (which I severely fouled up, hence why that transcription is not featured here). Once again, I could feel Emily’s thoroughness. I could understand in a more physical sense why she would reach for a triangle piece, why she would cut the envelopes at all. There’s a sense of utility, but also of intrigue. Little paper triangles beg to be written on.


I think that I had the best luck with A 449. I folded the triangle in half and drew the little bisecting line before typing, and I think that helped me to feel more connected to the piece of paper, as odd as that sounds. The typewriter interferes in very challenging ways. I found it difficult to know where exactly the text would appear on the paper. Also, the envelope scraps, being oddly shaped, often got jammed up in the typewriter, causing them to tear and crinkle. The typewriter presented plenty of limitations, but it also presented interesting opportunities as well. For example, since I had no way to illustrate a cross out (when I was transcribing A 202), I instead typed a bunch of letters on top of each other.

Before doing these experiments, I had just finished the Benjamin piece, so I was very conscious of the amount of replication and mediation I was introducing to my project. I was reproducing that which had already been reproduced. I wasn’t sure if I should feel…bad for engaging in flagrant reproduction of art. And I am fully aware that my tawdry reproductions of Emily’s originals (not that I’ve seen the originals, but you know what I mean) in no way reproduce the “aura” of those originals. But I still feel that my experiments were useful in that they i got me thinking critically about artistic reproduction, and about what is lost or gained when art is mediated and reproduced.


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