Most of us who scribble offhand thoughts on the backs of envelopes expect those scraps to end up in a trashcan, not a library display.
But most of us aren’t Emily Dickinson.
The famed 19th century poet had a penchant for writing verses on envelopes—not just tidbits but elaborate creations that artfully turned the papers from mere letter-carriers to bearers of literature themselves. That literature was the subject of a presentation and exhibit at Houghton Library on Thursday evening.
Artist Jen Bervin and scholar Marta Werner gave a talk on the portfolio of prints they recently created of Dickinson’s envelope poetry. The two produced 60 limited-edition artist books with copies of their full-color and full-scale prints of Dickinson’s original manuscripts. The books, which include a guide and an essay by Werner, are sold by Granary Books for $3,500, but the audience at Houghton had the chance to handle the prints for free.
Woodberry Poetry Room curator Christina Davis, who organized the event, spoke to the significance of Bervin and Werner’s work.
“[Their portfolio] is going to be a seminal moment in Dickinson scholarship,” Davis said. “It is going to open up the possibilities for how to confront Dickinson’s work.”
Bervin talked about the visual nature of the manuscripts.
“A poet as visual as Dickinson has a lot of resonance with the way I think about the page visually,” said Bervin, who not only is a visual artist but also holds a master’s degree in poetry. She described her own work on her project with Werner, which is titled “The Gorgeous Nothings,” as a visual representation of Dickinson’s.
“It’s an opportunity to both read and see her manuscripts in the same space,” Bervin said. “And that’s important with her because her manuscripts are so strongly visual.”
Leslie A. Morris, curator of modern books and manuscripts at Houghton Library, said she appreciated the visual take on Dickinson in “The Gorgeous Nothings.”
“It’s always interesting to see a creative artist take something and turn it into something different,” Morris said. “That’s what poets do, really; they take ordinary words, and they turn it into something different. Jen has taken these different physical objects and makes you look at them in a different way, so it’s much of what a poet does, just in a different medium.”
Katherine Paras, an administrative director at Harvard Law School, said she was struck by the beauty of Dickinson’s envelopes more than a century after their creation.
“It was exquisite and really moving—the love of the art and being able to bridge the time between the creation of the art and the study of it,” Paras said.