‘Dickinson’ uses Civil War to explore modern divisions
“Dickinson,” the trippy, playful and deeply passionate Apple TV + series about poet Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld), has always been more than Dickinson herself. Women and creativity, sexuality, fame, privilege, race, art as a bulwark against despair – the show addresses it all.
“From the start, it was about using 19th century events to mirror unexpectedly to where we are today,” said Alena Smith, designer and showrunner, recently.
The third and final season, which started last week and will end on December 24, begins with the approach of Civil War. This was an extraordinarily productive time for the poet, although she remained, as always, at home in Amherst, Mass. It also marked the beginning of his correspondence with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an abolitionist writer and activist, whose post of colonel of the The First Authorized Regiment of Former Union Army Slaves gave Smith a historical foundation. for a modern discussion of race relations.
Season 3 was developed on Zoom by writers across the country. As the world froze in the spring of 2020, Smith, her husband and their toddler twins drove to her parents’ home in the Hudson Valley. The parallels between her and Dickinson – who never left her childhood home – were all too striking.
“I was writing in my parents’ basement in the middle of the countryside,” Smith said on a video call from Los Angeles. “Sometimes I saw a little snake or a bird in front of my window; once a mouse crossed the room. I was like, ‘It’s a little too much cosplay, even for me.’ “
In the interview, Smith also discussed the craziness of Dickinson’s poetry and the parallels between the Covid-19 pandemic and the Civil War. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
What made you want to do a semi-comedy series on Emily Dickinson?
I’ve been a fan of Emily Dickinson’s poetry since high school. When I went to college, I really reacted to his life story. How did this privileged New England woman become this rocket of passion that does things in language that no one has done before, or has never done since?
It spoke to me so much that she was able to engage so fiercely in her process without apparently getting any validation. This is basically how you feel when you are a young writer.
I use the story to tell my own coming of age story. I’m building a real factual collage of Emily that’s sort of secretly about me – how I felt growing up in the context of my own family and politics, wanting to be a writer and feeling like I had to fight for that to happen. one way or another.
Each episode of the series takes its title from a poem by Dickinson. How do you use poetry to make bigger points?
An academic named Ann Douglas once said that Dickinson’s poems are like scripts. This turned out to be true on our show. His poems are these hooks, with these first lines – “You can’t put out a fire”, “Because I couldn’t stop for death” – and you immediately start to wonder, what kind of drama is playing out here?
It is important to remember that I am not actually posting anything [about the poems’ origins]. What I’m doing is allowing the spirit of these poems to come to life in the context of a show that really aims to use the life and times of Emily Dickinson to hold a mirror up. ‘where we are today.
The third season directly addresses the contemporary issues of the breed. How did you, as a white woman, approach the subject?
The first thing was that I, and the show, never played it safe. The second thing was to make sure we had bright minds from a wide range of diverse perspectives. I’ve always pushed for representation at all levels – from the writers’ room to who was in front of the camera and who was behind the camera – that didn’t fall into the cis white man’s bucket.
Truth from abroad [the former slave who campaigned for civil and women’s rights, and who is played by Ziwe Fumudoh] appears in two episodes, and both were directed by women of color. Fortunately, Ziwe was in our writers’ room. I contacted her via DM on Twitter, being a fan of her comedy for years. I knew she was a crazy fool like me. We built this Sojourner Truth character together, for her.
To create the character of Higginson, I asked all the writers to come to me with white activism and white ally jargon. And we made lists of fun things like “bandwidth” and “leave space”. We had fun because we also had these conversations in reality.
I do not have the answers to all of these questions. But the important thing for me is that you can’t write about the American experience without writing about race.
How did you decide to stick to historical facts?
I spent almost 10 years immersed in Dickinson. I’ve read almost all the biographies and a ton of literary theory on his work. There isn’t much of interest to Emily Dickinson. So I was basically looking for gold, and when I found gold I would always use it. Everything that happens in the series has to do with the facts.
But the rule was not to do a normal biopic, and much of the drama is drawn from the literary theory around Emily’s poems. In some ways, it’s a dramatization of literary theory. You could read a lot of interesting essays on Emily Dickinson’s relationship to war, poetically as well as historically. Were his poems about war? They are so oblique and so filled with metaphors that we cannot quite tell. This show operates in a metaphorical and poetic space.
Throughout the series, Emily struggles with questions about how to make sense of her poetry. How does it go in the third season?
Season 3 is about legacy and the ability of art to give hope. Emily can’t tell if her art matters to anyone else – not in terms of fame, but in terms of whether it can help them feel better during those dark days.
Writing is an act of communication, and that’s the paradox at Emily’s heart – while we view her as that absolute loner, no writer can be satisfied as a loner. To write is to ask someone to listen. You write for someone else even if it’s just someone you ask to understand you. In some ways, Emily’s whole life was about being understood. She’s desperate to connect, and in Season 3, she clings to her foundational bonds, to her family, for life.
How has the pandemic changed your plans for the new season?
It is not news that the causes of civil war are still playing out in our society. I knew when I started writing “Dickinson” that part of the show was going to be about that.
But of course, what we didn’t know was that there would be a pandemic, and that it would have echoes of the Civil War, when the grief escalated to a degree that no one in America did. had never known before. While filming Season 2, I took a Civil War History class that met at a Brooklyn bar on Wednesday night. It was there that I learned that when the Civil War began, people thought it would be over soon. And then it lasted four years.
The part where Emily’s dad says, “If this had happened to me in my twenties, I probably would have killed myself” – that’s something an actor’s dad told them during the pandemic.
In the new season, the character of Death, played by rapper Wiz Khalifa, becomes something of a replacement for all of us.
When we find Death in season 3, he is exhausted. He lost his creative mojo because there is too much death. Death is a workaholic, a bit like Emily and a bit like me. He’s sort of exhausted. We were all feeling exhausted at this point, just like Death was, and there was that kind of sadness setting in.
The show always had this aesthetic that was dark but cold. And that was the vibe of our writers’ room: dark but cold.