Smash Pages Q&A: Rosanna Bruno on ‘The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson’

The cartoonist and painter discusses her book, which is about an Emily Dickinson in the present day, complete with Facebook and OkCupid accounts.

In The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson, Rosanna Bruno imagines a present-day Dickinson, or considers the ways in which the habits of the legendary poet would brush up against how contemporary life works, giving her a Facebook page and an OkCupid account and karaoke lists. It’s not simply poking fun at Dickinson, who despite being one of the great modern poets is often considered a recluse. Bruno clearly has read and knows Dickinson’s work and finds interesting ways to play with those ideas and how we think about poetry. Bruno is a painter by training and she spoke about Dickinson, the book, how comics required a different approach from her paintings and more.

When did you first read Emily Dickinson?

I read Dickinson in high school, as most people did. I am still in touch with a couple of my English teachers from that time and one of them mentioned that the curriculum has changed, so I don’t think she is required reading across the board anymore. This is sad! When I first read her words, there was something both jarring and funny about them. We were taught the myth of the poet along with the poems and that confused me. The strange myth of Emily hiding in her room in a white dress writing all day and night did not fit with what I was reading.

Have you always drawn? I know your background is in painting and fine arts, is illustration and comics something you’ve done before?

I was always drawing and making things. It was something I had to do. In kindergarten, my teacher gave me stacks of paper and crayons and let me sit in the corner and draw while everyone else sang songs, etc. As far as comics, this is really my first time exploring that form. I used to do cartoons for the school paper and I did create a few Emily Dickinson cartoons in high school after first reading her poems. I just couldn’t resist. I think drawing and humor has always helped me process and understand things.

How did this book begin? Was it just one comic or how did it begin?

Aside from the first cartoons based on Dickinson I created as a teen, this book began at Yaddo, an artist residency in Saratoga Springs. I was there to work on paintings, but had to switch studios due to an unforeseen issue, so I ended up in a rather grand writer’s room. So what does one do in a room atop a mansion with a long history of fancy writers working there? Cartoons, of course! I just started right in without really knowing that this would develop into a book.

Were you thinking, this is funny but only really die hard Dickinson people will get it? There are a number of comics that I’m honestly not sure how funny they would be for people who don’t know Dickinson. The envelope poems on pages 38-39, for example.

While at this residency, I did have a pretty varied group of creative people, most of whom did not know much about Emily Dickinson, who looked at the cartoons. A few people were serious poets who knew quite a bit about Dickinson’s poetry, as well as her life, so they absolutely loved it and gave me helpful feedback and suggestions. What surprised me was the reaction of those who didn’t know very much about her. They found much of it funny – especially the social media pages. I think the cartoons operate on a number of levels. The Facebook page, for example, can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of their knowledge of Dickinson. But those who do know more, would pick up on references to Judge Otis Lord and they would know that her status updates are actual lines from her poems and letters.

As for the envelope poems, I think it is funny that you singled out those pages. They were a late addition to the book and a compromise on my part. Pages 40-41 were meant to be purely visual experiences of the shapes of the envelope poems. It is my favorite thing about those works. My editor thought they were too abstract and people would not “get it.” In my mind, I didn’t understand why they couldn’t just exist as stand-alone pages depicting beautiful poetry scraps. There have been two books published on these envelopes, so I thought enough people would at least get the visual reference. As a compromise, I did pages 38-39 with the caption that appears on page 40 actually attached to page 39. The editor felt the envelope poems needed to be explained more and carried the caption over to the abstract pages. I think there are many things in the book that would be funny to some and not to others. I don’t worry too much about that.

I guess the converse question when you’re making something like “Emoji Dickinson,” are you thinking, might an unstable English scholar attack me at a public event?

What a great image! I have never imagined such a thing, but it would be exciting, wouldn’t it? Would they throw books at me, do you think? I hope it would be someone who specializes in something really good (and heavy). Interestingly, I was interviewed prior to the book’s publication, by the Emily Dickinson International Society. The interview was published in their bulletin along with four images of cartoons. I felt like I won the nerd lottery with their seal of approval! This does not mean I haven’t gotten flack for my take on Dickinson, because I have. Most of it is on social media and it is not by scholars! I think the scholars, professors, poets, etc. know that a lot of research went into this and that it comes from a good place, regardless of whether they like it or not. A story I like to tell is when my cartoon of Emily’s Facebook page appeared online, on the Facebook page of Emily Dickinson managed by Vintage / Anchor publishers, a few self-proclaimed recluses got very upset about it. While I certainly did not want to offend people with agoraphobia, I think they were missing the point. But this is all part of what happens when you make anything, really. You put it out there, and you don’t know what you’re going to get back.

Having done this book I am curious how your thinking about Dickinson and her work changed over the course of it?

At some point after I turned in the manuscript, I really thought I’d had it with Dickinson! People would see me and ask, “how’s Emily?” I would just sigh and say she was finished. But then The Morgan Library show, “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” opened and I got sucked in all over again. It’s like trying to extricate yourself from the mob – haha, not quite. I recently did an interview with BBC Culture about Emily Dickinson where the journalist asked if I thought the myth of Emily has overshadowed her poetry. Of course I said yes. That is really the gist of this book, so I can say that is one thing I have been thinking and talking a lot about with regard to Dickinson. As for her work, a poet friend recently asked me to help her choose some of Emily’s poems for inclusion in material for The March for Science in D.C. I sat with her poems for hours and was amazed at how many of them speak to much of what we are dealing with in today’s world. I have always thought her work was startlingly contemporary and I think that even more now.

In your paintings, or at least many of the ones I’ve seen, you really seem to be focused on line work and color. They’re very colorful paintings and I wonder what the experience of working with just black and white and gray. Was it a very different experience that required a different approach?

Thanks for taking a look at them. This sounds like a very silly thing to proclaim, but I love color! When I am painting, that is the first thing that happens – I put a color down and then move on from there. I like to use color as the basis for everything in a painting, as it can speak to so much. Many painters will tell you that there is a lot of color within a palette of black, white and gray. A painting with every color of the rainbow can have less color than a black, white and gray ink drawing.

That said, I found the process of drawing these cartoons very different from making a painting. The main difference for me was having to communicate something very specific in an interesting visual way using pared down means. Painting is another language for me and it does not include words. The things I like most about painting are hard to articulate and I want to keep it that way. That’s why I love it. With cartoons and humor, words are the starting point – even if you are making a cartoon without words. I liked the physical difference of working with pen and ink and on a small scale as opposed to the larger scale of my paintings. I liked that every time I sat down at my desk, I had to communicate something very specific. I thought the crispness and clarity of the black ink really helped me do that.

So you made a number of these but how did it become a book?

I met Sarah Funke Butler several years ago through a close friend of mine. She was just beginning to represent books as a literary agent. I told her my idea and she was extremely excited. She was very up front about not knowing a whole lot about Emily Dickinson, so that fact that she loved the idea, made me really happy. I just worked on drawings without any real idea if anything would happen with them. I wasn’t even organizing them in a linear fashion. I just did lots of fragments that eventually made sense to me. She began submitting a proposal to publishers and finally we found Andrews McMeel, who very enthusiastically accepted the book.

What are you working on now? More paintings? Reading other 19th Century poets? What are you thinking about right now?

I am having a hard time focusing lately, truth be told. My fantasy is to do something based on Virginia Woolf, but that fantasy has been around forever, so I am not sure if and when that will materialize. I have been doing some drawings more related to my paintings and writing some. I am working on a more autobiographical piece that may turn into a graphic novel/memoir. I am trying not to categorize it because I find that keeping things nebulous really helps keep it open and surprising for me. This is sort of why I make stuff, so I try to hold onto that playful phase as long as possible before I have to worry about what it is. Oh, and I started a band with a couple of friends  and it’s called The No-Hopers. Emily was deemed a no-hoper by the sisters at Mount Holyoke because she did not believe in the religious teachings at the time. We have performed twice, so maybe we can make it a regular thing.

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