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Emily Dickinson Takes Over Tucson

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Emily Dickinson is all over Tucson, Ariz. Reading, lectures, classroom lessons — it's all part of the Big Read Project, a National Endowment for the Arts project devoted to "inspiring people across the country to pick up a good book." In Tucson, people aren't just picking up Dickinson's poetry books — they're celebrating her in reading, dance and even desserts.

"You don't want to put somebody up on a pedestal and pay homage ... that's not very interesting," says Lisa Bowden with a laugh. Bowden is a publisher and poet, and the organizer of Big Read Tucson.

One of her ideas was to hold open recording sessions for anyone to read Dickinson's poetry and letters. Restaurants and coffee houses then play those recordings to stimulate conversation and creativity.

And why not give those restaurants something to serve? Dickinson was also an accomplished baker. So chefs are making Dickinson-inspired dishes.

"I'm geeked out," says Devon Sanner, chef de cuisine at Janos Restaurant in Tucson. "It's very exciting to ... take my small part in this project."

Sanner (who also has a degree in literature) teamed up with his pastry chef to create a dessert around this poem:

I had been hungry all the years-
My noon had come, to dine-
I, trembling, drew the table near
And touched the curious wine.

Sanner's dessert comes with a copy of the poem, which mentions bread, berries and glass. The chef made bread pudding studded with currants and golden raisins — topped by panes of sugar glass and cassis ice cream. It's just one way to help people connect with the poet's work.

"How do we make her appealing to Tucson in the 21st century?" Bowden asks. "Especially teenagers. How is she relevant to those people's lives?"

Dickinson was famously reclusive and thought of as eccentric. But Bowden thinks she's a natural fit for this citywide celebration of her work. Sure, she was lonely and isolated and an "oddball," Bowden says, but she was also "superbrilliant and really creative and rebellious in her own way."

Today's texting teens may have more in common with Dickinson than they think — 150 years ago, Dickinson was already using unconventional punctuation and capitalization.

Big Read Tuscon has set up an Emily Dickinson hotline — (520) 329-4958 — where community members can call or text their Dickinson inspired work. Some participants have taken Dickinson poems and imagined what they would sound like as modern-day text messages.

This Dickinson poem:

Good night, because we must,
How intricate the dust!
I would go, to know!
Oh incognito!
Saucy, Saucy Seraph
To elude me so!
Father! they won't tell me,
Won't you tell them to?

Might sound like this:

Bye, Bye for now.
Basically in the clear, homie.
Tell it like it is, big beautiful woman.
Got to go.
Parent alert.
I have a question.
Friends forever.

The submissions go up on the Big Read Tucson website. There have been Spanish translations, a chess tournament and a dance performance inspired by Dickinson's poetry.

The Big Read Tucson ends Dec. 10 with a party to celebrate Dickinson's birthday. In the meantime, you can stop by Rocco's Restaurant for a slice of Dickinson-inspired pizza.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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