Saving Emily Dickinson From History in Wild Nights With Emily

Molly Shannon and Madeleine Olnek revise the poet's life and loves

Was Emily Dickinson queer and does it matter? Filmmaker Madeleine Olnek says yes and yes: “It matters that she was loved and that her love was for another woman.” This, in a nutshell, is what Olnek’s Wild Nights With Emily hopes to set straight – or queer, if you will.

Molly Shannon debunks the myth of Emily Dickinson as the staid spinster poet in Wild Nights With Emily

The film (which played last year at both SXSW and aGLIFF) stars Molly Shannon as Emily Dickinson and Susan Ziegler as Emily’s sister-in-law and newly suspected long-time lover Susan. It offers a daring yet fun, sweet (and, at times, heart-breaking) portrayal of a woman whom history has long depicted as a “half-cracked, unloved, recluse who was afraid to publish her work,” as summarized in the film’s credits. Under the guise of period-piece comedy, Wild Nights With Emily – about 19th century poet and canon-ness Dickinson – doesn’t just make the case that Dickinson had (more than one) passionate lesbian love affair(s), but was also a highly prolific writer who longed to be published despite male gate-keepers shutting her out at every turn.

Olnek admits she wanted to tell the story of Emily and Susan since 1998 when she read a New York Times article documenting the restoration of Susan’s name to Emily’s original letters (from which Susan’s name was erased). The Times piece also included one of the few love letters with Susan’s name still intact. “I remember being really curious why this story had not been told,” said Olnek, who then dedicated years to researching the poet's life.

Shannon, who attended New York University Drama School with Olnek, came aboard after the filmmaker began sending her pages of the script along with her research. Already, Shannon said she wanted to work with her college friend again, but it was Olnek’s research that convinced her to take the role. “There’s no way I can pass on this,” recalled the comedian of Saturday Night Live fame and countless movies. Shannon, who admitted she decides which roles to take on by asking “does this feel fun?”, said for Wild Nights With Emily the answer was a no-brainer.

But during our phone call, Shannon made clear: there was more to this role than “fun.” Prior to seeing Dickinson’s work as presented by Olenk, Shannon was never interested in Dickinson, often depicted as a lonely, reclusive, and scared woman. Now, Shannon said she feels as if these myths about the poet’s life further “sabotage women and LGBTQ people today who struggle to get their voices heard.” It’s her hope that Wild Nights “sheds a light” on Dickinson as a trailblazer for both the queer community and women writers.

Revising a revisionist history: Molly Shannon and Susan Ziegler in Wild Nights With Emily.

To help the actors reach their own conclusions about the poet, Olnek instructed them to read only Dickinson’s words because – as a quick Google search can confirm – the internet is largely devoid of information pertaining to her suspected lesbianism. Even the work of Martha Nell Smith, the University of Maryland professor who helped uncover Emily and Susan’s relationship and whom Wild Nights With Emily is dedicated to, is difficult to find online. This internet void, said Olnek, “highlights one of the problems” with the web. A sizable amount of research on Dickinson’s life and love was done in feminist press journals that were never digitized, according to the filmmaker (she presumes because they weren’t taken seriously) and therefore remains in analogue. “It hurts us when people go to review the movie,” she added, noting that people question just how much of Wild Nights is fiction versus fact.

But Olnek, who has since created a lengthy press packet, insists “an enormous amount of research” went into making the film, and added: “If this was an easy story to tell someone else would have told it.” (If the press packet, complete with a handful of Dickinson’s unedited poems doesn’t make you question her queerness – I don’t know what will.) Olnek also points to a book published by Susan’s daughter – after Susan’s death – which was dedicated to “the love between Emily and Susan,” as well as another book published in 1951 about Kate Anthon living openly gay. Anthon, played by Allison Lane in the film, is suspected of having a brief affair with Dickinson – and sparks a little drama in the Wild Nights. “Emily,” concluded Olnek, “left a huge trail of these erotic poems written to women.”

So why is it so hard to believe? Olnek answered: “Making the image of Emily as dainty, spinster recluse, made it acceptable to read a women’s poem.” Shannon too noted, referencing more recent film adaptations of Dickinson’s life, that “broken hearted women is still a story that sells.” Certainly movie-goers looking for the victimization of women – and queer – characters wont find those tropes in Wild Nights. Instead they’ll find a witty and complicated love stories, for it’s both a romance between two women, and between Dickinson and her work.

Wild Nights With Emily is in theaters now. For review and listings, see our showtimes pages.

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Wild Nights With Emily, Emily Dickinson, Molly Shannon, Madeleine Olnek, Bio-pics, Poetry, Susan Ziegler

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