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from issue 6

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Seal, Dickinson Family Artifact, Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Photo by Yongyu Chen.

Anti-letters: Editors’ Foreword

This folio was originally inspired by the so-called “Master” Letters of Emily Dickinson: a set of three mysterious, unmailed missives to an unknown recipient, discovered posthumously among Emily Dickinson’s poems. These letters were not kept with Dickinson’s correspondence, which her sister Lavinia destroyed upon discovery. Theories about the identity of Dickinson’s “Master”—often thought a potential lover—tend to dominate critical and popular interest surrounding these three documents. Adjacent to the search for Dickinson’s addressee, Ralph William Franklin in the introduction to the facsimile edition of The Master Letters of Emily Dickinson (Amherst College Press, 1986) declares curtly that “Dickinson did not write letters as a fictional genre”.  Why would Franklin open with such a defensive claim? Because someone else had just claimed the opposite.


The year prior in My Emily Dickinson (North Atlantic Books, 1985), Susan Howe proposed that readers, rather than invariably focusing on the possible identity of the Master letters’ addressee, should instead attend closely to the letters’ structure—their wording, imagery, and ideas—in relation to Dickinson’s known literary influences. The language Dickinson uses in these three letters is urgent and strange. “I used to think when I died— / I could see you— so I died / as fast as I could[.]” Dickinson’s voice turns as it might turn in a poem; she performs meekness, then she commands: “Say I may wait for you—”; “You make me say it over—”;“you know what a leech is, don't / you—”; or below, “Listen again, Master”:

You ask me what

my flowers said—

then they were

disobedient—I gave

them messages—

They said what the

lips in the West, say,

when the sun goes

down, and so says

the Dawn—

Listen again, Master—

I did not tell you that

today had been the

Sabbath Day.

As Howe controversially points out, we have no evidence that the Master letters, written during the years when Dickinson was “at the height of her creative drive,” were ever actually sent to a recipient. We should therefore pay primary attention to the way in which Dickinson uses the epistolary form to imitate or innovate, or trace similarities in

tone, voice, and image between the Master Letters and epistolary examples from the sources Dickinson was reading. Instead of restricting ourselves to reading the Master Letters as hysterical outpourings of a spurned woman to her lover, Howe suggests that we consider them first as “self-conscious exercises in prose by one writer playing with, listening to, and learning from others.”

This folio of Anti-letters developed out of thinking about Dickinson’s Master Letters as creative exercises that produce organic new forms: forms used by the artist for something other than their originally intended function. How can other instances of writing that we might consider “personal”— letters, diary entries, lists, marginalia—function similarly to the Master Letters? How, alongside a purported mundane or private purpose, can they work as creative exercises originally unintended for an audience?

As you might expect, most writers responded to this inquiry about their creative process with enthusiasm—and very differently from each other. Jane Miller’s two pieces titled “The Elusive Pursuit of Happiness” draw their syntax from the untitled poem prior, originally a notebook list cordoned off from her poetic writing. James Davis May’s “Stand” grew out of an assignment from his therapist, and Cody-Rose Clevidence worked from notes on TikTok, farming, economics, America. Countering the idea of anti-letters with “ante-letters,” Jill Magi’s “The Open Stone” draws on pedagogical exercises used in her classroom to explore the combined gestures of language and material in forms prior to public and typeset literature. Stacy Szymaszek’s “Essay” series enters a dialogue already begun between Stephanie Young and Bernadette Mayer; Nicholas Regiacorte’s call-and-response between the figures of A.M. and Sigrid originated as notes in the right margins of drafts. In conversation with Marguerite Porete, Amy Hollywood’s “Love and the Heretic” reacts to and redacts stories told and not told, speech both given and withheld. Pages from Susan Howe’s Concordance point also to redaction, omission, and stifled dialogue, only to develop back into speech in a sound installation with David Grubbs. Across the arc of these pieces, Anti-letter came to mean not only missives sent or retained, but speech, text, and language both broken off and resumed; silenced, or again begun.

The folio’s title plays, of course, with the controversy surrounding Dickinson’s “Master”— but it is also an homage to two other artists who feature in Howe’s critical writing on language and form: Trappist monk, writer, and poet Thomas Merton, and experimental concrete-poet Robert Lax. A Catch of Anti-letters (Sheed & Ward, 1978) is a volume of their selected correspondence that spans a five-year period (1962- 1967) during which Merton was living in Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, and Lax first moved as a hermit on the Greek islands of Patmos, Mytilini, and Kalymnos. These letters— only a fraction of the reams these friends wrote to one another—provide a glimpse of two more writers at play with the epistolary genre. Consider, for instance, the following excerpt from Lax’s undated message to Merton sometime in February 1966:

cher murps,

        hir again is holy patmos. patmos really holy place. what i mean dear murthwog, it’s what i’d call a holy place. holy, that is, not at all like the elks. & place; like the place is holy. not saying something one way or another about the people. maybe they are too, maybe they all are. but the place. flowers, rocks birds. it’s more like the rocks look happy.

Or part of this list enclosed with Merton’s letter to Lax (“Dear Most”) on February 24, 1965  :

Book of Proverbs:

1. I will tell you what you can do ask me if you do not understand what I just said

2 One thing you can do be a manufacturer make appliances

3 Be a Man-u-fac-tu-rer

4 Be a manufac

5 Make appliances sell them for a high price

6 I will tell you about industry make appliances

7 Make appliances that move

8 Ask me if you do not understand what is move

Merton and Lax’s anti-letters remind us that writing relies on an element of play built in from the start; of organic and irrepressible delight in the shifting function and form of language, no matter how serious its subject. For Dickinson, life, death, love, and God are all on the line in the Master Letters; yet throughout, she remains a master at play with her craft. The language she leaves us with is the material consequence of that practice.

As this folio began to take shape, we saw almost immediately that it would of necessity exceed the boundaries that we had originally thought to put around it. What compels a reader about the Master Letters is not only their mystery, but their mutability: to each reader, these letters speak simultaneously with great insistence and great difference. In turn, this is how we hope that the pieces within this folio will speak to you, our reader. Thank you to all of the artists within for your incredible contributions, and thank you for being willing to let us look briefly behind the veil of your process.


Emma De Lisle, Associate Editor

Sam Bailey, Managing Editor


i   Dickinson, Emily. The Master Letters of Emily Dickinson. Edited by Ralph William Franklin. Amherst, Mass. : Amherst College Press, 1986, p. 5.
ii  Ibid., p. 40, 39, 36,14-16.
iii Howe, Susan. My Emily Dickinson. North Atlantic Books, 1985, p. 25, 27.
iv Merton, Thomas, and Robert Lax. A Catch of Anti-Letters. Rowman & Littlefield, 1994, p. 73, 58





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Emily Dickinson letter to Master (first line "If you saw a bullet hit a bird/ No rose, yet felt myself a’bloom"),

Emily Dickinson Collection,Archives and Special Collections, Amherst College.


The Elusive Pursuit of Happiness (I)

The Elusive Pursuit of Happiness (II)

Jane Miller

My Parents Debate the Afterlife
Shark in the Pool

James Davis May

from Concordance

Susan Howe and David Grubbs


from “Love and the Heretic: An Anti-Lecture”
Amy Hollywood


“The Open Stone”: Literacy, Transcription, and Poetry by way of Paulo Freire, Akilah Oliver, and Tim Ingold
Jill Magi
A.M. says it sibboleth
SIGRID of the brick wall trick
A.M. dreams himself the Common Horse
SIGRID of being repurposed
A.M. Safety drill in the underground laboratory

Nicholas Regiacorte

From This Household of Earthly Nature (I)
From This Household of Earthly Nature (II)
THISISLANDEARTH from The Grimace of Eden, Now
Cody-Rose Clevidence
Essay (II)
Essay (III)
Stacy Szymaszek
Stephanie Young
Bernadette Mayor

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