Queering a Literary Icon

By Chris Azzopardi


Photo: Greenwich Entertainment

Consider this: Emily Dickinson was not all grandma curtains and sad, sad, sad. But she was fun! She was funny! And she was – says at least one very convinced filmmaker – a lesbian with a sizzling sex life.


Of course, many have noted the likelihood of the 19th-century poet’s queer bent, but based on research and the reexamination of Emily’s letters that uncovered erasures using spectrographic technology, writer-director Madeleine Olnek is taking a hard, gay stance on the popular poet’s sexuality in her comedic drama, Wild Nights with Emily, which seeks to rectify the totality – she wasn’t some spinster, either – of Dickinson’s identity. “Homoeroticism for the whole family,” Olnek emphasizes, noting the film’s PG-13 rating so that parents can take their kids to the film to experience the Dickinson she says, according to all scholarly evidence, was the lover of her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert Dickinson (played by Susan Ziegler).


On her side of lesbian history is Saturday Night Live alum Molly Shannon, whose Dickinson is fresh, feminist and heroically queer. Though the 54-year-old actress catapulted to Hollywood fame by taking a good two-handed whiff of her armpit stench as zealous Catholic schoolgirl and “superstar” Mary Katherine Gallagher on SNL, Shannon’s career after 2001, when she left the late-night sketch show after six years, has since drawn upon her NYU education for more serious dramatic fare.


Shannon and Olnek, who met while studying drama at NYU, recently spoke about Dickinson as an LGBTQ hero, gay censorship and being met with resistance. And the Molly-obsessed gay guys doing their best Mary Katherine impression? You bet she has stories about catching them in the act.


If only I could’ve learned about gay Emily Dickinson in high school. Why is it important to reexamine who she was in terms of her sexuality?

Molly Shannon: That’s such a great question. And this idea that I grew up with, like you – that Emily Dickinson was a victim, a frightened woman who spoke to people through walls, had no desire to have her voice heard, wanted her poems burned upon her death – it really sabotages people today, women and men. People who are struggling to get their voices heard, who are looking for role models.


So I think that it’s really important that we tell the truth about her: that she was a trailblazer, she’s an LGBTQ hero. In the mid-1800s, how she was able to eventually rise out of obscurity and become recognized as part of the literary canon is just incredible. And I think it’s important because it examines sexism through the lens of comedy, making the film more approachable. I just feel like the “reclusive spinster” thing just doesn’t really work anymore. It’s now time to tell the truth. And our movie, instead, reveals a woman whose efforts to get published were repeatedly rejected by this sexist, oppressive establishment. It’s important to realize she was a very gifted writer who was experiencing rejection so she can serve as a role model to modern female writers with similar struggles currently.


Madeleine Olnek: Yeah, I think that’s a good point because probably what you remember from school is this idea of, “She hid her poems away.” But the truth is that her work wouldn’t have even been published if after her death her sister hadn’t paid for it to be a vanity publication. Because the story always told was, “She was a good girl and she didn’t want to be published, she didn’t want attention. She just lived simply and modestly, and then after her death the world worked the way it should and recognized her.” But that wasn’t true. She actually put all these efforts into getting published.


Madeleine, before doing this film, were you surprised to find out that Emily Dickinson’s sexuality hadn’t been explored to this extent?

Olnek: It’s depressing that it’s the first time that people have heard about it, because an article (in The New York Times Magazine) did come out in 1998. And I wrote a play, but it was in downtown New York. I got good reviews for the play, but the reviews were “Madeleine Olnek decides to imagine, ‘What if Emily Dickinson were a lesbian?’” like it was my imagination. It was treated like something I made up. And the resistance to it is interesting: It’s as much of a resistance to what a rebel she was.

The scholar Martha Nell Smith, who put together EmilyDickinson.org, which is the reason you can see all of Emily Dickinson’s letters online, said that she found, when she was working and writing about this, there was as much resistance to the idea that Emily Dickinson had an intellectual collaboration/partnership with a woman as a romantic one. Like, people were like, “No, no, no, a woman couldn’t have been Emily’s main influence.” So the story, in terms of its censorship, is really about it being about two women together as much as it is about gay censorship.


Molly, what kind of considerations did you have to make when it came to portraying Emily and her sexuality in this film?

Shannon: I really just looked to Madeleine to guide me because Madeleine is a scholar, and then we worked closely with Martha Smith, who is also an Emily Dickinson scholar. So I really just looked to them. I was asking Madeleine questions because I really wanted to get it right. And I just felt passionate about telling this story because I can’t believe this whole woman’s true history was kind of erased and not represented the way she was.

I feel like this story still sells on the cover of magazines. The heartbroken spinster story still sells! It sells magazines! Cover of Us and Star, and people love this shit. They buy it. What is it that we’re so attached to this brokenhearted woman thing? It’s horrible, I hate it. I don’t like to contribute to that. It’s just ridiculous. Why is this still going on?


How much consideration did you give the ethics of outing someone posthumously before making this film?

Olnek: She herself wrote lesbian poems, so she outed herself on the page. Now, granted, at one point when she sent in some poems for publication, she changed the gender of some poems herself just in hopes to get them printed, but she left so many poems that were love poems to women. And because her work is so complicated, of course, some people couldn’t understand what they were about and would come up with all kinds of funny things. But let me tell you something that’s very important: Very close to her death she wrote a letter to Sue which said, “Remember what Hamlet whispered to Horatio?” And what she was talking about is Hamlet, as he was dying, had said to Horatio, “Tell my story.” And that really was important to her. Martha Smith believes that the book of poems that (Emily’s niece) Mattie brought together – The Single Hound, that came out right after Susan’s death – that Susan probably actually worked on it with Mattie and said, “If I die, you can put this out,” so there’s no doubt we have in our minds that they wanted people to know.


Also, I mean, Emily Dickinson was a poet. Poets are lovers. They have big emotions. And that becomes poets. It’s not like we’re “outing” someone who was an accountant. Emily also never married, although she had offers; it’s like she clearly wanted to live life on her own terms. She couldn’t, of course, at that time have come out. It was a big deal that her father recused her from coming downstairs for morning prayers; she was allowed to use that as writing time. So she couldn’t have rocked the boat at home. She needed to choose her battles carefully, but she loved two women that we know about. But Susan, she was in love with. And when you write a poem that ends with “Sue forever more,” I mean, can we say we’re outing her? (Laughs) That’s an actual ending line to her poem that’s published! So, she wrote her letter and called her the only woman in the world. Just incredibly romantic letters.


Molly, you’ve been committed to making more LGBTQ-themed films. What qualities do you look for in a story that is LGBTQ-themed?

Shannon: Let me think here. I guess passion with the writers/directors. I really identify with that. Like this is so special. Madeleine is so passionate about this movie and it comes from her heart, so to me, it’s like, what an opportunity for me. I remember when Madeleine pitched me the movie she wrote pages and pages about all this information that she had from her scholarly research and working closely with Martha that I was like, “How could I not do this? I’ve never been offered anything like this in my life! This is so cool!” So I really do just kind of see how I feel in my heart: Do I feel passionate? Or eh, this doesn’t seem fun. It’s a meter as simple as that.


As someone whose LGBTQ following has seemingly grown over the years with your work in queer-inclusive films like Other People and Miles, when were you first aware you had an LGBTQ following?

Shannon: I was in the West Village when I first started Saturday Night Live and I remember it was the first really warm day. It was suddenly in the 70s and people were wearing sandals and everybody was so excited and I hadn’t been on SNL that long. I remember walking by an outside cafe and I heard a man – the man didn’t see me, but I just heard a guy, a stranger, go (affects SNL “Joyologist” Helen Madden’s voice), “I love it, I love it, I looooove it!” And I was like, “Oh my god,” then he saw me and he was like, “Oh my god!” He got so embarrassed and turned red and I was just like, “What?! Maybe I’m influencing people!” There was another time I was in a cafe in the West Village where I lived, eating breakfast with my then-boyfriend. We were sitting at the glass window and a man just came right up while we were eating right in the window and did “SUUUPERSTAR!” My boyfriend just looked away and ignored him and continued eating, and then that relationship ended soon after. (Both laugh.)


How do you feel about the progress we’ve made in terms of how LGBTQ people are portrayed in modern films and also the kind of LGBTQ films being made?

Olnek: It’s interesting. As an older person who has seen a lot of queer films and has talked to young people, what I think is that every generation thinks they are the first people to complain. (Laughs) “Oh, we’re so mainstream!” But people were saying that in the ’80s! Which is ridiculous, in the late ’80s, ’90s, considering, “Oh, it’s mainstream, it’s sell-out.” People were accusing… like now it’s homogenized. So I’ve heard that story over and over, and I actually think that there’s always been people making experimental queer work and there’s always been people making mainstream queer work and they have always existed side by side. It’s just that it’s new to the younger people watching them.


Wild Nights with Emily made me consider the ways in which we recognize someone posthumously. When that time comes, how do you think the way people will describe you will differ from the way you’d describe yourself?

Shannon: Well, I hope that nobody will say, “She was zany.” I don’t like that. I hope that people know that I can be deadly serious. My friend John C. Reilly talked about me and he was like, “Molly can be deadly serious!” I joke around but I really am more serious in real life than people would think. Serious and thoughtful. And I love asking questions and learning. So I don’t think I’m just some zany comic.


But people are gonna remember you for SNL and Mary Katherine Gallagher, right?

Olnek: I want them to remember her for Emily Dickinson.

Shannon: Awww!

Olnek: And for her birthday I want to give her a cake that has her as Emily Dickinson on it, because this is a huge moment that we’re reclaiming a story and it’s so important. And the fact that Molly is playing this part literally means that people are going to understand who Emily Dickinson really was.

As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in GQ, Vanity Fair and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.

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