I’ve got this idea that Emily Dickinson was not only a super-genius poet, a master gardener, semi-pro roller derby jammer, but also a proto-zinester. I don’t think you can really say she was a zinester, but she got really close and had all the elements before zines were invented. It’s like, MC5 and New York Dolls weren’t exactly punk, but they were doing punk things before punk actually happened.
Emily Dickinson was doing punk things.
First, she wrote and did crafts. Obviously, she had her soon-to-be canonical poetry. She also wrote letters like mad. Craft-wise, using her wicked botanical/horticultural skillz, she did flower pressings, and bound them in a thing called a herbarium (think photo or scrap album, but with pressed flowers). Can’t get more zinerer than that.
Secondly, she bound over a thousand of her poems in small groupings in little booklets called fascicles. I mean, that’s a straight-up zine technique, right?
Thirdly, she had access to publishers, but only published a few poems through conventional channels. She shared her poetry by including them in letters to people she knew. This is zine-like behaviour, I think, in the sense that she was doing it by-hand, one person at a time, not caring so much about money or recognition.
Fourthly, her poems were 100% her own thing, and she went out of her way to get that work done. See this post for more details, but its basic idea is that her famed hermit-like behavior was not simply out of weirdness, but because she knew that unmanaged social calls would take up all of her writing time. Ditto a possible reason she never married: the duties of a wife included the time-consuming tasks of cleaning and the aforementioned hospitality. Not so much her cup of tea. That DIY, willing-to-make-sacrifices attitude smells like zine spirit.
So we’ve got this rebel poet with unconventional attitudes and an artistic style so unique she’s now read in every school. She had all the pieces right there – poetry, “prose” letters, a singular design element with those pressed flowers – and got halfway thru the form with those fascicles. If she’d put all of those together, that would’ve been a pretty bitchin’ zine, each one totally unique.
All she lacked was the right circumstances; there was no community of like-minded folks. She kept all her fascicles. What else would she do with them? Imagine if there had been other proto-zinesters around to say, “Oh, that’s cool – I’m gonna make one of those, too – and we can swap.” Punk zinesters had an eager market in the crowds at CBGBs. Modern zinesters have indie bookstores, the internet, LA Zine Fest, etc..
That’s the problem with being a jammer so far out in front of the pack: there are no blockers to whip you even further ahead.
But that’s all small taters; it doesn’t make her any less a genius or any less beloved.