Posted by: jeannineatkins | March 28, 2014

Miss Emily and Invoking the Past in Verse

Miss Emily by Burleigh Mutén begins with a two children galloping on imaginary horses, meeting up at the woodpile, “where all good plans are made.” Soon four children stretch and slither like slugs to meet their neighbor who kneels near the Great Pink Bush. Instantly we feel within a child’s world. The theme of imagination and its joys is found in more escapades that will hold children’s attention while they’re welcomed to poetry. Miss Emily has fun with metaphors, riddles, and occasional long, Latinate words, which are sometimes capitalized, as in some Emily Dickinson poems, but here feel more fun than serious – or is this just Serious Fun? Maybe it doesn’t matter, just as in the book lines cross between pretend and true, a blurring suggested by Matt Phelan’s charming graphite drawings.


I love this novel for young readers, and it’s always a pleasure to see a friend’s work find its long way into covers. And what lovely covers these are: thank you Candlewick Press, which offers a teachers guide and author notes! Burleigh and I have shared precious conversations about poetry, from its genesis to marketing, over meals and walks around Amherst. I have a recent memory of her saying, “Don’t you just love to make line breaks?” Her smile pushed up her bright cheeks, and of course I said yes. A few years ago, she invited me to her house, where she’d set bread and cheese on her wooden table with a view of the woods, and we planned a workshop about invoking people from the past. Our workshop was turned down, but we had a memorable afternoon talking about, among other things, how first she decided to write about Emily Dickinson’s playful side, and then decided to put the narrative in verse. She felt some fear but mostly joy to reconnect with an inner poet she’d known in her teens, but abandoned for a while.

“It is hard to own being a poet,” I found in my notes from that afternoon. Here are a few more:Line breaks as places of power. Literature moves fastest through dialogue. The chutzpah and humility to speak for someone from the past. You have to be open, like in meditation. Go beyond facts or legends through imagination, its compassion. To play is to take a chance.  I like the language of incantation, but prefer that people not think I’m too swoony or over the bend. Feels all about listening. Writing is about confidence and uncertainty, faith and disbelief, forging ahead and hesitation. Linger on details. I care more about potatoes than divorce.

There’s a lot more. I’m not sure what I said or what Burleigh said, and it didn’t matter at the time.  All of it still makes sense to me, except the potatoes and divorce allusion – which of us said that? –though I do tend to obsess more about what’s on a table than abstractions. And am very fond of potatoes.


For more Poetry Friday posts, visit Mary Lee at A Year of Reading.


  1. Can’t wait to find and read this book and join your celebration. But I loved most the afternoon between poets, planning a workshop I would have gladly attended, eating bread and cheese, becoming friends through shared passions. And truly, potatoes are far more important than divorce.

    • It’s a book that made me smile, like the tulips my husband has kindly been bringing home, that have made March snows tolerable. And a nice crusty loaf and excellent brie, which I remember, though didn’t put them in my notes. It would have been wonderful to have you at our hypothetical workshop!

  2. Kudos, Burleigh!

  3. A big smile crossed my face when I saw your name in the acknowledgements. So many talented writers and artists living in your neck of the woods, and you all seem to know and support each other. Amazing work is produced there too. I guess most of you stay married and eat lots of potatoes. 🙂

    • Yes, lots of talent in these little towns, and lots of support, too. Children’s book writers and illustrators are so great (at least those of us among the living: some of the ones from history might not be those i’d choose as neighbors, except, of course, Beatrix Potter. She can move right in.)

      I’m thinking the potatoes and divorces might refer to Madame Walker and Alelia, as there were quite a number of both divorces and potatoes in their lives. But I don’t really know.

  4. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention, Jeannine! As someone who lived in Cambridge for many years, I can attest to the wonderful literary types who live in MA. I miss that cultured atmosphere very much, but unfortunately cannot tolerate the climate.

    • Everything’s a tradeoff. You would not have been happy with Mass. weather this year. I do have some fantasies about living where I don’t have to own a pair of ice cleats. And do enjoy the distinguished company!

  5. It sounds like a beautiful book, and I can almost hear your giddiness over it being a book, a verse novel, by a friend. Thanks for sharing parts of that afternoon. That sounds wonderful too.

    • I think you will like this book. And yes, I am giddy! It’s nice to think of that afternoon as a thing of itself, and not just “oh we planned this workshop and it wasn’t accepted.” Since then, recently, Burleigh and I enjoyed speaking together on a panel. All good things come with time!

  6. I can’t wait to read this book! Thanks letting us listen in on your conversation with the author!

    • Mary Lee, I think you will have a lot of fun with Miss Emily!

  7. There is so much magic in this:
    “…she invited me to her house, where she’d set bread and cheese on her wooden table with a view of the woods, and we planned a workshop about invoking people from the past. ”
    Rich and interesting conversation has to follow that setting, Jeannine. I will have to order Burleigh’s book…and I would sign up for your workshop in a New York second!

    • Thank you for your always kind words. What a thrill it would be to talk about poetry with you!

  8. This books sounds wonderful, and I loved reading about your conversation. I’m always glad to know I’m not alone in my “confidence and uncertainty…forging ahead and hesitation!”

    • I think you will enjoy Miss Emily — and you are SO not alone in the bumps of conviction and uncertainty that writing is. Thank you for stopping by!

  9. Oh this looks like a beautiful novel, Jeannine! Plus, I am a fan of Matt Phelan’s artwork. I would definitely be on the lookout for this one! 🙂

    • Burleigh was thrilled when Matt Phelan was chosen to illustrate, and he gave the characters the perfect light touch, illuminating moments of joy. Thank you for stopping by!

  10. […] blogged about Burleigh Muten’s look at a revered poet, imagination, and a circus come to town in Miss Emily, Mariko Nagai’s chronicle of life in an interment camp during WWII in Dust of Eden, Padma […]

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