Beyond Alena Smith’s head, which is framed in the Zoom screen of my MacBook Air, there is an empty corner on her built-in bookshelves. I’m a sucker for built-ins, and so I comment on them, joking that she might need some more books to fill them in.
“That entire side used to be all my Dickinson books,” Smith says.
She didn’t purge them completely—don’t worry. But she managed to get rid of a handful and moved the ones she wants to keep to a different spot.
“I created space for new things,” she says, speaking quite literally.
This is, of course, symbolic for the creator and showrunner of Dickinson, a Peabody Award–winning Apple TV+ show that reimagines the younger years of the world’s most famous female poet, Emily Dickinson—played by Hailee Steinfeld. Its third and final season bows on December 24, and the playwright-turned-screenwriter, who built her TV chops in the writing rooms of HBO’s The Newsroom and Showtime’s The Affair, seems ready to move on from the heroine she was first introduced to in high school. But because of Dickinson’s wholly unique premise—a radical retelling of Dickinson’s coming-of-age, to use Smith’s own words—it is the past that somehow seems forever changed. Though Smith won’t take full credit: “It’s all due to the amazing Dickinson scholars […] who have been saying for years that we’ve got this woman all wrong.”
True. But they didn’t pitch a show to Apple TV+ two years before it was even an official streaming platform; they didn’t land an overall deal as a first-time showrunner; and they didn’t painstakingly oversee every single minute detail of a series that managed to transcend academia, stream into the living rooms of folks around the world (most of whom would never have picked up an essay about Emily Dickinson), and forever change their view of an historic American writer.
Below, BAZAAR.com speaks to Smith about the beginning and the end of Dickinson, why the Civil War was always where she wanted to end up, her most blissful moments on set, and the challenges that come with creating something never before seen on television.
What was the genesis of Dickinson?
I wrote poetry in high school, and I read Emily Dickinson’s poems then. When I was in my early 20s, I read her biography by Alfred Habegger (My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson) and felt personally connected to her story—the paradoxes, ironies, and frustrations of her story, particularly her younger years when she was longing to be a writer in a world that wasn’t willing to see her that way. Also, I was obsessed with the way that Dickinson was able to see the infinite in the small, and that with this tiny postage stamp of experience that she had in her little room, her little house, her little garden, her little town, that she could write nearly 2,000 of the most enigmatic and captivating poems that have ever been written in the English language, most of which she never even shared with anybody and were discovered after she died. She struck me as this magical outsider artist. She was an icon of someone who committed themselves to a life of art, even in the absence of recognition.
And how did that turn into a television show?
A decade later, in 2013, I was in my early 30s and had moved to Los Angeles to try to write for television after going to [Yale Drama School] for playwriting. I was struggling to find my own voice in the medium of TV. I wanted to make a show that would have the kind of theatricality and poetry that I loved to create in the world of theater, so I started talking about making a half-hour surrealist comedy about Emily Dickinson. For four years, I developed it, writing the pilot and outlining three seasons before I sold it to Apple in 2017.
Poetry isn’t the most universally accessible or beloved medium, but here you are, having made a very successful show centered around poetry. Does it feel like somebody took a risk on you and your vision?
[Long pause.] The show takes a lot of risks. It’s not easy to explain or boil down; it’s doing a lot of things at once. But I always knew what the show was about, who the characters were, and why it was the way it was. We were one of the first four shows to launch the Apple TV+ platform, and everyone involved was pioneering and charting a new course. So, yes.
In shaping the origin story of America’s greatest female poet, you’ve put forth new ideas about Dickinson. Some are completely fantastical—like riding around in a carriage with “Death” (Wiz Khalifa)—and some might not have been so far off from the truth—like her relationship with her sister-in-law, Sue (Ella Hunt), or the fact that she might not have been a total recluse, or wear white all the time. How did you balance the truth with these storylines?
The entire show is a subjective imagining of a character that I’ve made, not only from my own research but from reading her work and also reading literary theory around that work. So that’s how we can make an episode dramatizing the difference between Dickinson’s poetry and Walt Whitman’s poetry.
An academic essay might say that Dickinson’s writing was withdrawn, confined, cloistered; she wrote little poems on little scraps of paper and hid them in her room. Meanwhile, Whitman gallivanted up and down the Bowery, self-publishing his books with sexy pictures of himself. And yet, they are considered the mother and father of American poetic tradition. So what does it mean to look at the two of them together? We get to dramatize it into an episode [“This Is My Letter to the World,” November 12], where Emily gets a copy of Leaves of Grass—which we know that she read in real life—goes into her conservatory to read it and is transported to an imaginary wild day in New York City where Whitman takes her to the Civil War hospital he is volunteering at, then takes her to a gay nightclub—which really was a place that Whitman hung out—and Emily comes out and tells him how she feels about Sue.
In terms of the truth in a very literal sense in that episode, Emily goes into her conservatory, reads a book, and maybe masturbates while thinking about Sue. A poet’s life is lived on multiple levels, and I think what we can say about Emily is this: The most exciting things that happened to Emily Dickinson happened in her mind.
Why did you end the series with Season 3 focusing on the Civil War?
Emily Dickinson’s greatest work as a poet was done during the four years of the Civil War. Something about this violent rupture in her country led her to magnificent acts of productivity and creativity. Yet Emily Dickinson was a woman; privileged, she was not on the front lines, she was not even volunteering as a nurse. But the war affected her perhaps on a more subconscious level.
Her most important relationship in the war was with a man named Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Gabriel Ebert) stationed in Beaufort, South Carolina, on the front line where he’s trying to organize the first regiment of Black soldiers. When I pitched the show, I knew that in Season 3, we would meet Higginson and this group of Black soldiers, and we would be able to explore them in the same irreverent way that we explore Dickinson and all the people around her in Amherst. Which is to say that we take the form of these people, and we ask, Who are these people for us today?
It was so great to see the expansion of two main Black characters’ storylines: Betty (Amanda Warren) and Henry (Chinaza Uche). Seeing how Betty becomes this fully fleshed woman was really satisfying.
Betty is a central character in Season 3. Amanda and I went to drama school together, so we go back, like, 20 years. When I cast her, I told her that Betty’s story would grow over the three seasons, and so it was so gratifying that she trusted me in that. We had a very diverse group of people in our writers’ room, one of whom was Lynn Nottage, a Pulitzer Prize–winning African-American playwright who was also my teacher at Yale. To have the history with Lynn and Amanda that goes back to my origins as a writer, and then to be working together to develop Betty’s story was one of the most special parts of Season 3.
Do you have other moments from filming Season 3 where you were in total creative bliss?
Those happened to me probably every day. Because it is such a complicated world to get across, it was a tremendous act of constant communication with everybody involved. When you feel understood, that’s where those moments come from. In the last episode, which I directed, there is one moment that comes to mind: We were shooting on the beach and Hailee was dressed in a replica of the actual white dress that Emily Dickinson wore, made by my costume designer, Jen Moeller, who I also went to Yale with. We saw that as her superhero costume that she wears when she’s finally attained her full form. And to be on that beach, surrounded by people who believed in and supported my vision, and to watch Hailee fully formed as Dickinson, and we were all just so happy to be outside after shooting an entire season in a pandemic … it was a pretty transcendent day and a moment that I’ll carry with me for forever.
What do you do now that Dickinson is done?
I have that overall deal at Apple, which is so wonderful and means that I get to keep creating original series for them. I did have my directing debut with the finale of Dickinson, and though I’ll always be a writer first and writing is really what I love, I do see myself pursuing more directing in the future. I’m just looking forward to doing something that has the heart of Dickinson—that depth of character and relationships, and exploring women’s roles in contemporary society, which is what Dickinson was always about.
I am excited to drop the period aspect, actually. I want to bring to life people of here and now, something I’ve always done in my plays. So I think my next show won’t be period.