I’m Nobody! Who are you? – Poems from Women of the Past

Despite being a performer and speaker coach, I don’t love putting myself forward. I feel the nerves, I feel the risk of it. So, why do it?

Speaking matters. Speak from the stage; change the world. Now, more than ever before, we have platforms to reach those who need to our authentic and important message the most. They may be a new audience, our employees, future business partners, even your own community or family.

Like so many women in business, I’m constantly looking to further hone my skills. In my case, this includes performance skills and deepening my understanding of rhetorical devices to draw on when I work with speaker clients. Happily, my current self-development project covers both as I select, study and perform poems from the past.

It turns out we don’t need to go far back into our history before it’s frustratingly clear that diverse voices were siphoned from the public domain.

While I dearly love many literature classics and am grateful they’ve endured to enrich our lives, I’m also noticing so many incredible WIBN women and wonder; what might have been missed from women in our past?

One woman who lived in the mid-1800’s and found ways to record her unique voice (whether it was appreciated at the time or not) was Emily Dickinson. This post is a little insight into her life and voice.

If you’re ever feeling weak in the face of sharing your message, I hope you remember Emily and choose to put your voice out there in a way she couldn’t in her time.

Emily’s happiest time may have been while she was at school where she could study and challenge herself intellectually. Noted as “an excellent scholar” by her school principle, the academic world might have been an environment in which she could have thrived.

Sometime after her graduation Emily wrote a frustrated letter to a friend exclaiming; “God keep me from what they call households.” As an unmarried woman of a certain social standing, Emily was expected to demonstrate her dutiful nature by setting aside her own interests to meet the needs of the home.

Over time Emily found ways to live a more secluded life. On her death, her family found nearly eighteen-hundred hand-written poems, hand-bound into forty volumes. Emily herself had carefully created these volumes. She had folded sheets of paper and sewed them together before copying into them the final versions of her vast collection of original poetry.

During her lifetime Emily saw just a handful of her own poems published, but they were often significantly altered by publishers to make them fit conventions of her times. The poems found after her death were also subject to significant alterations before publication. E.g. one line was changed from “Dont tell! they’d advertise – you know!” to “They’d banish us, you know.”

I find it hard to not feel bitterly annoyed by this on Emily’s behalf. Perhaps, though, Emily would rather have seen her poetry published with edits, than not at all. I hope it wasn’t a disappointment each time she saw the heavy changes to her art by the time it reached others through print.

It is important to mourn lost voices. It’s also right to make amends, where possible. Decades after her death, Emily’s full collection of poems were finally published word for word, letter by letter.

One of these was her poem – I’m Nobody! Who are you? – performed on my blog in tribute to Emily Dickinson. Explore more poems published over 100 years ago with insights and performances at leahkstewart.com/blog

What might poems from the past mean for your life’s journey today?