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A poet’s devotion to Emily Dickinson | Chicago ink

UIC lecturer Philip Jenks uses his back tat to defend his favorite rhymester.

Philip Jenks
Photograph: Max Herman Philip Jenks
By Max Herman |

Philip Jenks There are few people Jenks will defend as staunchly as reclusive 19th-century poet Emily Dickinson. “It always has made me feel awful how her name and work specifically has been treated in history,” says Jenks, a poet and lecturer in the English department at UIC. The 43-year-old owns rare collections of Dickinson’s manuscripts and will point out to anyone who’ll listen the extent to which her work and image have been misrepresented since her death in 1886. “I always felt this has to do with power and gender,” he says, “her being cast as a timid woman in a white dress.” To further honor Dickinson’s pivotal influence, in 1999 Jenks asked tattoo artist Serena Lander to re-create the most famous portrait of the poet on his entire back. It’s a large, powerful image that he’ll occasionally reveal to his students and colleagues as a conversation starter. “It can be a great opportunity,” he says with a smirk, “to rethink her work.”