"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Saturday, December 31, 2011

All Good Things Must Come to an End...

... and so today's "Today in Bishop" is the last one of the centenary year and, for the time being, the last one. My thanks first of all to my co-hosts, Sandra Barry and Suzie LeBlanc, who have headed the effort of so many, many people throughout Nova Scotia to make EB100 such an enormous success, and then to you, our faithful readers, for all your interest, encouragement, and support.

Finally, I am grateful for Elizabeth Bishop and for her work, which has given me so much to ponder for so many years. Here, in parting, is EB's translation of a poem by Octavio Paz. -- JB

January 1

The year's doors open
like those of language,
toward the unknown.
Last night you told me:
we shall have to think up signs,
sketch a landscape, fabricate a plan
on the double page
of day and paper.
Tomorrow, we shall have to invent,
once more,
the reality of this world.

I opened my eyes late.
For a second of a second
I felt what the Aztec felt,
on the crest of the promontory,
lying in wait
for time's uncertain return
through cracks in the horizon.

But no, the year had returned.
It filled all the room
and my look almost touched it.
Time, with no help from us,
had placed
in exactly the same order as yesterday
houses in the empty street,
snow on the houses,
silence on the snow.

You were beside me,
still asleep.
The day had invented you
but you hadn't yet accepted
being invented by the day.
--Nor possibly my being invented, either.
You were in another day.
You were beside me
and I saw you, like the snow,
asleep among appearances.
Time, with no help from us,
invents houses, streets, trees
and sleeping women.

When you open your eyes
we'll walk, once more,
among the hours and their inventions.
We'll walk among appearances
and bear witness to time and its conjugations.
Perhaps we'll open the day's doors.
And then we shall enter the unknown.

Cambridge, Mass.,
1 January 1975

A Christmas Present from Japan

Christmas Eve brought me in the post a beautiful gift from Elizabeth Bishop's devoted translator into Japanese, Michiru Oguchi: an album of photographs she made during her visit to Nova Scotia for the University of King's College conference "It Must Be Nova Scotia: Negotiating Place in the Writings of Elizabeth Bishop." I'd like to share it now with you.

[To enlarge the pictures, first click on the image; when the slideshow version appears right click on that image and select "view image"; then click on the resulting image to obtain the enlargement. -- JB]

Friday, December 30, 2011

EB100 comes to a close

As 2011 winds down, it “behooves” us (as Elizabeth Bishop might say) to acknowledge the wonder and delight of the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary celebrations held not only in Great Village, Halifax and many other Nova Scotia communities; but also in Worcester, Boston, New York City, Ouro PrĂȘto, and many other far flung places. The tributes to Elizabeth Bishop have spanned art forms and have involved an astonishingly wide range of artists from many disciplines. One of the things this comprehensiveness shows is Elizabeth Bishop’s significance. The degree of lively, imaginative creativity bespeaks an influence which proves Bishop’s life and art are generative forces. Do we not believe that when her bicentenary rolls around, people will still be reading “In the Village” or “The Moose”? Surely, it is not saying too much to suppose it will be the case. Not only have many artists paid tribute to Elizabeth Bishop, the many events that have taken place drew good audiences throughout the year. In Nova Scotia, the extensive media coverage EB100 received has, we feel, brought her name to many more people than had previously been aware of her, and introduced many to her art for the first time.

Elizabeth Bishop Centenary exhibit, Truro Library, Truro, N.S.
Photo courtesy of Linda Shears

Though we have not yet decided just how we are going to proceed with this blog, it will stay active. We have so much backlog of material (video, text, photographs, etc.) to post – but with life being as busy as it is, this work will take time. We hope you will continue to visit the blog as 2012 rolls along, as the years to come will bring more EB activities to announce and feature.

Starry Night in Great Village by Joy Laking

The main reason for this little note is to extend heartfelt thanks to John Barnstead, without whom this blog would not have existed and been as lively and important as it is. John is the heart of this effort – his “Today in Bishop” and “Today’s Video” have been an extremely popular part of the blog. The amount of work it has taken for him to sustain these delightful elements cannot really be described. The EB100 YouTube Channel is also an important feature of this site. I, for one, am immensely grateful to John for his devotion to the blog – because of his dedication and effort, this site is now a must see for anyone interested in Elizabeth Bishop. Thank you, John.

As I mentioned, we will be shifting things a bit as 2012 rolls along, but we will continue to post information and material, which we trust will be both relevant and pleasant. Stay tuned. Happy New Year.

Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Arts Festival banner in front of St. James United Church, Great Village, Nova Scotia.
Photo by Laurie Gunn

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Our New York Correspondent Writes --

“Elizabeth Bishop: Objects and Apparitions” is on view at Tibor de Nagy Gallery, 724 Fifth Avenue, from December 8 through January 21. The exhibition will be celebrated with a reading by poets Mark Strand, Tina Chang, Hallie Hobson, and Susan Wheeler at the gallery on December 13 at 6:00 p.m.; for further information visit tibordenagy.com.

"Sandpiper" -- Pink Dog Productions

Sunday, November 20, 2011


Dear Elizabeth Bishop Enthusiasts:

Magpie Productions is casting this Tues Nov. 29th in Halifax and possibly one other date later for a 5-7 year old girl to play the precocious and very aware poet, Elizabeth Bishop, when she's almost 5 years old. I'm sending along a pic in case you might have any leads. We're shooting Jan 14-15 in Great Village for a day and a half. It's a paid gig -- $225.00.

Do you know anyone? Do you know anyone who would know someone? We would be very happy if you could forward contact info of any parent who may have a daughter who might be interested.

We're doing an adaptation of one of Elizabeth Bishop's poems. We're also looking for the girl's mother, Gertrude, (mid-thirties, dark hair). That's a smaller role but also paid.

If you know please forward any information to our producer Walter Forsyth who is arranging the casting sessions.


my best,


John Scott
Associate Professor, Ithaca College

Monday, November 14, 2011

Click the poster for further information.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Monday Wonder Question VII: Bishop and Mather?

The past week or so I have been reading The Oxford Handbook of THE ELEGY, a substantial collection of survey articles edited by Karen Weisman. In it, in his essay "The American Puritan Elegy" Jeffrey Hammond quotes from Cotton Mather's "Memoirs of the Life and Worth: Lamentations for the Death, and Loss of the every way admirable Mr. URIAN OAKES," who writes:

Well! Reader! Wipe thine Eyes! & see the Man
( Almost too small a word!) which Cambridge can
Say, I have lost!

This has brought to mind the following passage from Bishop's "Poem":

Our visions coincided - "visions" is
too serious a word - our looks, two looks:
art "copying from life" and life itself,
life and the memory of it so compressed
they've turned into each other. Which is which?

Bishop's poem, too, is a kind of elegy -- but an elegy in anticipation: Mather's Oakes has been felled; Bishop's elms are yet to be dismantled. Both Bishop and Mather place themselves within double lines of succession as elegists. And perhaps it is not a mistake to hear in EB's self-exhortation (Write it!) in another elegiac poem, "One Art", a distant echo of Mather's plea to Harvard (Own it!) in his praise of Oakes.

Bishop's acquaintance with Mather went back as early as her senior year at the Walnut Hill School, when she wrote an essay about him entitled "Assisted by the Holy Author." The occasional undoing of Mather (if not phrase by phrase, then by the occasional polemic rewriting of a significant phrase: "too small" ==> "too serious"; "Own it" ==> "Write it") might seem an amusing pastime to the poet who as a saucy student had written of one of his more exhaustive projects "So the Church History was conceived, written, and published with God assisting (sometimes reluctantly) at every step of the way. And indeed, why should He not? He was figured as a character, as the most important character playing the largest role, on every page of the book; as Mather pointed out to Him discreetly, it was to His advantage to see the Book through the press. If the Lord is going to motivate the events of History, He must somehow lighten the burdens of the Historian. And by recording the latter we can get perhaps as much insight into the ideas of Mather and his God as by studying the CHURCH HISTORY itself."

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

In Memoriam: Phyllis Sutherland (1926-2011)

She said that one of her earliest memories (and she was a very little girl, two or three years old) was seeing Elizabeth Bishop doing cartwheels in the driveway at Elmcroft, in Great Village, N.S. The teenage Elizabeth was visiting her beloved aunt, Grace Bulmer Bowers (Phyllis’s mother). Much later, in the 1970s, when Phyllis was a mother herself and living near Tatamagouche, N.S., Elizabeth visited regularly, flying or driving up from Boston. Phyllis’s children have their own early memories of “cousin Elizabeth” – David, for example, remembers Elizabeth bringing him the gift of a “Grateful Dead” album, a rock band he had never heard of – he still has the album.

These stories are the intimate and quotidian memories of family, seemingly incidental, but actually deeply bonding. Phyllis told me these and many other stories during the long friendship we shared. I will be forever grateful to her for this gift of a glimpse into the private realm of her family.

Phyllis would have loved everything about the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary celebrations in Nova Scotia – she would have been at every event, if it had been possible. But it wasn’t possible. Her illness confined her to a nursing home and slowly took away her capacity to engage with now. Above her bed hung the famous portrait of Elizabeth Bishop taken near the house at Samambaia in Brazil, in the mid-1950s. Elizabeth had sent a print of it to Aunt Grace, signed with love. This photograph hung in Phyllis’s home – it was there when I meet Phyllis in 1991.

Phyllis died on 19 October 2011. Elizabeth once wrote that numbers were mysterious. It seems significant to me that her death happened the year Elizabeth would have been 100 if she were alive. It seems significant that it happened in the same month when Bishop herself died (6 October 1979) and ten days before “Sonnet” was published in The New Yorker (29 October 1979 – thanks to John for finding out this small but important fact).

Phyllis’s sons David and Wallace asked me to speak at her service, which took place on 23 October in Tatamagouche (coincidentally, the minister who officiated knew my maternal grandmother, who was also born in 1911). I was deeply honoured to share some of my memories about Phyllis. It is those words I want to share here:

Phyllis and her mother Grace, circa 1940. Courtesy of Acadia University Archives

I met Phyllis – and Miriam – in the fall of 1991. I intended the visit to be brief, simply to introduce myself and tell her about the work I was doing on Elizabeth Bishop. I had no idea that she had already been visited by a number of American Bishop scholars, about whom she had a wide range of opinions. I arrived around 10:00 a.m. She welcomed me warmly. Later I learned this was not only her habitual way of being with all visitors to her home, but also because I was the first Nova Scotian to come asking about cousin Elizabeth. She invited me in and almost immediately began to show me items of the family archive she had in her possession. Six hours later, I was still there – talking, talking, talking, and looking at things.

It was Elizabeth Bishop who brought us together – and the depth of my gratitude to Phyllis for the gift of her memories, knowledge, and perspective about the Bulmers and Bishop is beyond words. But even more than this connection, which became a bond between us (and we certainly had many interesting moments in those early days of the Elizabeth Bishop Society) – even more than this bond, what I am most grateful for is my friendship with Phyllis – and Miriam; knowing them changed my life in lastingly good ways. That first visit turned into hundreds of others stretching for twenty years.

Phyllis immediately began to introduce me to the family – everyone was so welcoming to this stranger who was being nosy about their famous relative. Phyllis also began to take me around to places that were important to the family. Many times over the years, Phyllis, Miriam and I drove around Colchester and Cumberland Counties – Phyllis enjoyed driving – and she told me countless stories. There is no better way to understand the complex truths about life and death than through memories and stories, through sharing memories and stories. In the twenty years since we first met, my friendship with Phyllis has given me some wonderful and cherished stories that I have shared.

One of our first outings took us to Spencer’s Point, near Great Village (where the family had a cottage long ago). It was a November day, a wild wind was pushing the heavy clouds and churning up the Bay. I remember that we stood on top of the cliff looking at the waves and had to shout to be heard. It was beautiful and unsettling to be so exposed to the elements.

I wrote a poem that I titled “Spencer’s Point,” which I dedicated and gave to Phyllis. She said she liked it – and I believed her because she was perfectly capable of saying she didn’t. Being a reader of Bishop’s sometimes enigmatic poems, Phyllis was more than able to grasp my effort to express the beauty and danger of the elemental scene we shared that day. The poem now has become elegiac for me, speaking about the ephemeral nature of the body and the eternal nature of the spirit. I want to conclude by reading it (it is quite short). It has an epigraph that I took from The History of Great Village, a wonderful little book that Phyllis and I talked about many times. The epigraph is from the section about Spencer’s Point.


Spencer’s Point

“White Light visible eleven miles.”

for Phyllis Sutherland

The Bay is red as blood.
Tide swollen with rain and shoved
by a rampant southerly, peculiar
to November, strips the cliffs of flesh.
Centuries have witnessed such feasts.
Huddled on the brink of dissolution
ancient apple trees adhere to the soil
littering shivered grass
with spoiled harvests.
I stand for a moment in the blast
and erode irrevocably,
blinking past my own blistering tears.
Suddenly, remembering bones,
I pull back from this instant
resisting return.
The Light is gone.
Ships that fed the shore
and fed the sea no longer guided by the need
to see, no longer needed.
The farms disappeared as the high tides
washed the earth
into the Bay, widen-
ing the Bay, narrowing the farms.
The keeper is gone.
All that remains is the undertow,
waves seasoning the wounded stone.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Canadian Listeners Please Take Note: 2 p.m. this Sunday, October 30, 2011 --

Our CBC correspondent writes:

"On CBC Radio 2, October 30th, it's a special eight-hour broadcast marking 75 years of public broadcasting in Canada. From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (9:30 to 5:30 in Newfoundland and Labrador) Canada in Concert, with host Bill Richardson, celebrates CBC's remarkable legacy of sharing Canada's greatest classical musicians with listeners from coast to coast. This musical marathon, the result of an intense collaboration between CBC Radio 2 and Radio Canada's Espace musique, offers an eight-hour festival of live performance recorded in eight Canadian centres.

"The programming features internationally renowned Canadian ensembles and soloists. We have singers galore - from Quebec City, Bernard Labadie leads Les Violons du Roy in a concert featuring the outstanding soprano Karina Gauvin; from Toronto, it's the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra some of the countries biggest vocal stars including soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian and tenor Ben Heppner; from Halifax, soprano Suzie Leblanc joins the Tempest Baroque Ensemble for a program recalling the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, and from Vancouver, some of the country's best choral ensembles celebrate CBC's 75th with an engaging program focusing on the work of Canadian composers.

"We'll mark the opening of the new Maison symphonique in Montreal with a smashing performance of Beethoven's Symphony no. 9 with Kent Nagano leading the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. From Ottawa, we have an intimate recital with two Canadian classical superstars - violinist James Ehnes and the brilliant 16 year-old pianist Jan Lisiecki. From Winnipeg, it's highlights of the 2011 Winnipeg New Music Festival.

"CBC has nurtured the careers of hundreds of artists across the complete musical spectrum. On Oct. 30th, Canada's biggest classical stars come together to say 'many happy returns.'"


9:00 Vancouver - Vancouver Sings, a choral spectacular

10:00 Quebec City - Karina Gauvin/Les Violons du Roy

11:00 - Banff - Quartets Plus - past winners of the Banff International String Quartet Competition

12:00 Toronto - Prima Donna - Canada's finest singers with the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra

13:00 - James Ehnes, violin, and Jan Lisiecki, piano - Ottawa Chamber Music Festival

14:00 - Halifax - soprano Suzie Leblanc, violinist David Greenberg and the Tempest Baroque Ensemble - A celebration of the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary

15:00 - Winnipeg - Highlights from the 2011 Winnipeg New Music Festival

16:00 - Montreal - Beethoven's 9th Symphony from the grand opening of Maison symphonique

Green Notebook Entry: October 29, 2008

“Only dimly did I hear the pupils’ re-sigh-tations of capital cities and islands and bays,” Harold Cooke, a student at the Great Village School, is reading aloud from “Primer Class” as we slip into a high-backed pew at what is now St. James United Church, caddy corner from Elizabeth Bishop’s childhood home. The front has been painted fairly recently, but the sides are peeling, and perhaps a visit from the steeplejack would not be amiss. Funds are needed, too, for the next panels in the Great Village Pergola Heritage Project, and we are here to help raise them, as part of the “Word in the Village” celebration held the last weekend in September. “I must go into the classroom now and join in the usual morning” – a pause as Harold catches his breath –“ songs.” A paragraph or so later we are descending the steps past the village children’s prize-winning haikus and cinquains about manners, stories of their own first days at school, and a framed photo of one of Uncle – no, Great Uncle George’s paintings. We’re going to the church hall, where a lovely corn-chowder-with-or-without-onion lunch, with biscuits and homemade strawberry jam, will be provided at a small charge for the benefit of the Great Village Community Association.

Afterwards, summoned by the tolling of the recast and rehung church bell, we return to the sanctuary to listen to “In the Village”. The walls of the sanctuary are painted in trompe-l’oeil stone blocks with somewhat disproportionately diminutive keystones over the arches. The central arch bears the motto “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness,” with the word ‘the’ carefully centered at its apex. It has no keystone. Today Bishop’s portrait as a child has been blown up and placed over the left-hand slotted board that in the old days would have borne two figures: the amount of last week’s collection and that of a year ago. Balancing it on the other side of the arch is the hymn-board: nos. 506 (“Take My Life and Let It Be”) and 544 (“In Gratitude and Humble Trust”).

Sandra Barry, tutelary spirit for matters Bishop in Great Village, begins by reading lines from “One Art”, to prepare us for the unfortunate, unavoidable last-minute absence of CBC Radio One Mainstreet’s Carmen Klassen. There will be six readers, she tells us, and we shall proceed without intermission “right straight through”, as Bishop did the National Geographic of February 1918 (a copy of which, found in a second-hand shop in Evansville, Indiana, and purchased for a song, is kept now in the drawer of the desk in the library of her childhood home, caddy-corner across the road).

The reading begins. At once we are more aware than ever before of the music of Bishop’s prose: “Swiss skies – horizon – rims of eyes” as Anne Simpson reads. The story doesn’t suffer from disruption when the voices change, as we feared it might, -- whether from Lisa Lindo’s beautiful contralto to Alexander MacLeod’s deep baritone, or from Brian Bartlett’s New Brunswick twang to Susan Crowe’s lovely vowels and consonants, so familiar from her songs. A deepening, echoing silence fills the church as Susan reads from her thick edition with its two dangling book marks. The light from the green lamp on the pulpit catches the interlocking rings of her earrings, so that they flash figure-eights as her head moves. Clang. Slp. Tears come to our eyes (I asked afterwards – I wasn’t the only one) when we reach the sentence It sounds like a bell buoy out at sea.

The reading stops. There is silence, and then there is long applause. Later there will be an old-fashioned ham and baked bean supper that has to be moved (on next to no notice) to the Legion Hall because so many more than expected will be there. We make our way down the aisle. At the back there are portraits of all the ministers since Saint James was founded and Presbyterian – an early one is just a blank frame, since no picture could be located, but Dr. Gillespie is there, round-faced, and somehow slightly sanctimonious or sinister without his black straw sailor. “That was good, eh?” says a woman in a lime green jacket with its collar upturned. We head outside.

Monday, October 24, 2011

REMINDER for our Massachusetts Readers

Monday, October 24 - Tom Travisano

Editor of
Words In Air: The Complete Correspondence
between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell

As part of the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Thomas Travisano will read at Fitchburg State University (Miller Oval, Miller Hall, Highland Avenue, Fitchburg) on Monday, October 24th. The reading will take place between 3:30 and 4:30 p.m. The author of the first book-length study of Elizabeth Bishop's poetry, he is also the president of the U.S. Elizabeth Bishop Society.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

REMINDER for Our Saint Louis Readers

Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker: Reading and Reception Oct 23, 4-6 p.m.

Washington University Libraries and the St. Louis Poetry Center will present a program featuring the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop on Sunday, October 23 from 4 to 6 p.m. in Wilson Hall, Room 214, on Washington University’s Danforth Campus. A reception will follow in the Ginkgo Reading Room in the nearby Olin Library. Joelle Biele, the editor of Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence, published this year, will be joined by Mary Jo Bang, Lorin Cuoco, William Gass, Carl Phillips and Catherine Rankovic in a reading of poems by Elizabeth Bishop and her correspondence with the venerable The New Yorker magazine.

Elizabeth Bishop (1911 – 1979) is acknowledged as one of America’s greatest poets. She graduated from Vassar College in 1934 and published her first book of poetry, North & South, in 1946. Her other books include A Cold Spring, which won the Pulitzer Prize, Questions of Travel, which was awarded the National Book Award, and Geography III, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Bishop published the vast majority of her poems in the pages of The New Yorker. Her relationship with the magazine went back to 1933 and continued until her death in 1979. During forty years of correspondence hundreds of letters passed between Bishop and her editors. Their correspondence provides an unparalleled look into Bishop’s writing process, the relationship between a poet and her editors, the internal workings of The New Yorker, and the process of publishing a poem.

Reader Bios
Mary Jo Bang is a professor of English at Washington University and the author of six books including Apology for Want and Elegy, which won the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award. Her most recent book is The Bride of E. Bang is at work on a translation of The Inferno.
Joelle Biele, the editor of Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker, is also the author of White Summer. She’s been a Fulbright scholar and has received awards from the Poetry Society of America and the Maryland State Arts Council.
Lorin Cuoco is a consultant for the St. Louis Poetry Center. She is the editor of six books including The Writer in Politics, Dual Muse: The Writer As Artist, the Artist As Writer and Literary St. Louis: A Guide. She founded the International Writers Center at Washington University with William Gass.
William Gass, the David May Distinguished University Professor Emeritus in the Humanities at Washington University, is the author of short stories, novels and essays, which have garnered three National Book Critics Circle Awards. His other awards include the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award, the first PEN/Nabokov Award and the Truman Capote Award. His books include The Tunnel, Reading Rilke and A Temple of Texts. His latest collection of essays, Life Sentences, will be published in January 2012.
Carl Phillips, a professor of English at Washington University, is the author of eleven books of poetry, including Speak Low and A Quiver of Arrows: Selected Poems 1986 – 2006. Other books include a translation of Sophocles’s Philocetes and Coin of the Realm: Essays on Life and the Art of Poetry. His most recent book of poetry is Double Shadow. Among his awards are the Theodore Roethke Memorial Foundation Poetry Award, the Kingsley Tuft Poetry Award and the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Male Poetry.
Catherine Rankovic has taught creative writing since 1989 at Washington University, where she received a Master of Fine Arts in writing. A former full-time journalist, she has published four books including most recently Meet Me: Writers in St. Louis. Her poems and essays have appeared in Boulevard, The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review and River Styx. She received the Missouri Biennial Award and Academy of American Poets Award.

Washington University Libraries’ Department of Special Collections has been collecting materials for its Modern Literature Collection since 1964 and now represents more than 175 authors including Samuel Beckett, William Gass, James Merrill, Howard Nemerov, Sylvia Plath, May Swenson and Mona Van Duyn. Of special interest for this program is the correspondence between May Swenson and Elizabeth Bishop, made up of more than 250 letters.

Collaborating with the University Libraries is the St. Louis Poetry Center, still thriving at sixty-five and serving those who love and write poetry. The oldest organization of its kind west of the Mississippi River, the center presents the monthly Poetry at the Point at the Focal Point and Observable Readings at the Schlafly Bottleworks, both in Maplewood. The center also holds monthly workshops at the University City Public Library and sponsors contests and outreach programs in schools and prisons. www.stlouispoetrycenter.org.

WHO: Mary Jo Bang, Joelle Biele, Lorin Cuoco, William Gass, Carl Phillips and Catherine Rankovic
WHAT: Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker reading and reception
WHERE: Wilson Hall 214 (program) and Olin Library (reception)
WU campus map at: parking.wustl.edu/parkingmap_2010.pdf
WHEN: 4:00 – 6: 00 p.m., Sunday, October 23, 2011
SPONSOR: Washington University Libraries (http://library.wustl.edu) and the St. Louis Poetry Center (www.stlouispoetrycenter.org)

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

"One Art" at ViewPoint Gallery

This is a video of the discussion amongst the artists who contributed work to the photographic exhibition "One Art" at the ViewPoint Gallery in Halifax, Nova Scotia on the afternoon of Sunday, September 11, 2011. The moderator is Roxanne Smith.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Filmmaker John D. Scott shares a documentary project

From the Magpie Productions Proposal for "Elizabeth Bishop and the Art of Losing"

I. The Stories


This is the story of one of twentieth century's best poets. She won many prizes and honours, including the Pulitzer Prize and two Guggenheims. Since her death in 1979, admiration for Elizabeth Bishop’s keen craftsmanship and unpretentious, accessible, conversational style has broadened and deepened to the point where she is now considered by many to be the very best poet of her generation and one of the most influential poets on modern writers. Central to Elizabeth Bishop’s story was her ability (and her struggle) to express profound, universally held feelings with an interplay of rhythm, story and the distinct, arresting images that made the commonplace seem magical. This is a story of someone who was a genius with words.

The Search for Home

Equally, if not more compelling, is her personal story. Elizabeth Bishop suffered from profound misfortune. Her father died when she was an infant. And then when Elizabeth was five years old her mother went mad and was committed for the remainder of her life to a sanitorium in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Elizabeth spent the pivotal moments of this extremely anguished childhood with her grandparents in Great Village, Nova Scotia. Though a desperate time her life, Elizabeth developed a deep connection to the colourful characters, the oral traditions and the sense of community that she felt in this town. From the people and the rhythms of this place came a resonating affirmation of who she was. And later, her time here worked as a muse to Elizabeth’s unsentimental and playful, poetic voice, giving rise to heightened, and at times magical visions of this place. In fact, much of her greatest work re-imagines scenes from Nova Scotia, including the poems “First Death in Nova Scotia,” “The Moose,” “The Map,” “Cirque D’Hiver,” “Sandpiper” and the short story “In the Village.” Shortly after her mother was committed to the hospital Elizabeth was forced to leave her mother’s hometown in Great Village and went to live with relations in “the Boston States.” This was a very unhappy move and it began a life-long trend in her life of moving from one place to the next. This move set in motion a quest for that same sense of “home” she once felt in that community. This search, and its roots in her time in Great Village, Nova Scotia is the central story element of this documentary.

Mastering the Art of Losing

And what comes of this search? Despite her success as a poet, Bishop’s life was difficult. Enormously sensitive and shy, and troubled by a sense of not belonging, she became an alcoholic who nearly killed herself on a few occasions. She did have good friends but her love relationships tended to end badly – and in one instance suicide. Because of all her anxieties and her exceptionally high standards she was only able to finish one-hundred-and-one poems in four very slim books of poetry. (Her famous poem “The Moose,” for example, took twenty-five years for her to write.) Furthermore, in the latter part of her life she taught poetry composition at Harvard University but she was an uninspiring, awkward teacher who students felt was out of touch, and who other faculty dismissed as an intellectual lightweight. And while her poetry won prizes she was not well-known or well-loved by the public. Her poetry was criticized for being "out-of-date" cold and impersonal. In short, viewed from a distance, her personal and professional life can be interpreted as a series of elaborate failures and losses.

Near the end of her life, at a point where one of her great loves leaves her, Bishop, writes what will become her most-loved poem, "One Art." "One Art" is considered one of the greatest villanelles ever written and re-asserts Bishop as one of the best poets of her generation. But it is more than great writing: the poem also contains great wisdom. It starts by introducing the quixotic phrase “the art of losing" and asserts teasingly that one can easily master it. But of course, how one master’s “losing” is a real question for Bishop, who as we know was orphaned early in life, and, who almost kills herself in the aftermath of the break-up that sparks the poem.

For Bishop, writing the poem becomes a part of the answer. While writing the poem, which went through multiple iterations, she ingeniously adapts her (supposedly) impersonal and cold style, to a style that remains disciplined and beautifully crafted, but also subtly reveals more about her own suffering. She allows herself to be vulnerable despite her own natural reticence and shyness, and in so doing, reveals herself to her readership, but also to herself. It gives her greater perspective on the contradictions of her own life. It helps reveal how her public persona (in her poetry and her presentation of herself) is so controlled, and her private persona is at times desperately reckless and out of control – especially when she is drinking. The act of reconciling these two worlds in her poetry (for the first time) forces her into greater insight into her own denial about her suffering. This in turn, gives her insight into how she might be able to lose with grace. So nearly despite herself, and despite years of denial and suffering she learned at the very end of her life how to cope with great loss. It’s a great triumph. Understanding how to cope with loss is the abiding theme of this documentary. I think it's a story that many of us can relate to.

One Art

The art of losing isn't hard to master;

so many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.

The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or

next-to-last, of three loved houses went.

The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,

some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.

I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

---Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident

the art of losing's not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

--Elizabeth Bishop

II. Story Structure

The Dual Narrative

The main story will begin with Elizabeth’s experiences in Great Village, Nova Scotia starting in 1916 and take us through her transient lifestyle through much of her adulthood. The second narrative (told concurrently) will start in 1971 when she is teaching at Harvard and will end when she dies suddenly of a brain aneurysm in 1979. This structure is appealing because we start with two Elizabeths, one who is five and the other who is sixty and this conceit helps create thematic congruities between the developing awarenesses of both Elizabeths. Also, this structure permits each story to come to a climax at a peak in Bishop’s own emotional turmoil (the suicide of her great love Lota in 1967) and when her other great love Alice Methfessel leaves her in Boston in 1975 and prompts the writing of “One Art.” The movie will build into the climax, her poem “One Art” that she writes in a state of deep existential worry. And then it will conclude with the unexpected grace period of feeling “home” at the end of her life from 1975 until her death in 1979.

The Poems

Each scene will end on a poem whose inspiration comes from the tensions of the time period being described. And thus the poetry will not only be an aesthetically pleasing and rewarding study of genius, it will deepen the emotional content of her life-story. Here are two examples:

III. Style, Approach and Point of View

Poetic License

The beauty of Bishop’s poetry is that it is so loaded with the spirit of the moment, in the fragmentary, in the lush, in the juxtaposition of contrasting images and in the point of view of its subjects. What’s needed to make this come alive is a lyrical visual style to conjure this world into the cinematic. The movie needs to make use of the expressive tools that can come with the cinematic voice including techniques like time exposure, time-lapse photography, play with screen size and aspect ratio, multiple-exposure, slow motion, and play with differing levels of saturation. The result will be both expressive and suggestive as befits the poems themselves. The world of the poetry will have a magical or a heightened point of view that will contrast with the more traditional feel of the narrative segments. The two poems that I have interpreted already Sandpiper” and “One Art” are not how they will appear in the final production but initial sketches where I am beginning to uncover some of the formal properties of the interpretations that I will employ in the final project.

Eschewing Over-Analysis

While there will be interviews with people who knew Elizabeth Bishop to help tell her story but there will be few if any literary interpretation of the poems by experts. While the visual poetics of the film will be informed by research related to critical interpretations of the work, the meanings of the poems will be inflected by the shots and styles used to express them and the narrative of her life that surrounds the poem. This will work because Bishop’s style is very conversational and accessible which lends itself to this kind of approach. Also, I believe leaving a certain openness and room for interpretation will actually help the poems feel more alive to our audience than would a narrow definitive interpretation provided by an academic or another poet.

Embracing Re-enactment Where Needed

While some of the story can be told using photographs, visual coverage of the sites, and historical footage, the two centering moments in the movie in Great Village, Nova Scotia and Boston will have moments that need to be tastefully re-enacted for them to have the kind of presence that is needed to tell the story.

[John D. Scott is Associate Professor of Documentary Studies and Production, in the Roy H. Park School of Communications at Ithaca College. His 2007 documentary on Nova Scotian poet John Stiles, Scouts are Cancelled, was nationally broadcast dozens of times on the CBC Documentary Channel, and received numerous awards. Learn more about his EB project, and sign up for e-mail updates, at www.magpieproductions.com. John welcomes feedback on all aspects of the project.]