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14th Anniversary Edition, Live Encounters Poetry & Writing Volume Four Nov-Dec 2023.
The Map-Maker’s Colors – Studies with Elizabeth Bishop,
guest editorial by Carolyne Wright.
In her poem “Arrival at Santos,” Elizabeth Bishop chides herself for “immodest demands for a different world / and a better life, and complete comprehension / of both at last.” She was a poet whose travels and powers of observation and description allowed her to enter into landscapes, cultures, and the human heart, from the perspective of the perpetual traveler, even in her own country. Miss Bishop wrote these lines in January 1952, as she disembarked in this gritty Southeastern Brazilian port city—not for a grand tour or brief tropical getaway, but for what would turn out to be fifteen years of nearly full-time habitation in the interior of Brazil, at Samambaia, the working agricultural estate of Maria Carlota Costellat Macedo de Soares—Lota, the woman who was Bishop’s lover and companion until Lota’s death in 1967.
Brazil—an unlikely country, I used to think, for a poet like Miss Bishop: native of Worcester, Massachusetts, who spent some years of her childhood with relatives in blustery coastal Nova Scotia, and who was closely identified for much of her adult life with bluestocking Boston, in large part through her long friendship with Boston Brahmin poet Robert Lowell (“Cal”), one of her greatest advocates and supporters. When I was a student of Miss Bishop’s at the University of Washington in the spring quarter of 1973, she seemed the furthest thing from a long-time denizen of Brazil. Short, plump, encased in tailored suits with matching silk scarves in muted pastels, with Minnie Mouse-style pumps and perfectly coifed hair, Miss Bishop exuded nothing of Brazil’s tropical heat and humidity, none of its cultural mix of Portuguese Catholicism and Afro-Brazilian candomblé—transported across the Atlantic in the slavers’ negreiros and recollected / reassembled in the fields and senzalas of Brazil by the enslaved and their descendants. Miss Bishop embodied none of the alegria–or the depths of saudade–that had so profoundly impressed me during my first encounter with Brazil, in the city of Salvador da Bahia.
That first encounter with Brazil was a physically and emotionally intensive six weeks of pilgrimage in early 1972, half-way through my Fulbright year in Chile, when I traveled by train and bus across the continent from Santiago to Bahia. I aimed to experience the legendary Carnaval do povo, the People’s Carnaval, on its own terms, as authentically as I could: dancing a cachaça-infused samba in the streets of São Salvador da Bahia; and after Carnaval ended, hitchhiking in a long-haul lorry with young Brazilian and European backpackers from Bahia to Ouro Preto in Minas Gerais; staying with rural families in the interior and with journalists from one of the country’s leading newspapers in the Rio de Janeiro neighborhood of Santa Teresa; hanging out with Brazilian students at concerts by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil and Gal Costa—the reigning deities in the pantheon of MPB (Música Popular Brasileira)—and dreaming through lyrics of their songs printed on flyers included with record albums. These lyrics were my first introduction to Brazilian poetry.
By virtue of having acquired near-bilingual fluency in Spanish in Chile, I was also able to read magazines like Manchete and Veja—the Look and Life magazines of Brazil, whose up-beat, breezy articles studded with colloquialisms were my first exposure to Portuguese prose. I could figure out, or educatedly guess, the Portuguese equivalents for verbs, vocabulary and the like, and talk to people in a mix of Chilean Spanish and improvised Portuguese—and thereby absorb and respond, to some extent, to the cultural atmosphere and expressive nature of the language. Whatever shyness that still clung to me from childhood had to vanish in this intensely social, group-minded society, where the most commonly used term for “we” is “a gente”: the people.
At the same time I was carrying on this intellectual/linguistic challenge to learn the language and enter into the culture, I was throwing myself into a wild dance of emotional and never-quite romantic explorations during Carnaval, with lean, shaggy-haired young men who embodied for me all the energy and excitement of Brazil and especially Bahia. How to speak to them, and understand what they said to me, as if I were a menina brasileira? Nothing like Miss Bishop’s carefully circumscribed, decorously leveraged and openly closeted relationship with a woman of Brazil’s landed upper class. I was going to be as bold and outgoing as a young woman with language and people skills and a survival instinct could be. Carnaval in Bahia was an ecstatic, dark adventure—days of dancing in warm autumnal rain, torch-lit nights filled with the Afro-Brazilian ancestral spirits, the Orixás, who presided over the drumming, the floats of musicians and dancers, the samba schools: a gente seeking release in the all-day, all-night week of street celebrations.
I did not know Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry until after I returned to the U.S. and entered graduate school, where I soon found myself reading the first edition of her Collected Poems, a gift from my mother, who guessed rightly that this work would appeal to me. By then, Bishop’s work was highly regarded and beginning to have a pervasive influence on the first of several succeeding generations of American poets. Bishop was also a beloved and highly individual teacher of poetry, whose visiting positions in American universities in the last dozen years of her life put her in contact with young poets across the country—many of whom became significant voices themselves. Although I was too young and unformed to benefit much during that short spring quarter from her pedagogy, over the long term, the experience of studying with her—as well as her poetry, her presence, and her interaction with me as a neophyte poet—have continued to influence my own teaching and poetic development. To paraphrase the subtitle for Brett C. Millier’s insightful critical biography (Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It), the life in that classroom had a different significance than the memory of it in terms of its ongoing resonance in my life as a poet. The classroom for me as that student poet extended to encompass a country, Brazil, with a shared affection and fascination, though the experiences of older and younger poet were wildly different.
The impetus for this essay grew out of a conversation several years ago with a graduate student of mine at Oklahoma State University, Michelle Brown, who was writing a seminar paper on Bishop’s winning the Neustadt Prize from the University of Oklahoma’s World Literature Today. I told Michelle a little about my experience of studying with Bishop at the University of Washington, when Bishop was the Theodore Roethke Visiting Poet in that spring quarter of 1973. Bishop was the only poet in my graduate school career, I added, who had given any structured assignments. She made us write in form, she was the only poetry teacher who compelled her students to learn about prosody and craft. Maybe it was ironic that she was the most exacting instructor, because she wasn’t a tenured academic, and because, by her own admission, she didn’t even like teaching.
Michelle asked me if I had written about this experience; I replied that I had some anecdotes, but had not yet put anything in written form. Soon thereafter a poem began to percolate, and by late fall of that year I had finished “Studies with Miss Bishop,” a double abecedarian in slant-rhymed couplets, whose lapidary pace of composition, allusions historical and personal, and formal properties meant to pay homage to Bishop’s work—though she herself never wrote a poem in such a quasi-nonce form.
When I met Elizabeth Bishop on the first day of that workshop at the University of Washington, I was a graduate student not in English or Creative Writing, but in Romance Languages and Literature (now called Spanish and Portuguese). This departmental affiliation was to fulfill a commitment to the professor who chaired that department and who had written the language recommendation for me for the year I had just spent in Chile on a Fulbright-Hayes Study Grant during the presidency of Salvador Allende. The Chilean national political experiment and cultural renaissance that I witnessed and lived during that year would change my life and set the compass for much of the trajectory of my writing.
I also traveled extensively throughout South America during that year, including those six weeks in Brazil—Rio de Janeiro; São Salvador da Bahia for Carnaval; and the inland state of Minas Gerais, where I hitched rides on huge transport trucks to the villages of Mutum and the town of Ouro Preto. In Ouro Preto I spent a week in a hostel for students of the School of Mines–a hostel which stood only a few blocks distant, it turned out, from Bishop’s house there. On that trip, I had fallen in love with Brazil: the humor and vibrancy of the people, the energy and beauty of the culture, the expressiveness of the language. Thereafter, whenever I talked about Brazil, or spoke in Portuguese, I found myself caught up in a transforming joy that didn’t manifest when I spoke the Chilean-accented Spanish in which I had become fluent during my Fulbright year.
Although I was now taking graduate courses in Latin American Literature and teaching introductory Spanish as a teaching assistant, I found myself drawn toward poetry workshops offered by the English Department, and when I learned that Elizabeth Bishop would be teaching that spring quarter, I made it my business to be in her workshop. From my copy of her Collected Poems, I was aware that Bishop had spent time in Brazil; but I thought of her more as a New Englander. She turned out to be a wry but formidable presence in the classroom: her first words to us were, “Well, I don’t like teaching, but the trust fund ran out, so my friend Robert—do you know Robert Lowell?—he said that I would simply have to teach.” All of us wannabe poets were blown away by this frank announcement.
We were duly impressed whenever she mentioned renowned poet friends—Miss Moore, Mr. Jarrell, and especially Robert (just his first name, which she pronounced with a reserved but humorous affection). Once she called him Cal—”I mean, Robert Lowell,” she added, probably realizing from our puzzled looks that we unsophisticated Westerners hadn’t heard the nickname by which Lowell was known in East Coast literary circles. Clearly, Miss Bishop belonged to that exalted class of society, the Boston Brahmins, in which “the Cabots speak only to the Lodges, and the Lodges speak only to God,” as the quasi-apocryphal saying goes. But since the trust fund had run out, there was nothing else to be done—in her class we would write in form, at least learn the basics of prosody and poetic craft.
As a teacher, Miss Bishop was exacting, but not at all harsh or overbearing. The workshop was structured on a series of exercises—we were to produce sonnets, villanelles, quatrains, ottava rima, even a literary ballad, one of Miss Bishop’s favorite forms. Whatever I wrote then has not survived the succession of packing boxes for all the moves of my graduate school days and thereafter. No finished work came out of this workshop: I was too much a beginner to benefit at the time from the rigor of formal exercises. I do recall one particularly lamentable set of ballad stanzas, something about the suffering of an Indian guru jailed in Patna for political activism—those pages are long gone. In much-revised form, a sonnet or two that I drafted for this workshop subsequently became part of a series included in my Master’s thesis in Creative Writing at Syracuse University. My first attempt to write a sestina, that most Bishop-esque of received forms, was left unfinished from that spring workshop, but I brought it to an initial completed stage a year or so later at Syracuse. Without the plethora of creative writing textbooks that proliferate today, I created a template to follow by copying out and following the end-word pattern from Bishop’s “A Miracle for Breakfast.” This effort eventually resulted in my first completed sestina, “Another Look at ‘Albion on the Rock’: Plate 38 of Blake’s Milton.”
In this workshop, Miss Bishop—we never called her Ms. Bishop, Elizabeth, or, God forbid! Liz—seemed to us neophytes to be a Poetic Eminence descended from the dizzying heights of Parnassus. None of us realized how introverted she was, how she masked her shyness with an ironic reserve and a dry wit that could seem grumpy or crusty. During one workshop meeting, though, I happened to mention something about Brazil, and Miss Bishop’s face immediately brightened. “Do you know Brazil?” she asked me.
After class, she invited me to her office for a chat. “Tell me about your time there,” she smiled. “Where did you go? What did you see? Whom did you meet?”
I was honored and terrified to be singled out like this, and I strove to sit up straight in the plastic-molded chair, across from this Great Poet at her desk in the stark fluorescent gloom of her office, with its bookshelves, visiting professor-style, nearly bare. Though I was feeling shy myself, we talked about Ouro Preto, Diamantina, and Rio de Janeiro—cities I had visited that were so familiar to her. She watched as I grew animated, and nodded with little Ah-hah’s of recognition while I gestured and laughed, as I always did when talking about Brazil. As I described the university student hostel, “Jardim de Allah,” where I had stayed in Ouro Preto with engineering students from the School of Mines, she interrupted me to exclaim, “Oh, but my house is only a few streets away! Was only a few streets away,” she corrected herself. “Ah, my house.” She sighed and said that leaving Brazil had been difficult, very difficult.
I had no idea, of course, how much lay behind the apparent simplicity of that statement. The resonance of loss and self-questioning softened her voice, though, and whenever I question my own travels, I think of this encounter with Miss Bishop and of some of the parallels in our lives as poets and citizens of the world.
I was too diffident—too immature, really—to build upon this special attention and follow up with more conversations about Brazil or any other topic with the Great Poet. Had the difference in our ages not been so great; had I not been suffering from unrecognized long-term weariness from so much travel and other dislocations during and after the Fulbright year; had I been less absorbed in my own concerns of the time—should I remain at the University of Washington, where the Masters career track would lead to high-school language teaching, or via an academic Ph.D. to a professorship in Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Literature; or should I accept the other offer of a fellowship in Creative Writing at Syracuse University, a fellowship I had postponed for a year in order to enter the Spanish program at the University of Washington?—I might have been more sensitive to Miss Bishop’s own human needs.
Perhaps she was seeking to learn more of our common cultural interests, to open the door to further conversations. But I will never know. Reading Brett C. Millier’s book so many years later, I realize—in the one page that this biography devotes to that spring quarter 1973 in Seattle—that Miss Bishop was lonely, ill and out of sorts, and couldn’t wait to leave. In letters she wrote during that time, Millier quotes her exclaiming, “Only four weeks to go—WHEEE!”
Had I known that she was a person who exclaimed “WHEE!!” in letters, I might have been less in awe of her and more capable of recognizing a fellow human being with whom I could share a streak of giddiness. But the gulf of age and stage of life was too great, and Miss Bishop, from my perspective, was too formidably renowned, too much a Big Name. Yet she was also awkward in groups of people, and perhaps a bit scared of her workshop students. Not good at putting people at ease, nevertheless she had tried in her own way—I recognized decades too late—to make a human connection, talking about Brazil in her office with me.
Miss Bishop also missed several classes due to illness—in that era before e-mail list-serves, Facebook messaging and WhatsApp, we students would arrive to find the cancellation notice posted on the classroom door. And we were further disappointed, on the May evening of the Theodore Roethke Memorial Reading—delivered during those years by the poet who held the Roethke visiting chair in the spring term—to discover that Miss Bishop was once again ill. I never heard her give a public reading of her work: University of Washington faculty poet David Wagoner gave the Roethke reading in her stead that night. By the time Bishop returned to Seattle the following spring to give the 1974 Roethke reading and thus fulfil the terms of her contract with the University of Washington, I was at Syracuse University.
Miss Bishop was not entirely elusive—I did occasionally run into her in the University District: she had to walk to and from her apartment several blocks from campus for class and for shopping in University Avenue stores. We would chat briefly, and she was always affable and relaxed in this impromptu situation, much more so than in the comparatively formal ambience of the classroom. I don’t think she socialized outside of class with students, as she apparently had during other teaching visits, including her previous residency at the University of Washington in the winter and spring quarters of 1966. Only much later did our group of students understand how ill she was during the spring of 1973, how much effort she had to exert to fulfill her teaching duties, and how her reclusiveness was not just a habit of being, but also a self-protective measure to guard her relatively fragile health.
Miss Bishop remained a mysterious but revered figure, a great poet of almost legendary stature in her lifetime, particularly from my viewpoint as a naive young poet from Seattle, an outsider from a region still at the edge of the U.S. literary map. But the workshop with her was the impetus that prompted me to go on leave from the Romance Languages program at the University of Washington, reactivate the earlier fellowship offer from Syracuse, and pursue what I came to understand was my true goal at that stage—a Master’s degree and ultimately a doctorate in English and Creative Writing.
Working with Bishop and applying what I learned from her over the course of an ongoing literary life have encouraged me in the simultaneous centrifugal and centripetal impulses of this career: to incorporate a life of crossing cultural borders with a dedication to the craft of poetry and writing. Above all, Miss Bishop’s example of living so many years on another continent, in another language and culture, have been an inspiration for deeper and more resonant discoveries—not just in the realm of art, but at a fully human level, among people as they live in their own countries and cultures.
This brief recollection can only begin to map the contours of one international writer’s life. In “Questions of Travel,” Miss Bishop asks, “Is it lack of imagination that makes us come / to imagined places, not just stay at home?” My answer is to suspend any definitive Yes or No: the active imagination should have the ability to enter with empathy into the reality of others’ lives, on their own terms, even if the traveler’s presence in those lives alters those terms and conditions, however subtly. Such an imagination can be immeasurably enriched by its experiences abroad—and likewise, we hope, enrich the lives of others whom it touches. Truly, Live Encounters with others, on their own terms.
Miss Bishop asks, finally, “Should we have stayed at home, / wherever that may be?” My answer here is emphatically No—we must travel, whether at home or abroad. Wherever that home may have been, for the traveler transformed by her experiences, home is now the entire world.
© Carolyne Wright
Carolyne Wright’s most recent books are Masquerade, a memoir in poetry (Lost Horse Press, 2021), and This Dream the World: New & Selected Poems (Lost Horse, 2017), whose title poem received a Pushcart Prize and appeared in The Best American Poetry. She has nine earlier books and chapbooks of poetry; a ground-breaking anthology, Raising Lilly Ledbetter: Women Poets Occupy the Workspace (Lost Horse, 2015), which received ten Pushcart Prize nominations; and five award-winning volumes of poetry in translation from Bengali and Spanish—including Map Traces, Blood Traces / Trazas de mapa, trazas de sangre (Mayapple Press, 2017) by Seattle-based Chilean poet, Eugenia Toledo (Finalist, 2018 Washington State Book Award in Poetry, 2018 PEN Los Angeles Award in Translation). A Contributing Editor for the Pushcart Prizes, Carolyne lived in Chile and traveled in Brazil on a Fulbright Grant; on her return, she studied with Elizabeth Bishop at the University of Washington. Carolyne returned to Brazil in 2018 for an Instituto Sacatar artist’s residency in Bahia. A Seattle native who teaches for Richard Hugo House, she has received grants from the NEA, 4Culture, and the Radcliffe Institute, among others. A Fulbright U.S. Scholar Award to Brazil took her back to Salvador, Bahia, in mid-2022; with another two months in 2024. Masquerade by Carolyne Wright is available at https://losthorsepress.org/