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

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia AGM, 18 June 2016

About thirty members and friends gathered at the "In the Village" Cafe in Great Village, N.S., on Saturday afternoon 18 June 2016 for the EBSNS Annual General Meeting. Our guest speaker, Halifax artist Emma FitzGerald, gave a lively talk about her artist residency in Rio de Janeiro, where she worked on a project inspired by Elizabeth Bishop's poems. Here are some images of that day, taken by EBSNS member Susan Kerslake.
(The business part of the day.)
(l to r) (Life member Lois Bray, our new
Vice President Judith van Duren,
and long-time member Barbara Bell.)
(Emma FitzGerald weaving her tales of Brazil)
(Tea, treats and talk)
Thanks to all who came out to help us celebrate Elizabeth Bishop "In the Village." Go to the EBSNS website to read the minutes of the meeting and the President's Report.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop’s Letters to Aunt Grace Part 13: Getting down to business

Even Elizabeth Bishop knew she was “no business-woman.” Her relationship with money was complex and fraught. She was a fortunate writer in some ways because she had inheritance from her father, mother and paternal grandfather. This inheritance provided at least some income for a good part of her adult life. But she had little interest in managing her finances, perhaps because she professed to have little ability to do so. Indeed, from her earliest childhood, until she came of age, her inheritance was managed by her mother, then her grandfather and then her paternal uncle.

Even with money in hand, and increasing success as a writer (being published, receiving awards, fellowships and other prizes), Bishop always seemed to worry about money, about having enough to live on. Her life-long health issues and their attendant costs were certainly enough to keep her at least concerned about finances. Though, as she admits in her Depression era memoir “The U.S.A. School of Writing,” she didn’t really have to work in a conventional way, until much later life.

Bishop disliked teaching, but in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, she taught because she needed the money. She did readings, an activity she disliked even more than teaching, for the money. She sold the Robert Lowell and Marianne Moore letters in her possession in the 1970s because she needed the money. She was always very direct about this motivation. In her letters to Grace in the early 1970s, worry about money is a regular theme, especially as she approached retirement.

Money is even a subject in her poems and stories. Perhaps her first awareness about money as a force in daily life came in Great Village during her early childhood. Her memoir “In the Village” contains several fascinating references to money.

For example, it refers to a five-cent piece Bishop receives as a gift, with the image of King George V on it. The above image is not of a nickel, but this gives you the idea. This coin dates 1916, the year of “In the Village.”

And much later in her life, one thinks of “Poem” where art and money are directly linked, the little painting having never earned any money in its life, even though it is the size of an old-style dollar bill.
The "old-style dollar bill" painting by Bishop's Great-uncle George W. Hutchinson.

In her own letters to friends and colleagues, money is a not infrequent subject. As much as artists want and need to be outside the crass realm of business and commercialism, unless they are independently wealthy, artists are often, reluctantly, obsessed with money, or the lack of it.

I have always thought a book, or at least an essay, about Bishop and money would be well worth the effort and quite revealing. It is a subject that directly touched every aspect of her life from birth to death; but it is a subject that seems to be somewhat taboo: too private? too uncomfortable? too crude?

In her letters to Grace, Bishop wrote about her finances and business transactions, especially in the 1960s, when Brazil was going through serious economic upheaval. Such subjects were not central in their dialogue, but they were present in ways that demonstrates how these issues mattered to Bishop.

In the 5 July 1956 letter to Grace, Bishop tells her aunt that she is “investing some money here.” She had borrowed from her bank in the US (I don’t know if anyone has ever figured out what bank(s) Bishop dealt with — perhaps not much of an issue, but it would be interesting to know) and invested it in Brazil. The nature of this investment is not revealed in the letter, but Bishop tells Grace that “interests are fantastically high.” Bishop had help in this endeavour from “a friend of mine who’s supposed to be a great money-maker.” The idea was to make “enough to live on here” and “send some more $$$ back to the U.S.” Bishop seemed quite sure this plan would work, even though she had “never thought of doing anything like that before.” She declared that it must be “the ‘Bishop side,’ as Aunt F would say, — the grandpa B side!”
 “Grandpa B”: John Wilson Bishop
The Bishop side of her family was decidedly all business. Her paternal grandfather, John W. Bishop, was a self-made man who had created a solid construction company in New England, building landmark buildings such as the Boston Public Library. Grace herself knew the Bishops well enough and understood their inclination. In her letter, Bishop declared, “Anything artistic I feel positive couldn’t come from there, even if my father did do well in high-school.” Bishop’s father, William, might very well have been the most “artistic” of this family, a well-read, gentle and thoughtful man, who clearly cared about more than just making one buck and then another.

Perhaps Bishop’s aversion to dealing with money and finances came from seeing these forces dominate her paternal side. But even as she lacked a business acumen, she did have to deal with her “living” at every stage of her life, and especially so as she aged. I do not know if Bishop's investment paid off as well as she hoped.

The next post will deal with more health and medical matters.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop’s Letters to Aunt Grace Part 12: The Fear of Flying

The next extant letter for 1956 is dated 5 July, the promised full response that Bishop mentioned in her postcard. This letter contains a number of ongoing and new subjects, and the next couple of posts will focus on them in turn.

Bishop’s dislike of flying was something she mentioned on more than one occasion to Grace. One of my previous posts introduced the subject of air travel.

Grace’s view of this mode of transportation is unknown, but it might have been similar to her niece’s because Bishop mentions a recent news event that clearly unsettled her, something she thought would interest Grace: “Weren’t those airplane accidents ghastly.” So upsetting were they that Bishop observed she would not have gone to Diamantina (a trip she took in April) “after them.”

Of course, I wondered what plane crash had happened, and thanks to Google and the internet, I learned about a tragic mid-air collision of two aircraft over the Grand Canyon, on 30 June 1956, only a few days before Bishop’s letter, so indeed a very current event. It was the first airplane crash in aviation history causing over 100 deaths. 128 people perished.

Commercial transcontinental, transatlantic/pacific flight was still in its early years, though expanding rapidly. This terrible accident clearly shocked the world. Bishop noted, trying to lighten what for her was a dark subject, told her aunt about a painter friend of theirs who had recently flown to Europe. When, upon arriving, he was asked how he liked the flight, his said, “It was the longest fright I ever had.”

Bishop is, of course referring specifically to the Colorado tragedy in her letter, though it is interesting that she writes “airplane accidents” (plural). As I searched online, I found a site that lists plane crashes that have occurred in each year, planecrashinfo.com, and discovered that there were over 50 plane crashes in the world in 1956, including one on 15 May, when a Canadian air force plane crashed into a populated area in Orleans, Ontario, and killed over two dozen people on the ground.

I myself am afraid of flying. Like Bishop, I have flown in spite of it; but never comfortably. We are told that flying is safer than driving in a car; but for some reason, it doesn’t feel like that. Well, humans are quite irrational on many levels. I wonder how many of these 50+ crashes Elizabeth and Grace heard about in 1956, multiple accidents each month, most not of the magnitude of the one in Colorado, but they all added up to a deadly year in aviation.

I am not sure when Bishop’s first flight occurred. From birth, she was a frequenter of ships and trains, which continued when she began to travel on her own in the 1920s and 1930s. Her first vivid description of flight that I have found appears in a journal she kept in August 1951, when she made a trip to Nova Scotia and Sable Island. For some reason, Bishop chose to fly, from New York to Boston and then on to Nova Scotia.

The trip journal begins with a description of this flight, which seemed to fascinate more than frighten her. On the New York to Boston leg, she wrote that they saw only one other plane, miles off, and commented in a way that invokes her poem “Manners”: “It seemed wrong not to hail it, for the 2 planes not to approach each other & talk over the strangeness of being there at all – It didn’t seem possible.” The plane landed at an airport in Dartmouth, “a clearing in the fir woods,” and she took a little ferry across the harbour to Halifax. For the Nova Scotia to Sable Island leg, she boarded the HMCS Cornwallis (a Coast Guard resupply ship) to make the journey. She approached Sable Island by sea.

In May 2008, I had the great privilege of going to Sable Island, thanks to a kind invitation from Zoe Lucas. Along with writer Janet Barkhouse, we went by air and I felt quite reassured because our pilot was a woman, Debbie, and very experienced. A regular trip for her. It might have been the least nerve-wracking flight I’ve ever taken. I wished Bishop had seen Sable Island from the sky. She would have appreciated its striking appearance way out there in the vast ocean.
 Sable Island by air, May 2008. Photo by Janet Barkhouse
Janet Barkhouse (centre), Sandra (right) and
Sable Island Station Manager Gerry on the South Beach
In her 1951 journal, she was fascinated by the geography beneath her (the plane flew only 11,000 feet up): “N.S. looked lovely from the air — fresh dark greens, red outline, glittering lines of rivers — more animated than Maine had looked — & that amazing cleanness that strikes me every time.” By 1956, flight was more common, but the skies were becoming more dangerous, too. The adventure was turning into an anxiety, at least for Bishop.

The next post will look at a subject for which Bishop had little acumen: business.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop’s Letters to Aunt Grace – Part 11: Another Postcard

The next extant communication from Bishop to Grace in 1956 is a postcard dated 3 July, clearly in response to a letter from Grace. Indeed, the continuation of a series of lost back and forths, since there is a big gap from the previous letter of January. What happened to all the letters in between? What we get in this postcard is a glimpse of the continuum, their ongoing dialogue, but like listening to only one side of a phone conversation.

Bishop packed as much as she could on the verso of this card. It is amazing how much she managed to type, filling the small space to the edges. Remember, she did so on a manual typewriter.

She began by instructing Grace to send “some maple syrup” directly to their post office box in Petrópolis, because “Mr. Liberal has left customs.” — perhaps someone who helped smooth the way for gifts from the north. (One wonders what sort of person this fellow was with a name like that!) While it took longer for mail to reach that destination, Bishop noted that it still seemed to get through.

Anything “maple” was eagerly and gratefully received by Elizabeth and Lota. Indeed, Aunt Mary had recently sent “a pound of Red Rose tea” and some maple sugar. The shipment from Grace was a business transaction, as Bishop indicates she will be sending a cheque. Grace, however, also begifted such northern treats on many occasions. And they always triggered vivid memories for Bishop. July was well past the maple syrup season in Nova Scotia (which is February/March), but maple products are available year round. Two producers of maple products in Colchester County are: Sugar Moon and Maple Mist.

The verso of this postcard was a view of Glória, Rio de Janeiro

“Poor Aunt F” is invoked again. It appears that Grace had finally seen her at some point during this year. Indeed, visited long enough to be part of a “dinner party.” Grace was gallivanting again. Bishop conceded, surely based on more reports from her Bishop cousins, that Florence was “getting worse.” Bishop confessed that she had always stayed away from her “as much as possible,” even as she “felt rather sorry for her.” Bishop’s biggest objection, declared emphatically, was that her aunt was a “snob…putting it mildly.”

The item mentioned most briefly in this brief communication concerned a big subject, Bishop’s health. The correspondence between them contained many discussions about all things medical and health-related (sadly, we see only one side of it). This shared interest was of long standing between them, for all sorts of reasons.

In this particular instance, Bishop tells Grace, “I have a BOIL, or boils,” one large on her kneecap and “some little ones.” Bishop’s reason for mentioning this infirmity was: “what do you suggest?” It is easy to imagine that Grace’s advice was practical and germane, even at a distance. Ever the person to make a joke, Bishop wrote that she new understood the old saying, “sore as a boil.”

“How was your trip?” Bishop asked, and promised that she would “write soon,” asking her aunt where to send her next letter. Bishop did write very soon after sending this postcard, a long letter dated 5 July 1956. The next post will begin a pondering of subjects in this epistle.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

EBSNS AGM, 18 June 2016

Join the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia on Saturday, 18 June 2016, 1:30 p.m., at “In the Village” Café in Great Village, N.S. Our guest speaker is Halifax-based visual artist and architect Emma FitzGerald, who will be speaking about her artist residency in Brazil in the fall of 2015, when she visited Bishop’s houses. Her best-selling book Hand-Drawn Halifax (Formac) has been turned into a colouring book. See the EBSNS Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/EBSofNS) to learn more about the society’s activities and interests. Hope to see you in June!

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop’s Letters to Aunt Grace – Part 10: Work in progress

"I’m glad you liked the little poem about Pa,” wrote Bishop in her 18 January 1956 letter to Grace. This poem, “Manners,” appeared in the 26 November 1955 issue of The New Yorker. It doesn’t appear that Grace had a subscription to TNY, so somehow Bishop was sending them to her aunt. She told Grace that she had “done some more, 3 or 4,” that is, poems about childhood and children, and hoped “eventually, in a couple of years, to publish a little book of children’s poems.” She added that another poem had come out in the 10 December 1955 New Yorker, “Filling Station,” which she would also send, “you may think it’s funny. (At least it’s supposed to be.)”
(26 November 1955 cover of The New Yorker)
Bishop never collected and published a book of children’s poems, but she continued to work on poems that might have fit such a collection. The poems she directly mentions here, and the 3 or 4 others not named (likely including “Sestina,” which was published in the 15 September 1956 issue of TNY; “First Death in Nova Scotia,” which was published in the 20 March 1962 issue of TNY; and “Sandpiper,” published in the 21 July 1962 issue of TNY) ended up in her 1965 Questions of Travel.

As busy as Bishop was helping Henique Mindlin with his book about Brazilian architecture, and working on new poems, Bishop was, at this time, well into one of the biggest projects she ever undertook, the translation of Mina Vida de Menina, a Brazilian classic. This book is the diary of a young girl who grew up in Diamantina, Minas Gerais, Brazil. It had captured Bishop’s imagination and though she knew very little Portuguese, she embarked on the translation project with enthusiasm. It took her several years to complete.
Bishop wanted to title this translation “Black Beans and Diamonds,” but it eventually came to be called The Diary of ‘Helena Morely’, published in 1957.
The author of the diary was Alice Dayrell Caldiera Brant(1880–1970), still very much alive when Bishop began the translation

In letters to friends, she wrote about meeting Dona Alice and the introduction to the translation is a lengthy essay, which describes some of her encounters with the latter-day “Helena.” So committed was Bishop to this project, that she took a trip to Diamantina. She was disappointed by the mediocre reception of the diary in the US.
 (Dona Alice)
Bishop had already told Grace about this project, because in the letter Bishop notes, “The translation of the girl’s diary is almost done — about 3 weeks’ more work now.” She told her aunt that a publisher in England was on board, but she hadn’t “decided on a U.S. one yet,” noting how different the language in America was from England, which meant “a lot more work” to make sure idioms were correct: “in the U.S. one[,] I say ‘a can of candy,’ for example; and in the English one, ‘a tin of sweets,’ etc. etc.”

Bishop eventually went with Farrar, Straus and Cudhay as the American publisher, agreeing to give them her next poetry collection if they published the diary.

Bishop was always eager to hear what Grace thought of her work — poems, stories, reviews and translations. She made sure Grace and her family had all her books and sought their responses, especially her beloved aunt’s. She sent Grace a copy of the diary and asked her on a number of occasions what she thought of it. Grace’s response is, of course, lost. Mina Vida de Menina resonated with Bishop on so many levels, and she drew directly on her own childhood experiences to help her translate. She told Grace later on, that when it was too hard to translate Helena’s grandmother’s sayings into English, she thought about what Gammie (her maternal grandmother) would have said in a similar situation, and it worked just fine. In a small way, Bishop’s translation of the diary was an homage to her own childhood. 
 (Pa and Gammie, circa 1920s)

In Part 10, I will write about another postcard, which introduces a major subject of interest to aunt and niece: health.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop’s Letters to Aunt Grace — Part 9: The Babies

One subject that Bishop knew would keenly interest her aunt was children, particularly babies and toddlers. In the mid- to late 1950s, the house as Samambaia was a veritable nursery, with several children present on a regular basis.

In Bishop’s letter of 18 January 1956, she gives an account of “Lota’s ‘granddaughter’,” Helena, who was the daughter of Lota de Macedo Soares’s “adopted” son Kylso. Kylso and his wife had several children in close succession (Helena, Paulinha, Roberto, Lotinha and Patricia). At this point, it was just Helena and her younger sister. During the late 1950s, these children spent time with their “granny” on a number of occasions, partly because Kylso and his family lived in a very small apartment in Rio, where, Bishop speculated, “they just never go to bed.” January 1956 appears to have marked Helena’s first visit, because Bishop is introducing her to Grace.

Bishop observed that she thought Lota was “causing a slight social scandal” when, in Petrópolis she told anyone who asked, that Helena was “My grandchild.” “So I imagine,” Bishop wrote, “people are asking each other when Lota had a child, and if the family hushed it up, or what!” This kind of speculation was familiar to Bishop because local gossips in Great Village had said of Arthur Bulmer, Grace's brother, that he “had” to marry Mabel Pigott, though it was decidedly not true, as their first child was born nearly two years after their wedding. Being from a small community, Grace would have appreciated Bishop’s observations on a number of levels, after all, Grace herself had eloped with the widower William Bowers, a “slight social scandal” in its day.

Bishop told Grace that Lota “would spoil Helena in no time,” thus proving to be “a real ‘granny’.” Bishop was quite intrigued by Helena, who “is barely three, and so good.” Yet, “she’s too clean for a child that age — always washing her face and hands, folding up her clothes and putting them away.” This behaviour made Bishop worry “a little.” On the trip to Petrópolis, Lota bought Helena an ice cream: “I came out of a store,” wrote Bishop, “& saw nothing but Helena’s little bottom sticking up in the air as she leaned over the side of the car to eat it.” Bishop observed, however, that this spoiling was doing the child good, as she “is already much fatter and sleeping much more than when she came.”

Helena was not the first baby to arrive in the household. Lota’s cook had a child on 7 February 1955, the day before Bishop’s birthday. She was named Maria Elizabeth. As Brett Millier notes, the cook wanted Bishop to be the child’s godmother, but because she was not baptized, the church would not allow it (Life & the Memory of It, 265). It is clear from this letter that Bishop had already told Grace about “Betty” (Millier says she was called “Bettchy”), because she mentions her without much background, and notes that at just under a year “she already has two teeth…and is walking a little…pretty good, isn’t that?”
Millier writes, “Elizabeth and Lota supervised the raising of Bettchy, relying heavily on Dr. Spock.” (265) In the letter to Grace, Bishop remarks that Lota had studied “child-psychology,” so she had a lot of theory to draw upon.
(Benjamin Spock himself, 1970s)
Sadly, Bettchy and her parents were gone by 1960 and Bishop never saw her again. Bettchy’s place was filled in 1961 when Mary Morse (Lota’s previous partner, who still lived nearby) adopted a baby, Monica. But the bigger gap was the loss of Kyslo’s family, around this same time, caused by a rift between Lota and her adopted son. (Millier 266) By 1960, however, preoccupations with children were quickly replaced by preoccupations with the creation of Parque do Flamengo, a huge project which became Lota’s true “baby.”
(Mary and Monica Morse. Source:
http://www.institutolotta.com.br/index.html )
The mid- to late 1950s was perhaps the most conventionally domestic time of Bishop’s life, and also one of the most creative. Bishop told Grace, “It’s probably good for us to have babies around.” Elizabeth and Lota seemed inclined and suited to the roles of aunt and grandmother. They certainly had definite ideas about child-rearing, which is rather amusing considering they were never mothers. Grace, on the other hand, was the veteran in this field, already with a first grandchild and a second one due to arrive that year. It is sad that Grace’s responses to Bishop’s many stories and theories about these children are lost. Undoubtedly, they would have been amusing, practical and insightful. Grace had been such an integral part of Bishop’s own childhood, right from birth, that it is not surprising Bishop was eager to share details about their “babies.”

With all these children around, Bishop was thinking a great deal about her own childhood, and she had begun a translation project directly connected to the childhood of a famous Brazilian. In the next post, I will look at the work Bishop was engaged in at this time.