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

Friday, February 5, 2010

FIRST ENCOUNTERS I: Stumbling upon Elizabeth Bishop, by Suzie LeBlanc

My first encounter with Elizabeth Bishop was in Great Village in the fall of 2007. I found myself there because colleagues of mine were giving a concert (presented by Musique Royale) in the Great Village church. Free to roam in the afternoon, while my colleagues rehearsed, I found a small leaflet in the church basement about Elizabeth Bishop and the Elizabeth Bishop house in Great Village. The house was not open that day but I was intrigued by this story and by her photo (she looked like kin or family). I pocketed the leaflet and decided I would find out more about her at a later time. After all, I had just applied for a grant to spend 3 months in Sackville, New-Brunswick, to work in the Mary Mellish Library collection, and surely I could find the time to go to Great Village which is only about one hour away from Sackville.

About a month later, I was rehearsing for a concert at the house of composer Alisdair McLean in Sackville and he mentioned wanting to write music inspired by Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry. I was stunned and thought I should find out more about her since she kept making strange appearances into my life. Alasdair told me that if I wanted to know more about Elizabeth Bishop, I had to meet a woman in Halifax called Sandra Barry who knew everything about Bishop and was an accomplished poet and writer herself.

Another month later, I found myself at the Banff Arts Centre during the Banff/Calgary International Writers Festival : Wordfest. This is one of Canada’s leading literary festivals and I attended a poetry reading event where a friend from New-Brunswick was reading. The same evening I also heard Newfoundland’s Agnes Walsh read some of her own poetry and was very taken by her reading. The next day, I saw Agnes Walsh at lunch at the Banff Centre and I asked if I could sit at her table. In conversation, I mentioned my interest in Elizabeth Bishop and her eyes immediately lit up. She was a big fan of Bishop and did I know that Elizabeth had walked in Newfoundland with a friend in 1932, and had kept a diary of the walk? I had indeed read about this at the library in Sackville and was very excited since I love to walk and had been hiking in Newfoundland not long ago when I was training to walk to the Camino in Spain. I was interested in knowing more about this diary and I was getting very excited about the idea of following Elizabeth’s journey in Newfoundland while reading her poetry, a good way to integrate and inhabit her words. Incidentally, the other course happening in Banff that month was called « Walking and creativity » and I met many people with shared interests in walking and writing.

I eventually met Sandra Barry, with Alasdair MacLean at the Ouro Prêto Cafe in Halifax which, sadly, no longer exists. (Elizabeth Bishop lived in a place called Ouro Prêto in Brazil so meeting there was full of serendipity and charm). Stories and bits of poems flowed from Sandra’s mouth for over an hour and I was mesmerized and impressed by her immense knowledge of Bishop and Bishop’s «œuvre». She told me that she had a copy of the unpublished Newfoundland diary and offered to send me a copy so that I could begin planning my trip. I knew then and there that nothing would stop me going on this journey.

In August 2008, I set out to follow Elizabeth Bishop’s footsteps (day for day 76 years after Elizabeth and her friend began the same journey). I was accompanied by Linda Rae Dornan, a performance artist and documentarist, who had brought her camera in order to document the walk. It immediately became «our» walk!

As Bishop’s poetry was starting to become part of me and my artistic journey, and as I communicated more and more with Sandra on email, I was struck by the fact that Elizabeth’s centenary in 2011 would coincide with my 50th and I had wanted to work on a special project for that year. What also became apparent was that although famous American composers had set Bishop’s words to music, no Canadian composer had done so to date, though her grand-parents were ¾ Canadian and she spent her formative childhood years in Great Village, Nova Scotia. Her writing is filled with references to Great Village and the landscape around it and elsewhere in Nova Scotia and I wanted to commission Canadian composers to set her poetry. With Sandra’s initiatives and ideas for a centenary Festival, and through her work with the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia, the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Festival (EB100) was born.

Coincidentally, it is also Sandra Barry’s 50th anniversary in 2011 and so together, our ages will add up to Elizabeth’s 100.

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