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

Monday, May 3, 2010

FIRST ENCOUNTER XII: It was music and fear that brought me to Elizabeth Bishop, by Claire Miller

In 2005 the Aeolian Singers decided to celebrate International Women’s Day by honouring Elizabeth Bishop. The concert was the brainchild of Susan Crowe and the Aeolians’ artistic director, Jackie Chambers. Their intention was not to present a biography of Bishop, but instead to offer a selection of poetry, songs, and dramatic scenes, which would evoke the work and places of Bishop's life. As a choir member, I was asked to read one of the poems.

At that time I did not know who Elizabeth Bishop was and, although I am a lover of the rhythms and sounds of language, I really was not much of a poetry reader. So the thought of presenting a poem to an audience, out loud, by a poet I was not familiar with, in the company of well-known musicians and actors, on the big stage of the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium, was,to say the least, terrifying.

I was assigned “Song for a Rainy Season,” and although I was given a copy of the poem well in advance, I decided I needed to know more about Elizabeth Bishop. I began, of course, on the internet, looking for clues about Bishop, her life and her writing, and I visited the public library. The amount of information seemed over-whelming. Then I took myself to the bookstore, where I found a copy of The Complete Poems. And so I read and read. But still I wondered how to interpret this particular poem emotionally and vocally, especially as, the more I read, the more I whined to myself, “Oh, I'd rather read another poem!” or even “I don't want to do this!”

But then, as I kept on reading and thinking, I realized that the poems of Elizabeth Bishop were accessible and understandable, meaningful and relevant, even to a poetry novice like me. The images were both exotic and familiar, from far away yet close to home. And when I returned to “my” poem, I could feel the dampness almost as I do here on an August afternoon; I could imagine a great rock covered with lichen like those protruding from the steep cliffs of the river near my former Eastern Shore home; I could hear Bishop’s Brazilian owl just as I've heard owls in our Maritime woods. I found my own way to understand and speak her words.

And so the concert came — an enchanting evening of music, readings, performance — presented before an attentive audience. And Elizabeth Bishop captured at least one more heart.

Since that night I seem to have encountered Elizabeth Bishop in so many places, even in popular movies and novels. I have read more and learned more. I have taken her poems to circles of women, I have given her Complete Poems to friends, and I read her words at my mother's funeral. She has become part of my life.

Claire Miller has been telling stories professionally for over 20 years. She has told them throughout the Maritimes, in schools and libraries, in intimate living rooms and on the concert stage. {Editorial insertion: Check out the EBSNS website and look under “Writing Competition” and hear Claire reading Bishop’s story “In the Village.”}

Aeolian Singers website: http://www.aeoliansingers.ca/

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