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

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections: The Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia, an international organization

It dawned on a few of us at a recent meeting of the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia (EBSNS), a meeting to talk about EB100 plans, that we hadn’t yet posted anything directly about the society on this blog. There is a link to the EBSNS website in the list of permanent links (down this page on the right) and a few posts have announced EBSNS centenary activities, such as “In the Village”: The Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Writing Competition (check out the EB100 link for references to these posts). It “behooves” us, as Bishop wrote in “The Imaginary Iceberg”, however, to make note of the society more fully.

Visitors to the blog have been steadily increasing since it appeared early in 2010. John has made a couple of reports about this increasing traffic. It struck us that perhaps all these visitors, especially those from outside of Canada, might not realize that the EBSNS is an international organization. Being the EBS of Nova Scotia might suggest that membership is limited to Nova Scotia or Canada, but that is certainly not the case.

The average yearly membership of the EBSNS runs around 125. Though not large, this membership has a remarkable diversity. It is comprised not only of academics, but also of a wide range of people from all walks of life (artists, scientists, teachers, students and doctors, all of whom are passionate fans of Bishop’s work). And there are members from around the world — from the United States, Brazil, Japan, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic and so on.

You don’t have to live in Nova Scotia to be a member of the EBSNS!

The EBSNS was formed in 1994 by an eclectic group of people who realized that Bishop’s connection to Nova Scotia deserved recognition and celebration — and who also were committed to raising awareness and educating Nova Scotians and the world about her deep roots and enduring bond with her childhood home. The EBSNS has always been centred in Great Village (i.e., there has always been people from the village on the EBSNS Board and most of the society’s events take place in the village), but its reach extends out to the world.

Elsewhere on this blog, I have written about my involvement in those early years of the EBSNS. One thing I would like to say about the society is that even with a relatively small, though remarkably steady, membership, the EBSNS has accomplished a great deal and it is a credit to the dedication of its board and membership — and a testament to the love and admiration for Bishop and her art — that is has lasted for so long.

A few highlights/achievements:
* Publication of a yearly newsletter
* Publication of a number of pamphlets and brochures
* Publication of Expulsion from Paradise: Elizabeth Bishop, 1927–1957, by Thomas Travisano, Anchorage Press, 1995 (the text of the “Elizabeth Bishop Memorial Lecture, delivered in Great Village in the summer of 1995. Sadly, this booklet is out of print.)
* Publication of Elizabeth Bishop: An Archival Guide to Her Life in Nova Scotia (1996), by Sandra Barry (sadly, this is out of print, but much of it is online at Acadia University)
* Publication of Elizabeth Bishop’s Great Village: A Self-Guided Tour (2005), by Sandra Barry and Scott Dickson (definitely not out of print – see the EBSNS website to order)
* Financial contribution to the purchase of the Bulmer-Bowers-Hutchinson-Sutherland family fonds (Elizabeth Bishop’s maternal family collective), which was deposited at Acadia University, Wolfville, N.S., 1996–1997
* Involvement with first Elizabeth Bishop symposium in Nova Scotia, “Divisions of the Heart,” held at Acadia University, Wolfville, N.S., September 1999, and out of which came Divisions of the Heart: Elizabeth Bishop and the Art of Memory and Place, Gaspereau Press, 2001 (this book is still available through the publisher).
* Construction of pergola-style historical display in Great Village, in partnership with the Great Village Historical Society
* EBSNS website, spring 2009
* Commissioning of setting of “Brazil, January 1, 1502,” by Dinuk Wijeratne, for EB100 celebrations
* EB Centenary blog, March 2010
* EB Centenary events website, autumn 2010
* “In the Village”: The Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Writing Competition, 2011
* Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Arts Festival, 19-21 August 2011

Ribbon-cutting for the Heritage pergola, showing the Elizabeth Bishop panels, Great Village, June 2007

Over the years, the EBSNS has been involved in a number of special is events in Nova Scotia, besides our Annual General Meetings:
* The Elizabeth Bishop Memorial Lecture, by Thomas Travisano, Great Village, 1995.
* Elizabeth Bishop Symposium, Acadia University, Wolfville, September 1999
* “In the Village” Day, Great Village, September 2008
* “Brazil in Great Village” Day, Great Village, October 2009

With the arrival of 2011 and the EB Centenary, the raison d’ĂȘtre of the EBSNS has converged with an increasing global interest in Bishop. As the United States and Brazil (as well as other countries around the world) mark this important anniversary, Nova Scotia/Canada, with the support of the EBSNS, will mark it as well, staking our claim more strongly to our part of this great poet.

This brief profile is meant to highlight the purpose and activities of the EBSNS. As a co-founder, past President and current Secretary, I am proud of all that the EBSNS has accomplished. The EBSNS is taking the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary to renew its commitment to educating Nova Scotians and the world about her abiding connection with her childhood home. Events in 2011 will produce a number of legacy projects for the EBSNS. Stay tuned to learn what they will be.


Another purpose for this post is to remind all our visitors that you are welcome to become a member of the EBSNS, no matter where you live in the world. A one-year membership is only $10. A three-year membership is only $25.00. And for all new members, joining in 2011, the EBSNS is offering a copy of Elizabeth Bishop’s Great Village: A Self-Guided Tour for half price, that is $5.00. Membership also brings with it our annual newsletter and the deep gratitude of the Board for your support of the society and its continuing activities.

Go to the EBSNS website and click on the membership link in the menu. You can pay online if you like, or the old-fashioned way, by mail. The EBSNS is a registered Canadian charity, so it can issue tax receipts for donations, but only for Canadians.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections: Christmas

John’s 10 December “Today in Bishop” and “Today’s Video” inspired this Nova Scotia Connections about Bishop and Christmas. When I think of Bishop and Christmas, one of the first things that comes to my mind is that she never liked this holiday, something she said/wrote many times in letters to family and friends.

Having lost her parents so early and having no siblings, this family holiday was fraught from the beginning. I wonder what her first Christmas was like: December 1911 — with her father dead only a few months and her widowed mother deeply grieving. Bishop was only ten months old, so too young, really, to have direct memory of it – but it is not hard to imagine how sad this time was for her and her mother and to suppose this sadness somehow sunk deeply into her. Without language, it would be hard to articulate such sorrow, which would have been visceral, rather than intellectual, of the body rather than the mind.

She spent most of her childhood Christmases with her maternal family, either in Nova Scotia (with her grandparents) or Revere (with her aunt and uncle), and there was some delight in these holidays; but they were always mixed with the looming shadow of her hospitalized mother. Bishop writes a remarkable memory of one Christmas in Great Village in the memoir of her Uncle Arthur Bulmer, “Memories of Uncle Neddy.” This account is full of both humour and anxiety, an experience that brought to Bishop a complex meld of conflicting emotions. The memoir is the adult recounting a memory, with the perspective of time and experience, but the story still holds much of the wonder and surprise that the child felt decades before:

“One memory, brief but poignant, like a childhood nightmare that haunts one for years, or all one’s life, the details are so clear and so awful, is of a certain Christmas. Or maybe it was a Christmas Eve, because it takes place after the lamps were lit — but of course it grew dark very early in the winter. There was a large Christmas tree, smelling overpoweringly of fir, in the parlor. It was rather sparsely decorated with colored paper chains, strings of tinsel and popcorn, and a very few glass balls or other shiny ornaments: a countryfied, home-made tree, chopped down and brought fresh from the snow-covered ‘commons.’ But there was a few little silver and gold baskets, full of candies, woven from strips of metal by ‘the blind children,’ and clips holding twisted wax candles that after many warnings were finally lit. One of my aunts played ‘Holy Night’ on the piano and the candles flickered in time to our singing.

“This was all very nice, but still I remember it as ‘the Black Christmas.’ My other grandparents, in the States, had sent a large box of presents. It contained woollen caps and mufflers for Billy and me, and I didn’t like them at all. His set was dark blue and mine was gray and I hated it at sight. There were also mittens and socks, and some of these were red or blue, and the high black rubber boots I’d wanted, but my pair was much too big. Laid out under the tree, even by flickering candlelight, everything looked shapeless and sad, and I wanted to cry. And then Santa Claus came in, an ordinary brown potato sack over his shoulder, with the other presents sagging in it. He was terrifying. He couldn’t have been dressed in black, but that was my impression, and I did start to cry. He had artificial snow sprinkled on his shoulders, and a pointed red cap, but the beard! It wasn’t white and woolly at all, it was made of rope, a mass of frayed-out rope. This dreadful figure cavorted around the room, making jokes in a loud, deep, false voice. The face that showed above the rope beard looked, to me, like a Negro’s. I shrieked. Then this Santa from the depths of a coal mine put down his sack that could have been filled with coal, and hugged and kissed me. Through my sobs, I recognized, by touch and smell and his suddenly everyday voice, that it was only Uncle Neddy” (Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters, Library of America, 630-631)

This “Black Christmas” was undoubtedly December 1916, the year Bishop’s mother went into the Nova Scotia Hospital. That the Bulmer family was sad, that the five-year-old Bishop was picking up on all this sadness, is no surprise. As with all the adults in her life at this time, on both sides of her family, the attempt to keep daily life as normal as possible, in the midst of much uncertainty and sorrow, was good intentioned but not successful.

Christmas in our culture sets up great expectations of love and peace and happiness — but the reality is that for many people, this holiday is one of the most difficult of the year. Bishop carried the sorrow of her earliest Christmases with her for decades, and often the strain of this sorrow was so great she often ended up in hospital herself. When Bishop reached Brazil and settled there with Lota de Macedo Soares, when she found what became the most secure home of her adult life, at least for well over a decade, when she was in the midst of a busy household with children, family, friends, pets, and neighbours, her Christmases became less fraught, even as she never really came to a full accommodation with this holiday.

This photograph of the tree in front of St. James United Church in Great Village, N.S., taken by Rebecca Colwell a few weeks ago, is so lovely, I wanted to keep it up for a little while longer.


During the 1950s and 1960s, from Brazil, Bishop wrote many letters to her Aunt Grace and there was always a Christmas letter, sent early or mid-December containing monetary remembrance for her beloved aunt — or she would order a fancy box of candy or some nice wine from a Boston shop and have it sent to Grace wherever she staying (sometimes in Ontario, sometimes in Nova Scotia, sometimes in Florida, sometimes in Massachusetts — Grace loved to “gallivant,” as Bishop wrote). On 15 December 1958, Bishop wrote a letter, from which I have excerpted a relevant passage, which shows that by this time, some of the old sorrow and fears of Christmas had eased, even if they never completely disappeared, that she had found her own traditions and practices to mitigate the dark memories of ancient sadness.

“You ask me if it’s warm at Christmas here...it has been the hottest November in 33 years —around 104 in Rio most of the time. (That is HOT.) Up here of course it never gets like that, but I never remember it being so hot, and we have been taking two dips in our pool every day, instead of the usual one, making sherbets all the time — it’s the season for wonderful pineapples, mangoes, etc. — We’ve had a lot of company, too — everyone trying to get away from the Rio heat. On the 22nd we are going away to Cabo Frio (“cold cape”) for ten days — the fishing-place we went to last year — friends of ours have a nice house there, on the beach. There is nothing to do but go swimming, fishing a bit, but it is beautiful scenery and we like it and it gives the maids a rest from us and us from them ... (I’ve been giving the smallest black baby here whooping-cough shots. I’d give them both Salk shots, too, if I could get the serum — it’s hard to get here.)

“When we stay home we do have a tree, of sorts — a tropical plant called graveta that blooms on the rocks at this time of year — it’s a huge thing, six or eight feet high, like a Christmas tree, more or less — anyway, with candles it is very striking, and we usually send a boy up the cliffs to cut us the biggest one he can find (we located one through binoculars one year!). But of course isn’t Christmassy at all. This year we are taking a ham with us as our contribution to our stay and will bake it and decorate it there, and I’m taking along a chocolate cake and tins of cookies! But we’ll probably spend the day swimming and lying in hammocks...” (Elizabeth Bishop Papers, Vassar College Special Collections)

I expect there are a few Maritimers in cold December who think that spending one’s Christmas swimming and lying in hammocks is the best way to end the year!

World’s tallest floating Christmas tree, Rio de Janeiro.

Ed. note: I did a little internet search for graveta, but could not find what this plant might be. Anyone who knows, please send along a comment. Instead of Bishop’s Brazilian Christmas tree, I found an image of Rio de Janeiro’s spectacular 85 metre (28 storey) floating Christmas tree, which according to Guiness World Records is the tallest floating Christmas tree in the world. What would Bishop have thought of it, I wonder! According to the internet, this image is sourced from a site: www.sea-way.org.

A bit of business, because of the holidays:

I will be taking a break from Nova Scotia Connections until early in 2011 – the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary year! John, Suzie and I will be away, but I am hoping to keep the “Todays” going as much as possible. John has collected items for the remainder of the year and it will be up to me to post them, and I will do my best. We’ll get back underway in earnest as 2011 rolls in. It is going to be a banner year for Bishop here in Nova Scotia and around the world. Stay tuned!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Our New YouTube Channel...

Today we're launching a new resource for the upcoming Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Festival: our own YouTube channel, ElizabethBishop100. It provides convenient, organized access to the almost two hundred videos on YouTube inspired by EB's life and works, as well as giving us a presentation space for the various interviews, performances, conference panels, and the myriad other EB100 activities we expect to be recording for posterity during 2011. We hope you'll find it informative and entertaining.

Please consider subscribing to the channel, which will then be able to notify you automatically when new material is posted. The URL is:


Come visit us often, and dissolve in a dazzling dialectic!

Friday, December 3, 2010

FIRST ENCOUNTER XXX -- On Finding the Elizabeth Bishop-New Yorker Correspondence, by Joelle Biele

I found the Elizabeth Bishop-New Yorker papers soon after I started my dissertation. I made my way through the library stacks, taking books off the shelves, and underneath a listing for the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection, which specializes in English and American literature, there was this entry: “Manuscripts Division.” That was it. I remember wondering what it could mean, so I asked a librarian. We talked a bit, and when she learned I was planning on visiting the Berg during spring break, she suggested I also go to the Manuscripts Room. “It’s just down the hall.”

I love the Manuscripts Room. I love the big, heavy tables and the green lamps. I love the glass cabinets and narrow stairs. The Manuscripts Room is at the far end of the main reading room behind tall, locked doors. I rang the bell, checked in, and asked the librarian if there were any Bishop papers in their collection. He said he didn’t think so, so I asked what papers he had. He told me they had recently finished cataloging The New Yorker Records. I ordered some boxes and sat down.

The Manuscripts Division stores its papers in the library basement and only has access to the freight elevator at certain times of day. Eventually, the doors opened and a young man wheeled in a small trolley with cardboard boxes of all shapes and sizes. My order was the tall gray boxes, big enough for several file folders standing up. I signed one out, brought it back to the table, and opened the top. Inside, flipping past folders labeled “Arno, Peter” and “Benchley, Robert,” I saw “Bishop, Elizabeth.” I pulled it out, having no idea what was inside.

Over the course of that spring break, I read the entire correspondence, year by year, box by box, trolley by trolley. Once I realized what the letters were, the insights they provided into Bishop’s writing process and the process of bringing a poem into print, I wanted to shout to everyone in the room, “LOOK! Look at THIS!” But I did not. I went downstairs to the pay phones and called my boyfriend. He listened quietly, supportively as I started talking non-stop about Elizabeth Bishop, and he has continued to listen to me, help me, talk about, write about my favorite poet ever since.

Joelle Biele is the editor of Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence and author of White Summer. A Fulbright scholar in Germany and Poland, she has received awards from the Poetry Society of America and the Maryland State Arts Council. Her essays on Bishop appear in American Poetry Review, Antioch Review, Gettysburg Review, and New England Review. She has taught American literature and creative writing at the University of Maryland, Goucher College, the University of Oldenburg, Germany, and Jagiellonian University, Poland.

Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence is due out in February 2011 from Farrar, Straus, Giroux. Check out excerpts online. You can also read more about Joelle's discovery of Elizabeth Bishop here.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Our Woman in China

Korkor Amartefio (Ghana) and Megan Williams (Canada)
exchanging gifts
at the International Cultural Industries Forum

[Megan Williams is Secretary of the International Network for Cultural Diversity and freelance arts consultant to the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Festival Committee. She presented an Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Pencil to her Ghanaian colleague Korkor Amartefio, International Network for Cultural Diversity Steering Committee member and Associate Director of the Institute for Music Development, who in turn presented Megan with a lovely CD of Ghanaian music. We are very grateful to Megan for her efforts to spread the news about the EB100 Festival during her trip to China.]

[The coveted Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Pencil is available upon application to the EB100 Festival Committee, which applications will be viewed with especial favour should they be accompanied by submissions to our "First Encounters" Department ~~ JB].