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

Monday, December 1, 2014

The story of "Lifting Yesterday" — by Sandra Barry

My first article about Bishop was published in 1991. By the middle of that decade, I was fully immersed in the Bishop world — giving talks and delivering papers at conferences, participating in the EBSNS, taking visitors to Great Village to show them Bishop’s childhood home. I was also actively researching Bishop’s connections to Nova Scotia.

My mother died early in 1997 and later that year, with the generous financial and moral support of Canadian historian Alison Prentice, I was able to devote a stretch of time to writing my most substantial work about Bishop, what I call a biographical study, Lifting Yesterday: Elizabeth Bishop and Nova Scotia. I completed the manuscript sometime in 1998–1999. At the time, I thought it might be possible to publish it.

For a few years I approached publishers and submitted proposals for consideration. I can’t recall how many publishers I approached, but it might have been about half-dozen. All said no. The university presses said it was too long. The trade publishers said it was too scholarly (too many notes). I began to realize that the issues were complex. Initially, Bishop was not a subject of much interest in Canada. She was perceived as a dead American poet, whose Canadian connection was with the peripheral Maritimes. I was told by Penguin Canada that their marketing people didn’t think they could market it. It surprised me to hear that they had so much say, as much or more than editors, about what to publish. I was very new to this whole game and, I suppose, naïve.

I came to realize that another obstacle was the hybrid nature of the manuscript. It is part biography, history, genealogy and literary criticism. Being neither fish nor fowl, publishers didn’t know where to slot it. There were other issues: biography is a niche genre in the small Canadian marketplace; the biographer is almost as important as the subject of the biography. You get the idea. The effort to interest someone, anyone, in it proved futile at that time.

I talked with some friends, colleagues and acquaintances about what to do. Some echoed that it was too long — but from my perspective as someone who loves to read biography, and who has read dozens of FAT ones in my life, I didn’t see how it was possible to write a short biography of anyone, let alone such a complex person as Bishop. The first biography about Bishop, by Brett Millier, was a substantial book.

Some people urged me to do whatever it took (meaning, cut it), but I was resistant to this option because, for me, I had said what I wanted to say about Bishop in the way I wanted to say it. I chose the structure based on how I actually saw Bishop’s life and art: that is, not as a conventional chronological narrative, but thematically, as a quirky non-linear equation. The shape and format of the manuscript reflected my very argument, in the way that form is necessary to create a poem and understand its meaning.

Some people suggested I divide it up and pitch it to publishers as two volumes. If they wouldn’t publish one volume, I couldn’t see them wanting to publish two or three. One person who read it (and I am grateful to the handful of people who read the whole thing) suggested that I present it as a “collective biography” — I thought this a good idea and have since often described it in this way.

After several years of trying, I put the manuscript aside. I continued to research, write and talk about Bishop. Indeed, with each passing year I got deeper into the Bishop world. But I stepped away from the manuscript for some time. As I tell people, Bishop scholarship is not the only thing I have done — or do — and I was involved in a number of other creative and scholarly projects (as well as freelance editing work).

In 2004 my younger sister, Donna, died. With part of the legacy she left me, I decided it was time I had a website. In 2005, my good friend Scott Dickson designed one for me. Part of the content of the site was what I had now taken to calling my “big Bishop book.” Scott put early versions of the introduction, and chapters 1 and 2 on the site (this website is now defunct, thanks to Bell Aliant). I never got around to adding more chapters. Re-engaging the manuscript in this way made me think, again, about the possibility of publishing it — so, in the mid-2000s I took up the effort. Interest in Bishop in Canada had increased somewhat, so I thought the reception of this subject would be more favourable. Again, I don’t remember how many publishers I approached (perhaps three or four — and not the ones I had approached in the late 1990s). My strategy was a combination of cold submissions and approaches based on an introduction by someone (as was the case the first time). Again, all said no, more or less for the same reasons as before.

I did not persist with this round of appeals for as long as I did the first time. I resigned myself to the fact that the manuscript was not publishable. For the most part, I didn’t really care. When I re-read the manuscript in 2005 (after several years of not looking at it), I found that I still liked what I had written. I did some revision and added new information I had come across, but, more or less, I had written what I wanted to write, said what I wanted to say, in the way I wanted to say it, and, truly, there is real satisfaction in doing so.

I had set up my own imprint after my sister died, Joe Heron Press, which I was using for hand-made, limited edition booklets, broadsides, and other formats for my own poetry. Part of the sales of these creations went to causes that mattered to me. It struck me that I might do a similar thing with my big Bishop book: that is, print and bind the manuscript and offer it to the people I knew were interested. I actually spent over a year setting this up: getting estimates for costs, publicizing the project and asking people to subscribe (I got about 100 subscribers – no money changed hands). But, by 2008 I again let the whole thing drop. Part of the reason why was because I and a group of Bishop fans had come together to buy Bishop’s childhood home in Great Village, late in 2004. I took on the administration of the house and the artist retreat that we set up there, and several years into this endeavour, both were consuming a great deal of my time, energy and resources. Also by 2008, I began what became a major project focused on celebrating Elizabeth Bishop’s centenary in 2011. Serious work on EB100 (as we came to call it) was well underway by 2009, and continued into 2013, with several substantial legacy projects.

Part of my personal contribution to EB100 was publishing, through Nimbus Publishing in 2011, an introductory biography about Bishop, Elizabeth Bishop: Nova Scotia’s “Home-Made” Poet. I guess this book proved I could write “brief,” as opposed to “big,” about Bishop. Nimbus refers to this book as a pictorial biography. It is short and filled with images.

I am actually quite pleased with this little book, which is thoughtfully designed and serves the purpose for which it was intended: to introduce Nova Scotians to Bishop and her connections with the province. In some ways, this brief account of her life and work is about as much as most people want to read in this world of rapid, fragmentary and transitory communication; our attention spans having been shaped by the sound byte and the Wikipedia page. I told people that I would buy the book for its photographs. Indeed, in no other book is there collected as many images about Bishop’s life as there are in this little book. This book is still in print.

With all the hype from EB100, friends asked me, “Why don’t you try again to find a publisher?” I no longer have any interest in doing so. When I put part of the manuscript online back in 2005, I saw the value of the online world as a way of reaching a wide audience. I am by no means adept with electronic communication. I do email and blog a bit, c’est tout. With all the “devices” available to us, I still have only a desktop computer, and I feel suspicious of the wholesale immersion in electronic information technologies. However, I saw, in my simple-minded way, even back then, that the internet was an effective way to communicate, to share information. I even saw it as a kind of “publishing” — that is how I saw the creation of my website, which Scott did, by the way, from scratch, writing code. There were no fancy web or blog design sites then like today.

I have always taken an independent path, operating outside institutions. This independent path has also influenced my thinking about publishing. Some of my work has been published in conventional ways, but, mostly, I have remained on the side of the self-published, which in the 1990s was seen in the wider world as, essentially, failure. I didn’t see it that way, but what did I know?

With the explosion of the internet, with intense economic and social pressures, conventional publishing and book selling are changing rapidly in the twenty-first century. Even if the powers that be in the literary world (e.g., the Writers Union of Canada, the League of Canadian Poets, the many professional editors’ associations) still regard conventional publishing as the marker of true success, many people see this position as increasingly dubious. Even as the internet remains a kind of “wild west” of content, increasingly, there is material of serious intent and substance found only there. The gate-keepers no longer quite know where the gate is, since it is shifting every few years, or few months, or few weeks. I think of the ubiquity of e-books, tablets, smart phones. I think of the many academic journals that are now only available online.

When the intensity of the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary eased late in 2013, I began to think about my big Bishop book again, and decided that I would re-visit and reformat it and make it available electronically as a pdf, or, rather, as a series of pdfs. Personally, I read as little as possible on screens. But I see the value, for example, of having a searchable electronic text, and a way of passing around text that is easier and quicker than the old-fashioned way: loaning out one’s precious books.

Here it is the end of 2014. I have lived with my big Bishop book for so long that now I need to do something with it. I do not believe it is definitive, by any means; but there is information in it that is found no where else in Bishop scholarship. The EB100 blog seemed like the logical place to offer it, as this site has an audience open to learning more about Elizabeth Bishop and her connections to Nova Scotia. When I thought about printing/binding/selling it by subscription, I went to the Bishop estate and explained my plan. I received permission from the estate to proceed. Essentially, the book would not be “published” or “marketed” in any conventional way. A permission fee was paid (kindly by an American Bishop scholar friend of mind), even then beyond my budget. Thus, the estate knows what I have done, so I feel no qualm about sharing this manuscript in this manner.

Modus Operandi

If you are interested in Lifting Yesterday: Elizabeth Bishop and Nova Scotia, and want to receive the pdfs, let me know and I will put your name on a subscription list. My email address is: slbarry@ns.sympatico.ca.

I must charge a fee. I hope that what I am asking is reasonable: $25.00 (no tax) for all pdfs. I need payment first (cheque or cash), before I can send it. My mailing address is: P.O. Box 235, Middleton, Nova Scotia, B0S 1P0, Canada.

I can send you all ten pdfs at once (as well as the “Works Cited”), or I can send one pdf file at the beginning of each month, starting at the time of subscription. Please indicate your preference. You can subscribe any time.

At the beginning of each month, I will post a notice on the EB100 blog to say that a new chapter is ready. I will also offer something additional that relates to the chapter that is available that month.

Thank you kindly for your interest. Sandra Barry

No comments:

Post a Comment