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

Friday, February 19, 2010

FIRST ENCOUNTERS II: But she's a Nova Scotian! by Sandra Barry

For years I have had the immense delight and privilege to meet many people who love Elizabeth Bishop’s art. Almost without exception, they have fascinating stories not only about how they first encountered her work, but also about how it has followed them through their daily and creative lives. Bishop’s art is like that, once her lines and images and rhymes get hold of you, they stick, they become part of the mantra of one’s day. I find myself muttering “looking for something, something, something” or “Everything only connected by ‘and’ and ‘and’” or “awful but cheerful” over and over again. I have often thought that it would be fascinating to collect these “First Encounter” stories – and am delighted that we are beginning that process here. Over the next year or so, we will be inviting artists to recount their own stories about how they first read Bishop.

My first encounter with her occurred in January 1988, in an American Poetry seminar taught by Robert Cockburn at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. The course included only four poets: Robert Lowell, James Wright, James Dickie and Elizabeth Bishop (what a combination!). In all honesty, I’d not heard of any of them, except, vaguely, Lowell. On the first day of class we were asked to chose two poets for our presentations.

I grew up in the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia, a place where the surname Bishop is incredibly common. My mother’s name was Elizabeth. EB was the only woman on the list. This combination of subliminal factors caused me to choose her instantly. The other poet I chose was James Wright.

The previous year I completed an M.A. in Canadian History at UNB and being a freshly trained historian, the first thing I did was go to the library to find books about Bishop. The first book I pulled off the shelf was The Collected Prose. Standing in the stacks of the Harriet Irving Library I opened the book to the first story, “Primer Class,” about attending the Great Village School in 1916–1917. I attended a similar school when I was in Grade One in 1966–1967 in Paradise, N.S. What I read astounded me. Even though I was two generations younger (she was born the same year as both my grandmothers), our experience in a rural Nova Scotia school was astonishingly similar. Then I began to read her poems. Again and again I encountered things that echoed my own experience growing up in this province. But, even more, this convergence occurred in art that is so brilliantly crafted and genuinely humane that I was both stunned and inspired. From that moment I was hooked on Elizabeth Bishop’s life and art and have been researching and writing about both ever since.

The presentation I gave in the seminar argued that she was not an American but a Nova Scotian! I got an A-. I still have the notes I made on big recipe cards! I can’t remember at all what I said about James Wright.


  1. Wonderful Sandra, piecing things altogether now!

  2. I am reading Sandra's "Lifting Yesterday: Elizabeth Bishop and Nova Scotia" now. It's incredible. A master work! Don't miss it!