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

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Origins of an Idea: the theory of centenary

“I’ve been having a wonderful time reading Darwin’s journal on the Beagle – you’d enjoy it too. In 1832 he is saying, ‘Walked to Rio (he lived in Botofogo); the whole day has been disagreeably frittered away in shopping.’ ‘Went to the city to purchase things. Nothing can be more disagreeable than shopping here. From the length of time the Brazilians detain you,’ etc. etc. One wonderful bit about how a Brazilian complained that he couldn’t understand English Law – the rich and respectable had absolutely no advantage over the poor! It reminds me of Lota’s story about a relative, a judge, who used to say, “For my friends, cake! For my enemies, Justice!

[from a letter to Pearl Kazin, February 10, 1953, in One Art. Letters, selected and edited by Robert Giroux. (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1994), p. 255.

I am amazed by John's resourcefulness for finding quotations for "Today in Bishop." Believe it or not, this post was done totally independently of the quotation for February 10. I guess we are all "in sync": me, John, EB and Darwin!!

One of Elizabeth Bishop’s heroes was Charles Darwin. We are just past an important Darwin anniversary. Undoubtedly, EB would have paid attention to the activity marking Darwin’s birth and the publication of The Origin of Species (though she preferred The Voyage of the Beagle). So far in this blog, we have been acknowledging the fact that EB was uncomfortable with birthdays, and would be bemused by all the fuss we are making to celebrate her centenary. However, I for one think that she would somehow come to terms with it, be resigned, and perhaps even a bit in awe of all the wonderful artists who are so enthusiastically taking up this celebration, wanting to be part of it (many of whom you will hear from here over the next year, as we invite these artists to talk about what they are doing and why).

With a nod to Darwin, I want to describe the origins of the idea for celebrating Bishop’s centenary in Nova Scotia – to set out something of the evolution of this process.

I have been reading Elizabeth Bishop’s work since 1988. I have been actively researching and writing about her life and art since 1990. I am a co-founder and past President of the EBSNS. I am a co-owner of her childhood home in Great Village. It is not surprising, given this long-standing connection, that I began thinking early on about Elizabeth Bishop’s centenary. Indeed, I began talking with people about this important anniversary late in 2005. One of the first people I talked with about planning some sort of celebration to mark what we are now calling EB100 was a dear old friend, Fonda Gamble Smyth (Fonda is from Londonderry, very near Great Village). We were roommates at Acadia University eons ago. After having lived in New Zealand for many years, Fonda returned to Nova Scotia. I remember that our several conversations about EB and her centenary were generative and encouraging.

The next person I spoke with was Peggy Walt, who in the early 1990s was involved with the Nova Scotia Department of Education and Culture. She worked for the Director of Culture, Allison Bishop. The Minister of Education and Culture at that time was John MacEachern, who was, coincidentally, a big EB fan. All three were directly involved in helping to create the EBSNS in 1994. When Peggy left government she continued to be deeply involved in arts and cultural activities in Nova Scotia in many capacities, including as a publicist. Peggy had maintained her interest in EB activities in NS, so one day in May 2006 we met to discuss the idea of celebrating EB’s centenary. Peggy was the right person to talk to. When I told her that my dream was to have a Canadian composer set some of EB’s poems to music (something that had been done by a number of American and Brazilian composers), she immediately told me that I must meet her friend and composer Alasdair MacLean, who teaches at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B. That meeting took place in February 2007. At that same time, Peggy also introduced Alasdair and me to Bernhard and Shirley Gueller. Bernhard is the deeply respected conductor of Symphony Nova Scotia. Making the connection with Alasdair bore fruit in yet another way. It was through Alasdair that I met Suzie LeBlanc in the spring of 2008. Suzie had discovered Bishop’s work entirely independently during a visit to Great Village in the fall of 2007. When she went to Mount Allison to do some teaching, she and Alasdair discovered their mutual interest in Bishop’s work, and Alasdair immediately arranged for them to come to Halifax to meet me. Since then, Suzie and I have been actively collaborating on planning the Nova Scotia celebrations for EB100.

This basic chronology is something I have wanted to set down for some time. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Fonda and Peggy. Fonda’s initial enthusiasm and encouragement gave me the boost to move forward. It was Peggy, an incredible force for good in the arts community in Nova Scotia, who more or less got the ball rolling. So much of what happens in the arts community in the Maritimes comes from the close connections among artists – one contact generates another, one event leads to another – it is how collaboration is born and fostered here. I think EB would approve of the organic way her centenary celebrations are evolving in Nova Scotia.

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