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

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Elizabeth Bishop and "the mails"

Yesterday's "Today in Bishop" was an excerpt of a letter from Robert Lowell, written on 1 May 1964. Exactly a decade later, he wrote Bishop another, somewhat shorter letter. Yes, I know it is 2 May, but I am supposing that Lowell posted this 1974 letter to Bishop on 2 May (I don't know that, of course, but I will believe it for now, allowing me to post it today). In 1964 Bishop was living in Brazil. In 1974 she was back in the US. One of her regular topics of discussion in letters from Brazil was the quirks of Brazilian mails -- often with amusing accounts of trips to the post office. Complaining about the mails and the post office, like complaining about the weather, is something Canadians also like to do. However, while the weather still comes in for constant discussion, "the mails" are dimming in our discourse, primarily because writing and posting actual letters (pen to paper, envelopes, stamps, etc.) is rapidly fading from daily practice. Emailing and texting have taken over. But these mediums have their own quirks and frustrations. Thus, my taking on "Today in Bishop." John is in the US. This physical distance means nothing in cyberspace, but only if internet connections work. He scarcely missed a beat with "Today in Bishop" while en route, and quickly was able to establish internet service when he reached his destination. However, as they used to say on the radio and television when signal problems occurred, he is "currently experiencing technical difficulties." This problem necessitated a telephone call to alert me. So, I am taking up the "Today in Bishop" task until he has them resolved.

When John told me he was creating the "Today in Bishop" feature on the blog, I was amazed. "Can you do that?" I asked. "Sure," said John. And if anyone could, it was John. He has been at this task for a couple of months now and my amazement continues. He compiles a list for the month in advance and I am sure has May's list in hand, but I do not have his file (and there is no way for him to email it to me). Combing through the published and unpublished Bishop letters I have on hand, I was unsuccessful in finding something for 2 May. Looking through documents in any certain way, one notices things you might not notice looking through them in another way. For example, I noticed in the Bishop/Lowell letters that Bishop wrote to Lowell three times on 3 May (years apart, but there it was, 3 May). So, tomorrow I'll have lots to choose from! Also, I found the 1 May repeat of Lowell for 1964 and 1974.

I decided that "in a pinch," as Bishop once wrote, one improvises or invents something -- and since we are having trouble with our version of "the mails" I could justify the slight editorial indiscretion.

The fact of the matter is, I will not be able find things as John finds them. Suzie and I owe a huge debt to John, as he is the heart of this blog project. He set it up and keeps it going in a most amazing way. I am very tentative and unsure about this realm. I've been told by many people, "Oh, it is so easy." Maybe so, but not for me. John has taken the lead and has created an interesting and valuable site. Not only is he a gold mine of information, but he has a firm grasp of the technical side of things. Whenever I've asked him to modify the site, he simply does it. We will be adding more things to this blog over the next two years, so, do stay tuned.

For now, I'll muddle along and hope that his "techncial difficulties" will be resolved soon. I wonder what Bishop would have thought of this medium. Yesterday I hosted a gathering at the EB House in Great Village: a Halifax book club many of its members reading Bishop for the first time. In the dining room of the house is a beautiful old manual typewriter, not Bishop's of course, but like one she would have used. Part of the discussion was about the use of manual typewriters, all those present being old enough to have learned how to type on them. Amazingly, Bishop used them her whole life, typing thousands of pages, then taking some of those pages, putting them in envelopes and posting them -- what happened next: waiting, waiting for them to reach their destinations, waiting to receive replies. We don't want to wait anymore.

Typewriter at Elizabeth Bishop House. Photo by Chris Reardon.

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