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

Monday, May 17, 2010

FIRST ENCOUNTER XIV: Discovering Elizabeth Bishop, by Peggy Walt

It was the early 90’s when I first learned about Elizabeth Bishop and her connection to Nova Scotia. Determined to find the actual date, I recently read through my old work diaries, and found a note from Wednesday, January 27, 1993, indicating that I had talked to Peter Sanger about Bishop and then later in the day had a meeting with my boss, the late Allison Bishop, (no relation) about EB (“AB re. Eliz. Bishop”). Similar notes followed on February 2, 16, 24, 25, 26 and March 1, when I recorded having been “working on Bishop.” On March 8 (flash ahead to an International Women’s Day connection?) I recorded working again on the “Elizabeth Bishop Report.”

I loved working for Allison Bishop — he was so encouraging and supportive of me. I remember him calling me into his office and asking me if I had ever heard of a poet named Elizabeth Bishop. I’m sure I looked blank and said, “Sorry, no, it doesn’t ring a bell.” It wasn’t the first time that I had wondered if my English degree from Mount Allison was standing me in good stead! I offered to find out who she was. I am pretty sure Allison mentioned a connection to Nova Scotia, and that Bishop had won the Pulitzer Prize — in my English major smugness I thought, “pretty sure I would have heard of this person if she’d won a Pulitzer Prize.” I remember going to the library (no Internet!) and researching EB, and thinking, “How could I not have read this person? How could I not have known who she was?” I made notes (and also thought how lucky I was to have a job where I got paid to go to the library to look up famous writers!).

I have a definite memory that the first thing I read by Elizabeth Bishop was prose, and that I was immediately and forever overwhelmed by her writing. Again, questions: why hadn’t I studied her in university? was she American? Canadian? Maritimer? I have no recollection whatsoever of any English professor ever mentioning her name. Did I take the wrong courses?

I’m not positive, but I think it might have been “In the Village” that I first read. I was completely gob-smacked and I felt an immediate connection with my family experiences in rural Nova Scotia (Cumberland County, Pugwash, Malagash and Great Village areas).

I also remember thinking that if the prose was that good, the poetry must be amazing, but not wanting to read it “too soon.” I read about Elizabeth’s mother, and thought how tragic it was that she had never left the Nova Scotia Hospital. Where was the movie about Elizabeth Bishop? I needed to know more.

Somewhere in my research, I learned about a Halifax friend of EB’s, Zilpha Linkletter. I wondered if she had been present when Bishop received her honorary degree from Dalhousie University, and then realized sadly that the same year the degree was awarded, 1979, was the year of Elizabeth’s death.

Much to my surprise, I found out that Zilpha was still alive and living on Robie Street, in a house that was directly opposite mine, behind my across-the-way neighbour’s house. I considered visiting her. Would she tell me her remembrances of EB? But what would I say? Just showing up at her door and stating that I was a government employee who’d become increasingly obsessed with all things Bishop wouldn’t really do, would it? I asked my neighbour if she knew an older lady living behind her. “Oh, Zilpha?” she replied. “Yes, she lives there, but I haven’t seen her out for a while.” I knew time was passing and I so wanted to talk to her. I have a strong recollection of walking home from work after a day of thinking about Bishop, pausing in front of that Robie Street house, dithering about what to do and, then, doing nothing and coming home. Now I wish I’d followed my impulses, as Zilpha Linkletter has passed away in 2001 and the opportunity to converse with her is gone.

The EB report had to do with a proposal that the Province purchase and take ownership of a significant collection of Bishop-related items in Nova Scotia that were being made available for sale. The fear was that these items would permanently leave the country as there were institutions eager to add them to their existing Bishop collections. I told Allison, and he very much agreed, that we should really try to hang on to the objects if possible. There was much liaison, appraisal of the items, negotiations with the various partners involved in making this happen. I had met Sandra Barry by this time and she more fully explained to me EB’s connection and the importance of these family paintings, photos, letters and other objects to the Province. Sandra immediately impressed me with her vast and intimate knowledge of all things Bishop, and her sincere desire to let her fellow Nova Scotians in on the EB story. I learned a lot from Sandra — about Bishop herself, her still living family members in Nova Scotia, and the legions of her fans all over the world who wanted to come and see where she hailed from (visions of Japanese tourists seeking the Great Village Holy Grail….á la Anne of Green Gables…). The collection, eventually purchased by the Province through the Public Archives of Nova Scotia, came to reside at Acadia University, where it is on permanent loan.

Allison felt that something else should be established in Nova Scotia and worked very hard with others who had in interest in creating the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia. He was a quiet, behind the scenes kind of man and his efforts were tireless to help fledgling initiatives like this get off the ground. Others in the cultural community weren’t so sure — I remember being scolded about the fact that Elizabeth Bishop was a dead American poet and there were living Nova Scotian writers who couldn’t get enough provincial government support to work on their writing, that we shouldn’t be paying any attention or giving money to EB until this situation was resolved in favour of the living creative artists. I saw the point, but I felt it was also important to honour Bishop as one of our own, to make people understand why we should be reclaiming her. I was very excited when the EB Symposium took place at Acadia in 1998.

Along the way I continued reading Bishop bit by bit, like picking one’s way through a box of delicious chocolates, I didn’t rush it. I read the poems slowly, each one something to savour and reflect on.

Flash forward about 10 years. My infatuation with Bishop had grown, and I’d met others who were likewise indoctrinated. Yet, despite many wonderful projects and efforts to make EB more of a household name in Nova Scotia, I kept mentioning her to people who didn’t know about her. My choir, the Aeolian Singers, was casting around for a theme for an International Women’s Day concert (March 8!), and I suggested Bishop to our Artistic Director, Jackie Chambers (who initially didn’t know EB either, but who caught on fast!). We decided to approach singer/songwriter Susan Crowe about helping us to create an EB themed concert.

Susan, it turned out, was already an enthusiastic fan (“Elizabeth Bishop? I love Elizabeth Bishop!”). In March 2005, we presented Impersonations of an Ordinary Woman onstage to an appreciative audience at the Rebecca Cohn, a collaborative collage featuring singers, musicians, actors and the choir.

The concert was a lot of organizational work and a big success. The Globe and Mail covered it. CBC recorded it. Stephen Pedersen reported in the Halifax Herald his astonishment that, in this day and age, poetry could move people to jump to their feet. And, while I typed Elizabeth’s biography, program notes, press releases, and contemplated her photos, I wondered what EB herself would have made of it all. I felt a strong presence over my left shoulder at the computer — hopefully if it was EB, she was pleased with our efforts.

I think I visited the Elizabeth Bishop House for the first time with Susan (who, with Sandra and eight other people bought it in 2004). I will never forget the feeling of connectedness I had when I entered it, especially, on walking into what had been the young Elizabeth’s bedroom. Then I truly knew, yes, this is a Maritime house and, yes, she is one of us. And, “the echo of a scream,” haunted me when I thought of that house for many days afterwards.

And now, the centenary — what a wonderful bringing together of so many who love and celebrate EB’s place with us!

I’m sure that my Bishop connections will continue to lead me down new paths and to other interesting folks, and that more will learn, as I did, that a most astounding writer lived amongst us for a time, and never forgot this place that we are all blessed to call home.

Flyer for "Impersonations of an Ordinary Woman" -- the Aeolian Singers concert.

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