"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop
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Monday, May 24, 2010

FIRST ENCOUNTER XV: Bishop and saudade, by Corey Clawson

Six years ago, I elected to devote two years of my life to missionary work following my freshman year of college. Totally removed from my comfort zone, I found myself in Minas Gerais in Brazil, absorbing by a new language and history. I was instructed to “love the people” and understanding the culture seemed the most logical way to do so. In my time there, I came to view Brazil as more than a splotch on a map, as something living — a complex organism with a tri-racial heritage, deep natural beauty, and problems of poverty and violence. A new and abiding desire to understand materialized within me. I entered an introductory literary analysis course two years later. The first poem I encountered flipping through the pages of one of the course’s texts — Elizabeth Bishop’s “Under the Window: Ouro Prêto” — described a city and segment of Brazilian culture I knew quite well. Initially, I simply wondered why an American poet would be so interested in Brazilian culture, but I soon found myself so enthralled with class discussions on this and Bishop’s other Brazil poems that they continued one-on-one with the professor following each class period.

Finally, one day, she (Dr. Anne Shifrer) said to me, “Corey, this is something you need to pursue. In a matter of weeks, you’ve completely changed my understanding of Bishop, a poet I’ve studied for decades because you’ve shared experiences as a fellow American in Brazil.” In that moment, she showed me that the insights I’d gained while studying Bishop and Brazil were just as important to her as they were to me. This realization gave my life new depth and focus. I knew I needed to continue working with these texts and sharing their power and beauty with others.

By the end of that semester, we had outlined a project to examine saudade (a unique concept of longing in Brazilian culture that I came to understand as a missionary). Over the course of two years, this project evolved into an undergraduate thesis, three different presentations at literature and Latin American Studies conferences, a guest lecture on Bishop in an upper-division course, and an undergraduate research grant funding related research on the poet’s childhood in Nova Scotia.

Now, preparing my applications for graduate school, I am excited to be a part of a new generation of Bishop scholars and have a number of topics on my radar including other aspects of Brazilian culture in Bishop’s work and her relationship with May Swenson, a native of my hometown.


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Check out Corey Clawson's thesis at: http://digitalcommons.usu.edu/honors/5/

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