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

Monday, June 28, 2010

FIRST ENCOUNTER XX: My First (Un)Official Encounter with Bishop and Beyond, by Camille Roman

My first meeting with Elizabeth Bishop occurred about the time of her death in the Fall of 1979. I consider it to be “unofficial” because I was not familiar with her poetry and did not understand her importance until I learned about her death. Many decades later, I discovered that Kathleen Spivack, the instructor of my poetry-writing seminar held during that fall at the Radcliffe Institute in Cambridge, knew Bishop very well. In fact she was a close friend as well as frequent table tennis partner.

Then in the Spring of 1986 I found Bishop on the syllabus of my doctoral seminar in Postmodern American Poetry at Brown University. It was very early in Bishop studies; and Tom Travisano’s first book on Bishop had just been published. So Mutlu Konuk Blasing’s decision was a major pioneering move, which resulted in what I consider to be my “official” first encounter with Bishop’s poetry. Only much later did I learn that Bishop had spent a great deal of time at Brown with the students in Portuguese and Brazilian Studies and that another major Bishop scholar, George Monteiro, had been one of the founders of this field there. Given Bishop’s enjoyment of the students, it did not surprise me to discover that Brown had given Bishop an honorary doctorate.

When I began work on my dissertation, I decided to include Bishop. Fortunately I was able to organize a dynamic committee composed of Blasing as the director with Monteiro as my second reader. Then I invited another Brown faculty member, the well-respected poetry scholar Susanne Woods to join the committee; and she graciously accepted. Finally, I added a fourth reader from outside of Brown, Patricia Yaeger, now the PMLA editor, but then at Harvard University and later at the University of Michigan. She had just published a major book in feminist studies that included Bishop.

After I accepted a tenure-track position at Washington State University on the West Coast, I began teaching Bishop immediately in my graduate seminars on mid-twentieth-century American poetry. As I considered developing Elizabeth Bishop’s World War II-Cold War View, my book for tenure, I returned to two poems from my seminar with Blasing: “Visits to St Elizabeth’s” by Bishop and “Daddy” by Plath. They inspired me to begin thinking about both World War II and the Cold War together. At that time I also contacted Thomas Travisano, president and founder of The Elizabeth Bishop Society, and he was very gracious. I had attended the first organizing meeting of the society at MLA and therefore knew about him from that session, which was held in the suite of Lorrie and Barry Goldensohn (Lorrie also, of course, became a major Bishop scholar). From that point forward Tom and I have conversed frequently about Bishop and other mutual projects both alone and with many other leading Bishop scholars, critics, friends, students, biographers, and supporters.

Presently I am looking out at the breathtaking skyline of Portland, Oregon, where Bishop located Nova Scotian friends during her teaching assignments at the University of Washington and her stays in San Francisco – and just before she began teaching and living in her native New England. I am completing this reflection about my initial conversations with her and thinking about her further. She remains very much a part of my life. Tom, Steven Gould Axelrod (another major Bishop scholar who also read my book on Bishop in manuscript form), and I are completing the third volume of The New Anthology of American Poetry that will include her writing.

Camille Roman is the author of Elizabeth Bishop's World War II-Cold War View (Palgrave) and a board member of the Elizabeth Bishop Society. Currently, she is completing volume three of The New Anthology of American Poetry with Steven Gould Axelrod and Thomas Travisano and is co-editing a large project on Robert Frost and Ernest Hemmingway with Suzanne del Gizzo.

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