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

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Elizabeth Bishop House, Great Village, Nova Scotia: A Site of Pilgrimage, Part 4

In others’ words: The Elizabeth Bishop House Artist Retreat
The best way to convey the importance of the Elizabeth Bishop House Artist Retreat is to let some of the artists who stayed there say what it meant to them.

“How strange, yet oddly reassuring, to be part of the place she [Bishop] describes in her stories and poems: it was as though I’d been plunked down inside her imagination.” So writes the Nova Scotia poet Anne Simpson (http://www.annesimpson.ca/) in her essay “World at Play,” written about one of her stays at the Elizabeth Bishop House in 2006.
Anne Simpson at the house, 2012 (Photo credit: Valerie Compton)
 Maine poet Tom Moore 
“Living for a week in the Great Village house was about presence —EB’s presence, her mother’s presence, the presence of voices. I heard the family members walking up and down the steep stairs, I peered up at the wallpaper as I lay in bed, I felt the scream echoing. When the Girl Guides stopped by selling cookies, I suddenly felt the community presence. I grew up just outside Worcester so EB has been a familiar name since I first read her poems as a teenager. Living in the Great Village house made her — and her writing — palpable.”

Nova Scotia musician and novelist Binnie Brennan 
“My time at the Elizabeth Bishop house was a rare gift, or should I say gifts: Solitary walks along the lavender shores, strawberries and cheese for supper, and the time and space to write deeply and write well. Daily I read one poem or prose piece of Elizabeth Bishop’s, and by nights I slept beneath the skylight in the child’s room, with not much more than the rhythmic hum of occasional cars driving across the old steel bridge to punctuate the night silence. I wrote for most of the day, and when I wasn’t putting pen to paper I was thinking of what I had just put down on paper. It was a singular time in my life as a writer, with little worry of the distractions of everyday life, the constraints of time. Truly a gift.”

Nova Scotia painter and illustrator Richard Rudnicki 
“Our visits to the little house in Great Village were like trips back in time. We always felt so at peace there, away from the woes of the world, with time and space to create, laugh, and play. We explored and painted the area, and learned about its history. We gave talks at the house, and workshops at the community centre. We met members of the town, and felt a part of the community. EB House was for us a home away from home. Our dog loved it there too.”

Toronto writer Pasha Malla 
“The Elizabeth Bishop House is a gift to writers. During my two stays there I was able to work steadily, without distraction or interruption, on writing projects that might not otherwise have received similar attention. The house itself is charming and cozy, the area is beautiful, and not being able to spend time there in 2015 has felt like a bit of a hole in my summer. I truly hope that the house lands in good hands and that the residency program continues for years to come.”

Irish writer Carmel Cummins 
“My dear friend, the poet Jean Valentine, invited me to be with her on a residency at Elizabeth Bishop House in Great Village, a visit that coincided with celebrations on the centenary of Bishop’s birth. It’s hard to overestimate the impact this time had on my understanding and appreciation of Bishop’s work. To be in the landscape and seascape of ‘The Moose’ and ‘At the Fishhouses’, was a richness I could never have imagined, to simply see that ‘lavender’ is an exact descriptive word and not a fancy. (It was one of the few words I had thought a bit too poetic.  I should have known better.) Until 2011, it was only the poetry I knew. I had not read her prose, which I then read while I was in the village. I walked the road she had walked, directing Nelly. We met in the Presbyterian church she and Nelly had passed. The church is still dazzling. It still has a lightening rod on its steeple. At the door, there is now a small plaque, like some secular mezuzah, ‘Home made, home made! But aren’t we all?’ In the food being prepared, Bishop writes, ‘I think I taste my grandmother’s tears: then I kiss her and taste them on her cheek.’ Was ever heartbreak and love in the midst of family turmoil so well-conveyed? Did it matter we were in that kitchen? Hardly in terms of appreciating the quality of the writing but  place matters and in my experience it was not a matter of voyeurism.  To know Great Village was to know the work better. It brought me to the heart of her writing. 

Nova Scotia painter and illustrator Susan Tooke 
“I have enjoyed several stays of varying duration at the childhood home of Elizabeth Bishop. Escaping the everyday work in my studio in Halifax enabled me to work at a different pace, and to experience the area surrounding Great Village by living in it.  It affected my style of painting. I was able to see the landscape as a living thing, pulsating with the tides of the Bay of Fundy. Working plein air with fellow painter, Richard Rudnick, and our sidekick, Phoebe the Schnauzer, I continued to develop an expressive response to the environment of that region. Thanks to the generosity of the EB community, I was able to visit Great Village in all seasons, painting not only the wild verdant woodlands of the summer, but also the heaved, heaping ice pans of the depths of winter. That little house has an atmosphere of mystery that inspires creativity — it has been at the centre of an artistic community, bringing painters, musicians, poets and writers together through the shared experience of the small town that still holds the memory of this great poet.”

Australian poet Moya Pacey
“My stay in the [Elizabeth Bishop] house illuminated my own childhood memories of home. And I’m sure that the friendship, hospitality and generosity of the people I met in GV helped me reclaim this strong sense of feeling so completely ‘at home’.  Bishop’s maternal grandfather’s words came fully alive for me during my stay: ‘Speak to everyone you meet’. This is the real sense of the house for me because it seems to me that so many people who have come to the EB house over the years have experienced this warmth and nurturing and fellowship in Bishop’s childhood home. Even when the house was empty of people, as it was on the first night of my stay there — when I was alone for a couple of hours, I felt content and settled. I wrote in my journal: I can hardly believe I am here in Bishop’s childhood home and tonight, I am alone in the house sitting at the desk reading a manuscript of Bishop’s that Sandra Barry, one of the co-owners of the house, has left with me. The house quietly settles as I listen to a concert from Montreal on the radio. I feel perfectly at home…

The responses continue. Here, for example, is Irish writer Padrig Rooney’s blog post about a visit to the house in August 2015: http://padraigrooney.com/blog/?p=936

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