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

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Elizabeth Bishop in Glasgow: A Symposium (26th to 28th June 2024) Early Announcement and Call for Papers

The University of Glasgow, College of Arts & Humanities, is delighted to welcome the 2024 Elizabeth Bishop Symposium to our beautiful, historic and friendly city. Following on from similar events in Oxford, Paris and Sheffield, Elizabeth Bishop in Glasgow provides an opportunity both to hear about recent and emerging work in Bishop Studies, and to consider Bishop’s writing in a Scottish Atlantic context – a legacy that helped to shape the history and culture of Great Village, Nova Scotia, Bishop’s maternal family home and her imaginative lodestone. Bishop was familiar from childhood with the poetry of Robert Burns (and had editions of his work in her adult library); our Symposium will consider the influence of Burns – and of other Scottish writers and artists – on Bishop’s writing. And it will ask, in turn, about Bishop’s influence on her successors in Scotland up to the present day. 

Confirmed speakers include Professor Langdon Hammer (Yale University) and Victoria Fox (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). 

Elizabeth Bishop in Glasgow is open to anyone with an interest in Bishop’s life, work and reception; in modern poetry; in Scottish and American literature and culture, in the Scottish Atlantic and in related fields. We welcome proposals for short papers (c. 20 minutes) or other forms of participation on these and related themes. Other areas of focus might include (but are not limited to): 


Travel and walking

The North


Bishop’s correspondence

Religion, Protestantism, the Bible

Language: Gaelic and Scots

Music, Scottish Song, hymns


The Atlantic


Scottish Atlantic slavery

Publishing history

Visual culture

Bishop’s contemporaries

Bishop’s influence

Bishop in / and translation

Gender and sexuality

Robert Burns, Alexander Selkirk, Thomas and Jane Carlyle 

Please send brief proposals for papers, panels (3 contributors) or other forms of participation to: vp-arts@glasgow.ac.uk by MONDAY 15th JANUARY 2024. 

Location: Elizabeth Bishop in Glasgow will take place in the James McCune Smith Building on the University of Glasgow’s main (Gilmorehill) campus in the lively West End of Glasgow and will open on the morning of Weds 26th June and close after lunch on Fri 28th . The booking page will open shortly. There will be time in the programme to visit the Hunterian Art Gallery, the Hunterian Museum or the Charles Rennie Mackintosh House. The campus is easily accessible by bus or subway from the city centre and there are hotels, guesthouses and restaurants close by.

 For further information about the campus, visitor attractions, accessibility information and transport links see: University of Glasgow - Explore. For details about the city of Glasgow, including accommodation, things to see and do, and where to eat, see: Visit Glasgow - hotels and accommodation - People Make Glasgow and for information about the rest of Scotland, see: Accommodation in Scotland - Plan Your Stay | VisitScotland

Organisers and Steering Group: Jo Gill (University of Glasgow); Jonathan Ellis (University of Sheffield); Angus Cleghorn (Seneca College); Bethany Hicok (Williams College); Tom Travisano (Hartwick College).


Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Kafka, Bishop and Literary Pilgrimage: A response to Elana Wolff’s Faithfully Seeking Franz


“Should we have stayed at home and thought of here? / Where should we be today?” Elizabeth Bishop, “Questions of Travel”

Sometime in the late 1990s, I was sitting in Trident cafĂ© in downtown Halifax with the writer and broadcaster Jane Kansas and a young friend of hers, whose name I forget. Jane and I were having a lively conversation about our literary passions hers: the American writer Harper Lee; mine: Elizabeth Bishop (“3/4ths Nova Scotian and 1/4th New Englander,” or a “herring-choker Bluenoser,” as Bishop described herself to Anne Stevenson). As I remember the conversation, it was animated, with a lot of talk about original sources, such as letters; and also about going to places that were important to these writers. The young friend sat quietly listening to us until at one point she blurted out, in a rather disgusted tone, “You are literary stalkers.” We paused and looked at her. I was surprised by this characterization, but as I thought about it, I couldn’t discount the assessment. I had already made several Bishop pilgrimages (Great Village, Vassar College, Worcester) and was mining her letters and archival documents for information about her life. Jane and I argued that what we were doing wasn’t intrusive, rather an honouring not an invasion of privacy but of course on some level it was. Harper Lee (still alive then) was a known recluse. Bishop, long dead, was regarded as a very private person, having once declared to a friend she perferred “closets, closets and more closets.” (OB 327) I have never forgotten that conversation and have endeavoured ever since to conduct my research and writing about Bishop in the most respectful manner. Not sure that made what I did any less objectionable, but I took solace in knowing that Bishop herself was keenly interested in the lives of the writers she read.

 In a 1964 letter to Anne Stevenson, Bishop wrote: “I went to see O Processo “The Trial” which is absolutely dreadful. Have you seen it? I haven’t read the book for ages but in spite of the morbidity of Kafka, etc. I like to remember that when he read his stories out loud to his friends he used to have to stop because he got to laughing so. All the way through the film I kept thinking that any of Buster Keaton’s films give one the sense of tragedy of the human situation, the weirdness of it all, the pathos of man’s trying to do the right thing all in a twinkling, besides being fun — all the very things poor Orson Welles was trying desperately to illustrate by laying it on with a trowel.” (PPL 864)

While Bishop said she wasn’t a fan of “German art,” its “heaviness,” she had been a reader of Kafka since her adolescence. In a 1949 letter to Robert Lowell, she noted: “I’m glad you like ‘In Prison.’ I had only read The Castle of Kafka when I wrote it, and that long before, so I don’t know where it [her story] came from.” (OA 182) And in a 1958 letter again to Lowell, writing about her response to some “short instrumental pieces” by Webern she had just heard, she noted how much she liked them, “That strange kind of modesty that I think one feels in almost everything contemporary one really likes — Kafka, say, or Marianne [Moore], or even Eliot, and Klee and Kokoschka and Schwitters … Modesty, care, space, a sort of helplessness but determination at the same time.” (WIA 250)

As noted above, Bishop was interested in the lives of the artists she admired, so I can’t help but think she would find the new book by Toronto writer Elana Wolff, Faithfully Seeking Franz, intriguing. Just published by Guernica Editions, Wolff’s book is a collection of poems and prose pieces about her search for Kafka in the places that were significant to him. I can certainly appreciate such a compulsion. So when this book came to hand, I was keen to read it. I have enjoyed every page. Each journey, encounter and account conveys not mere “compulsion” but deep, abiding and respectful dedication, devotion even, to understanding the meaning of Kafka’s work, Kafka’s life in his work, Kafka’s impact on posterity, especially on the young woman who read first The Castle and took its impact with her for the rest of her life, following in the footsteps of a compelling mystery: 

Yet having taken steps the author took; steps his ciphers, stand-ins, and characters also took; in seeing and feeling convergences of life and art on location, in company with M., in triangulation with ‘atemporal-aspatial’ Kafka, through signs, signals, messages, indications and ‘visitations’ — through these, the experience of reading has become heightened and deepened, ‘lived into’. Questing has whetted the appetite for more. I’ve become compulsively recursive in my search. I can’t settle. (263) 

As a fellow pilgrim, I could identify with every word of this passage. The identifier in Bishop’s work would be from “Sandpiper”: “poor bird, he is obsessed.” But I prefer to call it passionate, and Elana Wolff’s passion unfolds in the most delightful, insightful, unexpected ways. We follow her footsteps and in so doing, not only learn about Kafka, but also begin to understand what the power of art really is. Connection, coincidence, conundrum: all are experiences along the way; and accompanying it all: questions, surprising revelations, satisfying and disappointing conclusions. Such is life itself. 

In a world filled with chaos and violence and uncertainty, art matters. How so is such a complex and mysterious condition that it cannot be distilled or confined. Wolff never tries to delimit this mystery, even as she charts borders and boundaries (geographical, physiological, aesthetic, existential). One of the many things I admire about Faithfully Seeking Franz is its “Un-endness” (261): 

Invisible and thin and free,

as baffling as Kafka —

whose rendering of difficult things

was easier for him, it seems to me,

than birthing breath.

Will teachers of any persuasion contravene me? (285)