Elizabeth Bishop only published about one hundred poems during her lifetime, but these days, it’s possible to know more about Bishop than ever before. Last month saw the publication of a new book revealing her decades-long correspondence with The New Yorker’s poetry department. “What I think about The New Yorker,” she wrote to her friend and fellow poet Marianne Moore, “can only be expressed like this: *!@!!!@!*!!” A lengthy volume documenting her epistolary exchanges with Robert Lowell was published in 2008. It’s easy to forget that Bishop was a very private person, often refusing to talk publicly or artistically about her personal life. “How stunning,” wrote The New York Times, in 2002, of a Bishop biography, “to learn that the love of Bishop’s life was a swaggering Brazilian woman, the aristocratic self-trained architect Lota de Macedo Soares.” “Art just isn’t worth that much,” Bishop once wrote to Lowell, after he had published his wife’s letters in his work. But for admirers and diehards alike, sometimes an inquiry is.
And so I found myself at a gathering in a downtown apartment last week for an event called the Wilde Boys: a queer poetry salon, where Richard Howard, who knew Bishop, and his former student Gabrielle Calvocoressi, the author of Apocalyptic Swing, were invited to “queer” the writer by talking about the way she coded sexuality into her work.
Beforehand, there was heavy mingling. “We’re all poets and classmates, and graduated from different M.F.A. programs in New York around the same time,” said Alex Dimitrov, the well-groomed twenty-six-year-old who founded the group in 2009. Liam O’Rourke, an elementary-school teacher who was wearing a pin with a black-and-white photograph of Bishop on it, said he teaches Bishop to his third graders. “I mention that she had a partner, but I don’t teach her sexuality as a key to her work,” he added.
At eight o’clock, Dimitrov began the discussion by questioning Bishop’s approach. “We’ve talked a lot in the past about how male writers code queerness, but we haven’t been successful in thinking about how female poets do it,” he said.
“You couldn’t figure out how female poets do it?” teased Calvocoressi. Howard, who wore a black-and-white checked tie with matching socks and eyeglasses, responded by describing a moment he shared with Bishop in Cambridge. “She was showing me around her new house,” he said. “It was just after she had moved up there. She pointed out door after door, and she kept saying, ‘Closets! Closets!’ It was a moment of great triumph.”
Calvocoressi recalled that her first introduction to Bishop’s work was as an employee at a failing bookstore in central Connecticut, where she was paid in books. “I picked up a really bad collection of poetry one day—actually, I took a class with the poet later, and she was not a good poet—but the epigraph was from “Santarém”: ‘I liked the place; I liked the idea of the place.’ ” For many years, Calvocoressi admitted, she misread Bishop as a surface poet, as a writer who was fundamentally stable. Howard, a professor, nodded. “Elizabeth Bishop was always making an effort to use the right words, but was convinced that they were possibly not the right ones,” he said.
A young man sitting in an armchair asked about an Adrienne Rich essay from the eighties and suggested reading the poem “Insomnia.” “It has all the inversions and questions we talk about,” he said. After he finished, there was a pause.
“The word body appears,” Dimitrov offered. “That doesn’t feel like a very Bishop word.”
“The notion of dwelling on the mirror as a romantic act is so remarkable,” said Howard. “That’s where the poem really opened for me. I felt that way when you came upon that phrase.”
“What was the name of that essay?” asked Calvocoressi.
The young man sighed. “I don’t know, but I can look it up on my iPhone,” he said.
Howard launched into another story, about a joint reading with Bishop in Chicago. “Elizabeth and I were in a station wagon. We were sitting as far apart as the station wagon would put us, and she was looking out her window and probably thinking, ‘I have to read these goddamn poems one more time …’ ” The two writers sat like this until they passed a little diner. “In the window, there were neon lights that said ALL YOU CAN EAT: ANY TIME DAY OR NIGHT. She read that and turned to me and said, ‘All you can eat … any time … day or night. Gobble, gobble, gobble!’ ”
Talk veered inevitably to “The Shampoo,” which Calvocoressi read out loud. “There’s a physicality to the language,” said Dimitrov. “Especially in the adjectives she uses to describe her lover: precipitate and pragmatical.” Calvocoressi agreed. “The way she compares the basin to a battered and shiny—”
“Moon!” interjected Howard, to murmurs.
The New Yorker’s rejection of the poem was invoked. “They didn’t understand it,” Calvocoressi reasoned. “They were asking ‘Who are you speaking about? Who are these people?’ It’s not a New Yorker type of poem.”
After a period of thoughtful silence, a young man in a blue shirt spoke up. “Why don’t we read a more neutral poem?” he asked, and suggested “North Haven,” Bishop’s elegy to Robert Lowell from 1978.
Howard smiled. “I’d be happy to read that one,” he said.
Nick Liptak lives in Brooklyn and works at The New Yorker.