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The Wilde Boys Read Elizabeth Bishop

March 18, 2011 | by

Elizabeth Bishop in 1954.

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.

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