Interviews

Elizabeth Bishop, The Art of Poetry No. 27

Interviewed by Elizabeth Spires

The interview took place at Lewis Wharf, Boston, on the afternoon of June 28, 1978, three days before Miss Bishop and two friends were to leave for North Haven, a Maine island in Penobscot Bay where she summered. Her living room, on the fourth floor of Lewis Wharf, had a spectacular view of Boston Harbor; when I arrived, she immediately took me out on the balcony to point out such Boston landmarks as Old North Church in the distance, mentioning that Old Ironsides was moored nearby.

Her living room was spacious and attractive, with wide-planked polished floors, a beamed ceiling, two old brick walls, and one wall of books. Besides some comfortable modern furniture, the room included a jacaranda rocker and other old pieces from Brazil, two paintings by Loren MacIver, a giant horse conch from Key West and a Franklin stove with firewood in a donkey pannier, also from Brazil. The most conspicuous piece was a large carved figurehead of an unknown beast, openmouthed, with horns and blue eyes, which hung on one wall below the ceiling.

Her study, a smaller room down the hall, was in a state of disorder. Literary magazines, books, and papers were piled everywhere. Photographs of Marianne Moore, Robert Lowell, and other friends hung on the walls; one of Dom Pedro, the last emperor of Brazil, she especially liked to show to her Brazilian visitors. “Most have no idea who he is,” she said. “This is after he abdicated and shortly before he died—he looked very sad.” Her desk was tucked in a far corner by the only window, also with a north view of the harbor.

At sixty-seven, Miss Bishop was striking, her short, swept-back white hair setting off an unforgettably noble face. She was wearing a black tunic shirt, gold watch and earrings, gray slacks, and flat brown Japanese sandals that made her appear shorter than her actual height: five feet, four inches. Although she looked well and was in high spirits, she complained of having had a recent hay fever attack and declined to have her photograph taken with the wry comment, “Photographers, insurance salesmen, and funeral directors are the worst forms of life.”

Seven or eight months later, after reading a profile I had written for The Vassar Quarterly (which had been based on this interview) and worrying that she sounded like “the soul of frivolity,” she wrote me: “I once admired an interview with Fred Astaire in which he refused to discuss ‘the dance,’ his partners, or his ‘career’ and stuck determinedly to golf—so I hope that some readers will realize I do think about art once in a while even if babbling along like a very shallow brook . . .”

Though Miss Bishop did have the opportunity of correcting those portions of this interview incorporated in the Vassar Quarterly article, she never saw it in this form.


INTERVIEWER

Your living room seems to be a wonderful combination of the old and new. Is there a story behind any of the pieces, especially that figurehead? It’s quite imposing.

            ELIZABETH BISHOP

I lived in an extremely modern house in Brazil. It was very beautiful, and when I finally moved I brought back things I liked best. So it’s just a kind of mixture. I really like modern things, but while I was there I acquired so many other things I couldn’t bear to give them up. This figurehead is from the São Francisco River. Some are more beautiful; this is a very ugly one.

INTERVIEWER

Is it supposed to ward off evil spirits?

BISHOP

Yes, I think so. They were used for about fifty years on one section, two or three hundred miles, of the river. It’s nothing compared to the Amazon but it’s the next biggest river in Brazil. This figurehead is primitive folk art. I think I even know who made it. There was a black man who carved twenty or thirty, and it’s exactly his style. Some of them are made of much more beautiful wood. There’s a famous one called the Red Horse made of jacaranda. It’s beautiful, a great thing like this one, a horse with its mouth open, but for some reason they all just disappeared. I made a weeklong trip on that river in 1967 and didn’t see one. The riverboat, a stern wheeler, had been built in 1880—something for the Mississippi, and you can’t believe how tiny it was. We splashed along slowly for days and days . . . a very funny trip.

INTERVIEWER

Did you spend so much of your life traveling because you were looking for a perfect place?

BISHOP

No, I don’t think so. I really haven’t traveled that much. It just happened that although I wasn’t rich I had a very small income from my father, who died when I was eight months old, and it was enough when I got out of college to go places on. And I traveled extremely cheaply. I could get along in Brazil for some years but now I couldn’t possibly live on it. But the biographical sketch in the first anthology I was in said, “Oh, she’s been to Morocco, Spain, et cetera,” and this has been repeated for years even though I haven’t been back to any of these places. But I never traveled the way students travel now. Compared to my students, who seem to go to Nepal every Easter vacation, I haven’t been anywhere at all.

INTERVIEWER

Well, it always sounds as if you’re very adventurous.

BISHOP

I want to do the Upper Amazon. Maybe I will. You start from Peru and go down—

INTERVIEWER

Do you write when you’re actually traveling?

BISHOP

Yes, sometimes. It depends. I usually take notes but not always. And I keep a kind of diary. The two trips I’ve made that I liked best were the Amazon trip and one to the Galapagos Islands three or four years ago . . . I’d like very much to go back to Italy again because I haven’t seen nearly enough of it. And Sicily. Venice is wonderful. Florence is rather strenuous, I think. I was last there in ’64 with my Brazilian friend. We rented a car and did northern Italy for five or six weeks. We didn’t go to Rome. I must go back. There are so many things I haven’t seen yet. I like painting probably better than I like poetry. And I haven’t been back to Paris for years. I don’t like the prices!

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned earlier that you’re leaving for North Haven in several days. Will this be a “working vacation”?

BISHOP

This summer I want to do a lot of work because I really haven’t done anything for ages and there are a couple of things I’d like to finish before I die. Two or three poems and two long stories. Maybe three. I sometimes feel that I shouldn’t keep going back to this place that I found just by chance through an ad in the Harvard Crimson. I should probably go to see some more art, cathedrals, and so on. But I’m so crazy about it that I keep going back. You can see the water, a great expanse of water and fields from the house. Islands are beautiful. Some of them come right up, granite, and then dark firs. North Haven isn’t like that exactly, but it’s very beautiful. The island is sparsely inhabited and a lot of the people who have homes there are fearfully rich. Probably if it weren’t for these people the island would be deserted the way a great many Maine islands are, because the village is very tiny. But the inhabitants almost all work—they’re lobstermen but they work as caretakers . . . The electricity there is rather sketchy. Two summers ago it was one hour on, one hour off. There I was with two electric typewriters and I couldn’t keep working. There was a cartoon in the grocery store—it’s eighteen miles from the mainland—a man in a hardware store saying, “I want an extension cord eighteen miles long!” Last year they did plug into the mainland—they put in cables. But once in a while the power still goes off.

INTERVIEWER

So you compose on the typewriter?

BISHOP

I can write prose on a typewriter. Not poetry. Nobody can read my writing so I write letters on it. And I’ve finally trained myself so I can write prose on it and then correct a great deal. But for poetry I use a pen. About halfway through sometimes I’ll type out a few lines to see how they look.

William Carlos Williams wrote entirely on the typewriter. Robert Lowell printed—he never learned to write. He printed everything.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve never been as prolific as many of your contemporaries. Do you start a lot of poems and finish very few?

BISHOP

Yes. Alas, yes. I begin lots of things and then I give up on them. The last few years I haven’t written as much because of teaching. I’m hoping that now that I’m free and have a Guggenheim I’ll do a lot more.

INTERVIEWER

How long did it take you to finish “The Moose”?

BISHOP

That was funny. I started that years ago—twenty years ago, at least—I had a stack of notes, the first two or three stanzas, and the last.

INTERVIEWER

It’s such a dreamy poem. It seems to move the way a bus moves.

BISHOP

It was all true. The bus trip took place before I went to Brazil. I went up to visit my aunt. Actually, I was on the wrong bus. I went to the right place but it wasn’t the express I was supposed to get. It went roundabout and it was all exactly the way I described it, except that I say “seven relatives.” Well, they weren’t really relatives, they were various stepsons and so on, but that’s the only thing that isn’t quite true. I wanted to finish it because I liked it, but I could never seem to get the middle part, to get from one place to the other. And then when I was still living in Cambridge I was asked to give the Phi Beta Kappa poem at Harvard. I was rather pleased and I remembered that I had another unfinished poem. It’s about whales and it was written a long time ago, too. I’m afraid I’ll never publish it because it looks as if I were just trying to be up-to-date now that whales are a “cause.”

INTERVIEWER

But it’s finished now?

BISHOP

I think I could finish it very easily. I’m going to take it to Maine with me. I think I’ll date it or nobody will believe I started it so long ago. At the time, though, I couldn’t find the one about whales—this was in ’73 or ’74, I think—so I dug out “The Moose” and thought, Maybe I can finish it, and I did. The day of the ceremony for Phi Beta Kappa (which I’d never made in college) we were all sitting on the platform at Sanders Theater. And the man who had asked me to give the poem leaned across the president and said to me whispering, “What is the name of your poem?” I said, “‘The Moose,’ M-o-o-s-e,” and he got up and introduced me and said, “Miss Bishop will now read a poem called ‘The Moos.’” Well, I choked and my hat was too big. And later the newspaper account read, “Miss Bishop read a poem called ‘The Moose’ and the tassle of her mortarboard swung back and forth over her face like a windshield wiper”!

The Glee Club was behind us and they sang rather badly, I thought, everybody thought. A friend of mine who couldn’t come to this occasion but worked in one of the Harvard houses and knew some of the boys in the Glee Club asked one of them when they came back in their red jackets, “Well, how was it?” He said, “Oh, it was all right but we didn’t sing well”—which was true—and then he said, “A woman read a poem.” My friend said, “How was it?” And he said, “Well, as poems go, it wasn’t bad”!

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever had any poems that were gifts? Poems that seemed to write themselves?

BISHOP

Oh, yes. Once in a while it happens. I wanted to write a villanelle all my life but I never could. I’d start them but for some reason I never could finish them. And one day I couldn’t believe it—it was like writing a letter. There was one rhyme I couldn’t get that ended in e-n-t and a friend of mine, the poet Frank Bidart, came to see me and I said, “Frank, give me a rhyme.” He gave me a word offhand and I put it in. But neither he nor I can remember which word it was. But that kind of thing doesn’t happen very often. Maybe some poets always write that way. I don’t know.

INTERVIEWER

Didn’t you used to give Marianne Moore rhymes?

BISHOP

Yes, when she was doing the La Fontaine translations. She’d call me up and read me something when I was in New York—I was in Brazil most of that time—and say she needed a rhyme. She said that she admired rhymes and meters very much. It was hard to tell whether she was pulling your leg or not sometimes. She was Celtic enough to be somewhat mysterious about these things.

INTERVIEWER

Critics often talk about your more recent poems being less formal, more “open,” so to speak. They point out that Geography III has more of “you” in it, a wide emotional range. Do you agree with these perceptions?

BISHOP

This is what critics say. I’ve never written the things I’d like to write that I’ve admired all my life. Maybe one never does. Critics say the most incredible things!

INTERVIEWER

I’ve been reading a critical book about you that Anne Stevenson wrote. She said that in your poems nature was neutral.

BISHOP

Yes, I remember the word neutral. I wasn’t quite sure what she meant by that.

INTERVIEWER

I thought she might have meant that if nature is neutral there isn’t any guiding spirit or force.

BISHOP

Somebody famous—I can’t think who it was—somebody extremely famous was asked if he had one question to ask the Sphinx and get an answer, what would it be? And he said, “Is nature for us or against us?” Well, I’ve never really thought about it one way or the other. I like the country, the seashore especially, and if I could drive, I’d probably be living in the country. Unfortunately, I’ve never learned to drive. I bought two cars. At least. I had an MG I adored for some years in Brazil. We lived on top of a mountain peak, and it took an hour to get somewhere where I could practice. And nobody really had time to take an afternoon off and give me driving lessons. So I never got my license. And I never would have driven in Rio, anyway. But if you can’t drive, you can’t live in the country.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have the painting here that your uncle did? The one “about the size of an old-style dollar bill” that you wrote about in “Poem”?

BISHOP

Oh, sure. Do you want to see it? It’s not good enough to hang. Actually, he was my great-uncle. I never met him.

INTERVIEWER

The cows in this really are just one or two brushstrokes!

BISHOP

I exaggerated a little bit. There’s a detail in the poem that isn’t in the painting. I can’t remember what it is now. My uncle did another painting when he was fourteen or fifteen years old that I wrote about in an early poem [“Large Bad Picture”]. An aunt who lived in Montreal had both of these and they used to hang in her front hall. I was dying to get them and I went there once and tried to buy them, but she wouldn’t sell them to me. She was rather stingy. She died some years ago. I don’t know who has the large one now.

INTERVIEWER

When you were showing me your study, I noticed a shadow box hanging in the hall. Is it by Joseph Cornell?

BISHOP

No, I did that one. That’s one of my little works. It’s about infant mortality in Brazil. It’s called Anjinhos, which means “little angels.” That’s what they call the babies and small children who die.

INTERVIEWER

What’s the significance of the various objects?

BISHOP

I found the child’s sandal on a beach wading east of Rio one Christmas and I finally decided to do something with it. The pacifier was bright red rubber. They sell them in big bottles and jars in drugstores in Brazil. I decided it couldn’t be red, so I dyed it black with India ink. A nephew of my Brazilian friend, a very smart young man, came to call while I was doing this. He brought two American rock-and-roll musicians and we talked and talked and talked, and I never thought to explain in all the time they were there what I was doing. When they left, I thought, My God, they must think I’m a witch or something!

INTERVIEWER

What about the little bowls and skillets filled with rice?

BISHOP

Oh, they’re just things children would be playing with. And of course rice and black beans are what Brazilians eat every day.

Cornell is superb. I first saw the Medici Slot Machine when I was in college. Oh, I loved it. To think one could have bought some of those things then. He was very strange. He got crushes on opera singers and ballet dancers. When I looked at his show in New York two years ago I nearly fainted, because one of my favorite books is a book he liked and used. It’s a little book by an English scientist who wrote for children about soap bubbles [Soap Bubbles: Their Colours and the Forces which Mold Them, by Sir C. V. Boys, 1889].

His sister began writing me after she read Octavio Paz’s poem for Cornell that I translated. (She doesn’t read Spanish.) She sent me a German-French grammar that apparently he meant to do something with and never did. A lot of the pages were folded over and they’re all made into star patterns with red ink around them . . . He lived in what was called Elysian Park. That’s an awfully strange address to have.

INTERVIEWER

Until recently you were one of the few American poets who didn’t make their living teaching or giving readings. What made you decide to start doing both?

BISHOP

I never wanted to teach in my life. I finally did because I wanted to leave Brazil and I needed the money. Since 1970 I’ve just been swamped with people sending me poems. They start to when they know you’re in the country. I used to get them in Brazil, but not so much. They got lost in the mail quite often. I don’t believe in teaching poetry at all, but that’s what they want one to do. You see so many poems every week, you just lose all sense of judgment.

As for readings, I gave a reading in 1947 at Wellesley College two months after my first book appeared. And I was sick for days ahead of time. Oh, it was absurd. And then I did one in Washington in ’49 and I was sick again and nobody could hear me. And then I didn’t give any for twenty-six years. I don’t mind reading now. I’ve gotten over my shyness a little bit. I think teaching helps. I’ve noticed that teachers aren’t shy. They’re rather aggressive. They get to be, finally.

INTERVIEWER

Did you ever take a writing course as a student?

BISHOP

When I went to Vassar I took sixteenth-century, seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century literature, and then a course in the novel. The kind of courses where you have to do a lot of reading. I don’t think I believe in writing courses at all. There weren’t any when I was there. There was a poetry-writing course in the evening, but not for credit. A couple of my friends went to it, but I never did.

The word creative drives me crazy. I don’t like to regard it as therapy. I was in the hospital several years ago and somebody gave me Kenneth Koch’s book Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? And it’s true, children sometimes write wonderful things, paint wonderful pictures, but I think they should be discouraged. From everything I’ve read and heard, the number of students in English departments taking literature courses has been falling off enormously. But at the same time the number of people who want to get in the writing classes seems to get bigger and bigger. There are usually two or three being given at Harvard every year. I’d get forty applicants for ten or twelve places. Fifty. It got bigger and bigger. I don’t know if they do this to offset practical concerns, or what.

INTERVIEWER

I think people want to be able to say they do something creative like throw pots or write poems.

BISHOP

I just came back in March from reading in North Carolina and Arkansas, and I swear if I see any more handcrafts I’ll go mad! I think we should go right straight back to the machine. You can only use so many leather belts, after all. I’m sorry. Maybe you do some of these things.

INTERVIEWER

Do many strangers send you poems?

BISHOP

Yes. It’s very hard to know what to do. Sometimes I answer. I had a fan letter the other day, and it was adorable. It was in this childish handwriting. His name was Jimmy Sparks and he was in the sixth grade. He said his class was putting together a booklet of poems and he liked my poems very much—he mentioned three—because they rhymed and because they were about nature. His letter was so cute I did send him a postcard. I think he was supposed to ask me to send a handwritten poem or photograph—schools do this all the time—but he didn’t say anything like that, and I’m sure he forgot his mission.

INTERVIEWER

What three poems did he like? “The Sandpiper”?

BISHOP

Yes, and the one about the mirror and the moon, “Insomnia,” which Marianne Moore said was a cheap love poem.

INTERVIEWER

The one that ends, “ . . . and you love me”?

BISHOP

Yes. I never liked that. I almost left it out. But last year it was put to music by Elliott Carter along with five other poems of mine and it sounded much better as a song. Yes, Marianne was very opposed to that one.

INTERVIEWER

Maybe she didn’t like the last line.

BISHOP

I don’t think she ever believed in talking about the emotions much.

INTERVIEWER

Getting back to teaching, did you devise formal assignments when you taught at Harvard? For example, to write a villanelle?

BISHOP

Yes, I made out a whole list of weekly assignments that I gave the class; but every two or three weeks was a free assignment and they could hand in what they wanted. Some classes were so prolific that I’d declare a moratorium. I’d say, “Please, nobody write a poem for two weeks!”

INTERVIEWER

Do you think you can generalize that beginning writers write better in forms than not?

BISHOP

I don’t know. We did a sestina—we started one in class by drawing words out of a hat—and I wish I’d never suggested it because it seemed to have swept Harvard. Later, in the applications for my class, I’d get dozens of sestinas. The students seemed to think it was my favorite form—which it isn’t.

INTERVIEWER

I once tried a sestina about a woman who watches soap operas all day.

BISHOP

Did you watch them in college?

INTERVIEWER

No.

BISHOP

Well, it seemed to be a fad at Harvard. Two or three years ago I taught a course in prose and discovered my students were watching the soap operas every morning and afternoon. I don’t know when they studied. So I watched two or three just to see what was going on. They were boring. And the advertising! One student wrote a story about an old man who was getting ready to have an old lady to dinner (except she was really a ghost), and he polished a plate till he could see his face in it. It was quite well done, so I read some of it aloud, and said, “But look, this is impossible. You can never see your face in a plate.” The whole class, in unison, said, “Joy!” I said, “What? What are you talking about?” Well, it seems there’s an ad for Joy soap liquid in which a woman holds up a plate and sees—you know the one? Even so, you can’t! I found this very disturbing. TV was real and no one had observed that it wasn’t. Like when Aristotle was right and no one pointed out, for centuries, that women don’t have fewer teeth than men.

I had a friend bring me a small tv, black and white, when I was living in Brazil. We gave it to the maid almost immediately because we watched it only when there were things like political speeches, or a revolution coming on. But she loved it. She slept with it in her bed! I think it meant so much to her because she couldn’t read. There was a soap opera that year called The Right to Life. It changed the whole schedule of Rio society’s hours because it was on from eight to nine. The usual dinner hour’s eight, so either you had to eat dinner before so that the maid could watch The Right to Life or eat much later, when it was over. We ate dinner about ten o’clock finally so that Joanna could watch this thing. I finally decided I had to see it, too. It became a chic thing to do and everybody was talking about it. It was absolutely ghastly! They got the programs from Mexico and dubbed them in Portuguese. They were very corny and always very lurid. Corpses lying in coffins, miracles, nuns, even incest.

I had friends in Belo Horizonte, and the mother and their cook and a grandchild would watch the soap operas, the novellas, they’re called, every night. The cook would get so excited she’d talk to the screen: “No! No! Don’t do that! You know he’s a bad man, Doña So-and-so!” They’d get so excited, they’d cry. And I knew of two old ladies, sisters, who got a tv. They’d knit and knit and watch it and cry and one of them would get up and say “Excuse me, I have to go to the bathroom” to the television!

INTERVIEWER

You were living in Brazil, weren’t you, when you won the Pulitzer Prize in 1956?

BISHOP

Yes, it was pretty funny. We lived on top of a mountain peak—really way up in the air. I was alone in the house with Maria, the cook. A friend had gone to market. The telephone rang. It was a newsman from the American embassy and he asked me who it was in English, and of course it was very rare to hear someone speak in English. He said, “Do you know you’ve won the Pulitzer Prize?” Well, I thought it was a joke. I said, “Oh, come on.” And he said, “Don’t you hear me?” The telephone connection was very bad and he was shrieking. And I said, “Oh, it can’t be.” But he said it wasn’t a joke. I couldn’t make an impression on Maria with this news, but I felt I had to share it, so I hurried down the mountain a half mile or so to the next house, but no one was at home. I thought I should do something to celebrate, have a glass of wine or something. But all I could find in that house, a friend’s, were some cookies from America, some awful chocolate cookies—Oreos, I think—so I ended up eating two of those. And that’s how I celebrated winning the Pulitzer Prize.

The next day there was a picture in the afternoon paper—they take such things very seriously in Brazil—and the day after that my Brazilian friend went to market again. There was a big covered market with stalls for every kind of comestible, and there was one vegetable man we always went to. He said, “Wasn’t that Doña Elizabetchy’s picture in the paper yesterday?” She said, “Yes, it was. She won a prize.” And he said, “You know, it’s amazing! Last week Señora (Somebody) took a chance on a bicycle and she won! My customers are so lucky!” Isn’t that marvelous?!

INTERVIEWER

I’d like to talk a little bit about your stories, especially “In the Village,” which I’ve always admired. Do you see any connection, other than the obvious one of shared subject matter, between your stories and poems? In “method of attack,” for example?

BISHOP

They’re very closely related. I suspect that some of the stories I’ve written are actually prose poems and not very good stories. I have four about Nova Scotia. One came out last year in the Southern Review. I’m working on a long one now that I hope to finish this summer . . . “In the Village” was funny. I had made notes for various bits of it and was given too much cortisone—I have very bad asthma from time to time—and you don’t need any sleep. You feel wonderful while it’s going on, but to get off it is awful. So I couldn’t sleep much and I sat up all night in the tropical heat. The story came from a combination of cortisone, I think, and the gin and tonic I drank in the middle of the night. I wrote it in two nights.

INTERVIEWER

That’s incredible! It’s a long, long story.

BISHOP

Extraordinary. I wish I could do it again but I’ll never take cortisone again, if I can possibly avoid it.

INTERVIEWER

I’m always interested in how different poets go about writing about their childhood.

BISHOP

Everybody does. You can’t help it, I suppose. You are fearfully observant then. You notice all kinds of things, but there’s no way of putting them all together. My memories of some of those days are so much clearer than things that happened in 1950, say. I don’t think one should make a cult of writing about childhood, however. I’ve always tried to avoid it. I find I have written some, I must say. I went to an analyst for a couple of years off and on in the forties, a very nice woman who was especially interested in writers, writers and blacks. She said it was amazing that I would remember things that happened to me when I was two. It’s very rare, but apparently writers often do.

INTERVIEWER

Do you know what your earliest memory is?

BISHOP

I think I remember learning to walk. My mother was away and my grandmother was trying to encourage me to walk. It was in Canada and she had lots of plants in the window the way all ladies do there. I can remember this blur of plants and my grandmother holding out her arms. I must have toddled. It seems to me it’s a memory. It’s very hazy. I told my grandmother years and years later and she said, “Yes, you did learn to walk while your mother was visiting someone.” But you walk when you’re one, don’t you?

I remember my mother taking me for a ride on the swan boats here in Boston. I think I was three then. It was before we went back to Canada. Mother was dressed all in black—widows were in those days. She had a box of mixed peanuts and raisins. There were real swans floating around. I don’t think they have them anymore. A swan came up and she fed it and it bit her finger. Maybe she just told me this, but I believed it because she showed me her black kid glove and said, “See.” The finger was split. Well, I was thrilled to death! Robert Lowell put those swan boats in two or three of the Lord Weary’s Castle poems.

INTERVIEWER

Your childhood was difficult, and yet in many of your stories and poems about that time there’s a tremendously lyrical quality as well as a great sense of loss and tragedy.

BISHOP

My father died, my mother went crazy when I was four or five years old. My relatives, I think they all felt so sorry for this child that they tried to do their very best. And I think they did. I lived with my grandparents in Nova Scotia. Then I lived with the ones in Worcester, Massachusetts, very briefly, and got terribly sick. This was when I was six and seven. Then I lived with my mother’s older sister in Boston. I used to go to Nova Scotia for the summer. When I was twelve or thirteen I was improved enough to go to summer camp at Wellfleet until I went away to school when I was fifteen or sixteen. My aunt was devoted to me and she was awfully nice. She was married and had no children. But my relationship with my relatives—I was always a sort of a guest, and I think I’ve always felt like that.

INTERVIEWER

Was your adolescence a calmer time?

BISHOP

I was very romantic. I once walked from Nauset Light—I don’t think it exists anymore—which is the beginning of the elbow [of Cape Cod], to the tip, Provincetown, all alone. It took me a night and a day. I went swimming from time to time but at that time the beach was absolutely deserted. There wasn’t anything on the back shore, no buildings.

INTERVIEWER

How old would you have been?

BISHOP

Seventeen or eighteen. That’s why I’d never go back—because I can’t bear to think of the way it is now . . . I haven’t been to Nantucket since—well, I hate to say. My senior year at college I went there for Christmas with my then boyfriend. Nobody knew we were there. It was this wonderful, romantic trip. We went the day after Christmas and stayed for about a week. It was terribly cold but beautiful. We took long walks on the moors. We stayed at a very nice inn and we thought that probably the landlady would throw us out (we were very young and this kind of thing wasn’t so common then). We had a bottle of sherry or something innocent like that. On New Year’s Eve about ten o’clock there was a knock on the door. It was our landlady with a tray of hot grogs! She came in and we had the loveliest time. She knew the people who ran the museum and they opened it for us. There are a couple of wonderful museums there.

INTERVIEWER

I heard a story that you once spent a night in a tree at Vassar outside Cushing dormitory. Is it true?

BISHOP

Yes, it was me, me and a friend whose name I can’t remember. We really were crazy and those trees were wonderful to climb. I used to be a great tree climber. Oh, we probably gave up about three in the morning. How did that ever get around? I can’t imagine! We stopped being friends afterwards. Well, actually she had invited two boys from West Point for the weekend and I found myself stuck with this youth all in—[her hands draw an imagined cape and uniform in the air]—the dullest boy! I didn’t know what to say! I nearly went mad. I think I sort of dropped the friend at that point . . . I lived in a great big corner room on the top floor of Cushing and I apparently had registered a little late because I had a roommate whom I had never wanted to have. A strange girl named Constance. I remember her entire side of the room was furnished in Scottie dogs—pillows, pictures, engravings and photographs. And mine was rather bare. Except that I probably wasn’t a good roommate either, because I had a theory at that time that one should write down all one’s dreams. That that was the way to write poetry. So I kept a notebook of my dreams and thought if you ate a lot of awful cheese at bedtime you’d have interesting dreams. I went to Vassar with a pot about this big—it did have a cover!—of Roquefort cheese that I kept in the bottom of my bookcase . . . I think everyone’s given to eccentricities at that age. I’ve heard that at Oxford Auden slept with a revolver under his pillow.

INTERVIEWER

As a young woman, did you have a sense of yourself as a writer?

BISHOP

No, it all just happens without your thinking about it. I never meant to go to Brazil. I never meant doing any of these things. I’m afraid in my life everything has just happened.

INTERVIEWER

You like to think there are reasons—

BISHOP

Yes, that people plan ahead, but I’m afraid I really didn’t.

INTERVIEWER

But you’d always been interested in writing?

BISHOP

I’d written since I was a child, but when I went to Vassar I was going to be a composer. I’d studied music at Walnut Hill and had a rather good teacher. I’d had a year of counterpoint and I also played the piano. At Vassar you had to perform in public once a month. Well, this terrified me. I really was sick. So I played once and then I gave up the piano because I couldn’t bear it. I don’t think I’d mind now, but I can’t play the piano anymore. Then the next year I switched to English.

It was a very literary class. Mary McCarthy was a year ahead of me. Eleanor Clark was in my class. And Muriel Rukeyser, for freshman year. We started a magazine you may have heard of, Con Spirito. I think I was a junior then. There were six or seven of us—Mary, Eleanor Clark and her older sister, my friends Margaret Miller and Frani Blough, and a couple of others. It was during Prohibition and we used to go downtown to a speakeasy and drink wine out of teacups. That was our big vice. Ghastly stuff! Most of us had submitted things to the Vassar Review and they’d been turned down. It was very old-fashioned then. We were all rather put out because we thought we were good. So we thought, Well, we’ll start our own magazine. We thought it would be nice to have it anonymous, which it was. After its third issue the Vassar Review came around and a couple of our editors became editors on it and then they published things by us. But we had a wonderful time doing it while it lasted.

INTERVIEWER

I read in another interview you gave that you had enrolled or were ready to enroll after college in Cornell Medical School.

BISHOP

I think I had all the forms. This was the year after I had graduated from Vassar. But then I discovered I would have to take German and I’d already given up on German once, I thought it was so difficult. And I would have had to take another year of chemistry. I’d already published a few things and I think Marianne [Moore] discouraged me, and I didn’t go. I just went off to Europe instead.

INTERVIEWER

Did the Depression have much reality for college students in the thirties?

BISHOP

Everybody was frantic trying to get jobs. All the intellectuals were communist except me. I’m always very perverse so I went in for T. S. Eliot and Anglo-Catholicism. But the spirit was pretty radical. It’s funny. The girl who was the biggest radical—she was a year ahead of me—has been married for years and years to one of the heads of Time-Life. I’ve forgotten his name. He’s very famous and couldn’t be more conservative. He writes shocking editorials. I can still see her standing outside the library with a tambourine collecting money for this cause and that cause.

INTERVIEWER

Wanting to be a composer, a doctor or a writer—how do you account for it?

BISHOP

Oh, I was interested in all those things. I’d like to be a painter most, I think. I never really sat down and said to myself, I’m going to be a poet. Never in my life. I’m still surprised that people think I am . . . I started publishing things in my senior year, I think, and I remember my first check for thirty-five dollars and that was rather an exciting moment. It was from something called The Magazine, published in California. They took a poem, they took a story—oh, I wish those poems had never been published! They’re terrible! I did show the check to my roommate. I was on the newspaper, The Miscellany—and I really was, I don’t know, mysterious. On the newspaper board they used to sit around and talk about how they could get published and so on and so on. I’d just hold my tongue. I was embarrassed by it. And still am. There’s nothing more embarrassing than being a poet, really.

INTERVIEWER

It’s especially difficult to tell people you’re meeting for the first time that that’s what you do.

BISHOP

Just last week a friend and I went to visit a wonderful lady I know in Quebec. She’s seventy-four or seventy-five. And she didn’t say this to me but she said to my friend, Alice, “I’d like to ask my neighbor who has the big house next door to dinner, and she’s so nice, but she’d be bound to ask Elizabeth what she does and if Elizabeth said she wrote poetry, the poor woman wouldn’t say another word all evening!” This is awful, you know, and I think no matter how modest you think you feel or how minor you think you are, there must be an awful core of ego somewhere for you to set yourself up to write poetry. I’ve never felt it, but it must be there.

INTERVIEWER

In your letter to me, you sounded rather wary of interviewers. Do you feel you’ve been misrepresented in interviews? For example, that your refusal to appear in all-women poetry anthologies has been misunderstood as a kind of disapproval of the feminist movement.

BISHOP

I’ve always considered myself a strong feminist. Recently I was interviewed by a reporter from the Chicago Tribune. After I talked to the girl for a few minutes, I realized that she wanted to play me off as an “old fashioned” against Erica Jong, and Adrienne [Rich], whom I like, and other violently feminist people. Which isn’t true at all. I finally asked her if she’d ever read any of my poems. Well, it seemed she’d read one poem. I didn’t see how she could interview me if she didn’t know anything about me at all, and I told her so. She was nice enough to print a separate piece in the Chicago Tribune apart from the longer article on the others. I had said that I didn’t believe in propaganda in poetry. That it rarely worked. What she had me saying was “Miss Bishop does not believe that poetry should convey the poet’s personal philosophy.” Which made me sound like a complete dumbbell! Where she got that, I don’t know. This is why one gets nervous about interviews.

INTERVIEWER

Do you generally agree with anthologists’ choices? Do you have any poems that are personal favorites? Ones you’d like to see anthologized that aren’t?

BISHOP

I’d rather have—well, anything except “The Fish”! I’ve declared a moratorium on that. Anthologists repeat each other so finally a few years ago I said nobody could reprint “The Fish” unless they reprinted three others because I got so sick of it.

INTERVIEWER

One or two more questions. You went to Yaddo several times early in your career. Did you find the atmosphere at an artist’s colony helpful to your writing?

BISHOP

I went to Yaddo twice, once in the summer for two weeks, and for several months the winter before I went to Brazil. Mrs. Ames was very much in evidence then. I didn’t like it in the summer because of the incessant coming and going, but the winter was rather different. There were only six of us, and just by luck we all liked each other and had a very good time. I wrote one poem, I think, in that whole stretch. The first time I liked the horse races, I’m afraid. In the summer—I think this still goes on—you can walk through the Whitney estate to the tracks. A friend and I used to walk there early in the morning and sit at the track and have coffee and blueberry muffins while they exercised the horses. I loved that. We went to a sale of yearlings in August and that was beautiful. The sale was in a big tent. The grooms had brass dustpans and brooms with brass handles and they’d go around after the little colts and sweep up the manure. That’s what I remember best about Yaddo.

INTERVIEWER

It was around the time that you went to Yaddo, wasn’t it, that you were consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress? Was that year in Washington more productive than your Yaddo experience?

BISHOP

I’ve suffered because I’ve been so shy all my life. A few years later I might have enjoyed it more but at the time I didn’t like it much. I hated Washington. There were so many government buildings that looked like Moscow. There was a very nice secretary, Phyllis Armstrong, who got me through. I think she did most of the work. I’d write something and she’d say, “Oh, no, that isn’t official,” so then she’d take it and rewrite it in gobbledygook. We used to bet on the horses—Phyllis always bet the daily double. She and I would sit there reading the Racing Form and poets would come to call and Phyllis and I would be talking about our bets!

All the “survivors” of that job—a lot of them are dead—were invited to read there recently. There were thirteen of us, unfortunately.

INTERVIEWER

A friend of mine tried to get into that reading and she said it was jammed.

BISHOP

It was mobbed! And I don’t know why. It couldn’t have been a duller, more awful occasion. I think we were supposedly limited to ten minutes. I stuck to it. But there’s no stopping somebody like James Dickey. Stafford was good. I’d never heard him and never met him. He read one very short poem that really brought tears to my eyes, he read it so beautifully.

I’m not very fond of poetry readings. I’d much rather read the book. I know I’m wrong. I’ve only been to a few poetry readings I could bear. Of course, you’re too young to have gone through the Dylan Thomas craze . . .

When it was somebody like Cal Lowell or Marianne Moore, it’s as if they were my children. I’d get terribly upset. I went to hear Marianne several times and finally I just couldn’t go because I’d sit there with tears running down my face. I don’t know, it’s sort of embarrassing. You’re so afraid they’ll do something wrong.

Cal thought that the most important thing about readings was the remarks poets made in between the poems. The first time I heard him read was years ago at the New School for Social Research in a small, gray auditorium. It was with Allen Tate and Louise Bogan. Cal was very much younger than anybody else and had published just two books. He read a long, endless poem—I’ve forgotten its title—about a Canadian nun in New Brunswick. I’ve forgotten what the point of the poem is, but it’s very, very long and it’s quite beautiful, particularly in the beginning. Well, he started, and he read very badly. He kind of droned and everybody was trying to get it. He had gotten about two thirds of the way through when somebody yelled, “Fire!” There was a small fire in the lobby, nothing much, that was put out in about five minutes and everybody went back to their seats. Poor Cal said, “I think I’d better begin over again,” so he read the whole thing all over again! But his reading got much, much better in later years.

INTERVIEWER

He couldn’t have done any better than the record the Poetry Center recently put out. It’s wonderful. And very funny.

BISHOP

I haven’t the courage to hear it.

 

* The poem is “One Art,” in Geography III.

* “Anaphora,” “The Sandpiper,” “Argument,” “O Breath,” and “View of the Capitol from The Library of Congress.”

* “Mother Marine Therese” in The Mills of the Kavanaughs.