For years I have enjoyed teaching May Swenson’s subtle poem “Dear Elizabeth,” an intricate meditation on sexuality and exoticism, though I have found my classes startled when I claimed it constituted a kind of causerie between the two lesbian poets about their situation as lesbians, as poets. Through the good offices of Judith Hemschemeyer and Zan Knudson, I have culled an illustrative bouquet (it is what anthology means in Greek) from the letters between Bishop and Swenson (part of their extended correspondence now in the Olin Library at Washington University, Saint Louis) which concern “Dear Elizabeth” and other literary matters of interest to both poets at the time (1963-1965).
A reference in Swenson’s letter of November 6, 1965 compels comment; she regrets Bishop’s omission of the poem “Exchanging Hats” from Questions of Travel (Swenson herself had performed the poem at a reading in New York in 1962, reporting to its author that the audience responded with “respectful hilarity”). Indeed “Exchanging Hats” is one of only four poems that Bishop published (in New World Writing, 1956) and decided not to collect. One biographer suggests that the poem seemed “to appropriate distorted versions of real people in a way Elizabeth always hated,” but most critics note that the poem is much franker about the powers of transvestite perspective — and its implicit criticism of gender stereotypes — than Bishop was willing to acknowledge. Swenson’s question (“Why didn’t you include it?”) is perhaps answered in the course of her own poem, presented here, with its interesting citations from Bishop herself that constitute a sort of descant on the likelihood of “song without husbands.”
— Richard Howard