Interviews January 2006

Paper Trail

How best to piece together the unfinished work of a consummate poet's poet? Alice Quinn reflects on the delicate task of vetting Elizabeth Bishop's notebooks
book cover

Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box : Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments
[Click the title
to buy this book]

edited by Alice Quinn
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
392 pages

During her lifetime, Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) was famous for her fastidiousness. John Ashbery once affectionately dubbed her "a writer's writer's writer," and she curated her poems with exacting care, often letting nearly finished drafts sit for years at a time while she hunted for just the right word. One poem, "The Moose," begun in the mid-forties, is legendary for waiting nearly thirty years to receive her seal of approval. Yet despite—or perhaps because of—this reticent perfectionism, Bishop's work invited the curiosity of her readers. In 1955, Katherine White, then poetry editor at The New Yorker, wrote her, "As usual, this letter is a plea to let us see some of the Elizabeth Bishop manuscripts that I feel certain are on your desk, all finished if only you could bring yourself to part with them." Bishop couldn't bear to part very often. By the end of her life, she had approved only a relatively small body of work for publication—300 pages, slim in comparison to her friend Robert Lowell's behemoth 1,500-page Collected Poems.

Yet if Bishop held up her friend Lowell as a stern example of productive discipline, she often seemed to revel in her own scrupulous—if sometimes fragmentary—writing process. At times, she represented her small output as evidence of a kind of daydreaming waywardness. She once wrote to James Merrill: "When I think about it, it seems to me I've rarely written anything of value at the desk or in the room where I was supposed to be doing it—it's always in someone else's house, or in a bar, or standing up in the kitchen in the middle of the night..." An article documenting her tenure as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress pictures her patching together scraps of paper on which she'd written fragments of text: "There's nothing complicated about it," she's recorded as saying. "It's like making a map."

However complex the mapmaking really was, Bishop left a great deal of unpublished ephemera to tantalize this era's Katherine Whites. In the library at Vassar College, (Bishop's alma mater, which now owns the majority of her papers), 118 boxes hold numbered and catalogued Bishop landmarks—the notes and scraps she left, now reassembled into archival order. The 3,500-page holdings include correspondence with Marianne Moore, Lowell, and Merrill; musings on everything from musical composition, to cartography, and Charles Darwin; high-school notebooks, clipping-filled scrapbooks, and fine, occasional watercolor paintings. A small trove of folders contains drafts of poems Bishop never finished—material she never approved for publication, but also never destroyed.

Bishop's reputation, readership, and popularity have grown since her death, and her archive now invites new curiosity from a generation of readers who want to see what lies beyond her small but memorable corpus. The notes, drafts, and letters offer glimpses of thought in motion and seem to promise a chance to assemble (and reassemble) an unfinishable map of the terrain Bishop left behind.

From the archives:

"North and South" (January/February 2006)
Selections from the notebooks of Elizabeth Bishop.

From Atlantic Unbound:

"Soundings: Elizabeth Bishop, 'Sonnet'" (March 29, 2000)
Read aloud by Gail Mazur, Robert Pinsky, Lloyd Schwartz, and Mark Strand. Introduction by Lloyd Schwartz.

The fragments allow the reader to flip back and forth, developing possible architectures of connection between the intriguing, sometimes mystifying marginalia of the poet's life. Some notes point to other notes: A title for unrealized poem—"The Citrus Fruit (—love and friendship)"—might resonate with a later, also unfinished poem about lime trees and love. A draft of "The Fishhouses," a widely anthologized poem Bishop published in her second book, A Cold Spring, turns out to have been earmarked for Geographical Mirror, a sequence of poems that never materialized. Other pages are simply the artifacts of a keen observer thinking: they hold little sketches, or such observations as: "Loved the wrong person all his life / lived in the wrong place / maybe even read the wrong books—").

One notebook page holds a doodled-in metrical pattern of dactyls, sketched at a diagonal, as if Bishop is quickly taking musical notation or tapping out a whole stanza of scansion:

Dum ditty dum ditty dum dit /
dum ditty dum /
ditty dum ditty dum /
dum ditty dum ditty dum

The same page holds ideas for rhymes ("imposture / imposter") and a few inscrutable notes ("TURVIS?" underlined three times and "poem: a religion" underlined once).

Bishop once wrote about a group of women "retreating, always retreating" behind an elaborate curtain. It is impossible to know what to make of the artifacts of any life, especially that of a writer as private as Bishop. Still, twenty-six years after Bishop's death, Alice Quinn, the current poetry editor of The New Yorker and a Bishop devotee, has gathered and ordered the fragments so that the world can try to enter the spaces Bishop leaves behind. Her book, Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments, attempts to replicate the experience of sifting through the archive, allowing the reader to flip between drafts, letters, and notes, and to imagine the bridges between them. The book—which follows Bishop from her teenage years and time at Vassar through early travels to New York and Europe, follows Bishop's moves to Florida and Brazil, and then back to Boston, and holds her musings on love, cupid harlequins, and suburban fairs; her precise descriptions and lyric riffs; and elusive, evocative snippets that deal with Bishop's familiar themes of mapmaking and travel, homesickness and home.

I spoke with Alice Quinn over lunch and tea in the Condé Nast lunchroom. While the women's magazine crowd fanned out from the lunchroom to the various floors, Quinn curled into a round booth, drank a cup of Earl Grey tea, and talked into the late afternoon about the process of curating the fragments.

Tess Taylor

Elizabeth Bishop
Bishop in her home in
Key West, 1945. (Photo by
Josef Breitenbach, courtesy
of the Center for Creative
Photography. Copyright © The Josef
Breitenbach Trust)

So, how did this book get started?

Let's see. Years ago, I made several trips to the Bishop archive at Vassar College on behalf of Robert Giroux, Bishop's lifelong editor. Bob was then making a selection of Bishop's letters for publication—the great book that was eventually (and brilliantly) titled One Art—and Bob was grateful for the material I was able to dig up there. One day he took me to lunch and asked me if I'd like to put together an edition of Bishop's uncollected poems and drafts, and the challenge proved irresistible. I was gratified to learn a few years later from J. D. McClatchy, James Merrill's literary executor, that James thought the drafts he'd seen at Vassar would make a marvelous book.

But it took me quite a while to figure out how to assemble the book. It wasn't that difficult to find the essential material, although I did continue to make discoveries up to the minute the book went off to the copyeditor. Vassar had catalogued quite a number of the drafts, and others were lodged in Bishop's journals and easy to spot, but I didn't want to just hang these drafts and fragments on a line. It took several years for me to settle on the path I chose, which was to contextualize this material by quoting passages from her journals and letters that illuminate her thinking—either by echoing the subjects of the drafts or the phrasing in them. I quote other sources, as well. In the note on the title poem, "Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box," for instance, I quote Baudelaire's essays on Poe, which it's clear Bishop read. Herbert, Hopkins, and Baudelaire were her favorite poets from early on. All these things are ways of helping us enter Bishop's frames of reference and artistic process. For example, Baudelaire's passionate appreciation of Poe, and the manner in which he describes the American revulsion at Poe's alcoholism, would have made a big impression on the young Bishop, who was living in Key West and experiencing a lot of temptation and fear about her own drinking.

draft excerpt
See a draft (with
accompanying doodle) of
Bishop's "The Traveller to Rome."

I took a long time assembling these notes, but I did keep making discoveries as I studied the notebooks. I hope it was time well spent in the end. Although I knew how fascinating it would be to her core readership, I didn't feel the world was clamoring to see this work. But Bishop's core readership has been growing steadily for a couple of decades now, and it turns out that there is a real hunger for it. Nearly half of the 108 drafts and fragments have found homes in our important periodicals and magazines—many of them in The New Yorker, naturally, as that's where Bishop published most of her poems, but others have landed in The Paris Review, The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, and now in The Atlantic.

Bishop's Complete Poems is, by comparison with the work of other poets, a fairly small volume. What were some of the challenges of approaching the unfinished work?

Presenting the unfinished work of somebody whose reputation rests in no small part on her perfectionism is a pretty daunting task. I worked hard to gather the material by Bishop to illuminate these drafts so that those who adore her work wouldn't feel let down. Naturally most of the drafts can't compete with her finished work on an artistic level. Part of Bishop's genius was in recognizing when something was perfected and not publishing work that hadn't reached that level, but everything in the book is of interest either biographically—as it reveals terrain largely unexplored in her published work—or because it shows the kind of scene, image, or insight that provoked her to start a poem. And all this material gives us more of what was filtered through her brain and heart, which is hugely valuable. I sent a set of bound galleys a few months ago to a poet who's loved her work since his college days in the seventies, and was cheered and relieved when he wrote that he felt I'd managed to do this without being intrusive, reductive, or confusing our cherished notions.

Presented by

Tess Taylor is the author of The Misremembered World, published by the Poetry Society of America in 2003. She is The Atlantic's assistant poetry editor.

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