"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Saturday, October 31, 2015

First Encounter XXXIX: My first encounter with Elizabeth Bishop by Natalia Povalyaeva

My first encounter with Elizabeth Bishop took place in the beginning of July, 2015. Actually I have the exact date (thanks to Facebook) – it was the fifth of July. I don’t remember why or how I came across this movie – “Reaching for the Moon”, but it was the fifth of July when I watched it for the first time.

I’d never heard about Elizabeth Bishop before that day, and I didn’t know who she was or what position she occupied in American poetry. And on my first watching the movie I wasn’t impressed by the Elizabeth Bishop character at all – mostly because Lota as performed by Gloria Pires sort of filled all the space with her powerful personality (later I did understand how wonderful Miranda Otto and her performance were). But the poems from the movie struck me at once. So I started – quite predictably – with “One Art”. And I knew at once that that was “my” type of poetry. I liked the poem’s deceptive simplicity which covered deep reflection on love and loss and all those things. I liked this “ordinary” tone of speaking, definitely ironical, mixed with true tension. I liked the precise use of every word. And – most important of all, since this is my almost instinctive reaction to any text I like – I felt the desire to draw an illustration to this poem, which I did the next day.

Then it was the “Close, Close…” poem. Again, I was impressed by how Elizabeth Bishop managed to do it: simple and deep at once. It’s a love poem with the image of two lovers in bed – and paradoxically it is not an erotic poem at all. It is about the metaphysics of love, about something eternal and unchangeable in love. And this quality somehow emerges not from the words, but from their background. It was amazing – and of course, I did an illustration

And then it was “In The Waiting Room” – that was a sort of final proof. It was the third poem in a row by the same author I liked so much, and I understood that “this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship”, so to speak. I liked Elizabeth Bishop’s interest in ordinary things, the small details in this poem, and its “prosy”, narrative structure and tone. I was impressed with how wonderfully Elizabeth Bishop reflected a specific child’s perception of the world – in the image of “different pairs of hands lying under the lamps”. The little girl was too shy to look at adult strangers’ faces, so she looked at their hands and saw them as if they were removed from their bodies or as if they were hollow gloves. I noticed that Elizabeth Bishop’s poems had a lot in common with poems by the  Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, and later I wrote an essay on the poetics of loss in their poetry. And of course, I made an illustration.
 Natalia's illustration of "Manners."

Since that time, I have started reading Elizabeth Bishop every day and  have produced an illustration or two every day. I have read Elizabeth Bishop’s biography, her letters, and some academic materials about her. Somehow, very fast and in very natural way, Elizabeth Bishop became an important part of my life. And what was very important for me is that I’ve had encouragement and support from some people in Elizabeth Bishop’s world – Jonathan Ellis, Sandra Barry, and John Barnstead.

I’ve learned that there were a lot of dark moments in Elizabeth Bishop’s life, but what was amazing about her personality was her ability to meet everything in life with wit and irony. In her letters she had endless funny stories and anecdotes about this and that. And in her poems – even in the most serious and dramatic ones – she sort of smiles or even laughs discreetly, just for herself. She really was “awful but cheerful”, just as her life was. She was interested in everything – in people, in places, in things, in life in general. This interest was the driving force of her writing, and her writing made her a winner

While reading “Remembering Elizabeth Bishop: An Oral Biography” I came across following words by John Bernard Myers: “I heard her reading at the YMHA. <…> She didn’t have either a Canadian accent or a New York accent; it was just a very pure way of speaking” [157]. I’d say that Elizabeth Bishop had no accent not only in reading her works, but more importantly in writing her works. She’s speaking not as a woman, nor as an American or Canadian – she’s speaking as a human being addressing another human being, and that is, I suppose, the most precious quality of her work.

Natalia Povalyaeva (b. 1971) is a writer, graphic artist/book illustrator, and a professor of English Literature in BSU (Belarusian State University, Minsk, Belarus). She is teaches modern and contemporary English Literature. She has authored numerous publications on twentieth-century English women’s prose; among them are Polyphonic prose of Virginia Woolf (2003) and Jeanette Winterson, or Rebirth of Lying (2006). She also translated the novel Lighthousekeeping (2006) and several short stories by Jeanette Winterson into Russian. Currently she has completed a book on Victorian Music Hall as a setting and a personage in Neo-Victorian fiction (published in 2014).

Natalia has been drawing since the age of two. She studied at an art studio under the Belorussian artist Vasily Sumarev and has taken courses in sculpture and art history. Her pictures have been sold in many countries around the world, including the USA, France, Germany, Norway, Finland, and Italy. She is doing a lot of book illustrations and book cover designs (mostly for Russian publishing houses) and graphic art in mixed media. Among her works are illustrations to three-part bestseller “Porebrik iz bordurnogo kamnya” (“Pavement border made of curb stone” – a comic book on Moscow – Saint-Petersburg cultural differences by Russian writer Olga Lucas).

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

"Perfectly at Home" by Moya Pacey: An Elizabeth Bishop House memoir

I was invited to stay in the Elizabeth Bishop’s childhood home in Great Village, Nova Scotia, when I won the EB Centenary Writing Competition in 2011. Coming to the house to stay for the EB Centenary Arts Festival was for me a rare gift. I was taken completely by surprise, when I received the email in May 2011 telling me I’d won, as I’d almost forgotten my entry posted off earlier in the year after I’d seen the competition advertised on the Internet. I came across the competition when I was surfing the net for a reference for a Bishop quote. I was working on a prose and poetry memoir I’d begun, as part of a thesis for an MA in Creative and Life Writing, from Goldsmiths College in London, the previous year.

When I arrived in Great Village, I came to a celebration, not to a writers’ retreat, and I was surrounded by people and social get togethers, so I think it was the very opposite of a typical writer’s experience of staying at the Elizabeth Bishop House. Writers normally seek a respite from the world of social activities and routines and welcome the solitude of the house and its environment to think and read and work alone. The visitor’s book, in the house, is full of comments from writers and artists thankful for the opportunity to get away and have the opportunity to do nothing other than focus on their own creativity. But my stay was completely different. The celebrations brought many, many people into the village to acknowledge Elizabeth Bishop’s Nova Scotian family ties to Great Village and its environs. People, like me, who knew her work well, but others too like Sterling Dick, who I met at the Great Village post office on my first walk around the village. He asked me who Bishop was and why all the fuss. And what a fuss and what a festival it was: evening musical concerts in St James’ church and in homes around the village, art shows and readings, buggy rides around the village, a build your own canoe and sail it race, a blueberry afternoon tea, poetry workshops, and suppers. Great Village was crammed full of visitors and lovers of Bishop’s work and the EB house was open to the public and filled every day with visitors who drank pink lemonade and ate delicious scones. 
 (Sandra and Moya in the dining room of the 
EB House, August 2011. Photo by Carmel Cummins)
But staying in the house also offered me another gift beside the invitation to celebrate the centenary of Bishop’s birth. It gave me the chance to feel very close to Elizabeth Bishop, the person not the poet, and particularly to immerse myself in her life-long preoccupation with the idea of ‘home’. In her Vassar Year book, kept in the EB house, she writes that Great Village, Nova Scotia, is her home.  It is where she lived as a young girl with her grandparents and her mother after her American father died. She stayed on there after her mother suffered a breakdown and was admitted to the hospital in Halifax. She visited the house frequently when she was sent to live with her American relatives and travelled back and forth over the border into Canada. Her poem “The Moose” was written on one of these journeys from Great Village via New Brunswick across the border into the US. Her words: “Home made, home made! But aren’t we all” are inscribed on the memorial tablet in St James’ church.

Great Village was her home. But Bishop was a traveller and, like me, she moved continents. She felt deeply that sense of displacement common to all who move away from their birth places and countries. It was compounded in her case by the loss of both parents when she was a young child.  When I read her prose and her poetry and what has been written about her life, I get a real sense of a woman who was constantly searching to find that which had been lost and the pressing need to reclaim it again for herself.  Staying in the EB house was very important for me as I came to feel a deep sense of kinship with the child Bishop was and then the woman she became and this has given me a greater understanding of her writings and also a deeper insight to my own preoccupations with needing to reclaim my own childhood memories and write about them. 

Like Bishop, I lost a hemisphere too when I moved from England to live in Australia in my late twenties. Staying in Bishop’s childhood home, and being immersed in her childhood experiences, vividly brought to life during the Festival, took me back to my own childhood home. Even though the Bulmer House is very far away from the house I grew up in as a child on a post-second-world war housing estate in the north-east of England. I slept in Bishop’s childhood bedroom at the front of the house with the small bed pushed up close under the slanting blue wall and linoleum covering the floor, and a cotton quilt on the bed with carefully patched eight-pointed stars all askew like the room itself. Bishop remembered it tilting. Above the bed was a small skylight window. Through it I caught glimpses of the starry night sky outside and was transported back to my own childhood bedroom. Mine was a small boxroom fitted in behind the stairs and my casement window opened out on to a view of a small green field. I watched the moon from that window and it was the same moon Bishop watched. The same moonlight shone through the windows of both our childhoods.

My stay in the house illuminated my own childhood memories of home. And I’m sure that the friendship, hospitality and generosity of the people I met in GV helped me reclaim this strong sense of feeling so completely ‘at home’. Bishop’s maternal grandfather’s words came fully alive for me during my stay: “Speak to everyone you meet.” This is the real sense of the house for me because it seems to me that so many people who have come to the EB house over the years have experienced this warmth and nurturing and fellowship in Bishop’s childhood home. Even when the house was empty of people, as it was on the first night of my stay there — when I was alone for a couple of hours, I felt content and settled. I wrote in my journal:  

I can hardly believe I am here in Bishop’s childhood home and tonight, I am alone in the house sitting at the desk reading a manuscript of Bishop’s that Sandra Barry, one of the co-owners of the house, has left with me. The house quietly settles as I listen to a concert from Montreal on the radio. I feel perfectly at home…

Moya Pacey
Guest at the EB House September 2011

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Emma FitzGerald launches book about Halifax

Halifax visual artist Emma FitzGerald, who participated in The Elizabeth Bishop Festival on 8 August 2015, has recently returned from Brazil where she participated in an artist residency inspired by Elizabeth Bishop’s “Questions of Travel.” Check out a piece about this exciting trip in the Chronicle-Herald (http://thechronicleherald.ca/artslife/1304551-halifax-artist-heads-to-brazil-to-work-on-pieces-inspired-by-elizabeth-bishop).

While there, Quill & Quire (http://www.quillandquire.com/) published a page from her lively Brazilian journal.
On Tuesday, 27 October 2015, Emma will launch her book Hand-Drawn Halifax (Formac) at the Central Library at 7:00 p.m.
I am thrilled to say that Emma will be the guest speaker at the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia Annual General Meeting on 18 June 2016 (we wanted to book her early, because we know she’ll be in demand!). She will speak about her Brazilian sojourn.

Congratulations to Emma for all her recent activities and achievements!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Elizabeth Bishop House Update – October 2015

Some time has passed since I last posted an update about the Elizabeth Bishop House and the progress of its sale. The five posts below break this silence.

In July 2015, I agreed to write an essay about the history of the house for an online academic literary journal in the United States. As things turned out, the editor of that journal felt that what I had written (which is the first account of the history of the house from Bishop’s time to the present) was too long for their purposes. Since I did not want to cut it substantially, I decided to withdraw it and post it as a multi-part essay on this blog.

The essay brings the story of the house to October 2015, at which time there had still been no offers for the house, even as the price had been substantially reduced to $69,000 (http://remaxtruro.ca/listings/571/8740-hwy-2).

The Elizabeth Bishop House, Great Village, Nova Scotia: A Site of Pilgrimage, Part 1

A “common enough” urge
Several years ago, I read Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney, conducted by Dennis O’Driscoll. I am an admirer of Heaney’s work and his two fine essays about Elizabeth Bishop. I was intrigued to read a response to one of O’Driscoll’s comments about Heaney’s literary pilgrimages. O’Driscoll observed, “…you must have visited more dead writers’ houses than any poet alive — Yeats’s Tower, for example, Hardy’s birthplace….” (251) With Heaney picking up the thread:

“…and Carlton’s birthplace, Tenneyson’s birthplace, Dylan Thomas’s Fern Hill, Alphonse Daudet’s mill, Hopkins’s grave in Dublin, Joyce’s grave in Zurich, Wilde’s grave in Paris, Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst, the Keats House in Hampstead, Akmatova’s “House on Fontanka” in Petersburg, Brodsky’s “room and a half” in the same city, not to mention Stratford and Abbotsford, Coole Park and Spenser’s castle, Lissoy and Langholm…I’d have thought the urge to go to those places was common enough….” (252)

This multi-part essay is about the Elizabeth Bishop House in Great Village, Nova Scotia, Canada, the childhood home of a poet often declared by academics and critics to be “homeless.” A house to which hundreds of academics, artists and fans have travelled. For a person supposedly so “rootless,” why do so many people feel Heaney’s “common enough” compulsion to visit it?1
Bishop’s Vassar Yearbook photo, 1934 (Photo credit: Vassar College Special Collections)

Where and what is the Elizabeth Bishop House
8740 Highway 2, Great Village, Nova Scotia, Canada, is not simply a street address. It hasn’t been for decades.2 The house at this address, an 1860s clapboard with a tin roof, was the home of Elizabeth Bishop’s maternal grandparents, William and Elizabeth Bulmer (Pa and Gammie to Bishop).
Elizabeth Bishop House (Photo credit: Paul Tingley)
This house sits in the centre of the village, where three roads converge, where the Great Village River is crossed by a bridge, where St. James Church (“high shouldered and secretive”) stands with its 112 foot steeple topped by a lightning rod (“flick the lightning rod with your fingernail” and you might still hear Bishop’s ill mother scream — read her memoir “In the Village”).
Aerial view of the centre of Great Village, circa 1970s (Photo credit: unknown)
The house sits in the middle of a community that imprinted itself deeply onto the precocious mind of a little girl, who experienced tragic loss too early in life, and who has become one of the most important poets of her generation, of the twentieth century. Elizabeth Bishop, a highly educated, cosmopolitan world-traveller, called this nineteenth century house home, called it “an inscrutable house” (read her poem “Sestina”), one of her lost “three loved houses” (read her poem “One Art”3). It was the prototype for all her houses, the ones she imagined and the ones she actually inhabited, even owned.
View of Great Village from top of church steeple Bishop House
second on the right. (Photo credit: Meredith Layton)

1. In 1978, Bishop told Alexandra Johnson, “I’ve never felt particularly homeless, but, then, I’ve never felt particularly at home. I guess that’s a pretty good description of a poet’s sense of home. He [sic] carries it with him.” (102) Although I invited Seamus Heaney to visit the Elizabeth Bishop House, he never did. He did not turn down my offer; my timing was not good. His busy life and then illness prevented him from doing many things he might have enjoyed. A couple of other Irish writers have visited: the poets Mary Montague, Carmel Cummins, Padrig Rooney, Paula Meehan, and the well-known novelist Colm Toíbín. Toíbín recently published a book about Bishop.

2. Recently, I did a search on Google Maps for 8740 Highway 2, Great Village, N.S., and was rather surprised to discover (though, I suppose, with Google’s pervasiveness in our lives, I should not have been) that Google has labelled this address “Elizabeth Bishop House.” Even Google knows the significance of the house at this number. Not surprisingly, as well, Wikipedia has an Elizabeth Bishop House entry (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Bishop_House), which I have had no role in creating.

3. Some critics argue that these are 1. the house in Key West, which Bishop owned with Louise Crane in the 1940s; 2. the house at Samambaia, where she lived with Lota de Macedo Soares in the 1950s; and 3. the house in Ouro Prêto, named “Casa Mariana,” which she bought and restored in the mid-1960s. I would argue that the first “loved” house she “lost” was her grandparents’ house in Great Village. Perhaps the house in Great Village set up the template for all these later houses; that is, it is the ur-house, preceeding them all.

The Elizabeth Bishop House, Great Village, Nova Scotia: A Site of Pilgrimage, Part 2

The when and why of Bishop’s childhood
Bishop spent formative years in her grandparent’s house in Great Village. By her own account, she learned to walk there. (Spires, “The Art of Poetry,” 126) She learned to read and write there, and underwent her first formal pedagogical experience in the nearby village school (read her memoir “Primer Class”). In this house, she witnessed the disappearance of her mother, Gertrude Bulmer Bishop, who went into the Nova Scotia Hospital in June 1916 and never came out.
Gertrude and Elizabeth with Mabel Boomer, circa 1916
(Photo credit: unknown)
Although she had visited this house with her mother before 1915 (perhaps even in utero), Bishop lived there continuously from April 1915 to October 1917, at which time her paternal grandparents took her from Great Village back to Worcester, Massachusetts (read her memoir “The Country Mouse”). Bishop lived with her paternal grandparents until May 1918, at which time the Bishops took their seriously ill granddaughter to live with her maternal Aunt Maude Shepherdson (her mother’s older sister) in Revere, Massachusetts. Bishop remained with Maude until she was old enough to go to boarding school in the late 1920s. In the summer of 1919, Bishop was brought back to Nova Scotia by another maternal aunt, Grace Bulmer. From this point onward, throughout the 1920s, Bishop spent long summer vacations in the house (read her memoir “Gwendolyn”).

In December 1929–January 1930, Bishop spent Christmas with her grandparents. It was her last visit for the next sixteen years. Her beloved Pa died in February 1930. Gammie died in April 1931. Bishop entered Vassar College and her gaze turned towards the wider world. Although she did not return to this house again until 1946, and she needed to go far away from it and Great Village and Nova Scotia, Bishop carried her memories and ideas of this time and place — of this house — wherever she went.
Bishop with Betsey, Great Village, circa 1916
(Photo credit: Acadia University Archives)
In 1946 Bishop returned to Nova Scotia and visited Great Village, visited this house (read her poem “The Moose”). She returned in 1947 and 1951 to visit Cape Breton (read her poem “Cape Breton”) and Sable Island, respectively — both places deeply significant to her maternal family. Then Bishop went to Brazil and ended up living there for the next fifteen or so years. Brazil was a place that reminded her of Great Village, at least the rural parts of Brazil, and she wrote some of her best known and loved poems and stories about her childhood in its tropical climate.

A curious thing: the eighteenth century house she bought and restored in Ouro Prêto, which she named “Casa Mariana,” structurally echoes her Great Village home in many ways. “Casa Mariana” is grander, but for anyone who has visited it (I had this privilege in 1999) and the Great Village house, the parallels are remarkable. As Bishop worked to restore this house, she told Robert Lowell that she was “recreating a sort of de luxe [sic] Nova Scotia” and she was her own grandmother. (Travisano, Words in Air, 676)
Casa Mariana, 1999 (Photo credit: unknown)
The genesis of the pilgrimage
One of the first things Bishop did when she returned to Boston in 1970, where she lived for the rest of her life, was to go back to Nova Scotia, Great Village, and the house. She made nearly yearly visits to Nova Scotia during the 1970s, and frequently ended up at the house with her beloved Aunt Grace and her cousin Phyllis Sutherland. Bishop’s last visit to Nova Scotia was in May 1979, to receive an honorary degree from Dalhousie University in Halifax. Sadly, she did not go to the house at that time. She died six months later.
Phyllis and Grace, Great Village, circa early 1940s
(Photo credit: Acadia University Archives)
As I reached this point in this chronology, it dawned on me for the first time ever (and I have been pondering Bishop’s connection to Nova Scotia for over twenty years) that Elizabeth Bishop herself was the first person to make a pilgrimage to this house. Nearly twenty-five years after her last visit (1946), Bishop returned to pay homage to the life she had known there (read “Poem”).

The pilgrims increase
At the time of Bishop’s death, there were still many residents in Great Village who had known Bishop’s maternal family, who had known Bishop herself. Some of them even knew that she was a poet who had received many honours. But these people mostly regarded her as simply a member of the Bulmer-Bowers family: Grace’s niece, Phyllis’s cousin. Even so, some residents quickly became aware that strangers were turning up in the village looking for the places and people connected to Bishop. Meredith and Robert Layton, for example, who ran Layton’s Store, which sits right next to the house, were in the path of many of these pilgrims.

Initially, in the early 1980s, the people who appeared were Bishop’s friends and acquaintances: James Merrill, Lloyd Schwartz, Jane Shore, J.D. McClatchy, Alfred Corn, and so on. Some of them signed the guestbook at Layton’s Store. As scholarship on Bishop began to take hold in the mid- to late 1980s, academics began to arrive (Peter Brazeau, Gary Fountain, Victoria Harrison, Brett Millier, and others). Lisa Brower, from Vassar College, appeared quite early in search of Bishop’s family letters, which were in Phyllis Sutherland’s possession. A large cache of family letters was purchased in the late 1980s and reside with thousands of other Bishop letters in Special Collections at Vassar. (http://specialcollections.vassar.edu/collections/findingaids/b/bishop_elizabeth.html)

Bishop’s childhood home stayed in the immediate extended family until the mid-1990s. The person who lived in the house during this first pulse of Bishop pilgrims was Hazel Bowers (the widow of Norman Bowers, Grace Bulmer Bowers’s step-son). Hazel was well aware of Elizabeth Bishop and her connection to the house. She knew Bishop. I have heard stories of people knocking on the door out of the blue and Hazel, a formidable retired school teacher and principal, inviting them in for tea.

My first visit to the house was early fall 1991. I knocked on the front door. Hazel answered and invited me in as far as the front parlour. I was shy and did not want to intrude too much, so I stayed only briefly. It was clear, Hazel had “been there, done that” with many others. This visit to Great Village occurred after a lengthy first meeting with Phyllis Sutherland. It was with Phyllis that I made visits to the house over the next couple of years.
Left to right seated: Bud Bowers, Lois Bowers, Phyllis Sutherland,
with Brazilian Bishop scholar Maria Lucia Martins, one of the many pilgrims
who visited the house and Bishop's maternal family.
(Photo by Sandra Barry)

The Elizabeth Bishop House, Great Village, Nova Scotia: A Site of Pilgrimage, Part 3

The village takes note
Residents of Great Village publicly acknowledged Bishop’s connection to the village in 1992, when a bronze plaque was placed on St. James United Church.
(Photo by Laurie Gunn)
With awareness of the growing interest in Bishop’s Nova Scotia connections, a group of scholars (including myself) and Great Village residents formed the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia (EBSNS: www.elizabethbishopns.org) in 1994. The society’s activities are directly focused on fostering awareness of Bishop’s Nova Scotia connections and hosting public events to honour this connection. The EBSNS has watched the trickle of pilgrims become a steady stream — not, it must be said, like the flood that occurs around “Anne of Green Gables” and her creator Lucy Maud Montgomery in Prince Edward Island; but a serious, continuous flow of visitors from around the world.

Hazel Bowers died in 1996. She had lived in the house for over sixty years. The house was put on the market and bought quickly by Paul Tingley, who was looking for an old house that had not been renovated or modernized inside. According to Paul, as soon as he walked into the house he knew he wanted it. At that point, he did not know who belonged to this house; but his daughter quickly enlightened him. She was taking Len Diepeveen’s American literature course at Dalhousie University and was at that very time writing a paper on Elizabeth Bishop. Paul joined the EBSNS and immediately set in motion an application to register the house as a Provincial Heritage Property, which happened in 1997. For the next seven years he welcomed an increasing number of pilgrims making their way to Great Village.
 Heritage designation parchment that hangs in the dining room of the house.
(Photo by Sandra Barry, who is no photographer!)

I began to act as tour guide for scholars and artists soon after my first essay about Bishop was published in 1991. I have lost count of the number of people I took to see the house in the 1990s and early 2000s, who I drove along “The Moose” route and showed “the long tides” — pilgrims from Poland, England, Ireland, many parts of the United States and Canada, and elsewhere.

By the mid- to late 1990s, Bishop conferences were happening regularly. In 1998, Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., its archives a repository for a large collection of material belonging to Bishop’s maternal family (http://openarchive.acadiau.ca/cdm/landingpage/collection/BBHS), hosted a symposium. A busload of participants did a field trip to the house.1
Symposium field trip at the house, 1998. Left to right: Neil Besner, Lorrie Goldensohn,
Peter Sanger, Kathleen C. Johnson, Laura Menides, Jane Shore,
Paul Tingley, Sandra Barry. (Photo by Kathleen A. Johnson).

This decade of intensifying Bishop scholarship culminated in a conference in Ouro Prêto, Brazil in 1999. To have the chance to see Bishop’s southern landscape, see “Casa Mariana,” Lota’s house at Samambaia and Bishop’s estudio was thrilling.2

The new millennium
In early 2004, Paul Tingley approached me to say that, life being life, he sadly had to sell what was now called the “Elizabeth Bishop House.” Over the course of several months, a friend and I created a proposal and plan to bring together a group of people to buy it (including myself). This happened in November 2004.3

The agreement we set up stated: “Primary to occupancy and operation of the Elizabeth Bishop House is the literary importance the Elizabeth Bishop House holds within Nova Scotia, and throughout the world …. Much of Elizabeth’s world-renowned poetry and prose entwines with her memories of experiences residing at the Elizabeth Bishop House, within Great Village.”

The house had always been a home, where people lived their lives. The new owners wanted to keep that feeling as much as possible, while sharing it with friends and Bishop fans. The owners immediately established an artist retreat at the house. The first artist arrived in February 2005. Over the next decade the number of artists staying there increased each year.4

1. Scholars from England, Israel, the United States and Canada attended this symposium. Its proceedings were published in 2002: Sandra Barry, Gwen Davies, Peter Sanger, eds., Divisions of the Heart: Elizabeth Bishop and the Art of Memory and Place, Kentville, N.S.: Gaspereau Press, 2001.

2. “Casa Mariana” is owned by Bishop’s friend Linda Nemer and her brother José Alberto Nemer. They have welcomed Bishop pilgrims over the years. I understand that some Bishop pilgrims have accessed Lota’s house at Samambaia. But I understand that access to Bishop’s and Louise Crane’s house in Key West is difficult. I have seen Lewis Wharf, Bishop’s last home, from the outside, which is, I assume how most Bishop pilgrims have seen it. Bishop’s grave in Worcester is another major site for pilgrims.

3. Initially, the group comprised twelve owners, but over the next year, four left and two joined, so that by late 2005 the number of co-owners settled at ten, five Nova Scotians and five Americans.

4. There are a number of other literary houses in Canada that operate as artist retreats. Among them are: Pierre Berton House (http://www.bertonhouse.ca/home.html);
Joy Kogowa House (http://www.kogawahouse.com/);
Wallace Stegner House (http://www.stegnerhouse.ca/);
These retreats are all operated by professional associations, registered charities or government agencies. The Elizabeth Bishop House is the only literary house retreat that I know of in Canada that was operated privately by a group of individuals.

The Elizabeth Bishop House, Great Village, Nova Scotia: A Site of Pilgrimage, Part 4

In others’ words: The Elizabeth Bishop House Artist Retreat
The best way to convey the importance of the Elizabeth Bishop House Artist Retreat is to let some of the artists who stayed there say what it meant to them.

“How strange, yet oddly reassuring, to be part of the place she [Bishop] describes in her stories and poems: it was as though I’d been plunked down inside her imagination.” So writes the Nova Scotia poet Anne Simpson (http://www.annesimpson.ca/) in her essay “World at Play,” written about one of her stays at the Elizabeth Bishop House in 2006.
Anne Simpson at the house, 2012 (Photo credit: Valerie Compton)
 Maine poet Tom Moore 
“Living for a week in the Great Village house was about presence —EB’s presence, her mother’s presence, the presence of voices. I heard the family members walking up and down the steep stairs, I peered up at the wallpaper as I lay in bed, I felt the scream echoing. When the Girl Guides stopped by selling cookies, I suddenly felt the community presence. I grew up just outside Worcester so EB has been a familiar name since I first read her poems as a teenager. Living in the Great Village house made her — and her writing — palpable.”

Nova Scotia musician and novelist Binnie Brennan 
“My time at the Elizabeth Bishop house was a rare gift, or should I say gifts: Solitary walks along the lavender shores, strawberries and cheese for supper, and the time and space to write deeply and write well. Daily I read one poem or prose piece of Elizabeth Bishop’s, and by nights I slept beneath the skylight in the child’s room, with not much more than the rhythmic hum of occasional cars driving across the old steel bridge to punctuate the night silence. I wrote for most of the day, and when I wasn’t putting pen to paper I was thinking of what I had just put down on paper. It was a singular time in my life as a writer, with little worry of the distractions of everyday life, the constraints of time. Truly a gift.”

Nova Scotia painter and illustrator Richard Rudnicki 
“Our visits to the little house in Great Village were like trips back in time. We always felt so at peace there, away from the woes of the world, with time and space to create, laugh, and play. We explored and painted the area, and learned about its history. We gave talks at the house, and workshops at the community centre. We met members of the town, and felt a part of the community. EB House was for us a home away from home. Our dog loved it there too.”

Toronto writer Pasha Malla 
“The Elizabeth Bishop House is a gift to writers. During my two stays there I was able to work steadily, without distraction or interruption, on writing projects that might not otherwise have received similar attention. The house itself is charming and cozy, the area is beautiful, and not being able to spend time there in 2015 has felt like a bit of a hole in my summer. I truly hope that the house lands in good hands and that the residency program continues for years to come.”

Irish writer Carmel Cummins 
“My dear friend, the poet Jean Valentine, invited me to be with her on a residency at Elizabeth Bishop House in Great Village, a visit that coincided with celebrations on the centenary of Bishop’s birth. It’s hard to overestimate the impact this time had on my understanding and appreciation of Bishop’s work. To be in the landscape and seascape of ‘The Moose’ and ‘At the Fishhouses’, was a richness I could never have imagined, to simply see that ‘lavender’ is an exact descriptive word and not a fancy. (It was one of the few words I had thought a bit too poetic.  I should have known better.) Until 2011, it was only the poetry I knew. I had not read her prose, which I then read while I was in the village. I walked the road she had walked, directing Nelly. We met in the Presbyterian church she and Nelly had passed. The church is still dazzling. It still has a lightening rod on its steeple. At the door, there is now a small plaque, like some secular mezuzah, ‘Home made, home made! But aren’t we all?’ In the food being prepared, Bishop writes, ‘I think I taste my grandmother’s tears: then I kiss her and taste them on her cheek.’ Was ever heartbreak and love in the midst of family turmoil so well-conveyed? Did it matter we were in that kitchen? Hardly in terms of appreciating the quality of the writing but  place matters and in my experience it was not a matter of voyeurism.  To know Great Village was to know the work better. It brought me to the heart of her writing. 

Nova Scotia painter and illustrator Susan Tooke 
“I have enjoyed several stays of varying duration at the childhood home of Elizabeth Bishop. Escaping the everyday work in my studio in Halifax enabled me to work at a different pace, and to experience the area surrounding Great Village by living in it.  It affected my style of painting. I was able to see the landscape as a living thing, pulsating with the tides of the Bay of Fundy. Working plein air with fellow painter, Richard Rudnick, and our sidekick, Phoebe the Schnauzer, I continued to develop an expressive response to the environment of that region. Thanks to the generosity of the EB community, I was able to visit Great Village in all seasons, painting not only the wild verdant woodlands of the summer, but also the heaved, heaping ice pans of the depths of winter. That little house has an atmosphere of mystery that inspires creativity — it has been at the centre of an artistic community, bringing painters, musicians, poets and writers together through the shared experience of the small town that still holds the memory of this great poet.”

Australian poet Moya Pacey
“My stay in the [Elizabeth Bishop] house illuminated my own childhood memories of home. And I’m sure that the friendship, hospitality and generosity of the people I met in GV helped me reclaim this strong sense of feeling so completely ‘at home’.  Bishop’s maternal grandfather’s words came fully alive for me during my stay: ‘Speak to everyone you meet’. This is the real sense of the house for me because it seems to me that so many people who have come to the EB house over the years have experienced this warmth and nurturing and fellowship in Bishop’s childhood home. Even when the house was empty of people, as it was on the first night of my stay there — when I was alone for a couple of hours, I felt content and settled. I wrote in my journal: I can hardly believe I am here in Bishop’s childhood home and tonight, I am alone in the house sitting at the desk reading a manuscript of Bishop’s that Sandra Barry, one of the co-owners of the house, has left with me. The house quietly settles as I listen to a concert from Montreal on the radio. I feel perfectly at home…

The responses continue. Here, for example, is Irish writer Padrig Rooney’s blog post about a visit to the house in August 2015: http://padraigrooney.com/blog/?p=936

The Elizabeth Bishop House, Great Village, Nova Scotia: A Site of Pilgrimage, Part 5

The next incarnation
When we set up the artist retreat, we chose to do so “under the radar,” so to speak. We understood the keen interest in the house and felt that “word of mouth” would be sufficient. We never advertised. Indeed, it was not easy to find out about the house for the first few years; if an artist tracked us down, we could be pretty sure the interest was genuine. We wanted to know everyone who stayed there, so direct, personal contact was preferred.

Our approach tended towards what is called “the sharing economy.” We charged no fee, but we were grateful for any gifts artists were willing to give, depending on how long they stayed and their means. And we did small-scale, community-based fund-raising. As the number of artists staying increased, gradually, the financial commitment required of each owner decreased, but it was never eliminated entirely. Residents in the community also became directly involved with the house and took pride in having this kind of endeavour in the village. They welcomed the many artists who stayed and visited.
Afternoon with Binnie Brennan at the EB House. 
(Photo by Brenda Barry)
Any such endeavour, regardless of the “model,” is labour intensive and involves a lot of communication. Such a modus operandi required someone on the ground at all times. I agreed to be the administrator for the house and within a couple of years, this work took up a great deal of my time. I did all this work gratis, because the agreement specifically stated that the administration, to be done by the owners, would not be paid.1

The Elizabeth Bishop Centenary in 2011 brought an additional surge of interest and activity. By that time the retreat was established and respected, with a hopeful belief among many that it would go on in perpetuity. But a decade brings a lot of change. As the tenth anniversary of our ownership approached, it became clear that this wonderful endeavour had a finite lifespan, at least as it was then constituted. For myself, I realized that I could not continue to administer the house, essentially a full-time job, without compensation; but the owners were not in a position to add a paid administrator to the budget, without ramping up the fund-raising. Reluctantly, we decided to put the house on the market. Initially, we listed the house with Oceans and Orchards Realty (http://www.novascotiaproperty.info/) in May 2014, with an asking price of $130,000. We closed the retreat in September 2014.

A year passed without any serious offers. With income from the retreat and fund-raising no longer coming in, the majority of the owners decided that the house had become, in the words of one of them, an “oppressive” financial “burden” and had to be sold quickly. In June 2015 the price was dropped to $109,500. In July the price was dropped again, to $99,500. In August a new realtor was chosen (http://remaxtruro.ca/listings/571/8740-hwy-2) and the price was dropped again to $79,000. In September, the price was dropped to $69,000 and in November it dropped to $59,900. We are still waiting for a buyer.2
The future of the Elizabeth Bishop House
The sale of the house will not stop pilgrims from visiting Great Village and wanting to see it. Indeed, the summer of 2015 saw Bishop pilgrims from Massachusetts, New York City, Ireland, France and South Korea visit (and these are just the ones who connected with me in some way — I am sure there were others who simply stopped by and took a photograph of themselves on the front step). For as long as people read Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry and prose, there will a “common enough” desire to see Great Village, to see the places that were so significant in her childhood and in her art, to see this house.
Elizabeth Bishop House, May 2015 (Photo: Sandra Barry)
1. In hindsight, this is the one aspect of the agreement I would do differently: that is, provision for at least a part-time paid administrator should have been part of the budget from the beginning. We had no idea how successful the retreat would become. It may seem puzzling that such a provision could not be added at any point, that the decision to sell was based on such a practical and solvable issue. But by the early 2010s, life being life, it was too late to implement this kind of change because, for the majority of the owners, the house was no longer a priority.

2. Some might be puzzled by the difficulty we are encountering selling the house. The reasons are complex and involve issues in the real estate market in rural Nova Scotia, the daunting task of taking on a registered heritage property, the international interest in Bishop that has a direct impact on the house, and so on. Writer Ellen Brown has explored the pros and cons of owning a “literary house”: http://www.realtor.com/advice/buy/the-pros-and-cons-of-buying-or-selling-a-literary-home-2/

Friday, October 9, 2015

In the Village Café has a new website

Located in historic St. James Church, the In the Village Café in Great Village, N.S., is still open on Saturdays until the end of October. The café has a new website: http://laurieegunn.wix.com/inthevillagecafe

There is also a lively Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/InTheVillageCafe

Check out both sites to learn more.
Great food. Great people. Great Village!

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Today's Todays...

...or, rather, those of October 6, were the last, for the time being.  My co-host here, Sandra Barry, asked me what composing them was like, and suggested that I might reflect upon their once quotidian complection here.

Composing them was, I think, not unlike this:

It also bore a certain resemblance to this:


A single bell sounds, —
chukaisho or houzensho? —
spiling the silence.

Thanks, folks.

-- John

Friday, October 2, 2015

From "The Life and Works of Pernicious the Musquodoboit Harbour Farm Cat," vol. 666 -- (entry for Sunday, February 27th, 2005)

"I'm back from my week at Elizabeth Bishop's childhood home in Great Village, Nova Scotia. What follows is the beginnings of an essay on the experience -- in the form of the raw entries in my day-to-day notebook. I'll pretty these up, elaborate them, and essay-fy them over the next few days. It was a bigger experience than I can encompass in words, I'm afraid -- and it'll take months to come to grips with it. Anyhow..."


"[23 February - Wednesday] I didn't get to sleep until after midnight, and got up a little before six. I read what criticism there is in the house about "Filling Station" -- not much, really -- certainly it seems to be relatively neglected compared to many of her other things. Divisions of the Heart has two amusing interpretations of the last line -- one erudite, the other McLuhan on acid -- the first one found that the 'so, so, so' line echoes Prospero in The Tempest; the second claims only we can be the 'somebody' who loves us all... the 'we' being poetry-lovers, or maybe McLuhanites, I don't know for sure which. Anyhow, I'm going to combine the two into 'prospero-us' for the poem I'm contemplating as an entry, or part of one, in the House Journal before I leave. The whole problematic of the House Journal will have to form a separate essay, I suppose -- anyhow, I have one almost complete in my mind about the concept and its realization. Yesterday my walk took me up the road past the funeral parlour and out of town. There was almost no traffic. I walked a couple miles or so on the way out -- on the way back I took a side road upward and through what I thought was a ridge but turned out to be a high pasture covered in crusted snow -- you could see for miles and miles, also down on Great Village -- just the church spire, really. I snapped a picture. Back in town I stopped at the antique store that is now next to the Bishop house and browsed for a pleasant hour -- I got a volume of Lowell's poems for the house -- James Russell, not Robert, and an old book on English composition which emphasized memorization -- some of the passages were half decent, but it's remarkable how bad many of them were. I also got a little plate with a crack in it that reminded me of Russian lubki, with their colours applied with violent inattention to the stippled outlines of the country scene -- and a turned birdseye maple bowl made by somebody named Bell out on Prince Edward Island -- fairly recently, I presume. Towards evening I went to the little Quickmart that the old grocery has turned into, and got munchies and dip, Pirate peanut butter cookies and a locally-made curriwurst sausage. This morning it is snowing rather hard, so I'll have to think twice about going out."

"[24 February - Thursday] Yesterday wasn't productive. In the afternoon I got this sudden intense urge to go up the road to the left of the church, despite all the snow, and out to where I knew, vaguely, the cemetery was. I turned left about a mile out at what almost looked like a driveway; there was an enormous pile of snow across it a few yards in that would block access to anybody who wasn't on foot -- I expect they must salt any winter corpses away somewhere until spring, or at least until a thaw long enough to soften the thoroughly frozen ground. It was heavy going getting out there -- sometimes I could feel that I was crossing water, perhaps deep water, under all the crusted snow; sometimes the crust would break and I was thigh-deep, almost, in snow. But I made it, albeit with several almost disastrous falls along the way. Most of the stones were completely obscured by the snow. But as luck would have it, I found William Brown Bulmer (Bishop's maternal grandfather, whom she referred to as 'Pa') almost immediately. Probably her grandmother was buried next to him -- they died a year apart, in 1930 and 1931, but the snow had hidden her completely. Anyway, I said a silent thank you for the love and care they had given her. Then I struggled toward the power lines that I thought marked a country road -- no, it was just the power lines -- so I had to retrace my steps and struggle back to the highway. Then I went home. I got the fixings for making an apple pie, but ended up making a kind of apple oatmeal mush instead.

"I called Mark around eight that evening. It turned out he thought I was coming here next week. He called back an hour or so later, after putting his two little girls to bed, and we thrashed out what to do. Then around half past ten he drove over from Brookfield and stayed about an hour. He brought with him all the files, so I'll be able to concentrate on what hasn't been done yet. He likes the house. His boss is keeping him very busy at work, but we will have Friday evening and most of Saturday to work. The book won't get done in the time we'll have, of course, but it's better than nothing. I read Susan Halpern's Migrations to Solitude and Howard Norman's My Famous Evening, with its charming essay, "Driving Miss Barry", about his time with Sandra."

"[25 February - Friday] About five hours sleep. "Music by Letter" is playing on CBC-2 -- they're up to 'Q'. The programme begins with a medley of alphabetical songs - "R-E-S-P-E-C-T", "L is for..." "M is for..." "YMCA" and the Jackson Five's "ABC -- simple as 1-2-3" among others -- so I am taking that as a Divine Prompt to pursue the ideas I've had for composing a "Filling Station" palinode.

"I made a couple of apple crisps yesterday - consumed one entirely by myself, and about a quarter of the second one -- finished off the hot dogs, and ate about a third of the chicken thighs I brought with me -- boiled. The curriwurst was great boiled, and the water it boiled in, when I added a couple tablespoons of peanut butter and about a cup of milk, made a really delicious soup -- no further seasoning was necessary.

"Mark called around eight or so that evening to say he couldn't come out because of road conditions. I felt bad about that, but I did make progress on a translation of Kuzmin's "Faustina", which has the same title as one of Bishop's poems -- I noticed for the first time that it is written in sapphics, and that proved to be the key to producing a version that pleased me more than anything I had got from it before. It is one of Kuzmin's "Gnostic Poems" -- all of which are terribly obscure and difficult. I worked some more on the Filling Station palinode, and took quite a number of pictures the past couple days -- I guess I'm glad I took Evan's suggestion to bring the camera along after all. Endless listening to Shostakovich's preludes and fugues, and Glenn Gould playing the first half of the well-tempered clavier, and Bishop reading her poems, again and again -- you can make out background voices in quite a number of them. Also, I used my little micro-recorder to make a copy of the Bishop recording, and spent about an hour reading some of my poems from last year and Canticle onto a tape."

"[26 February - Saturday] Mark finally made it over at about two in the afternoon. We took some more pictures, and talked and talked about many things, and I read him some of my poems from last fall -- he was enthusiastic about them. We finished my "End of the Month Club" soup for supper -- made from the water I had boiled the chicken thighs in, two packages of Caesar salad, and the rest of the duck egg instant noodles I'd brought with me, along with the rest of the milk. Then he settled down to work and I settled down to reading -- he took a nap for an hour or so with a poem pressed to his chest, and then got up and did a creditable job on a version. Around nine o'clock I finished cleaning up and shut out the lights and turned down the furnace, and we left for the Truro bus station. I got in to Halifax at about half past eleven, and took a cab straight home."