March 07, 2011

The New Yorker Waits On No One...Well, No One Except Miss Bishop

Thanks to everyone who came to Story/Stereo on Friday. We had a great crowd, and The Caribbean rocked (as always!). I love those guys.

On Sunday, March 20, I'll be back at The Writer's Center taking part in a staged readings from Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker, including sections of her correspondence with the fabulous, funny editor Howard Moss. David Gewanter is playing Mr. Moss; I am playing Miss Bishop; Dana Gioia is narrating, and Rose Solari will be gracing us in a variety of roles including Katharine White. The collection's editor, Joelle Bielle, is traveling the country organizing these readings.

Farrar, Straus & Girous has generously posted some snippets of Bishop and Moss's exchanges. These aren't the same ones we'll be reading--those are chosen to add a more dramatic texture. But I can't resist sharing* a round of rassling over a poem inspired by Robinson Crusoe...

[* NB to FSG: I am sharing this excerpt in the spirit of promoting the book and the reading, but will take it down immediately if anyone requests it.]

March 25, 1965

Dear Howard:

            Richard Kelly flew up to New York last night, and by the time you get this you probably will have received a samba record and a letter from me. I think he said he'd met you...

            Before he left, he handed over a lot of odds and ends, the way our visitors usually do—match-folders from the Yale Club, extra US cigarettes & Kleenex, paper-backs, etc.—and also the March 13th New Yorker.  My own copy of course hasn't got here yet, and won't for several weeks.  If he hadn't given me that March 13th one, and I hadn't looked at it last night, instead of this letter you'd be getting a long poem called CRUSOE AT HOME...  It is a bit unnerving, isn't it...  Or is it just "great minds," even so far apart?  Well, they aren't really exactly alike, because mine is in the first person, more realistic and un-organized, etc.  I'll send it someplace else, and I'll send you a copy when I have time to make copies.

            Yours ["Robinson"] is very lovely—the cork image particularly fine, I think.

            I re-read Crusoe not long ago and found it morally appalling, but as fascinating as ever.  Have you ever read the travel memoirs of Woodes Rogers, the young captain who picked up Selkirk?  The parts about him are brief, but very moving.

Telepathically yours,

March 29, 1965

Dear Miss Bishop,

            Howard Moss just called in on his way out of town to ask me to ask you to please, please, please send the Robinson poem to us.

Sincerely yours,
Elizabeth Hawes

May 8, 1965

Dear Howard:

            I shall send you my Robinson Crusoe poem as soon as I give it a good dusting, —maybe this week.

Much love,

September 28, 1965

Dear Howard:

            I'm sorry I promised you my Robinson Crusoe poem and then changed my mind about it...  Perhaps I'll like it better again after a while.  In the meantime, here is another one ["Under the Window"] I hope you can use.

With love,

January 28, 1966

Dear Elizabeth,

And what ever happened (business) to the Robinson Crusoe poem?  I'll die if it suddenly comes out somewhere else.


April 24, 1967

Dear Howard:

This ["Going to the Bakery"], again, is not the poem I have in mind to send you, but something that sort of turned up.  The real one I think you'll like—almost done.  My Crusoe poem didn't please me when I finished it but maybe I'll re-write [it] sometime.

With love,

May 18, 1970

Dear Howard:

            I am awfully tired of sitting on this egg and thing maybe it has hatched, after all ["Crusoe in England"]...  It is quite unlike your Crusoe, as I remember him.  I won't mind if you can't use it, however.


P.S. on page 3—should it be "Which is the bliss" or "That is the bliss"?   I have Wordsworth here somewhere, but can't find him, and I am always uncertain about which and that—please don't tell any one.  [in hand: "I hope I haven't stolen your title?  If I have, I'll change it. E."]

May 19, 1970

Dear Howard:

            I was awfully tired yesterday when I mailed you the Crusoe poem.  This morning, I think I've improved it quite a bit, so if you happen to want it, will you please use this version?

With love and all,

June 2, 1970

Dear Elizabeth,

            We're delighted with CRUSOE IN ENGLAND and, of course, we're taking it.  I hope to be able to send you a check and an author's proof before I take off for the summer, which will be on June 20.

            I was particularly fascinated by the poem because of mine.  No, my title (I think) was simply ROBINSON.  I'm hesitant about that because I know I changed it several times.  It definitely was not CRUSOE IN ENGLAND.  (I don't have any of my books here.)


June 15, 1970

Dear Howard:

            I'm glad you can use CRUSOE.  I want to change one word, but shall do it on the proof.  I seem to be working again at last, after three years, and hope to send you a whole batch of things.  Meanwhile here is another I think I once spoke of ["In the Waiting Room"].

With much love,

...OK, this is fabulous. Notice how after five years of back-and-forth over what is remembered as (forgive me) a relatively minor poem of Bishop's, "In the Waiting Room" just sneaks in there at the end?

Notice how Bishop, like all of us, indulged in morning-after revisions and resending?

Notice how Bishop, like all of us, procrastinates? Worries over titles? Grows tired of her own work?

There is hope for us yet!


Looking to blog-hop? I enjoyed this interview between poet Victoria Chang and Meghan O'Rourke, in part because of Victoria's refreshingly blunt questions. She asks MO about being labeled ambitious; she asks about the infamous Gawker post; she even asks about a now-ended marriage to a fellow writer. And it is good she asks, because the responses--honest, reasonable, modest, wry--are to the benefit of all.

Meghan's forthcoming memoir, The Long Goodbye, deals with the death of her mother at the age of only 52, and the curious unspoken place that grief holds in contemporary American society. She first wrote of this crushing loss in a series of essays for Slate. For my very first reading when Theories of Falling came out (or...was supposed to have come out), I shared a bill with Meghan up at Long Island University, in which she read from Halflife and some newer work. So much of her poetry captures narrative silence, i.e. the power of what goes unsaid in a story. I look forward to this book.


Luke said...

What a wonderful correspondence! Thanks for posting.

William said...

Soon, I too, will be on the road--I hope. Pleasure stumbling onto your verse. Here's something of my own. If nothing else, I hope you have some fun reading it.

Snow fell, as if it were tossed from shallow canvas bags by the little hands of children. Plenty of trembling men with terrified hands, he thought, while scooping fine coffee grounds from a mason jar his wife bought at the flea market in town all those years ago. There was still that ugly mallard, bought from some yard sale, waddling in place on the brick mantle with a cheap pipe cracked into his banana beak. Sipping his coffee, he listened from the pier, near the statue of Columbus where the city hangs long strings of white lights to illuminate the tunneling rose walkway, as the sea slapped at tall wood dock walls. A foghorn blew loud from the ship carrying passengers to Plum Island. He watched a young husband and wife wave to their son, leather knapsack strapped over little shoulders, as the boat pulled away slow from the harbor. Camping, he thought. Later, alone, frying yolks on a hot pan, he turned the television to a low hum. The woman on the box wore a yellow raincoat. The rain disguised tears.

William said...

Oh. And you can find me here.

Assuming you're interested.

Greg said...

I sneaked a few peaks at that book when I was in NYC a couple of weeks ago. It promises to be wonderful. Good luck with the staged reading; I'll try to make it, but might be tied up that Sunday.

Great seeing you last night and happy to report that Drinking Weather arrived! Hope you get to see a copy; they did a wonderful job.

Sara Eliza Johnson said...

Oh my, seeing brilliant Elizabeth with the same kind of doubt and constant last minute revisions was a bit of a relief. And also, that the poem took so long. Sometimes I think I've given up a poem, and then a year later dust it off and revise it into something almost completely new.

RVR said...

What fun. Wish I could be at the reading to experience the laughter and jolly. Longing for days of letter writing on paper and sent by post-- the time lag adds something.