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Elizabeth Bishop, The Art of Poetry No. 27

Elizabeth Bishop, The Art of Poetry No. 27



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Published by The Paris Review
Elizabeth Bishop talks about childhood memory, sleeping in trees, and winning the Pulitzer Prize in this 1981 interview.
Elizabeth Bishop talks about childhood memory, sleeping in trees, and winning the Pulitzer Prize in this 1981 interview.

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Published by: The Paris Review on Apr 05, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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The interview took place at Lewis Wharf, Boston, on the afternoonof June
, three days before Miss Bishop and two friendswere to leave for North Haven, a Maine island in Penobscot Baywhere she summered. Her living room, on the fourth floor of Lewis Wharf, had a spectacular view of Boston Harbor; when Iarrived, she immediately took me out on the balcony to point outsuch Boston landmarks as Old North Church in the distance, men-tioning 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, andone wall of books. Besides some comfortable modern furniture,the room included a jacaranda rocker and other old pieces fromBrazil, two paintings by Loren MacIver, a giant horse conch fromKey West and a Franklin stove with firewood in a donkey pannier,also from Brazil. The most conspicuous piece was a large carvedfigurehead of an unknown beast, openmouthed, with horns andblue eyes, which hung on one wall below the ceiling.Her study, a smaller room down the hall, was in a state of dis-order. Literary magazines, books, and papers were piled every-where. Photographs of Marianne Moore, Robert Lowell, and
other friends hung on the walls; one of Dom Pedro, the lastemperor of Brazil, she especially liked to show to her Brazilian vis-itors. “Most have no idea who he is,” she said. “This is after heabdicated and shortly before he died—he looked very sad.” Herdesk was tucked in a far corner by the only window, also with anorth view of the harbor.At sixty-seven, Miss Bishop was striking, her short, swept-back white hair setting off an unforgettably noble face. She waswearing a black tunic shirt, gold watch and earrings, gray slacks,and flat brown Japanese sandals that made her appear shorter thanher actual height: five feet, four inches. Although she looked welland was in high spirits, she complained of having had a recent hayfever attack and declined to have her photograph taken with thewry comment, “Photographers, insurance salesmen, and funeraldirectors are the worst forms of life.”Seven or eight months later, after reading a profile I had writ-ten for
The Vassar Quarterly
(which had been based on this inter-view) and worrying that she sounded like “the soul of frivolity,”she wrote me: “I once admired an interview with Fred Astaire inwhich he refused to discuss ‘the dance,’ his partners, or his ‘career’and stuck determinedly to
—so I hope that some readers willrealize I do think about art once in a while even if babbling alonglike a very shallow brook . . .”Though Miss Bishop did have the opportunity of correctingthose portions of this interview incorporated in
TheVassar Quar-terly
article, she never saw it in this form.
—Elizabeth Spires,1981
Your living room seems to be a wonderful combination of theold and new. Is there a story behind any of the pieces, especiallythat figurehead? It’s quite imposing.
I lived in an extremely modern house in Brazil. It was verybeautiful, and when I finally moved I brought back things I likedbest. So it’s just a kind of mixture. I really like modern things, butwhile I was there I acquired so many other things I couldn’t bearto give them up. This figurehead is from the São Francisco River.Some are more beautiful; this is a very ugly one.
Is it supposed to ward off evil spirits?
Yes, I think so. They were used for about fifty years on onesection, two or three hundred miles, of the river. It’s nothing com-pared to the Amazon but it’s the next biggest river in Brazil. Thisfigurehead is primitive folk art. I think I even know who made it.There was a black man who carved twenty or thirty, and it’sexactly his style. Some of them are made of much more beautifulwood. There’s a famous one called the Red Horse made of jacaranda. It’s beautiful, a great thing like this one, a horse with itsmouth open, but for some reason they all just disappeared. I madea weeklong trip on that river in
and didn’t see one. The river-boat, a stern wheeler, had been built in
—something for theMississippi, and you can’t believe how tiny it was. We splashedalong slowly for days and days . . . a very funny trip.
Did you spend so much of your life traveling because you werelooking for a perfect place?
No, I don’t think so. I really haven’t traveled that much. It justhappened that although I wasn’t rich I had a very small incomefrom my father, who died when I was eight months old, and it wasenough when I got out of college to go places on. And I traveled

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