We will soon begin to release audio recordings from our 1993 Seminar devoted to poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979). The event was organized by John Malcolm Brinnin, a friend of Bishop’s since the 1940s, and brought together many of Bishop’s intimates for a weekend of informal tribute. In many ways, it anticipated the field of Bishop scholarship as we know it today.
At the time, Bishop’s extra-literary life was largely unknown to the public; her private letters and unpublished works were still private and unpublished, and the experiences revealed by biographies and oral histories were mainly known to those she shared them with. Brinnin recognized a beginning flood of interest in Bishop, writing in an invitation to Octavio Paz of “the slow but sure rise of Elizabeth’s reputation, from the devoted attention of an elite to the acclaim of an ever-broadening audience.” He ended up orchestrating an event that offered a richer, deeper, more fully-known Bishop than ever before.
Among those Brinnin gathered in Key West was Robert Giroux, Bishop’s longtime editor and publisher, whose reading from her letters (a selection of which he published the following year as One Art) was likely the first public presentation of this important material. Bishop’s close friend and fellow poet James Merrill also took part. He read a selection of her poems along with the poems they inspired him to write, linking the pairs with private anecdotes that reveal and offer insight into each poet’s creative process. Paz, the Mexican poet and Nobel Prize winner whom Bishop translated into English, joined Richard Wilbur and Ashley Brown, who had translated portions of Bishop’s anthology of 20th-century Brazilian poets. Alice Quinn, editor of the 2006 Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke-Box (the “uncollected” Bishop poems) was here with Alice Helen Methfessel, Bishop’s companion in her last years and the executor who has made possible so much of what we now know of Bishop. In addition to the readings and discussions, Bishop’s watercolors (loaned by Methfessel) were exhibited to the public for the first time. The collection, curated by William Benton and later documented in his book Exchanging Hats, presents a folk-art version of the Key West Bishop knew and loved in the 1930s and 1940s. Finally, in a ceremony coordinated by the Friends of the Library USA, her former home at 624 White Street was added to the national register of Literary Landmarks.
Our audio engineers at Private Ear Recording Studios have remastered the original recordings from nine cassettes and converted them into digital .wav files for our use. We’re now in the editing process– listening to the recordings, selecting the material that will be of most use to readers, fans, and scholars, and securing permissions from various copyright holders. The production of these recordings for the web has been a particular goal of our audio archives project. We look forward to sharing them with you here soon.