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Joelle Biele discovered Elizabeth Bishop‘s poetry while studying at Tufts University. Ten years, one marriage, and three kids later, Biele found herself poring through manuscripts at the New York Public Library—letters between the Pulitzer Prize winner and her editors at The New Yorker about her frequent, and sometimes infrequent, submissions. Biele read through every letter, noted every grammatical change, and then, as suggested by her former University of Maryland grad school professor, began typing them out.
Biele’s edits appear in Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which Biele will discuss at 2 p.m. at The Writer’s Center on Sunday. Arts Desk chatted Biele about what drew her to Bishop’s poetry, the myths that the manuscripts dispelled, and why she obsessed over every comma decades after The New Yorker did.
You’ve written before about you came to discover Elizabeth Bishop—how you kept spotting these poetry students walk around with The Complete Poems in tow. When you finally got your own copy, what struck you about Bishop’s poetry first and foremost?
The first poem that I really remember was “In the Waiting Room.” … The language was so clear, and she was discussing the kind of situation any child could find themselves in. It just opened up this world to me about what poems could be about. They didn’t have to be about these big abstract ideas like the passage of time and history. I mean, the poems end up being about that, but she’s not confronting that head-on. It was really exciting, because it was really the first contemporary poetry that I’d read.
What did those Bishop-New Yorker manuscripts add to what you and the literary world already knew about her writing process and her personality?
You have an actual timeline of when [poetry] was submitted, so a sense of when they were done and when she felt they were done for publication. Sometimes there was a gap for a year, a year and a half [between] where she submitted them and when they appeared in the magazine. She also didn’t really show that many poems to Robert Lowell. I think a lot of scholars had previously thought that Lowell was more involved in the feedback, because they didn’t know that when she sent a poem to Lowell, The New Yorker had already accepted it. [Laughs] … Bishop’s relationship with Marianne Moore ended almost right after [New Yorker editor] Katharine White came in to play that mother role that Moore played. Eventually she didn’t need that kind of mother figure—“Great job, we love your poems, they’re a delight!”—but there was another person who was playing a significant role, giving her feedback. White wasn’t anywhere in the story.
I thought it was funny with one poem [“Crusoe in England”], five years passed from the time she brought it up to when the final copy was drafted, and after the proofs were lost. This correspondence could have easily taken just a couple of months.
Her editor had just done a poem on Crusoe, so it stopped her in her tracks. He said, “No, no, please send in the poem. Yes, I wrote one, but send me yours.” I looked at the early drafts of the poems and what she revised, and it doesn’t seem like she radically changed her idea. There were no radical revisions, at least in the manuscripts that were reviewed, between what she started with and what she ended up coming up. She just put it down because he was going to do something he did on a similar topic, and she didn’t want to be writing about the same topic—or at least publishing at the same time.
You include footnotes that break down every grammatical change that was proposed and made by the New Yorker editors and Bishop. Why did you decide to include these footnotes in addition to the correspondence?
I though people nutty about Bishop would enjoy going through the back-and-forth. [Laughs] And it’s a good book for academics. They would want to know that kind of stuff, and that’s information that really isn’t available anywhere—in terms of what they did with putting the poems into the house style and then Bishop’s responses to what they end up doing. But that’s why it’s there, and I only did it for the places where the manuscripts were revised. Some of the other poems don’t have it because there’s no revising, at least in the manuscripts. … They show how interesting the process is—how it was collaborative in some ways, where Bishop was open to what they did, or she didn’t care, or sometimes maybe she didn’t notice—and that there were many hands involved.
You’re working on yet another manuscript about Bishop. Looking back, does it feel strange to have immersed yourself in the life of one particular person for so long?
Yeah, but I’ve having a blast. You’d have to be a little crazy (laughs), but it’s really fun. It’s kind of an intellectual puzzle, to sit down and try to figure it all out. I enjoy the writing so much. I enjoy the images, the clarity in which she writes, the precision. It doesn’t feel like work at all, actually. But I guess there’s other stuff, too. On one hand there’s Elizabeth Bishop, and on the other hand there’s three children, so I guess they balance each other out.