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The Seminar

Elizabeth Bizhop in Brazil
All Photos Courtesy of Vassar College


Why Bishop?

Bishop has emerged as one of the most important and discussed North American poets of the twentieth century. She has been the subject of two international conferences in the last five years and a major motion picture (Bruno Baretto’s Reaching for the Moon). In the last decade, six new editions of Bishop’s previously unpublished or long-out-of-print poetry, prose, drafts, and letters have been published, and significant new papers have been discovered and added to her archives at Vassar College. Bishop’s expanding archive represents a dialogue of major significance for our understanding of literary history and the social and cultural forces that shape a career. It is a dialogue that crosses two continents (North and South America), three nations (Canada, the U.S. and Brazil), and many disciplines (art, architecture, politics, history, literature, music, travel).


Houses in the Brazilian Amazon


Bishop with Camera in the Amazon


Bishop Outside Her Studio, Samambaia


Why the Archives?

Bishop with Her Mother, c. 1915

Bishop's archive at Vassar is extensive, comprising more than 120 boxes, 3,500 pages of drafts of poems and prose, notebooks, memorabilia, artwork, hundreds of letters to major poets and writers of the twentieth century, and Bishop’s recently catalogued library, which contains more than 2,000 volumes. Moreover, the archive continues to grow with Vassar’s recent acquisition of an explosive series of letters Bishop wrote to her psychoanalyst Ruth Foster in 1947, documenting her alcoholism, her sexual abuse as a child, her candid exploration of her sexual identity as a lesbian at a time of extreme homophobia and persecution, and childhood trauma—all of which she links to her own poetry. These documents, which will form the core of one of our key “case studies” for the seminar, constitute one of the most detailed psychosexual memoirs we have of any twentieth-century writer, and provide deep insight into the relationship between sexual identity, the creative process, and the significance of psychoanalytic discourse on the themes, ideas, and knowledge of Bishop’s generation of American poets. Her archive also demonstrates that Bishop was at the center of a celebrated circle of poets, writers, and artists--from Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, Robert Lowell, James Merrill and Alexander Calder in North America to Pablo Neruda, Carlos Drummond de Andrade and Manuel Bandeira in South America--whose collective work and correspondence with Bishop provide a rich and complex story of culture, politics, and artistic expression at mid-century that spans two continents.


Bishop with Robert Lowell, Rio de Janeiro


Bishop Painting, "Interior with Calder Mobile"


Rio de Janeiro


Seminar Organization

The seminar will be organized around a series of “case studies” in order to provide an integrative model of teaching and scholarship and to create a forum for discussing the complex dimensions of authorship. For instance, when we look at the ethics and aesthetics associated with Bishop’s 1947 letters to her psychoanalyst, we will bring together a set of documents in order to create a dialogue between the letters and Bishop’s own poetic methods, psychoanalytic theory, current scholarship on the subject, and relevant archival discussions. This case study approach will take advantage of the archive and its contents with a focus on a series of intertwined questions of concern to both archival and literary study: How does newly discovered material change our perceptions of writers and their world? What is the relationship between a poet’s drafts and her final texts? How do we integrate archival research and materials without losing sight of the beauty of Bishop’s aesthetics? What is the best way to use these materials in the classroom? How do social and cultural forces affect what is in the archive and how we interpret its contents? The buying and selling of a poet’s papers can turn literary estates into big business with archives, publishers, and executors all bidding for a piece of the pie. What are the implications of publishing the working contents of a poet’s workshop? What are the ethical considerations of publishing deeply personal letters that the poet may not have intended to make public?


Draft 2 of "One Art"


Samambaia House Designed by Sérgio Bernardes


Interior, Samambaia


Bishop as Archival Theorist

One could say that Bishop herself was a theorist of the archives as repositories of memory, and that she acted as her own curator of memory. In her 1971 poem “Crusoe in England,” for instance, at a time in her life when she contemplated where her own papers and effects would be placed, the poet’s avatar, Crusoe, now safe in England after having been rescued from his island, notes that the local museum has asked him to “leave everything to them”—all the products of his island industry, e.g., a flute, his knife, “shriveled shoes,” and “shedding goatskin trousers.” These objects, made by Crusoe on his island and used for his very survival, will now be placed in a museum as things torn from their original use and value. “How can anyone want such things?” Crusoe asks. But Bishop knew full well why anyone would want these things. The objects in museums and archives can serve as important reminders of our past and its relationship to the present. They can answer important questions about who we are and what we know. Bishop’s poetry is full of archival documents that act as indexical signs to the business of recapturing and re-finding long-buried memories of family, nation, and history. These signs point the way to understanding human suffering and constructing one’s own identity from the shards unearthed from the past and placed in the larger context of family and nation. Thus, we will act over the course of these three weeks as investigators, curators, collaborators, and inquirers in the workshop of literary production and its aesthetic products.