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Tracing the footsteps of Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil

Posted by E on November 4, 2016

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Like many people, I discovered Elizabeth Bishop one evening in 2013 by scrolling through the newest offerings on Netflix, and choosing a movie called Reaching for the Moon. Unbeknownst to me, the story I watched that night would be the start of a new adventure – one that would lead me into foreign territory and transform my poetry in infinitesimal ways.

Much like Elizabeth’s own journey, in fact.

elizabeth-bishopWhen she was 40 years old, American poet Elizabeth Bishop decided it was time to leave New York. She had reached a dead end both in her personal life (after a break-up with a long-time lover) and in her stagnant creativity, which resulted in a dry spell from publishing. Also struggling with alcoholism, Elizabeth longed for a new start, some way to rejuvenate her spirit and retrigger her inspiration. Receiving a fellowship from Bryn Mawr College was a godsend, and she decided that she would travel around the world.

She telephoned the naval port and was told that the next available freighter was leaving for South America. Impulsively, she reserved a spot.

In November of 1951, Bishop boarded the Norwegian freighter S.S. Bowplate. Unbeknownst to her, the journey would change her life forever. The first port she arrived at was Santos, and what was meant to be a brief sojourn to visit with an old school chum from Vassar, Mary Morse, turned into an eighteen-year stay that would profoundly affect the rest of her life.

Toward the end of her vacation, Elizabeth fell ill from a violent allergic reaction to a cashew fruit and had to be hospitalized. While being nursed back to health, her relationship with Mary Morse’s Brazilian lover Lota deepened and grew more intense. Soon Lota de Macedo Soares, a self-taught architect from a prominent upper-class political family, broke up with Mary Morse and persuaded Elizabeth to stay in Brazil and move into Lota’s sprawling estate home at Samambaia, in the hills above Petropolis.

With Lota’s affection, Elizabeth flourished. It was there, amidst the lush jungle foliage and under Lota’s care, that Elizabeth wrote the poetry that would win her a Pulitzer prize and turn her into a world-renowned poet.

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After watching Reaching for the Moon, I was convinced that I couldn’t stand Elizabeth Bishop. Her weakness, her repeated cheating on Lota, her complete dependence on alcohol as a way to relinquish personal responsibility. But out of curiosity, I wanted to see for myself if she was all she’s cracked up to be. Soon I would discover just how inaccurate the film was, and run into interviews that revealed director Bruno Barreto’s obsession with stylistic themes over historical accuracy. Like many biographical films, truth and historical fact was sacrificed to the artistic vision of a straight male director who’d never heard of Elizabeth Bishop before he read the script.

I would also discover that Elizabeth’s characterization in the film paled in comparison to the real person, both in physique and in spirit. Bishop didn’t resemble the tall, slender, cool, passive-aggressive character played by Miranda Otto. The real Elizabeth was short (only 5’4) and stout, intensely emotional, at times difficult, with an inner fire that was apparent to all who knew her. As the years progressed, her relationship with Lota became increasingly codependent. Paradoxically, the stronger she grew, the weaker Lota became. It would all come to a tragic end after Elizabeth traveled back to the US to teach at NYU and recently hospitalized Lota (against medical advice) decided to visit her in September 1967. On her first night in New York, Lota took an overdose of tranquilizers and fell into a coma, dying a few days later.

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Lota de Macedo Soares

After Lota’s death, Elizabeth was shunned by her Brazilian friends and Lota’s relatives. She was forced to sell her Ouro Preto home and the Rio apartment bequeathed to her by Lota after Lota’s sister contested the will. Elizabeth soon realized that she had no future in Brazil without Lota and reluctantly moved back to the United States, eventually teaching at Harvard until her death in 1979.

Over the weeks and months to come, I would devour all Bishop-related material I could get my hands on. Soon I discovered that she had written much more than just poetry, and I was hooked. After Poems: North & South. A Cold Spring and Questions of Travel, I ordered her prose, correspondence, her incomplete, posthumously-published drafts and at least two biographies.

It started out as a hobby – reading all of Bishop’s writing. I spent an entire summer in my garden, reading book after book. Why? I still don’t know. Like Bishop’s feelings about Brazil, liking her didn’t come naturally. Some of her writing made me angry or befuddled me. I complained to my partner of how much I couldn’t stand Bishop-the-person, only to find myself returning to Bishop-the-writer’s work the next day.

It might sound crazy to most people. Why would I become inexplicably obsessed with a woman who died nearly forty years ago, a poet who was my complete antagonist? Why did I keep going down the Bishop rabbit hole instead of putting away her books? What kept me so engaged even as I complained about how weak and conflicted she was?

For all its flaws and incorrect depictions, Reaching for the Moon was a watershed moment for Bishop’s memory, leading many to look up her biography and (re)discover the small body of writing she had left behind. Until the film came out Bishop was a minor poet, largely forgotten by the masses and hardly ever studied in creative writing classes.

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Elizabeth Bishop in college

In all my writing classes over the years, Bishop’s poetry has never been covered. It’s easy to see why – shy and reticent to share the personal or make it political in an age when her compatriots (see Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton) found their stardom by turning their inner angst into poetic magic, she isn’t exactly an obvious choice for later generations, for youngsters who have been taught that the personal is political.

In contrast with the passionate, vibrant experimentation of the Beat Generation, Bishop’s classic approach to literature and her staunch avoidance to confront political and feminist discourse in her work rendered her an almost obsolete vestige of a repressed generation.

As a young poet, I was dazzled by the raw honesty of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Bukowski, swept away by Plath’s confessional brutality. Writers like Bishop and her idol, Marianne Moore, did nothing for me. I saw them as Vassar-reared, elitist upper class dilettantes who refused to address the sweeping changes of their time – they met in cafés and parlours to exchange and review each other’s couplets rather than discuss the Second World War that raged around them, the civil rights movement that brought equality to racial and sexual minorities.

Our poetic styles couldn’t be more different. I was as bold as Bishop was reticent; I challenged the establishment with the same ferocity she had retained while ignoring any criticisms of the government of her day. Her refusal to be included in feminist or women-only anthologies (underscored by the belief that it would somehow reduce her worth as a poet), her reluctance to openly come out as a lesbian even after the advent of gay liberation, all go against the grain of my own belief system.

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Lota de Macedo Soares

Only in my late thirties could I have begun to appreciate the quiet strength that resides in Bishop’s poetry. I still can’t say that I like the woman on a personal level, but there is something about her that fascinates me. I’ve read passages of her letters (as addressed to Robert Lowell) that I found incensing, even borderline racist and contemptuous toward those less privileged than her – opinions no doubt amplified by being in the company of the Brazilian elites of the day. But there is also an overwhelming defiance in her writing, interweaved in equal parts with fear, hope and childlike wonder all at the same time.

Emboldened by my connection to Bishop’s work, I wrote my first villanelle One Europe after being inspired by One Art. And as soon as I submitted it, it was accepted for publication in Canada’s oldest poetry journal, CV2 (Contemporary Verse 2). I wrote a second poem, set in Brazil, and once again it attracted attention and a mentorship with a renowned Canadian poet. Clearly, Elizabeth Bishop’s influences on my own writing had produced results.

A year later, after I’d made my way through her entire correspondence and translations, going so far as to acquire some first editions of her books (including Life World Library’s Brazil), I realized that I had become a self-taught Bishop scholar. With that realization came the knowledge that I had to confront my own feelings and try to understand what it was about Elizabeth Bishop that both attracted and still repelled me. As it often is, people who trigger strong feelings in you are actually reflections of your own self, mirroring some part of self-identity that you refuse to see.

I realized how much I was like her. All the things I hated about her work were things I hated in myself. I wished she had been stronger, that she could have come out as a feminist or lesbian poet, but it took me years to allow my own identity to seep into my writing.

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Elizabeth Bishop with Tobias the Cat in 1954

We live in an age that worships youth and carries the unspoken message that if you haven’t “made it” as a writer by your late 30s, you’re a nobody. Her success later in life, in spite of depression, personal struggles with a dark past and substance abuse, inspired and rejuvenated me in all those dark moments that come to all writers, when I felt down and hopeless.

And then came the day when I knew, more than anything, that I had to travel to Brazil.

I craved to see for myself the influences that had created the greatest phase of her career, and the years that she admitted were the happiest of her life. Brazil was where Bishop’s path took a new turn, where she produced work whose lasting power would outlive her.

I was 40 years old too. I often felt hopeless and burnt out.  I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I wished to touch the same spark – that intangible, luminous magic – of inspiration that had struck Bishop. Some places have that effect, you know; just like some plants only bloom in certain soil, the fertility of creation comes easier in certain spots than others.

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A view of Guanabara Bay and Flamengo Park – Lota’s vision. Taken from the top of Sugarloaf Mountain.

The 2016 Rio Olympics made it easier to travel to Brazil. The visa requirement was waved for the summer, security was at its best, and by booking far ahead I was able to line up affordable accommodations both in Rio and in Ouro Preto. Ignoring the dreadful headlines about killer Zika mosquitos and roving favela gangs, I spent most of August and the first week of September in Brazil, working on various projects which included researching the life of Elizabeth Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares. Needless to say, I skipped the mosquito repellant and was not bitten once.

During my Brazil sojourn I wanted to stay a few days on Copacabana beach, just to take in the atmosphere, but didn’t realize that the hotel I’d booked was literally next door to Elizabeth and Lota’s old Leme apartment. Its street address and entrance might have been on Rua Antonio Vieira 5, but the balcony actually fronts onto Avenida Atlantica.

It was an amazing coincidence. Every day I’d look outside my window onto Leme beach, I realized it was essentially the same view they’d had back then. Every evening I went downstairs to have dinner and cashew fruit caipirinhas on the patio at Jaquina’s, which is actually on the main level of the same building. Lota’s apartment was the penthouse – which you can see on the highest floor. It’s the unit with the wraparound balcony and a walk-up to the rooftop (click photos to expand).

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The view from a similar balcony at Av. Atlantica and Rua Antonio Vieira, 5.

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Copacabana beach – on the left is Leme hill, and on the right is Sugarloaf Mountain.

A few days after I arrived, I hired a driver and guide to take me up to Petropolis and the hilltops of Samambaia. Once the depressing urban jungle of Rio’s favelas gave way to mountainous vegetation, the road turned steep and narrow. I could only imagine how precarious it must have been back when Lota had to maneuver her Jaguar regularly on a winding, partially-unpaved road; now a two-hour drive, it took nearly twice as long back in the 1950s.

Here are some photos taken on that day. The actual Samambaia house is private property so we were not able to go inside, but the hilltop views reflect the fierce beauty of its surroundings. I also took photos of downtown Petropolis, Quitandinha Hotel (a Grand Hotel-type place where the millionaires, celebrities, movie stars and the elites of Petropolis congregated in the 1950s) and the Crystal Palace (click to expand photos).

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During the last week of August, I flew to Belo Horizonte, the capital of the Minas Gerais region, and hired a car for the two-hour drive to Ouro Preto, which was even more spectacular, quaint and tranquil than I’d imagined. Once known as the biggest city in the New World, Ouro Preto is a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site and the soul of Brazil’s 1700s gold rush. Its surrounding hills are stippled with gold mines and reddish clay earth.

It’s hard not to fall in love with its timeless, rustic beauty, which (oddly enough) reminded me quite viscerally of my grandmother’s Transylvanian village, where I spent many childhood summers. Safe and friendly, it’s easy to imagine living here for an extended stretch of time and just write. If I could afford it, I would return in a heartbeat.

Ouro Preto is a quintessential village with sloping cobblestone streets and several white stone bridges connecting different parts of town – a tapestry of eighteenth-century dwellings and ornate churches standing next to simple, whitewashed colonial houses. A sprawling main square dotted with baroque buildings next to an arts-and-crafts market.

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The sunshine spills over an explosion of tropical plants sprouting prickly red flowers, then flows downwards to an abundance of purple-and-yellow wildflowers that grow in the sidewalk nooks. A smell of smoke and burning wood lingers after sunset, a dog barks in the middle of the night, the cackling rooster screeches at the crack of dawn.

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A narrow, cobbled road connects Ouro Preto to its sister city Mariana, located a fifteen-minute drive away. High up in the hills overlooking the town, Elizabeth Bishop’s former home boasts an incredible vista that overlooks lush foliage, baroque churches and coppery-red shingled rooftops. In 1960 Bishop purchased a home here, at 546 Mariana Road; she called the house Casa Mariana (click on photos to expand).

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It was bittersweet to say goodbye to Brazil, and I can only imagine how traumatic it must have been for Bishop to leave her adopted home, everything she had loved and lost here. But what made me sadder was how few people remembered Lota de Macedo Soares. Although her spirit is embedded in the beautiful Flamengo Park which circles Guanabara Bay, nobody I talked with in Brazil knew who I was speaking about.

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My guide, a gay man who prides himself on having a history degree, announced that the park had been designed solely by Burle Marx. Even when I tried to impress upon him the significant work Lota did in the design and construction of the park, he (like others) wasn’t particularly interested in knowing about her. Even the small commemorative plaque in Aterro do Flamengo has misspelled Lota’s name and was never corrected. Sadly, in death Lota’s memory has been brushed aside and replaced with the names of powerful men who were determined (and arguably succeeded) in erasing her identity from the history of the city she loved and helped to transform.

Someday all our memories will be forgotten and lost – such is the fate of time and mortality. But I do hope that in the beauty of a blossoming garden, in the delicate verse of a poem that takes someone’s breath away, a shred of ourselves still remains.

Surely this is what Elizabeth and Lota would have wanted.

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Posted in literature, poetry, writer, writing | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

random thoughts on writing

Posted by E on October 15, 2010

I have to preface this particular entry by saying these are my own, personal thoughts on publishing, prizes, funding et al, so feel free to take it all with a grain of salt. Anyway, now that you’ve been adequately forewarned, this is what I want to say:
Until now, if you chose to be a full-time writer you would face an uncertain, gruelling profession – you could get piecemeal publication, one or two poems at a time in various magazines, and get rejected ten, twenty times over for no reason other than that the editor’s style did not reflect your own, or they had an idea of an angle for the new issue and your work just didn’t fit in.

Where could you go for money? One place you tend to assume artists can get funding from are municipal and provincial art councils. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the jury members on those arts committees don’t have their own preferences for certain types of art. I’m not talking about all juries, of course – and it’s not an issue of sour grapes because I have had projects funded. But sometimes biases do happen, because everyone is human. Rejection is an unavoidable part of a writer’s path, and, as anything in life, such personal judgment calls on the part of editors, reviewers or literary juries are unavoidable. And you cannot assume that your writing is crap simply because your project is not recommended for a grant or an award.

In fact, having just very recently served as a juror on an arts funding committee, I can tell you that there simply is NOT enough government money to fund all outstanding projects, and A LOT of exceptional writers and projects can suffer as a result. In fact, the top three projects I felt most strongly about were NOT funded. (There were about ten in total I felt terrible about not being funded, but the competition was fierce – as luck would have it, we had a record number of applicants, the most applications ever in one cycle of this organization).

I fought as hard as I could for them and other works I absolutely loved, but in the end my hands were tied by the budgetary constraints and the process itself. By the end of the day I was absolutely dejected, feeling guilt at having failed to push them through, and I know for a fact that all the other jurors also had personal favourites that didn’t make the cut. It was an eye-opening experience. So remember, such things DO happen. There are tons of brilliant artists out there – writers, poets, graphic artists – and not enough money to go around. So please don’t let an arbitrary decision influence your future as a writer.

Sometimes I think we should step back and look at the historical context of publishing. A large number of writers of the past, including the 19th French poets I looked up to when I was a student, had all self-published, then distributed, their own work in various circles, until it “caught on”. No self-respecting publishing house had published Rimbaud, or Baudelaire, or any of the more scandalous writers of later day. But those “scandalous” writers – think Henry Miller, Anais Nin – eventually swayed, and altered the course of the industry.

I’m not saying we should all go and self-publish directly, since I myself am pursuing traditional means of publication. But I also realize that when the beat poets of the 1970s made up their own poetry, they distributed it illicitly, like political manifestos, in taverns and on the street, and nobody gave a hoot as to whether the prestigious Harvard Review published them.
When rappers put verse to song, everybody laughed. They’re crazy, they said. This isn’t art. Until it caught on.
So I think we need to remember that demand is what drives any industry. We are in a new age, where talent only, where the story itself, not the censors, will control which way the industry goes.

If you don’t allow yourself to be discouraged, you will succeed. It’s only a matter of time, a continuous process of improving and refining your craft. Once you have something in print, it CHANGES you. It’s hard to describe — it’s as though a process begins inside you, deep at the molecular structure of your being; your self-esteem unwinds, as does your realization that it IS possible. ANYTHING is possible.

There are so many talented voices out there, and we are all making our way through the muck. But at least we are shaping our own futures. We can begin today to promote ourselves and revolutionize the world. We hold our destinies in our own hands.

Posted in publishing, thoughts, writer, writing | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

On finishing the book, getting agent, firing agent, & getting another agent

Posted by E on June 3, 2010

It was last June, exactly one year to today (and no, I didn’t plan it that way), when I made the decision to close down my blogs — not the smartest move, some would argue, given the fact that one of my blogs had close to 90,000 hits between 2007-2009. But I did what I felt was necessary to focus exclusively on finishing my book. Wayyyy too much of people’s time can be taken up with social networking and blogging, and while the encouragement and connections you make with others can be so exciting at first, it can lead to neglecting other tasks. Like finishing manuscripts. Which took me slightly over a year and a half to complete.

And I don’t regret it one bit that I chose to stop blogging, because on January 26 of this year I FINALLY finished the first draft of my manuscript! And after that, life took on the odd, techicolour quality of an amusement park rollercoaster. I could try to describe it, but I think I’ll let my Facebook diary speak for itself:

Facebook entry for Jan26: FINAL TALLY: 2 years, 3 grants, 1 nervous breakdown and countless grey hairs later (lol), I am FINISHED! Final numbers=228,500 words, which I’ve edited down to 226K. By the end of this, hopefully I won’t be more than the 200K mark. But I am DONE!! And too exhausted to feel anything but numb right now…….

The next day, I started querying literary agents. To my surprise, (in all the workshops they tell you to be prepared to wait for months) most of the requests for book excerpts came within 24 hours.

Facebook entry for Jan. 29: This afternoon received query for the full MS from my #1 choice literary agency…they wanted the whole thing. Keeping my fingers crossed! I wonder how long the excrutiating wait is before I find out if they take me on or not…anybody have requests for fulls or partials? How long did they take before they got back to you?

Facebook entry for Feb.9: queried 10 more agents today – 8 in NY, 2 in Toronto. It’s a numbers game, isn’t it? Anybody here have an agent? If so, are you happy with him/her and would you recommend their agency? Look forward to all input and advice. Many thanks in advance:)

Facebook entry for Feb.25:  “a few of us here have now had a chance to read the manuscript and we’re all quite taken with your story” — I’m scheduled for a lunch meeting with my No.1 choice literary agency (still keeping it secret for now) this week – wish me luck that they’ll sign me!

Given the long-standing, international reputation of the agent it is named after, this agency could easily be considered Canada’s top literary agency. The fact that they wanted to sign me right away was incredible, incredulous, and left me utterly ecstatic! 🙂 I mean, realize that all I had was a first draft to begin with – mind you, a well-written and polished first draft, with certain rephrasing here and there, but still…

Facebook entry for March 2: IT’S OFFICIAL – I’ve accepted an offer of representation from my #1 choice literary agency, the Lah-de-Dah Agency! (Name changed to protect the guilty, lol). We had lunch today, discussed the manuscript and sealed the deal 😀

Ok, so here is the point where you break out the champagne, have all your friends over and pretend to be coherent while you’re head’s spinning off in la-la land. You basically have a mini-meltdown a la hyper teen: OMFG, can you believe it, LOLZ!! I was in a euphoria for the rest of the week. And wouldn’t you know it, but the month was just about to get better.

The following week, there are two envelopes in the mail — one big one, with my official contract all signed and autographed from the famous agent the agency is named after, and the other is a shiny cheque for $12,000 from the Canada Arts Council!! I’d applied back in October and by now had pretty much given up on ever hearing from them. Ever the optimist, I was absolutely certain I was going to have my application rejected. I’d never applied before, I only had the minimum amount of required publication credits, yada, yada, yada…..but then, Holy Crap, it CAME!! And not a moment too soon, since I’d just run out of my other $12K from the Ontario Council.

So, as you can imagine, this was one of the happiest weeks of my life. Honestly, I was in hog’s heaven.

And then….it all went downhill. Got a horrible cold that practically killed me for a week, and worse even, I realized that I wasn’t going to click with my agent after all. As an unknown author, a newbie in the industry, the Big Name agent wasn’t going to rep me anyway, and not with a non-fiction book to boot, so I was being repped by two newbie agent associates. Not that it matters what their sales record is, given that they’re working with one of the biggest names among Can Lit agents. I mean, hell, I was represented by THE So-and-So Agency, right? And being told that they get hundreds, even thousands of queries a year and only take on only about 10 new clients per said year, it was an achievement in itself to be on their roster.

And then I realized that they weren’t the agents for me. That just because I was being repped by the same folks who represent Nino Ricci, Vincent Lam, Camilla Gibb and Lisa Moore and half the freaking country’s big-name authors simply wasn’t enough. Not if I got nothing back in the way of direction, input or enthusiasm.

Stay tuned for my next entry, Why I Fired My Literary Agent.

Thanks for reading! 🙂

Posted in agent, blog, blogger, blogging, canadian literature, life, literature, manuscript, writer, writing | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »