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One hundred years of Bishop 

Elizabeth Bishop’s centenary gives Nova Scotians a chance to rediscover the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer.

click to enlarge ViewPoint Gallery’s One Art features work inspired by Bishop’s poems.
  • ViewPoint Gallery’s One Art features work inspired by Bishop’s poems.

If you've read an Elizabeth Bishop poem before, it's possible you first encountered her as an American writer, alongside poets like Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath. What may not have gotten much attention in that survey course or anthology is that Bishop spent a couple of her childhood years in the small community of Great Village, Nova Scotia. The house where she lived with her maternal grandparents is now a heritage site and artists' retreat known as the Elizabeth Bishop House.

This year, 32 years after her death, marks the 100th anniversary of the Pulitzer Prize-winner's birth. Elizabeth Bishop Centenary celebrations are happening all over the world, but much of the action is focused right here. Sandra Barry, co-founder of the Elizabeth Bishop Society, centenary organizer and author of Elizabeth Bishop: Nova Scotia's "Home-Made" Poet notes: "the global interest is very much focused on what we're doing here in Nova Scotia. The centenary blog is being hit by over 150 countries."

Barry reflects on the enduring appeal of Bishop's words. "She speaks to us about things we all experience---love, loss, travel, life, death---and she does so with compassion, humour, gentle irony and honesty." Bishop traveled extensively throughout her lifetime and lived for almost twenty years in Brazil, but Nova Scotia remained pivotal to her, and recurs in her work: in the prose piece "In the Village," and in poems like "Cape Breton," "Last Death in Nova Scotia" and "The Moose," where she writes of "lupins like apostles." "She kept visiting right up until she died," Barry says, "but mostly she kept re-imagining it, remembering it, recreating it in her art."

The centenary is a year-long celebration with a packed schedule, including readings, workshops, contests, lectures, film screenings, concerts and more. In particular, the festival provides opportunities for artists to respond to Bishop's work via different mediums. This week marks the opening of One Art at Viewpoint Gallery, an exhibition in several parts showcasing the responses of 12 photographers and one composer to one of Bishop's most famous poems. "One Art" is a villanelle, a five-stanza form that uses a repeated refrain; in this case, "the art of losing isn't hard to master." Roxanne Smith of Viewpoint describes how the artists have brought diverse understandings to themes of loss or being lost: "Each interpretation of the poem is very different from the other; there are no repetitions. This is exactly what I had hoped for when I chose the poem."

Bishop experienced many traumatic losses of her own: the death of her father when she was a baby; her mother's institutionalization; her removal (she has referred to it as a "kidnapping") from Great Village and later the suicide of her longtime partner, the artist Lota de Macedo Soares. In contrast to the confessional style of many of her contemporaries, Bishop did not explicitly write about details of her personal life. But her precise attention to the physical world reveals emotional truths. "She makes the personal, universal," Smith says. Barry identifies a mysterious aspect to Bishop's work that perhaps contributes to the worldwide fascination with her art and her life: "it is this often subliminal, subterranean energy of a Bishop poem or story that hooks the reader---intrigues or puzzles, not to the point of frustration, but just enough to make you really curious."


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