Micro Lesson: Asking and Answering Questions of Travel with Elizabeth Bishop by Carolyne Wright

Posted Mon, 4/09/2018 - 11:09am by  |  Category: , , ,

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) was the consummate American poet of travel, writing and translating worldwide, and living for fifteen years in Brazil.

Her “traveler takes a notebook, writes” about the mysteries of maps, the wonders of cultures and landscapes. In my upcoming class, Writing with Bishop in Brazil, we will read and discuss her poems, prose, and letters from Brazil and elsewhere, and write about our own real and imagined places at home and away. Here’s an exercise to get you started:

1. Read Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “Questions of Travel”

There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams
hurry too rapidly down to the sea,
and the pressure of so many clouds on the mountaintops
makes them spill over the sides in soft slow-motion,
turning to waterfalls under our very eyes.

Read full poem

2. Think of a place that you have visited—far away or nearby, recently or long ago—a place you know fairly well, one that has fascinated you and remained in your memory.

Write two descriptions of it using vivid, specific language—the first description very positive, full of praise (“the tiniest green hummingbird in the world”!); the second description finding fault with the place (“too many waterfalls”!). Then see if you can create a piece that blends the two views of this place.

3. Now think of a place that you have never visited, but which fascinates you.

Write two descriptions of it—one finding the positive, one finding fault—going into as much detail as you can imagine.

4. Compare the two descriptions:

Which is more vivid, the place you know or the place you have never visited? Which place, and which piece of writing about the place, gets deeper into the essence of it, and of yourself in relation to it?

With Miss Bishop, you may find yourself asking, “Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?”


Carolyne Wright’s new book is This Dream the World: New & Selected Poems (Lost Horse Press, 2017), whose title poem received a Pushcart Prize and was included in The Best American Poetry 2009. Her ground-breaking anthology, Raising Lilly Ledbetter: Women Poets Occupy the Workspace (Lost Horse, 2015), received ten Pushcart Prize nominations and was a finalist in the Foreword Review’s Book of the Year Awards. A Seattle native who studied poetry with Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Hugo, and William Stafford, among others, Wright lived in Chile and traveled in Brazil on a Fulbright Grant during the presidency of Salvador Allende; and spent four years on Fulbright and other fellowships in India and Bangladesh, translating Bengali women poets. Her latest volume in translation is Map Traces, Blood Traces / Trazas de mapa, trazas de sangre (Mayapple Press, 2017), a bilingual sequence of poems by Seattle-based Chilean poet, Eugenia Toledo. In addition to Hugo House, she teaches for the Antioch University Los Angeles MFA Program and for national and international literary conferences and festivals. A Contributing Editor for the Pushcart Prizes, a Senior Editor for Lost Horse Press, and an Advisory Board member for Raven Chronicles, Wright has received grants and fellowships from the NEA, 4Culture, Seattle’s Office of Arts & Culture, and the Instituto Sacatar (Bahia, Brazil).