Elizabeth Bishop was the consummate American poet and writer of travel—born in Massachusetts, she was raised there and in Nova Scotia. As an adult she traveled extensively through France, Spain, Ireland, Italy, and North Africa, and she lived for fifteen years in Brazil.
Her poetry and prose—essays and especially letters—are filled with descriptions of her journeys and the sights she saw. Her “traveler takes a notebook, writes” about the mysteries of maps, the wonders of cultures and landscapes.
In my four-session class, Witness and Transformation on the Road: Literary Travel, we will read and discuss a poem and excerpts from her letters from Brazil and elsewhere, and write about our own real and imagined places at home and away.
1. Read Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “Questions of Travel.”
2. Read a section of one of Bishop’s letters.
3. Think of a place that you have visited—far away or nearby, recently or long ago—a place you know fairly well, 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”!). If you wish, include a description of at least one person who inhabits that place. Then see if you can create a piece that blends the two views of this place.
4. 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.
5. Then 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 latest 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 coedited anthology, Raising Lilly Ledbetter: Women Poets Occupy the Workspace (Lost Horse, 2015), was a finalist in the Foreword Review’s Book of the Year Awards. A Seattle native who studied with Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Hugo, and William Stafford, she is author of nine previous books and chapbooks of poetry, a book of essays, and five volumes of poetry in translation from Spanish and Bengali—the latest of which 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 (finalist for the 2018 Washington State Book Award in Poetry and the 2018 PEN Los Angeles Award in Translation). A contributing editor for the Pushcart Prizes, Wright lived in Chile and traveled in Brazil on a Fulbright grant during the presidency of Salvador Allende. She has received grants from the NEA, 4Culture, and Seattle’s Office of Arts & Culture, among others; and she returned to Brazil in mid-2018 on an Instituto Sacatar residency fellowship in Bahia.