"Good book?" I asked. She sighed and gave me the evil eye.
"It's a biography of Elizabeth Bishop, research for my essay topic."
"Who's Elizabeth Bishop?" I asked innocently. Skye made a sound almost like a growl.
"A poet," she said, "my favourite, she's famous."
"Well I never heard of her. Does she live in D.C. or something?"
"She's dead," she snapped.
"Soooreee," I said.
"Well, she did live in D.C. and in Nova Scotia. I've been to her house in Nova Scotia in Great Village."
Skye showed me her bookmark. "Here's my favourite poem." She shoved the book in front of me.
"At the Fish Houses," she said.
"Nice," I said after I pretended to read it.
"So I want to go to the house she lived in D.C. And take a picture."
"Neat," I said, not meaning it really. Chasing after photos of old dead poets' houses? Fish Houses? All I could do was think of the smell.
- from Pluto's Ghost, Doubleday 2010 pg. 139
In the end, that's all the room on the page I gave over to fictional character Skye and her love of poetry and obsession with Elizabeth Bishop. All the days of reading Bishop, all the research, and in the end? One scene, a passage that illustrates the tension and contrast between Skye and the boy who loves her -- Jake Upshore. An angry kid without a mother, labelled early as "learning challenged", Jake's secretly a wannabe singer songwriter-- a poet at heart. We meet him as the book begins and he's just been arrested. His story is his song and confession, a kind of narrative poem. The telling helps him accept who he is, what has happened and helps him begin to heal his past and recent trauma. Except the journey is not that... easy or tidy. He's functionally illiterate.
As for photos of dead poets houses?
Picture a writer mid-novel, (translate: lost in another world, eyes glazed over, often found talking out loud to herself) armed with a street map, a water bottle and an Elizabeth Bishop poem tucked in a zippered compartment of her backpack. Yes, yes, that would have been me. I (not Skye) treked along the shaded streets of Georgetown, got lost in a labryinth (a detour in a cemetery) until I made my way to the street and house she stayed in when living in D.C. HER house. Pilgrimage to literary heroes might seem cliche, but there's something powerful about encountering a place a beloved writer calls home. That day, I stood across the street and read a poem outloud despite the curious stares of a few passers by.
Not too shabby, but a long way from Nova Scotia.
This past weekend, I was fortunate enough to get inside her childhood home in Great Village Nova Scotia and be a part of the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Arts Festival that took place from Friday to Sunday.
I'd been to Great Village before -- asked to do readings in the same elementary school Bishop attended. I read poetry-nonsense and narrative and lyrical. We talked a bit about Elizabeth.
That day was special.
The school is more than a little magical. A real ringing bell. Eager readers.
But this weekend was...enchanted. Poetry was everywhere. Poetry flapped in the wind in the brilliant blue banners created by artist Joy Laking, and poetry clipped-clopped in the hooves of horses -- Max and Woody -- as they pulled us around on a guided tour. I heard poetry in the prose readings of young writer Elizabeth Schoffield and others, winners of the writing competition organized by Laura Gunn. I was honored to MC that event on Friday, an event that closed with John Barnstead reading a Bishop poem so perfectly I felt she was there, in St. James Church, the same church she wrote about and attended with her grandparents. Poetry was on every page of Mary Rose Donnelly's brilliant book Great Village and the powerful dramatic reading by Lenore Zann, in her dual role as actress and MLA in Truro/Bible Hill . "Running to Paradise" was written by the incomparable Donna Smythe. Poet, author, scholar, and mentor to many, myself included, Smythe 's tribute to Bishop is honest, beautiful and electrifying. That was Day One.
On Saturday morning the roster of writers giving workshops and readings included award-winning novelists and poets: Michael Crummey, Anne Simpson, Joan Clark, Don McKay and myself. We read and answered questions. (Listen to Don and Anne in the links below.) There were boat races and a community supper. On Saturday night, the church was jam-packed as we sat transfixed, caught in the spiral of music performed by Rankin, Church, Crowe. Susan Crowe, Cindy Church, Raylene Rankin. (Stop reading. Breathe.) Go here to hear.
Sunday morning there was an "old time church service," followed by a blueberry tea. The hymns we shared in church prompted memories that brought tears to more than just my eyes. And oh---the poetry in hymns! Home. Hymns. There's only a vowel sound of difference. Home. Poem. There's only a consonant. Rev. Dan Gunn gave us a open hearted and wise meditation on the word home and read from Sandra Barry's new book. Elizabeth Bishop : Nova Scotia's Home-made Poet. Home-made poet. (A good book to own.)
Sandra Barry, whose life's work has been to know and study and remember the poetry and life of Bishop, all the other members of the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia and all the volunteers who made this weekend possible are giving, generous, poet-loving folks. They are committed to the cultural heritage of our region. My personal thanks go to Heather who transported us writers to and fro and Shelly and Dave for hosting me personally. (Love to Spud.) I came away FULL -- cherished talks and walks with other writers and Bishop lovers, new friends, and an overwhelming urge to continue on discovering how Bishop speaks to me. I think Skye deserves a book of her own maybe. A verse novel. Yes. Maybe.
Great Village shaped Bishop's earliest memories and her imaginative landscape and gave her a sense of home, but for a few days last weekend, I saw how it took a village to raise a dead poet from the grave and give her life again. Bishop's words do that, too. Bring us home to ourselves.
Question: What writer's home would you want to visit? I welcome comments on this posting.
Listen to Sandra Barry reading here.
FOR MORE Amazing POETS Reading: