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Questions of Nationality

<p>Is Elizabeth Bishop a Canadian poet?</p>

 

When I set out to acquire permission to reprint poems in my anthologyJailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets, I anticipated having to leap the odd hurdle. The publisher, a fledgling literary press, had limited funds and I’d heard from colleagues who had undertaken similar tasks that some poets, executors and publishers were bound to drive a hard bargain. I resigned myself in advance to losing a poem or two because we wouldn’t be able to afford the asking price.

One poet I anticipated losing for such reasons—and one I would be most upset to lose—was Elizabeth Bishop. In the end, we did not succeed in getting permission to reprint Bishop’s “Sonnet.” But it wasn’t for the reasons I’d imagined. What follows is a complete transcript of my correspondence with the Permissions and Copyright Manager from Bishop’s publisher, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.

Date: January 31, 2008
From: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux
To: Zachariah Wells

Subject: Permissions request dated 12/6/07 to include "Sonnet" by Elizabeth Bishop in your forthcoming publication JAILBREAKS: 99 CANADIAN SONNETS

Dear Zachariah Wells,

Thank you for your interest in FSG and the above-cited author. My apologies for the delay in responding to your request, which came in just after we had moved to a temporary work location.

Please note that this request has been denied by our editorial board as Ms. Bishop is considered an American poet and including her work in an all-Canadian anthology may cause some confusion.

As such we will not be able to grant the permission you have requested. Again, we appreciate your interest and extend the best for the success of your project.

Best wishes,
_______
Permissions and Copyright Manager
Farrar, Straus and Giroux 

*
Date: January 31, 2008
From: Zachariah Wells
To: FSG

Dear Ms. ___,

Thank you for your reply. While I imagine FSG can't be persuaded to change its mind, I must protest that regarding a poet such as Ms. Bishop as being exclusively American (in the sense of the word meaning a national of the United States) is arbitrary. Ms. Bishop, as I'm sure you know, spent significant portions of her childhood in Nova Scotia--often returning as an adult--and those experiences are rendered movingly and memorably in much of her finest work in verse and prose. Her mother was a Nova Scotian and her father's family was from Prince Edward Island. The Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia has recently acquired Ms. Bishop's former home in Great Village, Nova Scotia, and established it as a writer's retreat. Her work has also already been included in an exclusively Canadian anthology: Coastlines: The Poetry of Atlantic Canada(Goose Lane Editions, 2002).

Also, if you will forgive my self-quotation, I would like to share with you something relevant from my introduction to this anthology of sonnets:

Something that strikes me, looking at the roster I've assembled, is the sheer number of immigrants and emigrants peopling this anthology—border-crossing poets who can't be confined to the national or regional boxes we tend to put them in. This is reflected by the formal variety of the poems and it says a great deal, I think, about the portmanteau portability and cosmopolitaneity of the sonnet, a poetic form whose protean history is a (sometimes) gentle rebuke to hidebound provincialism. The poets in this book have launched their sturdy sonnet craft and sailed them, in Fred Cogswell's phrase, "to wider regions where the river goes." I invite you now to follow.

The inclusion of Ms. Bishop's poem is important to me, not only for its own exceptional merits as a poem, but as an illustration of the above-quoted argument. My book also includes poems by such poets as Malcolm Lowry, Goran Simic and Eric Ormsby, poets whose residence in Canada has been transient or quite recent. In this context, and given what I say in my introduction, I can't see how there would be any significant amount of confusion generated by Ms. Bishop's inclusion. I know that during her own life she objected to being included in women-only anthologies, and that her wishes on this front have been disregarded since her death, but I know of no such objection to being considered Canadian. American, she is, yes, but American in the broadest sense, given her attachments to New England, Florida, Nova Scotia and Brazil. Questions of geography and identity have always been paramount for her in life and work; if there is confusion about her affiliation to a given country, it is an ambiguity that I think pleased her—or at least preoccupied her—and that she would not wish to discourage.

I hope that these arguments are persuasive to you and FSG; please let me know if there is any chance you might reconsider your decision.

Best regards,
Zachariah

*
Date: February 13, 2008
From: Zachariah Wells
To: FSG

Dear Ms. ___,

I take it from your silence that my arguments haven't persuaded you.

Today, I noted that FSG gave permission to reprint Ms. Bishop's poem "The Moose" as part of Arc magazine's online "How Poems Work" column. I suppose you were not aware that this column deals exclusively with Canadian poems. I am hardly alone in identifying Ms. Bishop as being both an American and a Canadian poet. Are you sure that your decision is final?

Best regards,
Zachariah Wells

*
Date: February 21, 2008
From: FSG
To: Zachariah Wells

Dear Zachariah Wells,

Many thanks for your e-mail below. Apologies for the lag in communication--it's not that your argument was not convincing but that the person I need to talk with was out of office at the time we initially corresponded and then I had to wear my other two hats.

I will forward a copy of your e-mail from 1/31/08 countering our denial to the editor for Ms. Bishop's works. Before I do that there are a few things I want to mention:

1) In our database we have a record for a Goose Lane Editions license for an anthology entitled ANTHOLOGY OF POST-1945 POETRY. It's possible that the title changed after we had granted permission. Also, I believe that my former colleague who processed the request would have flagged it if it was for an all-Canadian poet anthology. However, I did not find a record for the anthology under the title noted in your e-mail of 1/31/08

2) As for the recent grant to the Canadian magazine ARC to include the poem "The Moose": We granted permission that the poem would be included in a "How Poems Works" column and was not aware that it would feature Canadian only poets. If I had been aware of that, I would have consulted with our editorial board as I did with your request.

3) As for the all-women's anthologies issue: When we are aware that Ms. Bishop's poem/s is/are part of all-women's anthologies we will deny those requests. However, there have been instances where the poems were included without our knowledge or as an oversight. We then took steps to let requesters know that the poems could not be included in the present anthology and/or new or subsequent anthologies. We always do our best to make sure the wishes of our authors are honored.

I will follow up once I've heard back from the editor for Ms. Bishop's works.

Best wishes,
___

*
Date: February 27, 2008
From: FSG
To: Zachariah Wells

Dear Zachariah Wells,

I've heard back from the editor and we would like to see a copy of the table of contents for JAILBREAKS. Once we've taken a look at it we will follow up one way or the other--grant permission or denial stands.

Please note that we are moving to our new offices tomorrow and Friday and the office will be shut down. If you can send a copy of the toc via e-mail, I can take a look at it on Monday, March 3 when the office opens in our new digs.

Thank you.

Best wishes,
____

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Date: February 27, 2008
From: Zachariah Wells
To: FSG

Dear Ms. ___,

I've attached the table of contents as a word document, as well as pasting it into this email, below. This table is not 100% accurate, as it does not reflect two changes I made prior to receiving the proofs from the publisher. One of those changes, based on your initial decision, was the removal of Elizabeth Bishop's sonnet, which I replaced with another poet's work. We have already received permission to print that other poem, but if FSG sees fit to reverse their initial decision, we will make room for Ms. Bishop's poem.

Something I can't stress enough about this t.o.c. is how many of these poets have had lengthy residencies—in many cases, citizenship—in countries other than Canada. Ms. Bishop would hardly be an exceptional case in this company.

Thanks very much for your time and attention to this matter.

Best regards,
Zachariah

*

I heard nothing further from FSG, so the book went to press without Elizabeth Bishop’s poem in it. I did, however, print a note explaining its absence. In that note I included, in précis form, most of the arguments I made to FSG, but concluded with one I learned afterwards, from Brian Bartlett, a Maritime poet who has long been active in the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia: “[P]erhaps the most persuasive piece of evidence—outside of her poems—for Bishop’s attachment to Canada is to be found in her Vassar graduation yearbook, in which she wrote under her own name, “Great Village, Nova Scotia.” One needn’t be a citizen of a place to call it home.”

Zach Wells’ poetry collections include the chapbooks Fool's Errand(Saturday Morning Chapbooks, 2004), Ludicrous Parole (Mercutio Press, 2005) and After the Blizzard (Littlefishcart Press, 2007), and his first book Unsettled (Insomniac Press, 2004). He is the reviews editor for Canadian Notes & Queries and presently resides in Vancouver. Visit his blog at zachariahwells.blogspot.com