I'm sitting on a bench at One Hundred and Fifteenth and Riverside Drive, with my books beside me, early for my lesson in Chinese at Twenty-one Claremont, right around the corner. Two little girls pass in …
Photo by Alice Helen Methfessel, courtesy of Frank Bidart
The interview took place at Lewis Wharf, Boston, on the afternoon of June 28, 1978, three days before Miss Bishop and two friends were to leave for North Haven, a Maine island in Penobscot Bay where she summered. Her living room, on the fourth floor of Lewis Wharf, had a spectacular view of Boston Harbor; when I arrived, she immediately took me out on the balcony to point out such Boston landmarks as Old North Church in the distance, mentioning thatOld Ironsideswas moored nearby.
Her living room was spacious and attractive, with wide-planked polished floors, a beamed ceiling, two old brick walls, and one wall of books. Besides some comfortable modern furniture, the room included a jacaranda rocker and other old pieces from Brazil, two paintings by Loren MacIver, a giant horse conch from Key West and a Franklin stove with firewood in a donkey pannier, also from Brazil. The most conspicuous piece was a large carved figurehead of an unknown beast, openmouthed, with horns and blue eyes, which hung on one wall below the ceiling.
Her study, a smaller room down the hall, was in a state of disorder. Literary magazines, books, and papers were piled everywhere. Photographs of Marianne Moore, Robert Lowell, and other friends hung on the walls; one of Dom Pedro, the last emperor of Brazil, she especially liked to show to her Brazilian visitors. “Most have no idea who he is,” she said. “This is after he abdicated and shortly before he died—he looked very sad.” Her desk was tucked in a far corner by the only window, also with a north view of the harbor.
At sixty-seven, Miss Bishop was striking, her short, swept-back white hair setting off an unforgettably noble face. She was wearing a black tunic shirt, gold watch and earrings, gray slacks, and flat brown Japanese sandals that made her appear shorter than her actual height: five feet, four inches. Although she looked well and was in high spirits, she complained of having had a recent hay fever attack and declined to have her photograph taken with the wry comment, “Photographers, insurance salesmen, and funeral directors are the worst forms of life.”
Seven or eight months later, after reading a profile I had written for The Vassar Quarterly (which had been based on this interview) and worrying that she sounded like “the soul of frivolity,” she wrote me: “I once admired an interview with Fred Astaire in which he refused to discuss ‘the dance,’ his partners, or his ‘career’ and stuck determinedly to golf—so I hope that some readers will realize I do think about art once in a while even if babbling along like a very shallow brook . . .”
Though Miss Bishop did have the opportunity of correcting those portions of this interview incorporated in the Vassar Quarterly article, she never saw it in this form.
Your living room seems to be a wonderful combination of the old and new. Is there a story behind any of the pieces, especially that figurehead? It’s quite imposing.
I lived in an extremely modern house in Brazil. It was very beautiful, and when I finally moved I brought back things I liked best. So it’s just a kind of mixture. I really like modern things, but while I was there I acquired so many other things I couldn’t bear to give them up. This figurehead is from the São Francisco River. Some are more beautiful; this is a very ugly one.
Is it supposed to ward off evil spirits?
Yes, I think so. They were used for about fifty years on one section, two or three hundred miles, of the river. It’s nothing compared to the Amazon but it’s the next biggest river in Brazil. This figurehead is primitive folk art. I think I even know who made it. There was a black man who carved twenty or thirty, and it’s exactly his style. Some of them are made of much more beautiful wood. There’s a famous one called the Red Horse made of jacaranda. It’s beautiful, a great thing like this one, a horse with its mouth open, but for some reason they all just disappeared. I made a weeklong trip on that river in 1967 and didn’t see one. The riverboat, a stern wheeler, had been built in 1880—something for the Mississippi, and you can’t believe how tiny it was. We splashed along slowly for days and days . . . a very funny trip.
Did you spend so much of your life traveling because you were looking for a perfect place?
No, I don’t think so. I really haven’t traveled that much. It just happened that although I wasn’t rich I had a very small income from my father, who died when I was eight months old, and it was enough when I got out of college to go places on. And I traveled extremely cheaply. I could get along in Brazil for some years but now I couldn’t possibly live on it. But the biographical sketch in the first anthology I was in said, “Oh, she’s been to Morocco, Spain, et cetera,” and this has been repeated for years even though I haven’t been back to any of these places. But I never traveled the way students travel now. Compared to my students, who seem to go to Nepal every Easter vacation, I haven’t been anywhere at all.
Well, it always sounds as if you’re very adventurous.
I want to do the Upper Amazon. Maybe I will. You start from Peru and go down—
Do you write when you’re actually traveling?
Yes, sometimes. It depends. I usually take notes but not always. And I keep a kind of diary. The two trips I’ve made that I liked best were the Amazon trip and one to the Galapagos Islands three or four years ago . . . I’d like very much to go back to Italy again because I haven’t seen nearly enough of it. And Sicily. Venice is wonderful. Florence is rather strenuous, I think. I was last there in ’64 with my Brazilian friend. We rented a car and did northern Italy for five or six weeks. We didn’t go to Rome. I must go back. There are so many things I haven’t seen yet. I like painting probably better than I like poetry. And I haven’t been back to Paris for years. I don’t like the prices!
You mentioned earlier that you’re leaving for North Haven in several days. Will this be a “working vacation”?
This summer I want to do a lot of work because I really haven’t done anything for ages and there are a couple of things I’d like to finish before I die. Two or three poems and two long stories. Maybe three. I sometimes feel that I shouldn’t keep going back to this place that I found just by chance through an ad in the Harvard Crimson. I should probably go to see some more art, cathedrals, and so on. But I’m so crazy about it that I keep going back. You can see the water, a great expanse of water and fields from the house. Islands are beautiful. Some of them come right up, granite, and then dark firs. North Haven isn’t like that exactly, but it’s very beautiful. The island is sparsely inhabited and a lot of the people who have homes there are fearfully rich. Probably if it weren’t for these people the island would be deserted the way a great many Maine islands are, because the village is very tiny. But the inhabitants almost all work—they’re lobstermen but they work as caretakers . . . The electricity there is rather sketchy. Two summers ago it was one hour on, one hour off. There I was with two electric typewriters and I couldn’t keep working. There was a cartoon in the grocery store—it’s eighteen miles from the mainland—a man in a hardware store saying, “I want an extension cord eighteen miles long!” Last year they did plug into the mainland—they put in cables. But once in a while the power still goes off.
From the Archive, Issue 80
Season 4 Trailer
The Paris Review Podcast returns with a new season, featuring the best interviews, fiction, essays, and poetry from America’s most legendary literary quarterly, brought to life in sound. Join us for intimate conversations with Sharon Olds and Olga Tokarczuk; fiction by Rivers Solomon, Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, and Zach Williams; poems by Terrance Hayes and Maggie Millner; nonfiction by Robert Glück, Jean Garnett, and Sean Thor Conroe; and performances by George Takei, Lena Waithe, and many others. Catch up on earlier seasons, and listen to the trailer for Season 4 now.