The New Yorker poetry editor and executive director of the Poetry Society of America edits Elizabeth Bishop's unpublished poetry.
How did you begin working on Bishop's unpublished poems?
While Robert Giroux was assembling Bishop's letters for One Art, I often took trips to the Vassar archive and found things that were helpful to him. He was comfortable with me and asked me to undertake the project.
Did you find most of the poems for Edgar Allan Poe and the Jukebox in journals?
Quite a number are in journals, but many of the pieces from the 1960s are typed drafts. The issue was how to make a book of this work. I felt that just taking the most finished drafts and hanging them on a clothesline with no context would be unsatisfying. In the end I settled on a kind of cat's cradle, with a big section of notes full of quotation from her journals and letters and an appendix of first-rate, unfinished prose pieces. My hope was that the process of shuttling between unfinished and more polished work would reflect the state of flux in which the draft material resided in her mind.
Did you learn anything unusual about her writing process?
In the early journals, you can see lines from poems she wrote years and years later exactly as they landed in the finished work. I feel certain that she didn't consult those early notebooks to retrieve them. When Bishop recorded an image or phrase that vividly captured her vision, it had the sturdiness of all her great metaphors, and she wouldn't forget it.
How do you feel about the fact that Bishop, who was a perfectionist and very private, did not want to publish these pieces?[FSG president]
Jonathan Galassi, a former student of Bishop's, kept reassuring me. He'd say, "Alice, she was a great artist, and these things belong to the world now, and keep in mind that she didn't destroy them." And I do feel they are illuminating. It's such a look into her laboratory. But I never lost sight of the fact that I had a big responsibility.
How did you first encounter Bishop's work?
Through Geography III, her last book published in her lifetime. I stood in a bookstore and read those 10 gorgeous poems and then sought out her previous collections. What Ashbery said of her at that time—in the '70s—was certainly true. He called her "a poet's poet's poet." But now Bishop has a large and passionate audience. I wonder how surprised she'd be to see how her reputation just grows and grows.