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An Interview with Alice Quinn

[POETRY EDITOR OF THE NEW YORKER]
“I HAVE A GREATER FEEL FOR WHAT SHE SUFFERED TO BECOME THE POET SHE BECAME—HOW MUCH RESOLUTION WAS INVOLVED, AND HOW MUCH STAMINA.”
Things needed to become a great poet:
Stamina
Suffering
Resolution
Embarrassment
Love
Many, many notebooks
by Meghan O'Rourke
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
header-image

An Interview with Alice Quinn

[POETRY EDITOR OF THE NEW YORKER]
“I HAVE A GREATER FEEL FOR WHAT SHE SUFFERED TO BECOME THE POET SHE BECAME—HOW MUCH RESOLUTION WAS INVOLVED, AND HOW MUCH STAMINA.”
Things needed to become a great poet:
Stamina
Suffering
Resolution
Embarrassment
Love
Many, many notebooks
by Meghan O'Rourke
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

An Interview with Alice Quinn

Meghan O'Rourke
15 Snaps

I first met Alice Quinn at the New Yorker in 1997, when I joined the staff as an editorial assistant. She was, then as now, the magazine’s poetry editor, and we began what has grown into a years-long conversation about poetry. Despite her busy schedule, she was always happy to photocopy a poem she thought I’d enjoy, or to point me to an interesting item in the magazine’s archives—or even to share an explanatory letter she’d written to a subscriber baffled by the latest John Ashbery poem the magazine had published.

At some point, she began stopping by my office with photocopies of unpublished poems by Elizabeth Bishop. She told me she was editing a volume of Bishop’s uncollected work, which was held in archives at Vassar College. It was a monumental task, and I could only imagine how daunting her sense of responsibility to Bishop must be. After all, Bishop was a perfectionist who published only a handful of books; her Complete Poems is slimmer than many poets’ Selected Poems. Ostensibly, this would suggest that rifling through her unpublished work was somehow indelicate. But in Bishop’s case many of the unpublished drafts looked almost like finished poems—many scholars and poets who had seen the Vassar archives felt that the work there added not to our prurient curiosity about Bishop’s life, but to our picture of her poetic process.

Alice, it seemed to me, would be an ideal editor for a project that required an acute awareness of the delicacy involved, given Bishop’s feelings. The result of her labor, Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments, appears this spring from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Recently, Alice and I met at her West Village apartment, where we looked over copies of Bishop’s drafts, which are written in a shaky and strangely moving script.

—Meghan O’Rourke

I. “READING ‘VILLANELLE,’ SET
DOWN WHEN SHE WAS TWENTY-SIX,
YOU REALIZE THAT, FROM AN EARLY
AGE, BISHOP ASSOCIATED
THE FORM WITH CATASTROPHE.”

THE BELIEVER: How did Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box come together? Elizabeth Bishop was famously careful about what she  published. Did you ever feel ambivalent about the project?

ALICE QUINN: Well, Bob Giroux, Bishop’s lifelong editor, just took me to lunch and asked me to do it. In the moment, I couldn’t possibly resist. I had been up to the archive of Bishop’s work at Vassar and had found some things that were useful to him when he was editing a selection of her letters (published by FSG in 1994 under the title One Art). We got along well, and he thought he could entrust the project to me. I gathered most of the material at the Vassar archive. Other people had focused on it. James Merrill told Sandy McClatchy, a poet and the editor of the Yale Review, that he thought there was a book to be made out of the drafts. That was assuaging and consoling to me. But I felt I couldn’t present these unfinished things without any context. I felt her reputation had so much to do with her own discrimination, and the fact that we had seen only perfect poems. So I just let the project sit for a while. My anxiety was quelled—as I’d hoped it would be—as I spent more and more time up at the archive reading her journals and notebooks and availing myself of all the correspondence from various libraries, particularly the May Swenson correspondence and the letters to and from the poet Anne Stevenson, who wrote the first book on her poetry, published in 1966.

BLVR: Once you plunged in, how did you decide what to include?

AQ: I found a number of the poems quickly. There’s quite a bit of work that is too fragmentary. This is a youthful masque, for instance. [Brings out a facsimile copy] It was written in 1934 or ’35—she may have begun it in her last year at Vassar.The masque is quite long and very stilted—it was alternately titled “His Proper Tear” and “The Proper Tear”—and I didn’t feel it should go in this book. At Vassar, there are big folders filled with notebooks, and that’s where I found things I love that hadn’t been catalogued, labeled specifically “Unpublished Poetry.” The kernel of the book, in my opinion, derives from Bishop’s Key West notebooks, because that’s the part of her life, between 1937 and 1948, that, in some ways, we know the least about.

BLVR: The book is full of remarkably different kinds of things: poems that seem finished, fragmented drafts, notes toward poems, prose pieces, letters, notes on the poems, and notebook facsimiles, not to mention your extensive appendix.

AQ: I know that this book could be seen as having a miscellaneous quality. There’s such a variety of stuff in it. But everything in the appendix is related to a draft or fragment in the book or to something mentioned in the notes. I hope readers will enjoy weaving back and forth between the sections of the book. For example, in “Homesickness,” you have a draft of a story that tells, from a different perspective, the same story as the poem of the same title, which is about her mother journeying thirty miles north of her own village in Nova Scotia to teach school at age sixteen and becoming so lonely that her father and her brother and sister visit her, bringing the family dog along to stay with her and keep her company. Details from that come up again in the draft, “A Mother Made of Dress-Goods”—“the sloping-ceilinged bedroom,” in particular. I read all the notebooks and I typed them, studied them, and tried to sum up the context of the drafts to give the reader a fuller experience of their biographical significance and the artistic leaps that Bishop was making. The book’s notes became important for me as a way of envisioning the reader as someone like myself, making discoveries along with me.

BLVR: And how did you decide on the order?

AQ: At first, Bob Giroux felt that I should put all the more finished pieces up front, and I fretted about that because something gorgeous like the prose template for  “Villanelle” would then be in the back, and I felt that it told so much about the guilt and pain she experienced when her beloved friend Margaret Miller, an artist, lost her arm when they were traveling together in France in 1937 and had a car accident, and how the shock of that stayed with her forever. Their friend Louise Crane was the driver, and the fragment is about the upcoming trial (“She was to be / executed at a cer-
tain hour—but / not formally=anyone could do it”). Reading “Villanelle,” set down when she was twenty- six, you realize that, from an early age, Bishop associated the form with catastrophe. No wonder it was there when she needed a proper vessel in 1975 for her magnificent poem “One Art” (“the art of losing’s not too hard to master / though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster”). After she wrote “One Art,” which she described to several of her correspondents as “my one and only villanelle,” she often remarked that she had want ed to write a villanelle all her life In the end, I decided to arrange the book chronologically because I found myself very interested in her development, and I wanted to give the reader the same experience I’d had, following it along the way I did.

BLVR: Did spending time with all these fragments reveal to you anything about Bishop’s process of composition?

AQ: Sound to her was very, very important, as it was for Yeats; he often wrote to the encompassing sound of the whole poem.There is a vignette in the oral biography, told by a maid, who said that Bishop used to pace back and forth talking to herself by the waterfall near her country home in Brazil, and then she would dart into her studio.Well, you can just imagine the joy of coming
upon the sound of “Hidden, oh hidden / in the high fog / the house we live in.” Boom. I think a lot of this material has that quality, but other things are of interest in terms of her biography. The little poem “Money,” based on a sentence in Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead (“Money comes and goes like a bird.”), has significance because of her experience growing up in the Great Depression. She was orphaned as a child and had to learn to negotiate two worlds—the world of her fairly impoverished aunt and uncle, who brought her up from age seven to sixteen and the world of her prep school, where the father of a friend was vice president of a company that had let her uncle go, and then Vassar, where so many of her classmates were well-fixed, too. Immersing myself in her notebooks, I became aware of how deeply important the Depression was in her experience and also how affected she was by her travels in Fascist Italy and Spain. She went to Europe for the first time on a Nazi freighter. She and her classmate from Vassar didn’t know it was a Nazi freighter. They were just trying to travel as cheaply as possible, and as they left the harbor all the soldiers saluted, and she said it was likebeing in the realm of the dead.

BLVR: That’s incredible.

AQ: Her notebooks are fascinating. She labeled her journal from 1950, Just about my worst, so far—.

BLVR: That’s heartbreaking. One thing that seems to me a justification for the existence of this book is that it doesn’t simply collect unfinished or second-rate poems to fill a demand for new work. Instead, it offers insight into the stages of Bishop’s process, and how her mind worked over a problem for years and years.

AQ: To give you an idea of some of the harder moments of editorial selection: at the bottom of one of the drafts of the story “Homesickness,” there was a letter to Lota [Bishop’s lover, who later committed suicide] that was very personal, written in the early years of their life together. Only three or four letters to Lota survive because her friends in Brazil blamed Bishop for the tragedy and destroyed them. In this very emotional letter to Lota, she declares her love forthrightly, “Dear Lota!—(if I may call you so—I confess to some difficulty with the letter ‘L’).” She titled this “Letter” and wrote a little preamble: “Now that you’re away, I can write, I can falsify & exaggerate a little—not a lot—just enough to make it writing, L—.” I made the decision to include this in the note to the draft of the poem “Homesickness,” because it says something profound about Bishop’s early years in Brazil that she wrote this at the bottom of a story about her  dead mother’s youthful homesickness. She wrote to so many people in the U.S. that in Brazil she felt able to immerse herself in memories of Nova Scotia and her childhood. Most of the drafts about her Canadian childhood come from her first years in Brazil, 1951–54 or so. This was pre–Pulitzer Prize; she was recovering from the struggle of the decade before in Key West and New York. She had experienced artistic triumph, but her relationships had not worked out.

BLVR: Reading this book, you really understand that, unlike Robert Lowell, Bishop was not interested in disclosure. The journals and the drafts and the early poems give you a sense of someone who is unwilling to reveal certain things. And yet what’s astonishing is that you
realize how much she is revealing in the poems, though they’re not in what we think of as the confessional mode. She is perhaps more a poet of deep subjectivity than a poet of confession.What did she make, then, of her confessional peers?

AQ: Well, she tells Robert Lowell over and over that his work interested her the most. She admired the war poems of Randall Jarrell. And she wrote to friends about Hardy (“the heartbroken clarity” of his later poems) and about Frost. She felt that Frost’s philosophy was mean but that his technique was superb. When she taught at Harvard, many years later in the ’70s, she asked her students to memorize “Directive” and to read “A Servant to Servants” aloud. But she distanced herself from people like Denise Levertov and Muriel Rukeyser and many other female poets. About Plath—she felt that it was painful to read the Ariel poems but that there were overwhelming flashes
of brilliance in them.

II. “IT’S CLEAR THAT IN THOSE KEY
WEST YEARS, SHE WAS SUNK
IN THIS DARKER MEDITATION WHILE
AT THE SAME TIME HAVING A
SERIOUS CONVERSATION WITH
HERSELF ABOUT AESTHETICS.”

BLVR: Assembling Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box clearly presented a lot of challenges about how to represent Bishop’s notes and drafts—which often include alternate versions of the same line—on the page, which you talk about a little bit in the introduction. Did she write most of her poems by hand and then type them?

AQ: I think she wrote all of them by hand, but many of the initial drafts didn’t survive.

BLVR: She would type them and then dispose of the drafts?

AQ: I think so, because many of the new things in the book exist only in handwritten form. But let’s look at one that exists on a single typed page—we’re running it in the New Yorker very soon,“The moon burgled the house…”

BLVR:That’s a beautiful poem—“The end of the world / proved to be nothing drastic… It was pleasant; it was lovely and languid… we  reamed and dreamed all the cars / were parked, no one went anywhere / they just stayed home and held hands, / at first, then stopped
holding hands—”

AQ: It’s a kind of On the Beach composition, isn’t it? Do you know that apocalyptic novel by Nevil Shute about the world after a nuclear war? This has some of the eeriness surrounding that topic at the time. Another fragment is equally haunting, from the later ’60s: “Far far away there, where I met / those strange affectionate animals / that seemed to like me too & ate the bread / but forgot me naturally the moment I left.” Bishop felt at the end of the world at that point. She lived in San Francisco with the woman who is referred to pseudonymously as Suzanne Bowen in Brett Millier’s biography. Suzanne had a little child, and Lota had died, and Bishop was still holding onto her old colonial house in Ouro Prêto. She wanted to believe that she had a Brazilian life, but she was very disaffected, and people had turned away from her.

BLVR: One thing I felt while reading through her drafts was how much intensity and pain there had been—how many of these brilliant people who’d had nervous breakdowns were in her life, and how she had sort of soldiered on, noting all this to herself and continuing o look around at the world with a curiousity and an openness to that pain.

AQ: Living in Brazil, too, she was so aware of all the suffering that a single indivudual is helpless to endure. In a letter to Anne Stevenson, she wrote, “I think we are still barbarians, barbarians who commit a hundred indecencies and cruelties every day of our lives, as just possibly future ages may be able to see.” There’s a touching fragment in one of her journals, “Brute world, gentle and companionable by night.”

BLVR: The poem that you’ve chosen as the title, “Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box,” is a work of great psychic struggle, a poem she wrote during her time in Key West. Why idd you choose it for the title?

AQ: “Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box” is a very surreal and strange poem, very concerned with Poe’s aesthetics (in one of her notebook entries, she addresses Poe directly, “you said that poetry was exact / but so is pleasure”), and it’s also about her fear of alcoholism. In her post-college notebooks, she has a clipping quoting a letter Poe sent to his mother-in-law about trying not to drink. There’s a strong aspect of surreality in her early work that’s really earned and organed. It wasn’t a phase she experienced without major consequence for her poetry.

In the draft, she writes,“As easily as the music falls, / the nickels fall into the slots,/ the drinks like lonely water-falls / in night descend the separate throats,/ and the hands fall on one another / down darker darkness.” Later in the poem she writes, “But pleasures are mechanical / and know beforehand what they want / and know exactly what they want.”I think she’s clearly talking about sexual impulse and alcoholism. Another beautiful poem that’s a revelation is “Keaton.”(“I will be good; I will be good. / I have set my small jaw for the ages / and nothing can distract me from / solving the appointed emergencies.”) The fatalism there is fairly marked, but the tone is so cheerful. Yet it doesn’t show you a Bishop you hadn’t known. I do think these Key West poems are distinctly emotional. They’re more direct and read as if they were dramatically important to her in terms of reckoning with certain issues or periods in her life. Think of the one that begins,“We hadn’t meant to spend so much time / In the cool shadow of the lime.” That is, I believe, about the end of her affair with Louise Crane. In her letters to Moore and others, she mentions the lime trees in the yard at the house she and Crane owned together in Key West from 1938–41. The poem reveals the sharpness of her disappointment and a sense of having been betrayed, too. It’s clear that in those Key West years, she was sunk in this darker meditation while at the same time having a serious conversation with herself about aesthetics and her goals as a poet. The Edgar Allan Poe poem captures both of these things, and is therefore an important, emblematic draft. When the copyedited manuscript came back and we were just about to go to press for the bound galleys, my father said to me, “Why are you putting another writer’s name on Elizabeth Bishop’s book?” And I suddenly worried about that, but Bob Giroux and I had long thought of it as both the title poem and the frontispiece that would make clear to readers straightaway that this is a book of material Bishop had not stamped for publication. She crossed out the poem in her notebook, and we reproduced it that way. Also, Jonathan Galassi, who runs FSG now, and who was a favorite student of Bishop’s at Harvard in the ’70s, likes the title very much.

BLVR: After Bishop left Key West she went to Brazil, where she wrote some of her most famous poems. What drew her there?

AQ: Well, she had known Lota since 1942, and she had always wanted to travel to South America. Lota had invited her down to Rio many times. When the journals are published, you’ll see in a lot of the entries from her freighter trip to Brazil in 1951 assessments of this nature: “This trip is a ‘shake-down’ trip for me all right—I know I am feeling, thinking, looking, sleeping, dressing, eating & drinking better than in a long long time.”And then onboard she met the central figure in her poem “Arrival at Santos,” an older woman who had been head of a woman’s jail in Detroit for more than twenty years and who spoke openly to her about her female roommate of many years—she was obviously gay—and she had been written about in a detective magazine, and appeared to Bishop to be comfortable in her own skin. Bishop wrote extensively about her in the journals, and in the poem we can see the consideration of a life that looks a little different, a life outside the literary world. She didn’t like being in New York. It was problematic for her. She was afraid of the intrusions there and of her own alcoholic lapses provoking gossip. Her puritanical, New England side was very strong, and yet she was a sensual being. I don’t think she was shy about that, really. She didn’t want to be a public lesbian, but she wasn’t a hidden person. I think it was easier for her to establish a home with a woman far away.

BLVR: It does feel as if, in this material, you see her struggle with the drinking more than in some of the poems. It definitely shows up in a kind of embedded way in some of the material. Did you take that into consideration?

AQ: I guess I didn’t feel the need to be nervous about that, because her life was such a victory and everybody in that era drank. They were all big drinkers. Even the ones who weren’t considered big drinkers were by our current standards. And her father had to stop drinking, a paternal uncle of hers had had to stop, and her grandfather, too. It was an affliction lying in wait for her. Her mother’s brother Art (the Uncle Neddy character in “Memories of Uncle Neddy”) was also a drinker. When she was in Brazil she wrote to a friend that she and Lota lived “in a state of broken down luxury,” but they had a beautiful apartment in Rio, several servants, and a cook, and they had a magnificent country house on the side of a mountain about forty miles from the city. They were friends with the artists and poets in Brazil, but in New York, Bishop would have felt the pressure of competitiveness from her peers, and she would have fallen into drinking. Lota was a great caretaker, too. And Bishop in her letters makes a point of emphasizing that the Brazilians don’t drink alcohol; they just drink lots and lots of coffee.

III. “I KNOW MORE ABOUT THE RELATIONSHIPS THAT HAVE BEEN DESCRIBED IN THE BIOGRAPHIES FROM LITTLE SHARDS IN HER NOTEBOOKS AND DRAFTS ABOUT ‘THE STRIKE OF LOVE’ PROVOKING A SENSATION OF ‘LONELINESS LIKE FALLING ON / THE SIDEWALK IN A CROWD.’”

BLVR: You get a surprisingly vivid picture of Bishop’s life from many of these drafts.

AQ: Yes, particularly in things like the unpublished memoir “Mrs. Sullivan Downstairs,” which is in the book because it relates to a beautiful draft of a poem called “Dicky and Sister” about her life with her Aunt Maud and Uncle George (and the canaries of the title) in the dingy suburbs of Boston in the 1920s.The portrait is so touching and beautiful. (“At night who knows what happens? / The birds don’t know— /only perhaps the mice know / & the occasional cockroach—”) It sheds so much light on her teenage years, and just a little bit later she’s going to go off to prep school and then on to Vassar, where she’ll meet Louise Crane, whose family owns the Crane Paper Company, which manufactured not only beautiful stationery but the paper for the U.S. dollar. So they were immensely rich. Bishop’s Uncle George had lost his job in the Depression, as I mentioned. And in the journals, there’s an indelible entry about Bishop’s return home from Europe in the 1930s. While abroad, she had stayed at handsome hotels, but on her return to Boston she didn’t like to suggest a taxi to her uncle, so they walked all the long way to get to the ferry, carrying her heavy suitcase and her parcels between them. She notices that her uncle’s spats have big holes in them and that his overcoat is wearing out and writes,“We talked over all the same old problems, and bought a piece of meat and a can of peas for supper.” She shuttled between those worlds all of her young life.

BLVR: After going through this process of being immersed in her drafts and in her notes and journals, did you feel there were things about her poetics that you came away thinking that you hadn’t thought before?

AQ: You can’t study these drafts and journals for years without feeling that you know all the work more closely. I think I have a greater feel for what she suffered to become the poet she became—how much resolution was involved, and how much stamina. I know more about the relationships that have been described in the biographies from little shards in her notebooks about “the strike of love” provoking a sensation of “loneliness like falling on / the sidewalk in a crowd” and also, the subject of love all tied up with shame and embarrassment.

BLVR: You spoke before of the lesson of Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Higginson and the early Dickinson edition, in which they changed the punctuation of her poems. Did you make typographical changes?

AQ: I strove to be really clear about what I had done in the “Note on the Text” at the front of the book as well as in the introduction; John Hollander advised me about this, “as long as you tell people what you did….” But I don’t feel that I’ve been high-handed. For example, let’s look at a line from the draft of “Keaton” in which she set down one phrase and revised it immediately. She’s written:“Witness the size of my hat-band the diameter of my hat band.” For this poem’s publication in the New Yorker, I went with “the diameter of my hat band” because that was the revision, but in the book I represented both phrases. I felt that for the most part,in drafts in which she had embarked on punctuation, I should make minimal changes to follow through on the decisions that existed as examples on the drafts. I felt adding punctuation in those cases, but when she didn’t punctuate at all, I felt it was better to represent her slapdash writing—her headlong repetition of words,etc.—just the way she left it.

BLVR: In the book you’re including a series of drafts of “One Art.”

AQ: I did that because I felt it was only fair to Bishop for people to see her process from early draft to a perfected poem, and in this case, we have many drafts. She wrote the poem quickly, and while there is some scholarly disagreement about the order, any reader can take pleasure and learn so much from studying them all, and many people have, as it’s been the most pirated item in the archive. It seemed the right moment to let her large admiring public have access to them. Someday there will be facsimile editions of this material but perhaps not in our lifetimes! We’re still in a very early stage of Bishop scholarship although there are at least a dozen books about her.

BLVR: You do a lot of work to help the reader draw connections among all the different materials included here.

AQ: In the notes I try to illuminate aspects of the drafts as much as I can. Did you look at the draft of “Crossing the Equator,” written to Pauline Hemingway on the freighter to Brazil in November 1951? They were great friends in Key West, and Pauline had suddenly died in October. There are a few lines at the top of the draft in her notebook, “The nights when you were drunk, & funny, / The nights when everything went just too far—The candles in the hurricane lamps… the rum scoundrels.” In the appendix I’ve included an unfinished story called “True Confessions”; at the bottom of the second page—that’s all she wrote—she alludes to the same drink.“It was what they call ‘Rum Latitudes’and everyone drank this beverage in the form of something they called ‘Scoundrels’… ‘Down there’ sounds dark. This Down There was almost too bright. The jukebox songs were fearful beyond belief. ‘You made me love you I didn’t want to do it I didn’t want to do it.’” When I saw this connection, I felt a jolt of discovery, naturally,and I felt it was important that she wrote the draft on the way to Brazil and at a time when she was feeling more open and easy about herself, gaining a greater sense of balance for the first time in a long time. I’m not asserting that she had an affair with Pauline Hemingway—I don’t care, really—but with respect to this very moving draft addressed to her recently dead friend, the direct line between the language of the story and the draft of the poem seems significant—biographically, but more importantly in terms of providing a context for the frank and very beautiful language of the drafts, “& characteristically you set off, dear, to the stars— / Tonight wit, wounding no longer, glitters with them.”I felt that I shouldn’t withhold that connection from the reader. And I have to say that that conviction has never left me in spite of my sense that some people—poets, particularly, perhaps—will feel that I’ve intruded there. That’s an example of a decision that caused me a lot of anxiety. But I really did not want to hold back and prohibit the reader from having the exhilarating cat’s cradle experience of all this material that I have had, all that testimony that is in the oral biography and in her letters and journals.

BLVR: Did you feel that your work at the New Yorker as poetry editor had any effect on your work on this book?

AQ: Editing a book is very different from working with poetry at the New Yorker, where what we are doing is choosing poems and corresponding with poets who can say yes or no to editing suggestions. But, you know, Bishop had a lot of charming reference to the New Yorker in her correspondence. She wrote to May Swenson in 1953,“They like to overpunctuate, but usually are very nice about taking most of it out again.”

 

 

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