Visions Coinciding – An Elizabeth Bishop Centennial Conference

Dave Hoak, Los Angeles, California

An Elizabeth Bishop Centennial Conference

Poets, scholars, editors and fans gathered in New York City December 1st and 2nd 2011 for a two-day conference devoted to Bishop’s work and life. The conference was jointly sponsored by the Poetry Society of America and NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study. Further support was provided by the NYU Humanities Initiative.

Thursday events began in the evening with a narrated slide-show of rarely seen EB images followed by a screening and panel discussion with the filmmaker and scholars. A reception followed. Friday’s schedule included two interdisciplinary lectures, a roundtable discussion with recent EB editors and two sets of poetry readings, one by students and one by a group of invited distinguished poets. Selected conference participants and guests continued the discussion at a dinner hosted to close the conference. Details of the conference events follow at the end of this update.

Visions Coinciding (the title is derived from EB’s Poem) was noteworthy in part for its focus on Bishop’s parallel development as a painter and writer. By a fortunate stroke of timing, the conference preceded by a week the opening of a special show at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery of Elizabeth Bishop paintings from the estate of Alice Methfessel. Key organizers of this show were present as conference guests. As a result, certain conference attendees were able to view the paintings ahead of the gallery opening. It was a rare opportunity indeed to see these exquisite, intimate works on the heels of deeply thought provoking discussions not only of Bishop’s development and identity and as a painter but, more generally, of the overlapping boundaries of our experience of word, sound and image. The conference therefore held the promise of taking in new directions the way we think about Bishop as both a verbal and visual artist.

Lovers of Bishop’s work like to say her poetry frequently reveals a “painter’s eye.” Could her paintings in some way betray a “poet’s ear”? In his conference lecture, William Benton called Bishop “the elect of a primitive style.” The word “primitive” may not leap to mind when we think of Bishop’s written canon. But when we hold in mind both her paintings and her poetry we are struck by an inescapable truth: both her “primitive” art and her greatest poems get under our skin by means of irreducible simplicity and exact detail. To those who would look at Bishop’s paintings and focus simply on Bishop’s drawing skill, Benton offered an observation. Many great painters, born with prodigious rendering and drawing skill, become great only after they in some way “unlearn” these skills. We might ask if the triumph of Bishop’s written art could have involved some process of unlearning. These and other questions made the conference a very rich experience for those able to attend.

Conference Schedule

Thursday, December 1

  • Event 1

Seeing Elizabeth Bishop

A slide-show and talk exploring rarely seen images of EB. Presented by artist and writer Eric Karpeles, the author of Paintings in Proust

  • Event 2

Bishop in Brazil

A screening of early footage from Helena Blaker‘s documentary in progress on Bishop in Brazil, followed by a panel discussion with the filmmaker and scholars moderated by Alice Quinn.

Panel participants: Brett Millier, Barbara Page and Lloyd Schwartz

Friday, December 2

  • Event 3

Elizabeth Bishop and Modern Art

Two interdisciplinary lectures and discussion with William Benton, editor of Exchanging Hats: Paintings by Elizabeth Bishop, and Peggy Samuels, author of Deep Skin: Elizabeth Bishop and Visual Art

Benton: “A Place in Art”

Samuels: “A Fascination with Kurt Schwitters: Bishop Reimagines her Poetics”

  • Event 4

Editors Roundtable

A discussion with the editors of recent collections of Bishop’s writing moderated by Jonathan Galassi

Panel participants: Joelle Biele, Saskia Hamilton, Tom Travisano and Lloyd Schwartz

  • Event 5

Student Reading

Selected students reading Bishop and poems written in response

Participants: Jacqueline Allen, Emma Behnke, Stephanie Rodas and Luke Vargas

  • Event 6

Celebratory Reading

Invited guest poets read and discuss Bishop’s and their own work

Participants: John Koethe, Yusef Komunyakaa, Maurine McLane, Mark Strand, Jean Valentine and Patrick Rosal.

Review of Elizabeth Bishop in the 21st Century

Tibor de Nagy exhibition.

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