Monday, April 15, 2013

Anne Sexton + Elizabeth Bishop = PoBiz

I’ve moved on to a new book, the letters of Maxwell Perkins—and I’m sure some snippets from that will find their way here—but I have to leave with a little bit more from  With Robert Lowell and His Circle (by Kathleen Spivack, who may, by this point, think I’m stalking her!):

Here’s what happened the only time (assumes the author) that Anne Sexton and Elizabeth Bishop met.  Spivack, friends with both women, was put into the role of organizer/negotiator:

  “I’m shy,” each protested.  Well, that was only partially true, as I watched the prima donna aspects of each poet surface.  Finally, a restaurant was agreed upon, a time and a date.  There were, of course, several cancellations and postponements.  Also, each poet insisted I pick her up and accompany her.  Anne was afraid to meet Elizabeth Bishop because Lowell had touted her as the best woman poet in America, and because Anne admired Bishop’s work so much.  But Elizabeth was afraid to meet Anne because she feared that Anne would be “confessional,” and she was repelled and appalled by what she considered Anne’s raw and sexual outpourings, and because of Anne’s openness in writing about her breakdowns, a topic Elizabeth feared and about which she could never bring herself to write directly.

However, Lois Ames [a friend] agreed to serve as Anne’s second, to pick her up and bring her into Cambridge to the Iruna, a Spanish restaurant where we would all meet.  After I had met Elizabeth Bishop in her apartment and we had played a rousing set of Ping-Pong games, the four of us actually managed to sit down at a restaurant table.  I waited for great words of literature to fly about my ears.  Here were my favorite women poets meeting.  What a wonderful conversation would ensue, I thought.

“Tell me, Anne,” Elizabeth leaned over, “How much money do you get for a reading nowadays?”  “At least a thousand,” was Anne’s immediate answer.  And the two poets were off, talking about contracts and money and publishers who had or hadn’t done them wrong.  Lois and I sat there amazed.  If we had thought one word about poetic process was to be exchanged, we were mistaken.  The two women talked about business with relish all through lunch until the dessert course, when Anne dramatically turned to Lois and exclaimed, “Lois, did I ever tell you much it hurt, having my babies?” Now it was Anne and Lois’s turn to talk, while Elizabeth Bishop and I sat silent, as Anne and Lois outdid themselves on each gory, painful detail of their various childbirths. As I walked Elizabeth back home, she was thoughtfully silent. “Well, really,” she said at the door, dismissing the whole encounter.  As far as I know, the women never saw each other again.
If you’re lucky enough to be a Converse MFA student who has been following this series of posts, you should know that our own Richard Tillinghast is quoted in the book and thanked in the acknowledgments…and I’m pretty sure we can convince him at the summer residency to share a few of his own Robert Lowell/literary Boston/back in the day stories!

Speaking of Robert Lowell, here’s a poem that I like a lot, from Life Studies.  The last four lines are absolutely killer:  “Sailing Home from Rapallo.”


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.