Six years after a strong box of private letters by acclaimed 20th century poet Elizabeth Bishop was discovered serendipitously, two Worcester State English majors were able to study them meticulously alongside Assistant Professor of English Heather Treseler.
Treseler is one of many academics around the world who is considered an Elizabeth Bishop scholar. In fact, her dissertation about Bishop, defended in 2010, theorized a relationship between Bishop’s letter-writing and her poetic style.
The box of letters was discovered in 2009 as the partner of Bishop’s last lover, Alice Methfessel, who had recently passed away, was going through papers and shredding them. The locked box, which contained some of Bishop’s letters and memorabilia, was spared from the shredder and sold to the Bishop archive at Vassar College Library.
To the delight of scholars like Treseler, the box contained letters Bishop had written to her psychiatrist. The treasure trove shed light on aspects of Bishop’s life, views, and insights that “we previously did not know, the way she thought about her poetry, and how her sessions with the psychiatrist influenced her poetry,” Treseler explains.
From her sessions with psychiatrist Ruth Foster, Bishop, who was born in Worcester, came to see her poems as connected and “one long poem” rather than each as “a single work of art,” Treseler adds.
“Born and buried in Worcester, Bishop attained international fame for her poetry in her lifetime,” Treseler says. “Increasingly, her reputation has enjoyed a meteoric rise in part because we’ve uncovered more of her work. She was a meticulous poet. That combined with her letters, her fiction, and autobiographical work provides us with a large body of material to appreciate and consider.”
Treseler was excited to include English majors Kasey Wozniak and Kayleigh Berger in reviewing and analyzing the documents over the summer of 2015. She saw it as an opportunity to introduce them to scholarly research with primary source documents. In addition to being strong honors students, Wozniak and Berger also “had some exposure to Bishop’s work” in Treseler’s American Women Writers class in the 2015 spring semester.
“I felt deeply invested in including them in the project because I had the same experience in my undergraduate studies at Brown University,” she says. “I worked with a professor on two poets’ unpublished correspondence, and it demystified the scholarly process as something that only specialized people did. I was trying to model my own experience for these two students in hopes that it would give them the archive bug and a basis for their graduate study.”
With financial support from a Summer Undergraduate Research Grant and a Faculty Mini-Grant, underwritten by the Worcester State Foundation and a partnership between the Academic Affairs and University Advancement divisions, respectively, Treseler, Wozniak, and Berger began the process of obtaining copies of the documents from Vassar College.
“We met for long sessions two or three times a week to discuss the primary source documents, to connect them with Bishop’s published work and what had been written about her previously. The students helped put together pieces of the puzzle,” Treseler says.
For instance, the documents revealed connections Bishop made between her time living in Washington, D.C., when “the Cold War rhetoric was intensifying” and her recollections of how the rhetoric surrounding World War I influenced her mother’s hysteria during her childhood, which eventually led to her mother being committed to a psychiatric hospital.
The result for Wozniak and Berger, both aspiring English teachers, was a teaching module for advanced high school students that presents Bishop’s poetry and writing as a process. They presented the unit at the 2016 Celebration of Scholarship and Creativity, at which they won second place in the Sheehan Commonwealth Honors Competition, and the Statewide Undergraduate Research Conference at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Each of them was able to try out parts of the module during a student-teaching practicum this semester.
In Berger’s case, she has modified her “Writing as a Process and Making Poetry More Accessible” module based on Bishop’s work and plans to present it to three sections of sophomore English in November. “I am looking forward to reviewing the various drafts of ‘One Art’ with my students in order to emphasize the writing process as well as make poetry accessible to them,” she says.
Meanwhile, Wozniak has shared two of Bishop’s poems, “In the Waiting Room” and “Arrival at Santos,” during her classes’ Poetry Fridays.
“Before our first substantial writing assignment, I hope to teach a lesson where they will get to view the drafts of ‘One Art’ and see that even the precise and brilliant Elizabeth Bishop did not always find the right word or style on the first, or even fifteenth, try,” she says.
With the discovery of the new documents, Treseler can build upon her scholarship of Bishop. “It was incredibly useful for me to get input from [Wozniak and Berger’s] fresh eyes on what I had studied for a long time,” Treseler says.
So far, she has published a feature essay in the Boston Review and presented a paper, “‘Private Faces in Public Places’: Bishop’s Triptych of Washington, D.C.,” at the Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Travel (1965) Centenary Conference at the University of Sheffield in England in June 2015.
Treseler also is working on a chapter for the forthcoming book Reading Elizabeth Bishop: An Edinburgh Companion (Edinburgh University Press, 2018) and will present at a conference at Sorbonne University in France in June 2018.
Treseler, Wozniak, and Berger will give a presentation on the entire project at the Worcester State Foundation’s November meeting.
About the Photo: Portrait of Elizabeth Bishop from the Vassar College Library archives
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