During the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, Worcester State English Professor Heather Treseler was, she says, “stuck at home thinking of places I had been recently.” Her thoughts went to her pilgrimage to the poet Elizabeth Bishop’s childhood home in Great Village, Nova Scotia, where she completed a one-week residency in 2019. She wanted to imagine a return to that place and think through how geography influences artistic perspective.
These ruminations inspired her essay “My Search for Elizabeth Bishop,” published in Notre Dame Magazine in 2021. In late 2022, she learned the essay has been recognized in Mariner Books’ annual anthology, The Best American Essays 2022 with inclusion in the list of Notable Essays and Literary Nonfiction of 2021. “It’s a small but encouraging honor,” Treseler said. “It’s nice to be in that mix and part of a national competitive ranking.”
Treseler has admired Bishop, the Worcester native and 20th-century poet who won the 1956 Pulitzer Prize, since she was a student at Brown University. She describes looking carefully at Bishop’s drafts as “a schooling in poetic process.” Bishop was famously exacting as a poet, publishing only about 100 poems in her lifetime, and this perfectionism is apparent in her numerous drafts. Arguably Bishop’s most famous poem, “One Art,” had, Treseler said, “humble origins in an unpromising first draft. What’s thrilling is the way in which she slowly develops the material over the course of about 17 drafts.”
“That encouraged me,” said Treseler, “to be forgiving of what arrived on the page and to be patient with the process.” In her teaching, she tries to show her students drafts of writers’ works whenever possible to show them that writing is the result of a lot of work and time, even when produced by the most admired literary minds.
“Bishop was one of the most versatile poets of her generation,” Treseler said, describing Bishop’s ability to allow the content of the work to dictate its expression as one of her legacies. A poet with great technical mastery of traditional poetic forms as well as modernist sensibilities, Bishop “had ambidexterity as a writer,” Treseler said. “That’s one of the things that has made rereading Bishop’s work over the years so rewarding. I’m still seeing new features in her work.”
It’s no surprise, then, that Treseler has written and published about Bishop numerous times over the years including a chapter on Bishop’s poems about New England in Elizabeth Bishop in Context from Cambridge University Press (2021) and the lead chapter in Elizabeth Bishop and the Literary Archive from Lever Press (2020) about Bishop’s drafts of her Worcester-based poem “In the Waiting Room.”
Her most recent essay is more personal, and it delves into the ways Great Village and its rhythm and natural beauty—including dramatic tides with a 40-foot difference between high and low tide practically in Bishop’s backyard—might have influenced her “sense of scale and time and tides and natural rhythm.”
Top image: Heather Treseler
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