Travisano Travels Far and Wide for Poet Bishop’s Birthday

(In April 2013, Professor of English Tom Travisano became the first Hartwick faculty member to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship. Click here for more information)

"It was a little bit crazy," Professor of English Thomas Travisano laughs, reflecting on 2011.

The leading scholar and co-founder of the Elizabeth Bishop Society spent the centennial of the poet's birth traveling to conferences and symposia from Nova Scotia to Brazil, leading panels from The American Literature Association to NYU, and researching a forthcoming biography. What's more, Travisano also completed work editing The New Anthology of American Poetry, volume 3: Postmodernisms and Elizabeth Bishop in the 21st Century: Reading the New Editions, both of which will be issued this spring.

A rundown of Travisano's 2011 schedule reads like an extensive travelogue, in part because Bishop herself lived in many different locations throughout her life, he explained.

"I don't think every very famous writer's centennial is handled in this way," he says. "She was in a lot of different places throughout her life, so a lot of places have a connection to her. Brazil has a connection with her, as does Boston, as do Worcester, Nova Scotia and New York. Very often there's a local element to the interest in Bishop, and she wrote about places with such specificity and lucidity that you know she really looked closely at these places and people-you feel she had a real connection to these places."

At the American Literature Association Spring Convention in Boston, MA, in May, Travisano chaired a panel on Elizabeth Bishop and the art of letter writing, due in no small part to tremendous success of his 2008 book, Words In Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. He also gave a lecture on Bishop, Ernest Hemingway, and Key West.

For the latter presentation, Travisano travelled to Key West in March, visiting the Hemingway House and dining with local scholars at the Hemingway pool. His research was bolstered by an interview with the son of Hemingway's handyman, who had grown up on the author's island property. Of course, Travisano also spent time in Bishop's Key West residence-normally closed to visitors-to aid in his research for the forthcoming biography on Bishop.

In Bishop's childhood home of Nova Scotia, Travisano played a key role in perhaps the largest celebration of the centennial on the planet. In the Presbyterian church across the street from Bishop's childhood home in Great Village, Travisano delivered a lecture on the poet as a woman of three nations-the United States, Canada, and Brazil. Later, he took part in a plenary session with a select group of Bishop experts.

Travisano, like Bishop, then went south, travelling to the Global Studies Conference held in July in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. There he reprised his "Three Nations" lecture, before heading out with other Bishop scholars to visit some of the poet's homes during the nearly 20 years she lived in Brazil.

"When you're writing a biography, you really want to be able to see the places where the person you're writing about lived," he explains. "Of course they've changed a bit, but the basic geography remains the same. One of her homes is in Ouro Preto, which is a gold mining town full marvelous baroque churches. Her balcony probably has the best view in all of town, because it looks out over seven mountains, each of which has a church sitting on top."

From there, Travisano returned stateside, attending a symposium he'd helped to conceive at Bishop's alma mater, Vassar College. The poet's papers are housed in the Vassar archives, making the school a logical place for Travisano to lead a panel of editors in a discussion "On Editing Bishop."

"The editors discussed their work, and the books they had done, and the decisions they had to make," he says. "An edition of a writer's work isn't something that just happens. There are a number of often difficult choices about what is going to be presented, what is to be excluded, and how it is annotated."

He gave a lecture at Fitchburg State University near Bishop's native Worcester, MA, in October, sponsored by the Worcester County Poetry Association. Rather than holding one conference, Worcester-based poetry enthusiasts and scholars spread their celebration of Bishop out over the full year, inviting Travisano to speak on Words in Air, outlining his editorial process and the significant role Hartwick College students played in creating the acclaimed book.

In December, Travisano travelled to New York University's Gallatin Center for "Visions Coinciding: an Elizabeth Bishop Centennial Conference," which was co-organized with the Poetry Society of America. This event focused on Bishop's work as a visual artist.

"She was a rather talented watercolorist, and a volume of her watercolors was published several years ago," he says. "The Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York City was about to open a show of the paintings in their gallery, and I was lucky enough to get a preview. It was fascinating to see the paintings in person."

As he travelled throughout the Americas joining Bishop scholars in marking her centennial, Travisano was also completing a new book chronicling the explosion in posthumous publishing of her work.

Elizabeth Bishop in the 21st Century: Reading the New Editions will be released this spring by the University of Virginia Press. Travisano edited the book with Angus Cleghorn and Bethany Hicok, and explained that "It's just what it sounds like."

"We're looking at the new editions of Bishop's poetry since 2006, particularly Edgar Allen Poe and the Jukebox, Words in Air, and Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose and Letters. We've focused on these three books, and have 17 different essays by leading Bishop scholars which provide a very fresh analysis of her work.

"For the literary world, this is hot news," Travisano continues. "It's very unusual because her published work was really just the tip of the iceberg. She left about as many poems in manuscript as she published. The quality and completion varies, but a few of the completed poems stand up to the best of her published poems, and everything has interesting ideas and lines of development."

He's also completed work on The New Anthology of American Poetry, Vol. III: Postmodernisms, 1950-Present, co-edited with Steven Gould Axelrod and Camille Roman. Hartwick students worked closely with Travisano on the creation of the anthology.

"We've been trying to take a fresh look at American poetry and the way it's anthologized," he explains. "We're bringing in a lot of women poets and poets of color, but we also have very strong collection of the more standard canonical poets. We've put them in conversation with each other, along with very fresh introductions and annotations, all of which makes it very inviting. Writing the book was about a tenth of the job, the other nine tenths was getting permissions!"

Having served as chair of the Hartwick Department of English and Theatre Arts, given a slew of major presentations at conferences and symposia large and small across the hemisphere in 2011, completing three books in the past four years, and preparing a fourth, Travisano seems energized rather than exhausted; humble rather than triumphant.

"For me it's liberating not to be at a research institution where there's a lot of pressure to publish," he reflects. "At Hartwick, I can do it in my own way. I think I would have done less in an environment where there was more pressure.

"But yeah, it's been kind of a busy time," he sums up with a modest chuckle.