Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2015.
Catherine S. Bloomer, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Colm Tóibín about his book On Elizabeth Bishop (Princeton University Press), which is among the final five selections in the category of Criticism for the 2015 NBCC Awards.
Catherine S. Bloomer: Your process of critique is fascinating. At times, the structure mirrors that of Bishop’s poetry—a scrupulous observation that expands to yield a larger commentary. Your close textual analysis of Bishop’s poetry, especially of her rhymes, is balanced with your personal connections to the poetry and an analysis of the context of Bishop’s work. (Especially in the Key West section where you do the work of recalling Bishop’s poem before you cite or even mention Roosters.) How did you come to this approach for critique?
Colm Tóibín: I wrote the book over a long period of time, and followed my instinct. It was almost like keeping a diary. And then if something worked, I left it in. But I didn't put too much thought into the theory of it. I missed it when it was finished.
CSB: You speak of Bishop’s experience living in Key West, in particular, as preparation for her later writing. What early writing experiences prepared you for your own later work?
CT: I wrote poetry between the ages of 12 and 20. At age 18, I began to revise the poems, producing draft after draft and doing nothing else much. (I was a student and didn't care what sort of degree I got.) It was a very intense time. And then I didn't write again for another five or six years.
CSB: Bishop perhaps would have eschewed such a confessional question. Her poetry seems, to me, inspired by observation and the landscape (or rather seascape). Does different landscape inspire different kinds of writing? Why does Bishop come back to the sea? Is she interested in evoking exile?
CT: I am away from Ireland a good deal now. Maybe that matters. And yes, I think Nova Scotia mattered to her, and being away from it mattered.
CSB: You examine the poetics of uncertainty and loss that Bishop’s poems embody. Her personal losses, as well as her sexuality, you write, are what drew you to Bishop’s (and other’s) poetry. In novels, can one temper grief with reason in that similar restrained language Bishop uses? Or is such emotional restraint most effective in poetry?
CT: Oh it's almost more essential in novels. Keeping the tone in order. Leaving the emotion to be felt by implication. Not describing too much, explaining too much or pressing the point.
CSB: You write about the poets who influenced Bishop (Lowell and Moore) and the poets who can be compared to Bishop, notably Thom Gunn. Both Gunn’s and Bishop’s biography are similar, as is their reticence. Who is that writer with whose aesthetic you would like to be so compared?
CT: I admire both Bishop and Gunn. But they are much better writers than I will ever be. So comparisons would not work. They would not work with Fulke Greville either, which is what makes me most sad.
CSB: Does a Bishop poem, for all its restraint, ask us to be a correspondent with the author? Are we excluded from her life but welcomed into her truth? Is this a feature of her sparseness or a problem with interpretation? Do we want to fill up the silences, the unsaid?
CT: What a smart question! This is really the question. Because we are welcomed into Bishop's truth, then we are not excluded from her sensibility, which is a sort of distilled version of her life. I think, with Bishop, the more we count the syllables and look at the structure, the better we interpret. There is no hidden meaning. And yes, we do want to fill up the silences, the unsaid. Maybe that is what reading is. But it is not her problem. Nor is it ours. It is perhaps a solution. But I am not sure.
Colm Tóibín is the author of eight novels, three of which have been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize: The Blackwater Lightship, The Master (the Los Angeles Times Novel of the Year), and The Testament of Mary. His other novels include Nora Webster and Brooklyn. He is the Irene and Sidney B. Silverman Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University, a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, and a contributing editor at the London Review of Books.
Catherine S. Bloomer is a second year fiction MFA candidate and research assistant at The New School. She is currently writing a novel set in Hawaii and a thesis on female sexuality in Elena Ferrante’s novels. In the fall of 2016, she’ll begin her PhD in Italian at Columbia University, specializing in medieval lyric poetry.