An Interview with Alice Quinn

It was in 1997 when I first encountered Alice Quinn at the New Yorker, where I had just become an editorial assistant. She had already been the magazine’s poetry editor and since then we have been conversing about poetry for many years.


Despite her hectic timetable, she was always willing to photocopy a poem that she thought I might appreciate, to direct me to something fascinating in the magazine’s records, or even to share a letter she wrote to a reader who was confused by the most recent John Ashbery poem that was featured in the magazine.


She started coming to my office with photocopies of Elizabeth Bishop’s unpublished poems. She was in the process of editing a book of these poems that were stored in Vassar College’s archives.


This was an immense job, and I could certainly understand how daunting it must be for her to take on this responsibility to Bishop, who was very meticulous regarding the poems she published, most of them being included in her Complete Poems which is shorter than many other poets’ Selected Poems.


Many people who had seen the Vassar archives felt that Bishop’s unpublished work did not feed our curiosity in her personal life, but rather gave us an insight into her poetic process.


Alice and I recently had the occasion to get together at her West Village apartment, where we pored over the drafts by Bishop, written in a shaky yet strangely affecting script.


I believe that Alice is the perfect editor to handle this undertaking with the utmost sensitivity due to the author’s sentiments.


This spring, Farrar, Straus and Giroux will be releasing the compilation titled Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments, which Alice has worked so diligently on.


–As stated by Meghan O’Rourke



What led to the compilation of Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box? Elizabeth Bishop was notoriously choosy about what she released. Was there ever a moment of hesitation surrounding the venture?

At lunch, Bob Giroux, Elizabeth Bishop’s long-time editor, asked me to edit her work. I couldn’t say no.

I had gone to the archive at Vassar to find material that could help Giroux with the compilation of Bishop’s letters into One Art (published by FSG in 1994). We got along well and he trusted me to do the project.

Everything I needed was at the archive, and James Merrill’s suggestion to Sandy McClatchy, editor of the Yale Review , that a book could be made out of the drafts, was comforting.

However, I was worried about presenting unfinished pieces without context, as Bishop’s reputation was based on her own precision and only perfect poems had ever been seen. I let the project rest for a while until my anxieties settled.

I spent a lot of time at the archive reading Bishop’s journals, notebooks and correspondence from various libraries, especially the May Swenson letters and those between Bishop and Anne Stevenson, who wrote the first book about her poetry, which was published in 1966.

BLVR: What criteria did you employ when determining what to incorporate into your project?

AQ: After I found many of the poems quickly, I encountered a lot of work that was too incomplete. I had a facsimile copy of a youthful masque written between 1934 and 1935–a piece she could have started during her last year at Vassar.

This masque was lengthy and quite formal, and its title changed between “His Proper Tear” and “The Proper Tear,” so I decided it should not be included in the book. When I was at Vassar, I discovered notebooks in large folders labeled “Unpublished Poetry,” which contained things I found to be quite enjoyable.

My opinion is that the root of the book comes from Bishop’s Key West notebooks, since that period of her life between 1937 and 1948 is the one we know the least about.

BLVR: This book contains a wide array of material: complete poems, broken down drafts, pieces of prose, letters, annotations about the poems, and reproductions of notebooks. There is also the extensive appendix included.

AQ: There is an eclectic assortment of components in this book, but the appendix is all interconnected with the manuscript and the notes.

I hope people will appreciate the experience of jumping between the sections. As an example, the poem, “Homesickness,” and the draft, “A Mother Made of Dress-Goods,” both cover the same topic of a mother journeying north to teach school, and the same details are present in both pieces.

While compiling the book, I studied the notebooks, typed them, and summarized the context in the drafts to help the reader gain a greater understanding of Bishop’s biography and her artistic process. The notes became a way for me to imagine the reader as a partner in my discoveries.

BLVR asked how the order had been determined.

At first, Bob Giroux believed I should begin the book with the finished pieces, but I was hesitant since the prose template for “Villanelle” would be at the end.

This piece demonstrates the guilt and pain Bishop felt when her friend Margaret Miller suffered a car accident in 1937, losing her arm. Louise Crane was the driver and the fragment included in the poem talks of an upcoming trial.

When Bishop wrote the poem at the age of 26, she realized that tragedy had always been linked to the villanelle form. Years later, she wrote the poem “One Art” which she described as “my one and only villanelle”.

Eventually, I chose to arrange the book chronologically so that the reader could observe Bishop’s development, just as I had when I read it.

Did examining all of these pieces of Bishop’s work give you any insight into how she composed?

AQ: Bishop placed great importance on the sound of her work, as did Yeats. There is a story about her pacing back and forth and talking to herself by a waterfall near her home in Brazil, and then hurrying back to her studio.

An example of this is the poem “Hidden, oh hidden/in the high fog/the house we live in.” Her use of Dostoevsky’s quote from House of the Dead in her poem “Money” is significant due to her upbringing during the Great Depression.

She had to learn to adapt to the two different worlds of her aunt and uncle who raised her and the world of her prep school and college peers who were much wealthier.

When she took her first trip to Europe on a Nazi freighter, she and her Vassar classmate were unaware of what they had gotten themselves into, and she described the experience as being in the realm of the dead.

BLVR expressed amazement.

AQ: Her journals are captivating. She named her record from 1950, It’s been my worst thus far –.

BLVR commented that it was heartbreaking, then went on to emphasize the purpose of the book. Rather than just accumulating unfinished or average poems to meet the demand for new work, it gives readers an opportunity to gain insight into Bishop’s writing process, and to witness how she mulled over an issue for an extended period of time.

Editorial selection can be difficult, such as in the case of the story “Homesickness.” At the bottom of one of its drafts, there was a letter to Lota, whom Bishop’s friends in Brazil later blamed for her suicide.

In the letter, Bishop declared her love with the words “Dear Lota!–(if I may call you so–I confess to some difficulty with the letter ‘L’).” She titled it “Letter” with a preamble saying “Now that you’re away, I can write, I can falsify & exaggerate a little–not a lot–just enough to make it writing, L–.”

As this letter says a lot about Bishop’s time in Brazil and her decision to write about her Canadian childhood, it was included in the note to the draft of the poem.

This was before she received the Pulitzer Prize, when she was still recovering from the difficulties of the preceding decade in Key West and New York, despite her artistic success not translating to her relationships.

BLVR: In reading this book, you get the sense that Bishop was not as open as Robert Lowell when it comes to her personal life. Her journals, drafts, and early poems show that she was not eager to share certain things.

However, it is astonishing to see how much she discloses in her poems, though they do not fit the standard definition of “confessional.”

This suggests she is more a poet of intense inner-feelings than one of confession. What did she make of her contemporaries who wrote in the confessional style?

AQ remarked to Robert Lowell on numerous occasions that his work had the most impact on her.

She was particularly partial to the war poems of Randall Jarrell and also talked to her friends about Hardy’s “heartbroken clarity” and Frost’s technique, despite her disagreement with his viewpoint.

When she taught at Harvard in the 1970s, she asked her pupils to commit to memory “Directive” and recite “A Servant to Servants”. Although she was acquainted with a few female poets such as Denise Levertov and Muriel Rukeyser, she didn’t associate with them.

When it came to Plath, AQ found the pieces in Ariel to be difficult to read yet she was still astounded by the flashes of brilliance they contained.

Ii. A Plain View of Those Important West Years Shows She Was Deep in Somber Thought and at the Same Time Holding a Profound Discussion With Herself on Aesthetics. “

BLVR: Compiling Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box was certainly a test of how to put Bishop’s notes and drafts–which commonly had different editions of the same line–on the page, which you touch upon briefly in the introduction. Was she penning most of her verses and then typing them up?

Q: Do you believe that she penned all of them herself, yet several of the primary attempts were not conserved?

BLVR: She composed her writings and afterwards got rid of any evidence of them?

I believe that is the case, since a good number of the novel concepts in the book are just hand-written. Nevertheless, let’s examine one that is composed of a single typed page–which is going to be featured in the New Yorker shortly, “The moon filched the house…”

BLVR:That’s a stunning poem–“The world’s conclusion / ended up being nothing terrible… It was nice; it was pleasant and relaxed… we envisioned and fantasized that all the autos / were parked, nobody moved anywhere / they stayed at home and clasped hands, / at first, then ended up

not gripping hands–”

AQ: Could this be described as an On the Beach composition? Nevil Shute wrote a novel of the same name about a world after nuclear war, and it is possible to draw a parallel between that and the eerie feel of this piece.

There is also another fragment from the late 1960s that is quite haunting: “Where I met / Those strange affectionate animals / Who seemed to like me too & ate the bread / But forgot me naturally the moment I left.” Bishop was certainly feeling the end of the world at this point.

She was living in San Francisco with Suzanne Bowen (a pseudonym from Brett Millier’s biography) and her baby, and Lota had recently passed away.

Bishop was still attached to her old home in Ouro Preto, wanting to believe she had some kind of life in Brazil, but she was feeling very disconnected and people had begun to shun her.

BLVR: Plowing through her drafts, I was struck by the amount of agony and misery that had been experienced–the sheer number of remarkable people who had suffered mental breakdowns and how she had courageously endured it all, observing these people and scenarios with a keen interest and a willingness to confront the hurt.

AQ was very cognizant of the struggles that a single person is unable to overcome while living in Brazil. In a letter to Anne Stevenson, she expressed her thoughts that current generations are still barbarians, behaving in a hundred indecencies and cruelties each day. A touching fragment of her journals reads, “Brute world, gentle and companionable by night.”

For the title of your work, you chose the poem “Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box,” which expresses a great deal of inner conflict. Could you elaborate on why you picked this poem, written during your time in Key West?

In “Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box”, one can find a combination of surrealism and strangeness, as well as a focus on Poe’s aesthetics.

This is seen in one of her notebook entries, which directly addresses Poe and his statement that poetry was “exact” in relation to pleasure.

Additionally, one can note a fear of alcoholism that is present in her early work, which is supported by a clipping from a letter Poe sent to his mother-in-law about trying to abstain from drinking.

This surrealist element in her work was done with care and purpose, rather than being a mere passing phase, and it has had real ramifications on her poetry.

The draft by the writer contains the lines, “As easily as the music falls, / the nickels fall into the slots,/ the drinks like lonely water-falls / in night descend the separate throats,/ and the hands fall on one another / down darker darkness.”

Later on, there is a reference to “Keaton,” a poem about being good and enduring through hardships. It is believed that the poem is about the conclusion of her affair with Louise Crane.

She was in Key West during those years, which was a period of darker meditation and an internal conversation about aesthetics and her goals as a poet.

The poem “Edgar Allan Poe” reflects this, and it was chosen to be the title poem and the frontispiece of the book.

My dad questioned why another writer’s name was being included on Bishop’s book, but Robert Giroux and I thought it would be a great way to let readers know that these are unpublished works. Jonathan Galassi, who was a student of Bishop’s, also liked the title.

BLVR: After departing Key West, Bishop made her way to Brazil, where she crafted some of her most renowned poems. What inspired her to visit the South American country?

AQ: Elizabeth Bishop had known Lota since 1942 and had longed to travel to South America, with Lota having inviting her down to Rio numerous times.

After finally going there on a freighter trip in 1951, she expressed, in her journals, her understanding that the journey was a “shake-down” trip for her.

Onboard, she encountered the leading figure in her poem “Arrival to Santos”, a woman who had been in charge of a female jail in Detroit for more than two decades and spoke candidly to Bishop about her long-term female companion, who was lesbian and had even been mentioned in a detective magazine.

Bishop wrote many things about her in her journals and the poem portrays her contemplation of a life that looked different from the literary world. She did not enjoy New York, being worried about intrusions and her own alcohol problems giving rise to rumours.

Her New England roots were very powerful in her, although she was still a sensual being, not trying to be a public lesbian but also not being hidden. It was easier for her to settle down with a woman in a distant place.

BLVR: Was her battle with alcohol something you thought about when creating this material? It definitely appears in an implicit way in some of the pieces. Does this resonate with you?

AQ: I wasn’t anxious as drinking was a norm during her lifetime and her family had a history of substance abuse. Her mother’s brother, Art, was a drinker, and her father, uncle, and grandfather had to quit.

Bishop and Lota enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle in Brazil with an apartment in Rio, servants, and a country house.

They mingled with artists and poets, yet in New York, Bishop was confronted with the competition of her peers which was likely to lead her to drinking.

Fortunately, Lota was a great caregiver and Bishop noted that the Brazilians didn’t drink alcohol, they just consumed large amounts of coffee.

III. The biographies have depicted a number of relationships, and I can tell more about them from the pieces of information in her notebooks and drafts concerning ‘the strike of love’. This can evoke a feeling of loneliness as if one were falling on the ground in a busy street.

In many of these drafts, one can get an unexpectedly vivid picture of Bishop’s life.

AQ: Yes, “Mrs. Sullivan Downstairs,” is included in the book as it ties in with a poem called “Dicky and Sister” which describes Bishop’s life with her Aunt Maud and Uncle George in the suburbs of Boston in the 1920s.

The poem captures her teenage years so vividly. (“At night who knows what happens? / The birds don’t know– /only perhaps the mice know / & the occasional cockroach–“) Later on, she went to prep school followed by Vassar College, where she met Louise Crane, who was from a wealthy family who owned the Crane Paper Company which produced stationery and paper for dollars.

Bishop’s Uncle George had lost his job due to the Great Depression. In her journal, there is an entry about Bishop’s journey home from Europe in the 1930s.

Whilst abroad, she had stayed at luxurious hotels, but on her way back to Boston, she didn’t want to suggest a taxi, so they walked with her heavy luggage and packages in tow. Bishop noticed her uncle’s spats were torn and his coat was getting worn out.

She wrote about their conversation and the supper of meat and peas they bought. Bishop often found herself in between two very different worlds during her youth.

BLVR: After going through the exercise of examining her drafts, notes and journals, did you discover any new insights about her poetics?

AQ: After studying her drafts and journals for a while, I feel as though I’ve developed a better understanding of the hardships she faced in order to become the poet she was.

The amount of determination and perseverance that went into her work is now more apparent to me.

The biographies I’ve read also contain more insight about her relationships as I’ve discovered clues in her notebooks about how love can bring out feelings of loneliness, as well as a sense of shame and embarrassment.

In a previous conversation, you mentioned the lesson of Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Higginson, in which they edited Dickinson’s punctuation in her poems. Did you make any typographical alterations?

When writing my book, I aimed to be transparent about what I had done in the “Note on the Text” and the introduction. John Hollander encouraged me to make sure readers knew what I had done.

I do not feel I have been overly authoritative. For example, in the draft of “Keaton” there was one phrase which was amended immediately. It was originally written as “Witness the size of my hat-band the diameter of my hat band.”

For the publication in the New Yorker I went with the revision, however, in the book I included both phrases. I thought that for the drafts in which she had started punctuating, I should make minimal changes to keep her original decisions.

Additionally, in cases where she hadn’t punctuated at all, I felt it was better to keep her hasty writing, including her repetitive words, as she had left it.

BLVR: You have included several renditions of “One Art” in the book.

Q: My motivation for doing this was to offer a more complete picture of Bishop’s creative process, from the first to the final drafts of her poem.

Academics may differ on the exact order of the drafts, but any reader can still appreciate and learn from them.

This item has been widely pirated, so it seemed like a good time to give her admirers the chance to access them.

Although there has been a fair amount of Bishop scholarship, there is still a long way to go. Someday, there might be facsimiles of this material, but it’s not likely to happen in our lifetime.

Much work has been done in this piece to assist the reader in seeing the correlations between the various elements included.

When I wrote my notes, I tried to shed as much light on the drafts as possible. Going through the draft of “Crossing the Equator,” which was written to Pauline Hemingway in November 1951, I noticed some lines at the top of her notebook:

“The nights when you were drunk, & funny, / The nights when everything went just too far–The candles in the hurricane lamps… the rum scoundrels.” In the appendix of my notes, there’s an unfinished story called “True Confessions”; at the bottom of the second page, it alludes to the same drink.

The story says, “‘It was what they call ‘Rum Latitudes’and everyone drank this beverage in the form of something they called ‘Scoundrels’… ‘Down there’ sounds dark. This Down There was almost too bright.

The jukebox songs were fearful beyond belief. ‘You made me love you I didn’t want to do it I didn’t want to do it.’

” Seeing this connection shocked me, and I thought it was essential that the draft was written while she was feeling more lighthearted and content with herself than she had in a while.

I’m not necessarily implying that she had an affair with Pauline Hemingway, but I felt it was important to share the link between the language of the story and the poem with the reader.

Even though I sensed some people would disapprove, I was adamant about not withholding the connection. It was an anxious decision to make, but I did not want to prevent the reader from having the same amazement I had when I went through all the material, from the oral biography to the letters and journals.

BLVR: Was there any influence that your role as poetry editor at the New Yorker had on the creation of this work?

Q: Editing a book is a lot different from the kind of work done at the New Yorker, which mainly involves selecting poems and communicating with poets who are free to accept or reject any suggested changes.

Bishop was quite fond of the New Yorker though, as evidenced in a letter she wrote to May Swenson in 1953, in which she said, “They have a tendency to go overboard with punctuation, but are usually quite willing to remove a lot of it.”

Rather than copying the words of the original text, one can alter the structure to avoid plagiarism. This can be done without altering the context or the semantic meaning of the text. Formatting can be preserved as well.

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