Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Art of Losing

"The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster."

This is not my favorite Elizabeth Bishop poem, though I know that many of my poet-friends worship "One Art." To be fair, "Wendy's Favorite Elizabeth Bishop Poem" would be a hard-won title, indeed.

In the first (and, it must be said, only) poetry workshop I ever took, more than a decade ago, the brilliant and generous Mark Doty looked at my terrible poems and said, "Study Elizabeth Bishop."

In the first writing class I ever taught, in the fall of 2006, we read and savored "The Fish" -- sans the final three lines. I asked my students to come up with their own final three lines, before we looked at the trio that Bishop had created. I was struck by how close my students' endings were to Bishop's. Half of them had Bishop tossing the fish back, as she actually did in the poem. The sign of perfect craftswomanship, I think.

"Telling True Stories" workshop at TSKW.
For the last two weeks, I've been Writer in Residence at The Studios of Key West (TSKW). Last week, I taught a two-day workshop to a half-dozen Key West writers. This week, I was just settling into a new essay, when I was foolish enough to leave the door to the lovely Mango Tree House open while I was upstairs. I returned to my writing desk to find my phone and wallet had disappeared.

Yes, the art of losing is quite easily mastered.

I was impressed that someone had managed to come inside without making any noise, and even more impressed that the person chose to leave behind my laptop. (Perhaps it was the fact that it's so old and worn that the E, R, S, F, V, and N keys are blank and the Caps Lock and Page Up keys are missing altogether? Or perhaps s/he didn't want anything that couldn't be pocketed.)

624 White Street in Key West, where Elizabeth Bishop
lived in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
Hoping the person might have only really wanted the cash, I walked the neighborhood, peeking into bougainvillea and lifting garbage can lids. I did not find my phone or credit cards, but I found something more important. I realized I've been staying just three houses away from the one where Elizabeth Bishop lived during her most of her years in Key West. A front-gate plaque from the Friends of the Key West Library informed me of this fact. Bishop's former home is a classic mid-nineteenth-century Key West home, a style called an "eyebrow house," because of the way the roof overhangs the second-story windows to create shade.

Key West's Old Armory.
She bought her White Street house in 1938 and lived there with her lover for several years. Read more about Bishop's time in Key West at The Queerest Places blog and The Academy of American Poets. She did not not just live and write on this block of White Street, she observed it deeply. She painted the Old Armory that now houses TSKW. Bishop left the island in 1944 and headed south to Brazil.

I will leave these inspiring studios and this magic island tomorrow, and in a couple weeks, I, too, head to South America. (I'm going to Venezuela for a two-week visit.)

Something lost, something gained.

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