Alice Quinn


Things needed to become a great poet:
Many, many notebooks

I first met Alice Quinn at the New Yorker in 1997, when I joined the staff as an editorial assistant. She was, then as now, the magazine’s poetry editor, and we began what has grown into a years-long conversation about poetry. Despite her busy schedule, she was always happy to photocopy a poem she thought I’d enjoy, or to point me to an interesting item in the magazine’s archives—or even to share an explanatory letter she’d written to a subscriber baffled by the latest John Ashbery poem the magazine had published.

At some point, she began stopping by my office with photocopies of unpublished poems by Elizabeth Bishop. She told me she was editing a volume of Bishop’s uncollected work, which was held in archives at Vassar College. It was a monumental task, and I could only imagine how daunting her sense of responsibility to Bishop must be. After all, Bishop was a perfectionist who published only a handful of books; her Complete Poems is slimmer than many poets’ Selected Poems. Ostensibly, this would suggest that rifling through her unpublished work was somehow indelicate. But in Bishop’s case many of the unpublished drafts looked almost like finished poems—many scholars and poets who had seen the Vassar archives felt that the work there added not to our prurient curiosity about Bishop’s life, but to our picture of her poetic process.

Alice, it seemed to me, would be an ideal editor for a project that required an acute awareness of the delicacy involved, given Bishop’s feelings. The result of her labor, Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments, appears this spring from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Recently, Alice and I met at her West Village apartment, where we looked over copies of Bishop’s drafts, which are written in a shaky and strangely moving script.

—Meghan O’Rourke


THE BELIEVER: Did spending time with all these fragments reveal to you anything about Bishop’s process of composition?

ALICE QUINN: Sound to her was very, very important, as it was for Yeats; he often wrote to the encompassing sound of the whole poem. There is a vignette in the oral biography, told by a maid, who said that Bishop used to pace back and forth talking to herself by the waterfall near her country home in Brazil, and then she would dart into her studio. Well, you can just imagine the joy of coming upon the sound of “Hidden, oh hidden / in the high fog / the house we live in.” Boom. I think a lot of this material has that quality, but other things are of interest in terms of her biography. The little poem “Money,” based on a sentence in Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead (“Money comes and goes like a bird.”), has significance because of her experience growing up in the Great Depression. She was orphaned as a child and had to learn to negotiate two worlds—the world of her fairly impoverished aunt and uncle, who brought her up from age seven to sixteen and the world of her prep school, where the father of a friend was vice president of a company that had let her uncle go, and then Vassar, where so many of her classmates were well-fixed, too. Immersing myself in her notebooks, I became aware of how deeply important the Depression was in her experience and also how affected she was by her travels in Fascist Italy and Spain. She went to Europe for the first time on a Nazi freighter. She and her classmate from Vassar didn’t know it was a Nazi freighter. They were just trying to travel as cheaply as possible, and as they left the harbor all the soldiers saluted, and she said it was like being in the realm of the dead.

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Meghan O’Rourke is the culture editor of Slate, and a poetry editor at the Paris Review. Her poems and essays have appeared in the New Yorker, Poetry, the New York Review of Books, and elsewhere, and her first book, Halflife, will be published next spring.

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