Elizabeth Bishop's Home Purchased by Key West Literary Seminar
The iconic American poet Elizabeth Bishop called Key West home for a decade of her life.
She often described the natural beauty of the island in her poetry, like the beginning of her poem "Florida":
The state with the prettiest name, the state that floats in brackish water, held together by mangrove roots that bear while living oysters in clusters, and when dead strew white swamps with skeletons, dotted as if bombarded, with green hummocks like ancient cannon-balls sprouting grass.
Bishop’s home became a national historic literary landmark in 1946. Earlier this month, the Key West Literary Seminar announced it purchased the property for $1.2 million and are transforming it into their new headquarters.
Arlo Haskell — author, historian and executive director of the non-profit organization — joined Sundial to talk about Bishop’s time in Key West and the organization’s plan for her home.
WLRN: Remind us who Elizabeth Bishop was and how she became so famous as a poet?
HASKELL: Elizabeth Bishop is really one of the great American poets of the 20th century. She won every major prize available to a poet. She won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and she was United States Poet Laureate for a time. But when she came to Key West, none of that had happened. She was just 25 years old, ... a couple of years out of college, was writing poetry and hadn't published any poems. And it's in Key West where she really perfected her way of writing poems.
She started to write these very closely observed poems full of lots of natural details. And by the time she left Key West a decade later, she had written most of a book of poems that became "North & South." It was published in 1946. And it's that book that began to make her reputation and put her on the path to becoming this major American figure.
When we think about the literary masters of Key West, Tennessee Williams and Ernest Hemingway come to mind. Where does Elizabeth fit in that canon of great writers?
Well, Elizabeth is, by any measurement, a peer of those great writers and a contemporary of those writers. Hemingway had been in Key West for almost 10 years by the time Bishop had arrived. So he kind of preceded her there. Bishop was very friendly with Hemingway's wife, Pauline Hemingway, and spent a lot of time with her after she and Ernest divorced.
People always ask about the Hemingway connection in Key West. There's few better known writers than Ernest Hemingway, but Bishop is every bit as important, not as well known. She's a woman, she's a poet and she's a gay woman. She has all these things that tend to count against you in the literary canon, especially of that era of the early 20th century.
The organization has bought her house. Describe it for us.
It's a beautiful eyebrow house in Key West. The eyebrow house refers to this kind of distinctive architectural style where the roofline hangs down low over the second-story windows. The idea behind that design is to provide shade for the second story.
It's what we tend to think about when we think of houses in Key West.
Yes, it's a very distinctive Key West style. It was built around 1890, and Bishop moved into it in 1938. ... She sold this house in 1946. You walk into this house today, and it feels like 1946. Nothing has changed since that time.
The house had been maintained, but the floor plan had never changed. Nobody ever came through and put tile over the wood floors or put dropped ceilings in the living room. Nobody did any of these dumb things that happen with a lot of beautiful old Florida homes. [It] just stayed kind of spare and open and really true and intact to its original floor plan.
You have called Elizabeth Bishop the guiding spirit for your organization. How will her work continue to guide what the seminar does?
Well, I think she will encourage us and guide us to look at Key West closely, to be surprised about what happens in Key West and to build programming that grows out of that landscape.
One of our newer programs that we started a couple of years ago is called the Young Writers Studio, and this is a program for local high school students that teaches them how to write. And we've actually used Bishop's work as an example to teach kids to look at Key West, to record the details of it and to turn that into fiction or poetry of their own.