The time is right for a film about loss, says Nova Scotia filmmaker John D. Scott.
His mesmerizing 84-minute masterpiece, Elizabeth Bishop and the Art of Losing, is framed by the poem One Art about loss, written by Bishop after a lifelong string of tragedy including her father’s death when she was an infant and the suicide of her Brazilian lover Lota.
The film, over 10 years in the making, has its world premiere Monday, 9:30 p.m., at Park Lane at FIN: Atlantic International Film Festival and is available online to Sept. 23, with a Zoom panel discussion Tuesday. (details below)
Scott is coming home to Halifax from Ithaca, NY, for his first time since COVID-19 restrictions nixed travel to Canada.
“One of the metaphors is the whole pandemic,” says Scott, an associate professor and director of the Documentary Studies and Production Degree at Ithaca College.
“Each of us is dealing with loss in some way. I feel her journey teaches us something about strategies for how we can deal with that kind of loss.”
Revered by poets but less famous than some of her male counterparts like her good friend Robert Lowell, Bishop (1911-1979) won the Pulitzer Prize in 1956. She was dogged throughout life by loss including the institutionalization of her mother when she was a child in Great Village, N.S.
Masking herself in public as “an ordinary woman,” she struggled with bouts of alcoholism and despair, with writing itself and with problematic love affairs with women.
Scott first encountered Bishop as an English major at Dalhousie University. He didn’t fall under her spell until he read Brett C. Millier’s 1995 biography Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It.
“That got me interested in her story of being in Nova Scotia and being forced out and then that journey of almost 60 years of trying to find that place where she felt she belonged, where she felt she was home.
“She was really doing her best work when she was in her 60s which is unusual. To me that’s a fascinating story of something that’s very tragic that turned into something incredible.”
Bishop wrote One Art, a villanelle, in later life and in a place she loved, North Haven, Maine. It is considered to be one of her greatest works. (To read it go to One Art by Elizabeth Bishop | Poetry Foundation ) The poem is about surviving through courage and “allowing yourself to be vulnerable,” says Scott.
“It was through very brave writing and forcing herself to do it in a way she wasn’t sure she could manage that she was turning her life around.” .
Key to Bishop’s young life and her formation as a poet were the years she spent in Great Village with her mother’s parents before her mother voluntarily entered the Nova Scotia Hospital in 1916. Bishop was removed – she used the word “kidnapped” – by her paternal grandparents to grow up in Worcester. Her mother, whom she never saw again, died when Bishop was graduating from Vassar. College.
“She was captivated by Great Village,” says Scott, “both in terms of the darkness and also in terms of the wondrous community she found in Nova Scotia – the literary societies, the characters in town, her aunt reciting poetry. Those stayed with her her whole life and she came back to these images and she came back to Great Village.
“It had the feeling of connection she never felt any place else and it’s a place she came back to again and again like it was a mystery.”
Scott also returns to Nova Scotia as often as he can. “It is a place of abiding mystery for both of us.” He also feels “rhymes” with her life in that he disguises himself as “an ordinary man” and he had to be vulnerable and have the creative courage to make this film, which is also about the act of creation.
Bishop was reticent and few photos and next to no video exist of her. While Scott interviewed the poet’s friends and scholars including Nova Scotia writer Sandra Barry (Elizabeth Bishop: Nova Scotia’s “Home-Made Poet”), he could not make a traditional bio-doc.
“It required me to put more of myself in it, it became more of a dialogue.”
He conjures Bishop’s childhood and later life through key images, often repeated, and sounds drawn from her poetry: the glass eye of her grandmother, the hammering from the village blacksmith’s shop, the swiftly-moving tides, a sandpiper, a stuffed loon.
“Almost all of that is somewhere in her writing. I do think she was inspired by many of the things she saw growing up. Sandra Barry says she was in a state of turmoil when she came to Great Village. One surmises she didn’t understand what was going on around her.”
She becomes “very attentive to all the sounds and all the things she sees as a way of trying to piece together what’s going on.”
Scott hired artist and Bishop fan Emma FitzGerald, who illustrated Rita Wilson’s children’s book A Pocket of Time: The Poetic Childhood of Elizabeth Bishop (Nimbus), to draw and paint new images of Bishop and her life.
It’s a project FitzGerald (Hand Drawn Halifax) was eager to do. She also sees similarities between herself and Bishop.
Born in South Africa, raised in Vancouver and now living in Lunenburg, FitzGerald went to Brazil on an artist residency in 2015 to see Bishop’s different houses, including sleeping in Bishop’s very bed in Casa Mariana in Ouro Preto.
She first encountered Bishop when she went to paint on site in Bass River in 2013 and became intrigued by both the poet’s deep connection to Nova Scotia and also her itinerant, international, travelling life.
“This independent and curious spirit was something I saw in myself,” says FitzGerald, “and also this idea of being from many places at once.”
Bishop wished she’d been a painter instead of a writer and did paint. Her works can be seen in the book, Exchanging Hats.
“We have a very similar drawing/painting style, as we have a shared fondness for drawing every last detail, in a studied but also casual way,” says FitzGerald.
As she explored Bishop’s adult life for the film she was forced to “confront more fully the effect of the trauma she had experienced in her early years.”
“I saw in this process how my obsession with this poet was a way to process how grief and trauma do affect us all. I see now that I am inspired by how she persevered with her art and her dreams of living in places that nourished her, and her ability to make those dreams come true.
“As I have been witnessing my Dad struggle but also persevere while living with cancer these past five years, I see an echo in their determined spirit, and that is a huge inspiration for how I would like to approach life, whatever traumas or illnesses there may be.”
In layering imagery, words both spoken and printed and the “crucial” sound design Scott hopes to give viewers impressions that sink into their subconscious without requiring analytical, linear thinking.
“You can watch and listen and maybe it’s not making sense at the moment you are watching. You are experiencing that mystery, that deep sense of wonder which I think formed Bishop as an artist.”
Elizabeth Bishop: The Art of Losing, written and directed by Scott, is produced by Scott, Halifax producer Walter Forsyth (The Disappeared, Everyone’s Famous, Cubers) and Karen Rodriguez, who is a cinematographer along with Scott who edited his film. Scott ‘s 2007 feature length documentary on Nova Scotia poet John Stiles called Scouts Are Cancelled premiered at Hot Docs and won the best Atlantic documentary in 2007 at the Atlantic Film Festival (along with other awards.)
The online panel discussion via Zoom is called A personal journey: Getting to Know Poet Elizabeth Bishop and is Tuesday, Sept. 21, 7-8 p.m. Atlantic, with Scott, FitzGerald, moderator Lis Van Berkel, Rita Wilson and Thomas Travisano, founding president of the Elizabeth Bishop Society, professor emeritus of English at Hartwick College and author or editor of numerous books and articles on Bishop.
Travisano, whose most recent Bishop book is Love Unknown: The Life and Worlds of Elizabeth Bishop, has seen Scott’s film and calls it “very definitely the best-ever filmed treatment of Bishop’s life and work.”
For information and tickets go to: