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tom travisano

Elizabeth Bishop Focus Of Travisano Talk, Book

Click For More On ‘Love Unknown’

Elizabeth Bishop Focus

Of Travisano Talk, Book

Tom Travisano, Hartwick College professor of English emeritus, briefs a local audience “Love Unknown: The Life and Worlds of Elizabeth Bishop” at Foothills Preforming Arts Center on Saturday. Travisano spoke on the poet’s upbringing and early days while including photos of her childhood as well as scans of her earliest letters. Following the talk Travisano signed copies of the book, which was published this past November by Viking. Copies are available locally at the Green Toad. (Ian Austin/
‘Love Unknown’ Travisano’s Elizabeth Bishop Biography Is Pinnacle Of 45 Years Of Scholarship


‘Love Unknown’

Travisano’s Elizabeth Bishop Biography

Is Pinnacle Of 45 Years Of Scholarship

About to embark on a national book tour, retired Hartwick College Professor Tom Travisano previewed his new book, “Low Unknown: The Life and Worlds of Elizabeth Bishop,” Wednesday, Nov. 6, at Oneonta’s Roots Brewing. Jim Havener, proprietor of Green Toad Bookstore, which sponsored the evening, is standing at right. (Chris Lott photo, courtesy Hartwick College)

By ROBERT BENSEN •  Special to

ONEONTA – Randall Jarrell (a friend of Elizabeth Bishop) said that a poet is one who, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, manages to get struck by lightning six or seven times.

Robert Bensen is a poet and retired colleague of Tom Travisano in the Hartwick College English Department.  This was his introduction at the first reading and book signing of “Love Unknown” Nov. 6 at the Green Toad Bookstore.

It doesn’t work that way. And don’t try it at home. And don’t let your kids try it either. But Jarrell’s outlandish savvy underscores one thing: We don’t know how poets and poems are made. Like all art, it’s a mystery we never stop
trying to solve.

We do know, however, that now and again, the universe plants among us a child whose way with words grows through trial and talent and long life, such that her compositions are read, spoken, cherished.

And now and again, the universe gives us a person whose apprehension of those writings grows commensurate with their greatness, whose vision helps us enter more fully the world, at once intimate and vast, that the poetry paints for us, helps us be more alive to the work that so moved him to dedicate his life to it.

I can just see one of Tom Travisano’s students, after a rapturous class on Bishop, ask, “Dr. Travisano, have you studied Elizabeth Bishop your whole life?” To which Tom replies (I imag-ine), “Not yet!”

I wonder what stirred in the young Tom Travisano 45 years ago, when the first Bishop poem lit up in him, lit the first steps on his life’s path to Nova Scotia, New York City, Cambridge, Mass., Rio de Janeiro, and the Amazon villages in Brazil, but always return to this small city in Upstate New York?

Her life’s work ended about when his began.

Was “The Imminent Will that stirs and urges everything” (in Hardy’s phrase) at the end of Bishop’s life passing the task of immortalizing her work into others’ hands?

What thread of fate led Travisano to seek out the whole canon of Bishop’s poetry, drafts, letters; to write his dissertation at the University of Virginia on a little known and less understood poet that would become his first book, “Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development.”

Then to place Bishop studies in the wider circle of Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell and John Berryman, in his study, “Midcentury Quartet.” And then to widen his scope to all of American poetry in the three-volume “The New Anthology of American Poetry.”

Having scanned that transcontinental immensity, he returned to his first love, entirely textual I’m sure, to the other woman in Tom’s life (Elsa won’t mind), through the letters between Bishop and Robert Lowell, in his edition, “Words in Air.”

Then attending to Bishop’s future, a study of “Elizabeth Bishop in the 21st Century, Reading the New Editions.”
And now, the culmination of his lifelong (so far!) study, the book we are all privileged to be part of launching tonight, “Love Unknown.”

Through that whole career, the love and support of his family supported him in his addiction: his wife Elsa, son Michael and daughter Emily.

Professor of English at Hartwick College, English Department chair, endowed Babcock Professor of English, twice a Winifred Wandersee Scholar, Travisano won numerous teaching and research and trustee awards, as well external support from the Guggenheim Foundation and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, founded and still serves as president of the Elizabeth Bishop Society, wrote and delivered countless (I gave up) articles, chapters, reviews, lectures, interviews with the BBC, across the nation, across the Americas, across the ocean, maybe Mars someday – anymore and I’m going to need oxygen.

We don’t know how poems and poets are made, but we know that the best that can happen for a poet
is to have a reader as brilliant and articulate as Tom Travisano whose dedication carries her work forward, so we reap the reward of understanding. Please give a generous hand of applause to Dr. Tom Travisano.

A SECRET REVEALED ‘Love Unknown’ Explores Traumatized Poet’s Struggle


‘Love Unknown’ Explores

Traumatized Poet’s Struggle

Artifacts of Elizabeth Bishop’s life depict her with Ernest Hemingway, Lota Macedo de Soares and Robert Lowell, with the toucan, which inspired one of her most famous poems and kept her in Brazil for 15 years, and with her Key West home. “Words In Air” is one of Tom Travisano’s earlier books, on Bishop’s correspondence with Lowell.  ( Composite)

By JIM KEVLIN • Special to

Tom Travisano dedicated “Love Unknown” to wife Elsa, an independent Apple Computer consultant. (Jim Kevlin/

ONEONTA – Tom Travisano is the top expert on Elizabeth Bishop, ever since falling in love with her work while taking a Contemporary Poetry course at the University of Virginia in 1975. “She was the poet who really jumped out to me,” he remembers.

Several of his nine books dealt with her, from “Midcentury Quartet” (1999), exploring Bishop along with Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell and John Berryman, to “Words on Air” (2008), the complete Bishop-Lowell correspondence, reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review.

So, when the founder and president of the national Elizabeth Bishop Society began THE definitive biography – three years research, three writing, it turned out – Travisano expected few surprises.

Instead, “Love Unknown: The Life and Worlds of Elizabeth Bishop,” which will be published next Tuesday, Nov. 5, has a brand new take.

The biography – you can preorder it on Amazon – became “the story of the human development of a trauma survivor,” he recounted in an interview the other day at his State Street home: Elizabeth Bishop had been sexually molested for a decade.

Alice Methfessel, the last love of Bishop’s life – the poet died in 1979 – sold the poet’s papers in 1981 to  Vassar College, Bishop’s alma mater.  “But Alice had withheld the more personal and intimate ones,” Travisano said.

As he moved toward retirement from Hartwick College’s English Department, which he chaired for five years, he learned Vassar was finally indexing the documents, preparing to make them public.  When it did, in 2013, “I was the first one to see them,” Travisano said.

He had long recognized Elizabeth Bishop faced challenges, long suffering from asthma – many people outgrow it – and eczema, binge drinking and depression.

He credited the chronic challenges to the absence of a father – William, a successful businessman, died when she was 8 months old – and her mother’s nervous breakdown when the daughter was 8 – Gertrude spent the rest of her life in an asylum.

But there it was, a 22-page, single-spaced typewritten letter Bishop wrote to her psychologist in 1947 when she was 36:  After her mother’s death, the girl was sexually abused by her uncle, George Shepherdson, in Massachusetts, where she was molested from ages 8 to 18.

“She was alive in only two places – school and camp,” said Travisano.  “The rest was interment, while she awaited the next resurrection.”

This sent the biographer in a whole new direction – “there’s something very visceral going on here” – seeking to understand Bishop’s struggles anew.  A great discovery, he said, was Bessel van der Kolk’s “The Body Keeps the Score” – Bishop, it turns out, was a textbook case.

This is a new layer, on top of the richness of the poems and the poet’s world travels and friendships.

In the interview, along with his wife Elsa, an independent Apple Computer consultant and champion of her husband’s research, Travisano quoted poet James Merrill:  Bishop “has more talent for life and poetry of anyone I knew,” and he sought to reflect that in the new book.

“I wanted people to read a good story about a very interesting person,” the biographer said.

He was assisted in this by the Creative Non-Fiction class he taught at Hartwick for years, showing seniors the New Journalism’s use of fictional techniques – story arcs, dialogue and description – in non-fiction writing.

He particularly admired John McPhee, and actually visited the New Yorker’s cornerstone essayist once at his Princeton office.

The result is rich detail and description, as he assesses “The Toucan,” “The Fish” and other textured poems.  Bishop arrives home to find a painting by an artist neighbor on her front porch – homeowners will want to recruit a local artist to try to duplicate the poet’s pleasure at the image.

“Each chapter is supposed to begin with a bang!” the writer said, and they do, from page one, “When Elizabeth Bishop was 3 years old, she witnesses the Great Salem Fire … The fire raged in the darkness, sweeping through nearly 250 acres of the historic harbor town and reducing to charred ruins the homes of more than 20,000 inhabitants.”

Then, an excerpt, “the sky was bright red; everything was red:/ out on the lawn, my mother’s white dress looked/rose red; my white enameled crib was red.”

Travisano builds fact on fact, image on image, description on description, allowing readers to reach their own conclusions.

His publisher, Viking Penguin, already intends to nominate “Love Unknown” for a Pulitzer.  (Earlier, Travisano also received a Guggenheim.)

The writer – he and Elsa have two grown children, Michael, a docent at The Fenimore and Farmers’, and Emily, who lives in Massachusetts and is writing her first novel – will launched his publicity tour locally at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 6, a Roots Brewery, an appearance sponsored by the Green Toad Bookstore.

He will speak at Vassar on the 12th, the Worcester, Mass., Historical Museum on the 13th.  Programs are also planned at the two most prestigious venues: The Harvard Book Store and, in Washington D.C., Politics & Prose, near Dupont Circle.

Bishop’s life on the move provided another benefit to the researcher: Travisano traveled to locales to see and experience what she had – Europe, Boston, up the Amazon on a mail boat.  He spent time at Great Village, on the Bay of Fundy with its 43-foot tides; the worldwide average for tides is 3.3 feet.

Bishop stopped in Santos, Brazil, on a trip around the continent, was presented with toucan, fell in love with Lota de Macedo Soares, who designed Flamengo Park, Rio’s equivalent of Central Park, and stayed for 15 years.

A conservative military regime took over Brazil after Soares’ death and, because she was gay, largely erased her legacy, which is now being revived through Travisano’s research and lecturing there.

Once, he ran into a colleague at Albany airport who was heading off to dreary wintertime Ukraine on a research trip.

I’m off on a winter research trip, too, Travisano said: Key West.

He sensed some skepticism.


Pies For The Holidays


PIE NIGHT – 5:30-7:30 p.m. Make mini pies with either apple, blueberry, or pumpkin filling. Make your own or to donate. Participants are also encouraged to bring other items to donate. Please RSVP by 11/14. Elm Park United Methodist Church, 401 Chestnut St., Oneonta. Call 607-432-0001 or visit

VISITING WRITERS – 7 p.m. Professor Bradley J. Fest, The Shape of Things, and Poet Chelsea Jacobson kick off the colleges Visiting Writers Series. Eaton Lounge, Bresee Hall, Hartwick College, Oneonta. Call 607-431-4911 or visit

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