I presented my paper “Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Riverman’: A Story of Appropriation and of Vocation” at the SANAS conference today.

Here's the abstract:

Few places captured Elizabeth Bishop’s imagination like the Amazon. From the moment she arrived in Brazil, she wanted to visit the region and began to research it. As has been noted, Bishop made the unusual decision to write what David Kalstone calls “a poem of expectation”[1] set in the Amazon prior to visiting, composing “The Riverman” based on a passage from Amazon Town: A Study of Man in the Tropics by Charles Wagley.⁠ Given Bishop’s commitment to accuracy, this was a significant break from her typical writing process, and she expressed uneasiness about the poem until Robert Lowell called it a "fairy story."[2]

Read today, “The Riverman” poses several problems of representation given the gap between Bishop and the poem’s speaker, a character based on Satiro, an indigenous Amazonian who appears in Wagley’s study. Satiro is doubly interpreted: first by Wagley and then by Bishop; however Bishop distances her fictional character from her inspiration. In this paper, I discuss Bishop’s appropriation of Satiro’s story alongside their commonalities. To write this dramatic monologue, Bishop needed an entry point into the character. The Amazon, though compelling, remains elusive in the poem. Instead, “The Riverman” tells a shared story of vocation and ambition.

[1] Kalstone, David, Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop, with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1989), p. 195.

[2] Bishop, Elizabeth, and Robert Lowell, Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), p. 321.