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School reading: James Prosek on Elizabeth Bishop

October 26, 2010 |  6:45 am


James Prosek was just 19 when his first book, 1996's "Trout: An Illustrated History," was published. It included original watercolors he'd painted of North American trout as well as the stories he'd learned about them. This fall, he turns his considerable narrative talents to another watery creature in "Eels: An Exploration, From New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World's Most Mysterious Fish." Prosek answered our questions about what he read in school -- when he wasn't busy bringing the world of trout to life -- and it's not fishy at all. It's poetry.

Jacket Copy: What was the most interesting book that you were assigned in school?

James Prosek: The poetry of Elizabeth Bishop ("The Complete Poems, 1927-1979"), which I had not been exposed to before.  The class was 20th century poetry.

JC: When and where was this?

JP: It was my junior year of college, at Yale University.

JC: Did you read the book?
JP: Yes, though perhaps not every poem in the collection.
JC: What did you learn from it? Why does it stand out?

JP: Bishop wrote about landscapes that I was interested in, seascapes in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, Key West.  She lived in Brazil and wrote about São Paolo, where my father was born. She loved travel and maps, things that were part of my childhood image of my father, who loved nature and during his time in the Merchant Marines had traveled all over the world. She writes like a painter. I learned that Bishop was a watercolor painter, and about the time I was taking the course, a collection of her delicate paintings had come out in book form. I realized from reading her work (and this is what I wrote my paper about in Harold Bloom’s class) that words could describe color in ways that paint could not, simply because with words you can have metaphorical color. For instance, two of my favorite Bishop colors in her poetry both describe water. The first, “mutton fat jade,” she uses to describe the cold seawater of Canada. The second, “lime milk sherbet,” she uses to describe the tropical flats off the Florida Keys when the silt of the bottom is kicked up in a storm and suspended in the water.  As a painter myself, I became fascinated with the notion of what color could do in visual art versus in literature (paint versus language).

JC: Do you remember what grade you got on the paper?

JP: It’s one of two papers I can clearly remember writing. We had one grade for the class, 20th century poetry. I got an A.

JC: It was for Harold Bloom's class. What did you think of his assignments?

JP: He assigned a lot of poetry by poets that he had met or knew personally, like Hart Crane and John Hollander. But he had met Bishop once when she visited Yale.  

JC: If you were teaching that class today, what book would you assign your students?

JP: I would definitely not leave Bishop out of a 20th century poetry class.  I also would have thrown Robert Frost in, but Bloom didn’t.

-- Carolyn Kellogg