Alumni Feature November 2013

Creative Correspondence: Peter Bishop Replies

Introduction by Diana Jenkins

Imagine my delight when Peter responded to last month’s open letter with an offer to write a public reply; what a delightful whole it makes, bringing together two halves of what is almost always commenced in the spirit of exchange.

A letter with no reply can leave the sender feeling painfully bereft – and I ought to know. I have a peculiar (some might even say perverse) talent for writing to people who never write back.

A few months ago I wrote a letter – handwritten on gorgeous stationery – to someone who was a great friend during the most formative period of my life. He’s long since become very successful in his field and the biggest milestone of his illustrious career was about to be reached, in front of a huge and notoriously critical international audience. I wanted to congratulate him and wish him well – I’m very proud of him, perhaps because we were just kids when I knew him – and so I did. I wrote him a letter – just another in a pile of letters I have written him and others over the years.

I have experience enough to know never to expect a reply – ample empirical evidence on which to draw – but when none came, I was sad all the same. Sad all over again, time and time again, since I’m such a pathological glutton for punishment I serially refuse to read the obstinate silence. I mean, it’s certainly not a warm invitation to send more letters, is it?! Hardly! And it’s not even his fault I feel so shitty – it’s not as though he volunteered to make my unwanted letters welcome!

Such is my entirely self-inflicted disappointment and bruising that I wonder if he even bothered to read it. Perhaps it was discarded unopened. And I suppose that in itself is a very legitimate response, just not the one I must have been hoping for when I once again decided to write to a person who long, long ago stopped writing to me. I do know better – or at least I definitely should by now. But still I write. Only very sporadically these days – years and years can go by – but eventually something always compels me to write again.

Discussing the unacknowledged letter with a mutual friend (who’d also written, but had received the elusive, longed for reply and is now regularly in touch – oof! That smarts!), I admitted the whole thing made me feel diminished. It snuffed out something of my inner song. I like to think that at heart I’m a pretty upbeat, hopeful, loving person, but boy, talk about switching off a light. Yet I can see that there’s something really unfair about that from the recipient’s point of view – if you’re unwilling, it must be a total drag.

I just can’t imagine being unwilling. And you know what? My anxiety about the letter being so received did something terrible to the two pages I wrote; it killed their comfort. It was such a stilted letter, strained and awkward, much like the excruciating (though mercifully brief) conversation we had last year when last we met face-to-face – accidentally, in New York. The letter was a fake. And he would’ve known it at once.

This appalling situation depresses me because I truly love letters. I always have. I love writing and receiving them and the idea of a letter going ignored is nigh on unbearable to me – though what other response is there to a posturing imposter? Christ, why did I even send the halting, strange thing? Serves me right, really.

So – finally she gets to the point, I hear you mutter (do I detect a sharp round of expletives...?!)– imagine, if you will, the sincere pleasure that was mine when Peter read his letter and felt compelled to write back. I can tell you, it was significant.

I sorely miss receiving handwritten letters, but I’d far rather electronic missives than none at all. I think the writing changes – in fact I know it does – and certainly when we know we are writing for a public forum it changes again, but there is still something so fantastically permissive about a letter that I think it overcomes whatever the constraints of its construction. Letters are exciting; raw, immediate and often urgent, to me they are the naked form, the place where writers are at their most brazen and most vulnerable; their most unadorned and their most beautiful.

No wonder so many letters are sent with explicit instructions for their immediate destruction – and no wonder so many recipients very wisely disobey.

Thanks for reading (and responding), see you all next month, Diana

And now, without further ado, here’s Peter’s reply (hyperlinks and images added):


 

Dear Di,

I never know what will happen when I write a letter. Certain persons bring out certain things in me. That’s Lesley Marmon Silko writing to James Wright – the intimate conversation between two wonderful American writers collected in a little book titled The Delicacy and Strength of Lace.

Lesley Marmon Silko James Write They start off Dear Mrs Silko, Dear Mr Wright –and suddenly it’s Dear Jim – and we’re immediately into the important concerns of the literary life: I just fed the rooster a blackened banana I found in the refrigerator. He has been losing his yellowish collar feathers lately, and I’m afraid it might be that he isn’t getting enough to eat. But I suppose it could be his meanness too –he is the rooster out of all the rooster stories my grandmother ever told me...

I read most happily when I feel I’m overhearing a writer. I can start skipping pages if I feel a writer is trying to convince me of something or impress me – but if I feel there’s an intimate conversation going on and nobody minds me hanging around, I’m all attention.

rooster I just love this rooster – On these hot Tucson days, he scratches a little nest in the damp dirt under the Mexican lime tree by the front door. It is imperative for him that the kittens and the black cat show him respect, even deference, by detouring or half-circling the rooster as they approach the water dish which is also under the lime tree. If they fail to do this, then he jumps up and stamps his feet, moving sideways until they cringe...

And I just love Jim’s response: I am extremely glad, and, in a way, relieved, that you exist.

Reading that I immediately think of the many people I’d like to say it to: I am extremely glad, and, in a way, relieved, that you exist...

It’s the sort of thing you can only say in a letter, a sentence in a stream of particular thinking and delight, addressed to a certain person who brings out certain things in you.

I have to give you one more quote from LMS writing to Dear Jim: I think that in these times especially, but probably for all times, in the stories we tell or share we can only be guided by the heart – we cannot dictate or predict which stories will be “the ones”. All we can do is remember and to tell with all our hearts, not hold anything back, because anything held back or not told cannot continue on with others.

A few years ago I wrote a letter to a friend who was recovering from a serious operation. When she could, she wrote back – and then five days a week, from 8 am to 9 am, for the next two years I’d go to a café and I’d continue the sequence, fascinated by the language I could find for the speaking in me that I’d always known about but never before heard in a sustained way. Two pages of my tiny writing on unlined yellow paper...

I remember how I’d walk to the café and I’d feel a particular rhythm in my walking, and it would be that rhythm that would get me going in the letter – the rhythm and something about the world that I’d happened to notice –the colour or fall of a leaf, the particular expression of a dog, the sound of kookaburras...

I never know what will happen when I write a letter. Certain persons bring out certain things in me.

And nowadays that’s how I write. Each piece I’m writing calls up certain presences, and they bring out certain things in me. Presences of the living –sometimes– but most often presences of the long gone – Chekhov, for example, or the American poet Louis Simpson, or that amazing archaeologist of family mythology, Bruno Schulz. Bruno Schulz Or sometimes it’s a character – Uncle Vanya from Chekhov’s play, or that withered old rooster Professor Serebriakov, jumping up and stamping his feet if he isn’t given due deference. And – staying with Chekhov – there’s Ippolit, a teacher absolutely without imagination, living a life permanently and quite happily chained to the most obvious facts, urgently imparting as he dies the information that horses eat oats and hay and the Volga flows into the Caspian. Or the priest who ate all the caviar at the funeral...

They don’t expect anything of me, these presences, and I’m not writing for them. But what I’m writing comes somehow from the fact of them, the sense of them around me – comforting or challenging, haunting or irritating.

And some of the presences are absences – there’s no presence quite as complex and disturbing as an absence... And absences give rise to the darkest, most intriguing speaking...

There are writers who keep office hours, and writers whose imaginations are nocturnal. Bruno Schulz, in his story Cinnamon Shops, takes us into the mysterious and wonderful collusion of adolescence and the night, and in a little autobiographical book I’ve titled Midnight in the Cinnamon Shops I transpose a nocturnal adventure in Schulz’ early twentieth century Drohobycz in Poland to my own Armidale, in New England, Australia:

And above me – the tumultuous night sky, crowded with incident and story… Imagining the lost soul who first imagined the possibility of navigating by such a sky, how he must have realised that what appears to be unbridled fantasy must in fact be controlled by the most rigid formulas, and that in all that vastness of space there was no space, not the tiniest chink of space, for the imagination.

Midnight in the Cinnamon Shops begins with an essay that’s haunted by the forest demon in Goethe’s ballad The Erlking, the demon who so yearningly wants the child held so safely in his father’s arms. Schulz’ mother recited The Erlking as a bedtime story for him when he was 7.

Erlking I’m thinking of Bruno Schulz, that bedtime in the Polish town of Drohobycz in 1899, the immensity of the night reaching into him from his mother’s voice.

I’m so often thinking of it – that child safe in his bed as the child in the story is safe in the father’s arms – and the night without warning calling to the child in the bed as the Erlking calls to the child in the safety and warmth of those arms – the night reaching into him, and he is wholly passive and curious and amazed in its tender dangerous probing… So that for his whole life as a writer who means so much to me he will keep walking through the portal of this moment to find himself again lost and knowing in the winds and voices, the multiplications and cancellations, the heroic whimsy and majesty and squalor of the night…

And throughout Midnight in the Cinnamon Shops I quote paragraphs and sometimes pages from Schulz’ own wonderful letters, only a handful of which have survived the terrible dispersals and destructions that took all Jewish life away from Drohobycz in 1942.

…it seems to me that this kind of art, the kind which is so dear to my heart, is precisely a regression, a return to childhood. Were it possible to turn back development, achieve a second childhood by some circuitous road, once again have its fullness and immensity – that would be an incarnation of an “age of genius”, “messianic times” which are promised and pledged to us by all mythologies. My ideal goal is to “mature” into childhood. This would really be a true maturity.

Bruno Schulz to Andrej Plesniewicz, Drohobycz, March 4, 1936

 

I never know what will happen when I write a letter. Certain persons bring out certain things in me. Sitting down tonight with only the words Dear Di in my mind –and look where we’ve travelled! Of course the rooster wants the last word: He has all of us fooled, stepping around him softly, hesitant to turn our backs on him, all of us except for the old black hound dog. She won’t let anyone, including the rooster, come between her and her food dish. The rooster pretends he does not notice her lack of concern; he pretends he was just finished eating when she approaches.

But I’m claiming the last word, braving pecks and the haughtiness of ruffled feathers, and thanking you for all you’ve done and all you will do in defining and speaking the Varuna voice. You speak with knowledge and love and generosity. Like me, you’re enthralled with what Varuna uniquely is. I am extremely glad –and most certainly relieved– that you exist!

Much love,

Peter

[Back at you, Peter.]

 


 

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10 Comments

  • The lost art of letter writing. What a joy to read this. Thank you! Leah xx

    Leah Kaminsky Monday, 04 November 2013 19:13 Comment Link
  • And we are all very happy that you exist Peter ... and Di too. Thank you for your letter!

    Jennifer Scoullar Monday, 04 November 2013 20:06 Comment Link
  • Oh gosh, this is so delicious and tender. Thank you for letting us eavesdrop. xxcarol

    Carol Major Monday, 04 November 2013 20:17 Comment Link
  • Peter, wonderful voice - as always! Love your wisdom xxx Lee

    Lee Kofman Monday, 04 November 2013 23:59 Comment Link
  • This has inspired me to go and write a letter, and to find that book - The Delicacy and Strength of Lace. So true that certain people bring out certain things in you. Thank you Di & Peter. - Eleanor

    Eleanor Limprecht Tuesday, 05 November 2013 11:04 Comment Link
  • Thanks, Di and Peter. I too write letters and it breaks my heart when there's no reply. Janet Malcolm in The Silent Woman describes letters as 'the fossils of feelings'. To me it's an exquisite description. Malcolm writes: 'Letters are the great fixative of experience. Time erodes feeling. Time creates indifference. Letters prove to us that we once cared. They are the fossils of feeling. This is why biographers prize them so: they are biography’s only conduit to unmediated experience.' Wonderful things letters.

    Elisabeth Hanscombe Tuesday, 05 November 2013 11:05 Comment Link
  • There's a wonderful volume of Selected Letters of James Wright, titled A Wild Perfection. He writes to Mary Oliver: "I have loved your poems for a long time, but until I found and read your book I hadn't realised how much they had come to mean to me. It is an extraordinarily beautiful book that you've written and It haunts me in some secretly desolated place in myself where I had not hoped to see anything green come alive ever again." Di –your letter to me was an unexpected and perfect reward for all the uncertainties and losses of confidence that are an inevitable part of a pioneering journey. A letter is a very powerful thing!

    Peter Bishop Tuesday, 05 November 2013 22:30 Comment Link
  • Thank you to all who've contributed to this, particularly Peter and Di. I'm so moved by it all that I have no words. Bruno Schulz, James Wright, Lesley Silko, Mary Oliver, Janet Malcolm: can't compete. Peter, what a gift that letter is. I feel like I've ingested it, that it's running through my blood. Like the very best letters.

    with love

    Kristina Olsson

    Kristina Olsson Friday, 08 November 2013 16:52 Comment Link
  • Hi everyone -
    I must say, I haven't earned ANY of these lovely expressions of gratitude and the like - you're all extremely sweet extending your reach to me, but I think we all know this is entirely Peter's doing! I agree with Kristina and you all wholeheartedly (how lovely to now know - really *know* - what that word means!) - what a gift. And what a rooster!

    Diana Jenkins Tuesday, 12 November 2013 15:40 Comment Link
  • Elisabeth, yes! 'Fossils of feeling' - that's it, that's exactly it! Thank you so much for the Janet Malcolm quote - I shan't forget it, nor this - as you say - exquisite phrase.

    Diana Jenkins Tuesday, 12 November 2013 15:46 Comment Link

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