“So quiet,”whispered a forty-something woman, sitting by herself in the third row of red-cushioned folding chairs, to no one in particular. “You can tell it’s a poetry crowd.” Perhaps it was the room’s delicate ambiance–chandeliers and sconces softly lit the long, low-ceilinged space, just barely illuminating the oriental patterns on its beige walls and carpet. It could’ve been the unusually warm and humid February air or–just maybe–it really was “a poetry crowd.” Whatever reason, last Thursday evening, the room on the second floor of the University of Chicago’s International House was indeed hushed. But the 50 or so audience members who had come to the night’s event soon got even quieter as four actors marched to the front of the room. They took their stances in front of their respective podiums, and the tall, bespectacled gentleman among them announced in a booming, assured voice: “Few things are as pleasurable as reading other people’s mail.”
Sponsored by the Poetry Foundation and the University of Chicago’s Program in Poetry and Poetics, “Poetry off the Shelf: Elizabeth Bishop’s Correspondence with the New Yorker” commemorated the 100th anniversary of the birth of poet Elizabeth Bishop and of the recent publication of a collection of her letters, “Elizabeth Bishop and the New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence.” Through a dramatic reading, the evening showcased the delightfully multifaceted relationship between one of America’s most revered writers and one of its most respected magazines. Actors read selections from “Elizabeth Bishop and the New Yorker”; the volume’s editor, Joelle Biele, who was present for the performance and answered questions at the wine-and-cheese reception afterwards, compiled the script herself. Pithy quips and musings about the writing life abounded, both from Bishop herself and from other literary luminaries with whom she was in contact (Harold Ross, William Maxwell, Catherine White, and Robert Giroux figured prominently): “Punctuation is my Waterloo. I must get a book on the subject” (Bishop), and “I think the word ‘fabulous’ should be regarded with suspicion” (Ross). Occasional laugh-out-loud lines brought the previously somber “poetry crowd” to titter heartily, acknowledging that yes, reading other people’s mail can be quite a pleasure.