Elizabeth Bradfield is the author of Interpretive Work (Arktoi Books/Red Hen Press, 2008), which won the Audre Lorde Award and was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, and Approaching Ice (Persea Books, 2010), a book of poems about Arctic and Antarctic exploration that was a finalist for the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets. Her third collection, Once Removed, is forthcoming in 2015 from Persea.
Bradfield’s poetry has been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Poetry, Field, The Believer, Orion, and elsewhere. This Assignment is So Gay: LGBTIQ Poets on Teaching, Open the Door: How to Excite Young People About Poetry, The Ecopoetry Antholgoy, New Poets of the American West and other anthologies have included her work. She has been awarded fellowships and scholarships from Stanford University’s Wallace Stegner Fellowship program, the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, the Vermont Studio Center, and elsewhere.
In 2005, Bradfield founded Broadsided Press (broadsidedpress.org), which she still runs. Broadsided’s mission is to put literature and art on the streets. It publishes monthly collaborations by writers and artists on the website as letter-sized pdfs that anyone can download, print, and post.
Elizabeth grew up in Tacoma, Washington, completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Washington and received an MFA in poetry from the University of Alaska, Anchorage, where she lived for five years. She lives now on Cape Cod and works as a web designer and naturalist locally and on expedition ships around the world (gravitating always toward the higher latitudes, north and south). For 2012 – 2015, she is the Jacob Ziskind Visiting Poet-in-Residence at Brandeis University. She also is on the faculty of the low-residency MFA program at the University of Alaska, Anchorage and a contributing editor to Alaska Quarterly Review. (Author Photo: Ken Knowles)
March 27, 2014
Maria Burns: I’m curious how you started as a naturalist. Did you imagine yourself in the polar regions?
Elizabeth Bradfield: No, not originally. I grew up on the water, and I always loved the sea. I was curious about creatures of the water and the beach. But I did not grow up in a family that went out and looked at animals. We spent time outside, but we didn’t look at animals. Because of my love of the sea, I took some marine sciences course—marine biology and oceanography—as an undergraduate, and I thought I was going to double major with zoology and English, but I got thrown off by chemistry.
After my undergraduate degree was finished, I took a job as a deckhand on a boat, and it happened to be an eco-tour boat that went up to Southeast Alaska. There were all of these awesome naturalists on board, and the trips were dedicated to looking at animals, hiking, being experiential in the world. I was chipping paint and standing watch on the bridge–doing deckhand work–but a whole new world opened up to me. And I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a naturalist.
It took me some time to kind of come back and learn how to do that. I actually started on Cape Cod when I was living there, leading kayak tours, and working on whale watch boats. The arctic came later.
Joe Angeletti: I think I can branch off from there with one of my questions. A consistent feature I see in your naturalistic poetry is the use of a descript feature of nature to represent or accompany a more nondescript element of human experience, and I’m wondering which comes first? Does your reflection on nature lead you to a realization, or does something you need to answer about humanity turn your eyes toward nature?
EB: It used to be that my poems came from sound, from a first line, from something that resonated, from some kind of image. But more and more—and I think it’s true in the poems of Interpretive Work, Approaching Ice, and in the poems of a collection that’s coming out next year—poems come from stories that are bizarre to me.
Most of the stories that I hear and I’m interested in have something to do with the natural world. I’m really interested in how we look at things and how that allows us to see some things and blocks us from seeing others. What does looking at something smear on it—from our own experience, from our own physical moment, whether we’re cold and stiff or warm and hungry? How does our social understanding of the natural world influence how we talk about it and what we see and how we interact with it? How do we get in our own way? I think a lot of the poems, for me, are about that at their core. How do we get in our own way?
I’m interested in that question because I think we have such a longing to connect, to see things—“Oh, look at that tree, look at that sunset . . . oh, man, I’ve got to get the babysitter.” We get in our own way. We can’t allow ourselves that presence.
MB: I like what you’re saying about perspective, and there’s one poem, “Snow Goggles: Whale Bone and Sinew,” which I think really encapsulates that idea of perspective and in particular what happens to the dreamer when he or she encounters the reality of the dream. It’s just like a small detail that sends the dream spiraling out of control. It seems like that when the “goggles” are removed, then the perspective changes, and I just wanted to hear you thoughts about these poems in terms of ambition—your own and those that you’re writing about.
EB: There are so many kinds of ambition, aren’t there? In the poems of Approaching Ice, I was really interested in the ambition of the explorers and what that says about, again, what place means to us. What does Antarctica mean to them? What does being an explorer mean to them? And how, because of that dream, does that influence what they experienced and what they saw?
For the “Golden Age” explorers of the late eighteen hundreds and early nineteen hundreds, Shackleton, Scott, and all those guys, there’s such a huge body of rhetoric about “exploration,” and I really wanted to dig under that scrim. I really think they had noble goals, some of them, but there’s also something else that’s a little more self serving, that’s a little bit more . . . maybe romantic?
MB: “Polar Explorer Robert Falcon Scott” talks about the death of Shelley and the death of Byron, and his own death, and it really seems to be about the death of Romanticism. You’re in that period, and you’re in these huge polar regions. What is it about this collection that really speaks to the death of Romanticism because even though it talks about the death of Scott, there’s something that speaks to movement, which to me speaks of hope?
EB: Yes, the romance of Antarctica . . . the thought of it as the last unmapped place on the globe and, then, that coming to an end. I think that’s how it was perceived—as the last place to map. That was such a driving force for them, and what does that mean for understanding the world?
I’ll circle back around to Romanticism as I talk about this, but if you think about the time period when all that was happening, World War I began during the “Golden Age,” and shifted our awareness of what we are and what we can do in such a major way, and I think that’s very tied into what’s possible for the hope of wild spaces on the planet. Industrialization is in there, a shift of viewing the natural world and the resources of the world around us and how it should be mined or not mined. All of those things are a huge jumble in that time period of Scott, of Shackleton, of Shelley. And Scott was a huge romantic. I don’t think he experienced the death of Romanticism, but when I look at him, I see that impossibility of Romanticism. He was so drawn to that he wanted to be . . .
MB: The explorer.
EB: Yeah. So much that he really screwed up.
MB: In a big way.
EB: And that goes back to ambition.
JA: I like how you speak on the way in which humanity’s expectations through romance can be jarred to reality by something harsh like World War I, and I notice that a lot of your naturalistic poems don’t even remotely shy away from shattering the expectations that certain people have about creatures. Dolphins in particular, I’m drawn to, because I never see people so shattered as when they find out how awful dolphins can be to one another. Perhaps you could speak to the way you capture the beauty of nature and don’t necessarily shatter it, but asterisk it to say that there is an element of ourselves, of what we do with our own romance, in here.
EB: We want to love these animals, right? “Isn’t it cute!” We respond to what, in the animals, we see as cute or beautiful or charming. But if we could look at what those “cute” animals are actually doing, what amazing creatures they are, if we can get beyond our fondness and allow a celebration of what’s strange and maybe not so pretty and maybe even violent, I’m interested in celebrating that.
Sea otters are another animal that people are devastated about. They’re not nice. But they’re amazing! Why do we need to personalize them? There’s something about dolphins and the way they seem to be an animal that will look at you, will recognize you, and will see you. They have that attention and that curiosity. Is it just their physiology? That smiley little beak that makes us think that they think we’re so great?
MB: You’re in the land of dolphins now. You can’t go two blocks without seeing a dolphin statue here.
EB: I know! They’re phenomenal. Look at what they do. But cute and nice? I’m not so sure.
MB: This is a change in topic, but I really want to make sure that I have time to ask. Many of these poems deal with the body’s breakdown, but, in particular, the teeth, and the mouth. They’re always chewing on ice, and I found myself kind of holding my jaw. What is it about the breakdown of what gives us voice, or what translates our voice, that leads you to this kind of decay again and again?
EB: That’s an interesting recurring image and theme, and it only became apparent to me after the poems were collected as a whole. It wasn’t something that was deliberately in there. It was just part of my obsession. And I think it comes down to the fact that everything is cold, but your mouth is always warm.
The mouth is so intimate. It is the voice. It is the breath. It is how you express love. And in a place where even your mouth, that inner self, you can taste yourself falling apart—taste your mouth full of scurvy and falling apart. It’s that palpable and intimate interaction between the body and place, between desire and reality, between ambition and failure. It all takes place in the microcosm of the mouth, and it’s also such a sensual part of the body, and in Antarctica, if you allow yourself to expose that sensual part of yourself, then the climate says, “No!”
MB: I didn’t think of it that way, about the sensual place that’s decaying along with that sort of ambition. That’s very interesting. But it still kind of creeps me out.
EB: It is really creepy. But it’s also that one little place where if you put that snow, it will melt. You can have an impact on that place that has so much impact on you, even if it’s just that small little moment. And there’s something about that wet, warm mouth area and that cold, dry world outside that really strikes me.
JA: A lot of your different nature poems focus on specific species and different interactions that you’ve had with them, and this might be a simple question, but are there any particular species or types of wildlife that you feel more connected to than others, and why would you feel that connection?
EB: I’m thinking about the newer poems I’ve written since Interpretive Work, and I have a book coming out next year titled Once Removed, and it goes back to exploring a more personal narrative as a naturalist in its poems. I actually put an index in the back where I catalogue all the animals, so if you want the bird poem, you go here, and if you want the bear poem, you go there. From bears, birds, and whales… but I’m not sure if I have any affinity for one particular animal itself as much as the act of attempting to see and understand “Nature.”
I’m helping out with a research project on seals now on Cape Cod, and I can’t write a seal poem. It’s too close. I’m interested in how the scientist mind and the poet mind come together, and they can in the naturalist world, but they can’t quite for me in the scientist world, in the biologist world. It might happen eventually, but maybe the research is too new, or maybe it’s too latent.
But lots of bear, and deer, and birds. Lots of birds. I love birds.
JA: This may be less about content and more about your perception of genres, but can you talk about the current relationship between scientific fields and literature, how the two can grow closer together, and what the natural sciences in particular can gain from literature and poetry?
EB: I think there is so much going on in that field right now. I don’t know if you were at AWP in Seattle, but there was a great panel with Robert Hass, Gary Snyder, and Eva Saulitis. Gary Snyder we all know, Robert Hass probably most of us know, but Eva Saulitis is the next generation of writer. She is a scientist. She studies killer whales, and she’s been studying them for the last 30 years, and she writes both nonfiction and poetry. And they were talking about the collision of information and wonder, and what the act of looking as a scientist has in common or not in common with the act of looking as a poet.
It was such a rich conversation because we make these little boxes to operate in these worlds, but really, our minds aren’t in the box. They’re ranging. Scientists are interested in poetry, and I think poets are interested in information. I was at Unity College up in Maine a while ago, and they’re just really trying to bring those things deliberately into conversation in the classrooms, and I feel the movement to foster a relationship between science and art is there in the world. It’s palpable.
There’s also the Poetry in the Zoos project that has brought poets to be in residence at zoos, putting poetry into exhibits. What they’ve found is that once they’ve installed the poems, the people who visit the zoos leave with a greater sense of conservation. They have these words to bridge what they see and what they feel and the world that they leave it for.
This isn’t a direct answer to your question, but I just feel like it’s a rich jumble of stuff that’s going on now. And when I read books on natural history, wow! They have great poems opening a lot of their chapters—quotes from poetry looking at literature as a kind of acknowledgement of that emotional self that can’t quite be acknowledged in the data. I feel like each of the fields really use one another and draw from one another in a rich way.
JA: I certainly hope so, because one of the things that I find striking is that in a lot of ways, you could call it “art of the gaps” in that science is answering a lot of questions that poets used to be relied on to answer—that literature used to be responsible for answering—about meaning in nature. I worry sometimes that that need appears to be lost among those who focus too intently on the natural sciences alone, though I know it’s not.
MB: Kind of bridging this gap, I’m interested in whether you see a parallel between the writing of a collection, or any single poem, and the polar adventure, in terms of the ambition and the failure and success that come along with it. I’m curious if you saw that parallel or felt it while you were writing.
EB: The poems in Approaching Ice took so long to accrue, it’s hard for me to think of it as a single journey.
I started reading about polar exploration because I saw this book with a boat on the cover, and so I read Alfred Lansing’s Endurance, and it was such a phenomenal read that I said, “I want more about these polar explorers!” And I was just reading for about ten years. I hadn’t even considered writing a poem, and then I thought, “Gee, Liz, you’re reading an awful lot about this stuff, why don’t you try to write about it?” But it really took me quite a long time.
I think the ambition for me was to imagine what it was like for the explorers and then to ask, “Could I have done it if I had been in their position? Would I have been Scott or Shackleton? Would I have been Nansen? What would I have done, and would I have been able to manage it?” Trying to deeply understand how they succeeded and how they failed was really interesting to me. I envied them, in a certain way. But I also get very cranky with them for what they didn’t know.
MB: Which leads me to point out that you also count yourself among their wives. I’m curious why that is.
EB: Because it felt like that. They were off doing stuff, and I was at home thinking about it. And my partner went to Antarctica to work while I was writing some of these poems, so I thought, “Ah, you’re going and I’m not going.” I was a wife left behind in that way. And also, who knows better how to criticize someone than the spouse? You get a privilege by claiming the title of “wife.” It’s a responsibility because you don’t want to ruin the marriage, but in my case that’s not so much of a complication with the explorers because they’re all dead! They had their chance to tell their stories, and writing the poems felt like an opportunity to look at it from another perspective.
MB: I really like that poem [“Wives of the Polar Explorers”] because of the way you go through all the different explorers, and I was just curious, because when I got to that point I was surprised.
EB: All that infrastructure that the explorers had—the wives, the children, the money, the sponsors—that’s not mentioned in their narratives very often. The books are just about the doing. And that’s just a horrible omission to me.
MB: In “Thoughts on Early Artic Explorers and Your time in Churchill,” you write, “This is the grip / of the poles. It pulls apart your layers, / the glues that make you whole.” And I really thought that was a bad thing the first time around. That’s negative. But what I hear from you now is that this breaking open of the whole, of the front, is a good thing. Their drive is where the beauty is.
EB: I think that’s true for me. I’m interested in what’s underneath.
JA: I guess it fits that that would be what you’re interested in, because that’s what you’ve done with a lot of aspects of nature. Everyone has a particular perception, but you’re able to come at it in a new way. I’m curious, what pointers do you have for writers who want to take science that’s bound up in a particular jargon and transform it into figure and verse that’s relatable?
EB: I think the big trick is finding a way into the scientific question/topic/moment that isn’t a gimmick. Finding some real connection to the question behind the science and the poetry. I think fact is a really useful formal element. Being a really strict fact checker of your own work and making sure that if you say, “The silver tips of the hair of the marmot,” you ask yourself, “are they really silver?” I think accuracy is so important in poems about that natural world, because if you’re really accurate about anything—and it works for a relationship too—you’ll escape cliché. Because you’re actually describing what’s right there.
JA: Could you define your process for turning science into poetry and vice versa? What methods do you use to translate grounded scientific ideas? Are there any steps you fall back on to help you when something is particularly difficult, such as an emotion being matched with something in nature, or something in nature that needs a human experience attached to it?
EB: When I think of poems like “Nonnative Invasive” in Interpretive Work, poems that take scientific terms as their trope, I’m interested in culpability. How are we part of these processes that we’re observing? So, a way into that scientific idea for me is to find an example of the scientific term/idea/concept/process, describe it, and then think how that resonates metaphorically on a personal level. That’s at once a one-note answer and an endlessly deep answer.