Elizabeth Bradfield interview, with Keetje Kuipers
In addition to writing, you are also a naturalist. I recently read an interview where you said that each time you set out for a month of naturalist work on a boat you vow to write, but that you never do—the poems come later when you return. Many of us battle with the imperative to always be writing: How long did it take you to find this less constant rhythm with your writing, and did you struggle to allow yourself that non-writing time?
It’s interesting you should ask, because this past winter I worked down in Antarctica on a boat and there, for the first time, I did write while in naturalist mode. I was quite proud of myself. That said, I’m not sure I’ve turned over a new, prolific leaf. I seem to be back to my old tricks, but it’s nice to know that it is possible to inhabit my poet-self when I’m working as a naturalist.
Writing, being on streak when the work feels like it’s going well, is such a wonderful feeling. I always am restless and vaguely cranky/unbearable when I’m not in that space. However, I have come to value the time when I’m not writing. It’s a time of observation, of catching my breath, of allowing other thoughts and influences to develop without the pressure to craft them. I value the work that I do outside the fields of literature and teaching. I learn a lot from the crewmembers I sail with and the scientists whose grunt work I do. There are different values, different vocabularies, different mindsets, and I find that a span of time in those other worlds is valuable for my poet-self.
In fact, I’ve become a bit suspicious of “prolificness” in myself. Do I really have to say that? Do I have something valuable and hard-won either in terms of subject or of stylistic experimentation to put on the page? These are the questions I ask myself. It might be that, these days, I step back from writing a bit too much of the time.
I go back to the poems in your first book, Interpretive Work, again and again, and this last fall I chose to teach the book in my Wilderness Writing class at Gettysburg College. The students in the course were, by chance, all women—and many of them were not particularly outdoorsy at the outset. However, they loved your book, and spoke with particular interest about the series of butch poems in the collection. Can you talk about where those poems came from?
The butch poems came into being when I was living in Anchorage. My partner and I had moved there from Provincetown, Massachusetts. Both of us had lived and worked in a wide range of communities over the years, but we had never lived for a long period of time together in a place in which the social conservatism was so palpable. I was struck, again and again, by the bigotry that my partner had to live with on a daily basis. I wanted to create in the butch poems a counterforce to sneers, side glances, hostility, incomprehension. I also wanted to give voice to those of us who find beauty in swagger, in toughness that is underlain by tenderness, in the complexities of butchness. It was quite empowering to just say it. To bring into the tradition of poetry a perspective and desire that feels, still, underrepresented to me.
I hope that readers who are not in love with a butch can find joy in poems that praise a different kind of woman, a different kind of womanliness. All love is unique. I know very few couples who are completely and utterly “traditional,” straight or gay. There’s a great joy in celebrating the particular strangenesses that we find wonderful in those we love.
Your second book, Approaching Ice, which delves into the stories and history of the polar explorers, is what some might call a “project” book. Before writing it, did you ever think you’d take something like that on? What was your experience of such a directed writing project as opposed to a book that comes together perhaps more organically as simply a collection of the poems written over a period of years?
The evolution was slow and fairly convoluted. It began with an obsession with the stories of the explorers themselves (Shackleton and Cherry-Garrard kicked me off) and only led to any poems years later—maybe seven years. But once I began writing, I think I always knew that I wanted a whole book dedicated to the subject, however it might develop. The poems were written over a ten year span. In their own way, they slowly and organically grew, although at the end, when it felt like I could “see” the book as a whole, I did begin writing more quickly and writing poems that spoke into “holes” I saw in the collection. I find, though, that I really like having a concept for a book to work toward. I might work on a few different concepts at once, and books might overlap in their evolution, and there will be poems that come to being that don’t fit into any of them, but thinking this way, I suppose, allows me to more freely inhabit different modes and topics of investigation.
Like you, my own work often veers toward the natural world. However, while it’s true that many women writing today utilize the natural in their work, the wilderness has traditionally been the terrain of men—they have been the explorers and the ones on the frontiers, and so they have also been the ones to write the most about wildness. Approaching Ice is heavily populated with male figures who explored the wild and left a record of their time there. Did you ever wonder as you were writing the poems in the book not only how you would have faced such challenges, but also how they might have differed for any woman? You mentioned in another interview that “an aspect of the domestic survives when you are completely displaced.” This seems to me to be a different statement for a woman than for a man.
Of course I wondered how I’d have fared! In some ways, that was one of the fascinations of the subject and the book for me. The “manliness” that’s wrapped up in polar exploration, too, became a topic to query. I don’t, however, remember ever wondering how any woman would have faced what Scott, Amundsen, or Shirase did. I am a feminist, and I feel comfortable challenging ideas and presentations of masculinity as well as analyzing the trajectory of “manly” attitudes, but I suppose I am equally suspect of generalizations about women and womanliness. I am, you could say, an equal-opportunity critic. I think it might be why I was so glad to find Louise Arner Boyd and Lynne Cox. I wanted to see how a few women did find themselves in the high latitudes, and I was equally interested in how my imaginings and experiences overlapped and diverged from theirs.
You’re from the West—Tacoma, Washington—but call Cape Cod home. As a Westerner myself, I find my attachment to that landscape insurmountable. Do you miss the West, or do you feel a greater affinity with the natural landscape of the East?
I consider myself, to borrow a phrase from David Gessner, a “polygamist of place.” I love Cape Cod. There’s a wildness here in the woods and in the oceans that is palpable and so very different than in Washington state. I live in a very small town. Some of my neighbors are fishermen or farmers, many of my friends are deeply invested in the natural world here. It’s been a real privilege to come to such a different landscape and ecosystem and try to learn it fully. At the same time, I do miss the West. I feel deeply shaped by the waters of Puget Sound and British Columbia. A mountain on the horizon anchors me. Fir trees. Perhaps even more than Tacoma, my time living in Alaska deepened my awareness of how important a sense of being at the edge of roadlessness is to me, how wonderful it is to walk in places where wild animals like bears and moose are present and demand your attentive respect.
I’ve been a fan of Broadsided since you started it back in 2005. Can you tell our readers about the project, and about how it continues to evolve and change?
Broadsided was born out of a few different impulses: the desire to put literature into the world where people who don’t seek it out might stumble upon it; a love of visual art and the company of artists who are making it; the hope to put my knowledge of website design to a different use; economy; a wish to connect with even remote, slow-internet communities… I could go on.
We have kept the basic format the same: one publication a month, free to any and all who visit the website or find it posted in the street. Over time, we’ve added specials and features, we’ve tried to expand the participatory nature of the project, both in terms of the “Vectors” who print and post Broadsided in their communities and in how the writing and visual art interact with each other. I see us doing more on that front—finding ways to celebrate and highlight the work of Vectors, which is as key to the press’s mission as publishing great literature and art. (dear reader, you could be a vector. it’s easy. we need you.)
It’s been tempting to play with the new technologies that have emerged—apps for smartphones, ebooks—but as we grow we want to stay tied to the physical world. A piece of paper on a telephone pole is, to me, an exciting discovery and opportunity for connection. A digital page less so.
It’s also been tempting to move into a more formal print medium—a book of broadsides. The writing and art we publish is, if I do say so, stunning. We have phenomenal artists involved with the project, and there is a strange sense in our consumer-driven world that if “stuff” isn’t priced, it isn’t valuable. How do I communicate the value of Broadsided, which is available free to any and all who want it? If the paper is wrinkled and rain-spattered, if the size of the page and the type is driven by the practicalities of a home printer and a person standing at a bulletin board and trying to read how can the object look as valued/valuable as it is? I think we may have found an answer that fits with the mission of the project, but we’re still in the planning stages. Check back next spring!
You and I both enjoyed time as Stegner Fellows. It is undoubtedly one of the most fortuitous things that can happen to a writer, but it also poses unique challenges. What was the best and the worst of it for you?
I had an amazing community of writers who shared my two years at Stanford as a Stegner Fellow. The fellowship also gave me access to the resources of a phenomenal university. Libraries, minds, art. I got involved with the Stanford Storytelling project, a radio/podcast, and was able to glean a few skills in interviewing and recording. I joined an ecocriticism discussion group and through it engaged critically with texts, concepts, and people I don’t think I ever would have outside of that setting. The best of it is surely the unexpected connections I made with other fellows and with faculty in the history, biology, and anthropology departments. I forged friendships that I treasure.
Oh… and I got to live near a place where there are elephant seals! That was really fantastic, and I visited them as much as I could. I had time to do so because of the fellowship—the luxury of time unconstrained by concern about making ends meet—time to deeply explore poetry, ideas, people and place. It was a huge and terrifyingly wonderful gift.
The worst? Distance. It was difficult for me to be distant from a place where I had a deep sense of community and a deep engagement with the physical world. I missed Alaska (where I’d come from for the fellowship), and I missed Cape Cod (where I’d lived before Alaska and where my partner moved for work at the same time as I got the fellowship and where I live now). In those places I was and am connected not just by the life of the mind but by a physicality that I found it difficult to establish in the Bay Area.
You often talk about the importance of the political in poetry. This is a fraught conversation among poets: What do you say to those who reject the political as a poetic responsibility?
Do they really? Reject the political in their work? Deny that it weasels its way into everything we do? I find it increasingly difficult to believe that any writer puts words on the page with no awareness of the political context they come from. Some writers might privilege sound over narrative, but that can have a political message, too. Some of us are more overt in our engagement than others, but I think all artists strive to represent an engagement that is meaningful and deep enough to grapple with the questions that are important for us. Didactic work (which I think sometimes is sadly held up as “political” work) is simplified, the mystery and investigation stripped out, reduced to an answer, a statement, a slogan. It’s important to me as a poet to use language and the persuasions available through it to explore how emotional and personal life connects with larger, external forces, whether they are political, social, environmental, or… I have to believe that poetry matters, to borrow a phrase. That the work of making poems is more than a self-satisfying endeavor (deeply satisfying as it is).
A Further Explication of Irony
Penikese Island, 1973
Another night on this island you could steal away from, given ice
or jet pack. Mainland clear in good weather but too far
by crawl or backstroke. You’re a boy. Thirteen. Fifteen.
You’ve done something to be sent here. Petty
theft, knife fights, worse. Nights, you can’t help it,
you think of the lepers here before it was a school,
shuffling around on scabby limbs. You can almost
hear them. There’s no traffic. No fathers. No dogs
rattling chain link as you walk their alleys. But still,
sounds. Wind, mostly. Waves. Mice. Then, mid-summer,
you hear a new noise. Half mutter, half scuffle.
And I’d guess you could give a shit about ecology,
demography, or much of anything beyond
getting up the pecking order so that nights,
at least, you could sleep instead of listen.
It’s wrong, but this is where I envy you.
You were there. You slept lightly. Something in the walls.
A rustle gone at daybreak. Why did you tell?
And why did your teacher listen to you and then listen
with you at night? How did he know enough
to recognize a sound he’d never heard? There are birds
that spend their lives at sea. Once a year they’re forced in
to nest and then choose the smallest shore they can.
Egg. Chick. Secret flights to and from the burrow
at the edges of light, odd conversations in the darkness.
At sea their wings nearly slice the wave caps.
You’ve never seen such clear delight in soaring.
The walls you sleep in are old stone. Thick enough
to be fissured and yet still sound. You’ve found
Manx shearwaters nesting in Massachusetts.
None of the books know about this yet. These birds
are truants, using what’s almost abandoned.
For them, this exile is also refuge.
At the Source of the Ore Our Smelter Processed,
Thus Making Commencement Bay a Superfund Site
Thus Making Commencement Bay a Superfund Site
On a glacier above Kennecott, melt pool
a pure Listerine at my feet. Peaks, clouds & their shadows. Distance.
Endless distance unhighwayed, unbridged. No matter
the nationality, everyone on the trail speaks
beauty and gear: crampon, helicopter.
The red mine buildings are a quaint
attraction giving scale, held by
the Park Service in “arrested decay.”
It was not pretty in Tacoma.
Sure, there were pretty spots, parks
and some beaches. Some historic
structures like the jail were nice.
But, really, we were pulp
mill, dockyards, smelter.
The gift shop is a replica
of the place miners paid their bosses
for what they needed. There’s an empty box
of Washington apples. A bit of warm, tart sun
sent north when ships returned for copper.
We fished, swam, ate clams that sucked
the water of the bay into their soft bodies.
No harm to report. The smelter’s gone,
the stack that was our horizon mark
for the sun’s seasonal shifts, imploded.
Guys in hazmat suits cleaned the site
for years. Horsetails frond the tailings.
Above treeline, the contact zone is clear.
A line where two rocks meet—limestone,
greenstone—and minerals precipitate. The miners
slept up there, bunkrooms frosted
by breath, shaft purposely cold so that
they’d work harder. The jagged outline
of Porphyry Ridge above, stunning, but
they wouldn’t have seen it
from so close. I bet most of them
hated it here, where it still
is beautiful, uncondemned. I bet they
couldn’t wait to get out either.
An Apology of Sorts
I was the one who ripped your amateur flagging
from the trailside oak and sweetfern, mouth set
like my mother’s as she picked up dirty socks
from the corners of the house — exasperated,
determined, aware she fought the inevitable.
It was also me who kicked apart
your stick arrow and erased your dirt-x.
One day she declared that anything
on the floor come morning would go
straight to the garage.
At the fork near the overlook, ocean smell nearly certain,
my pockets were full. I wadded and gripped your markers.
Out of childhood’s deep sleep, I stumbled
toward breakfast. My backpack, my right slipper
gone. It was as if the house itself had risen against me.
Messy, lazy, careless. Oh, I did think of you, whoever you are,
fumbling the way home, anxious about direction and time.
But I was full of firm tenderness and certainty
that the woods unmarked by your passage
and even your short-lived confusion
were, after all, for the best.