Journal of Writing & Environment

Interview: A Conversation with Elizabeth Bradfield

Friday, March 29th, 2013
9th Annual Symposium on Wildness, Wilderness & the Environmental Imagination: The Future of Water

Interview by Lindsay Tigue

Listen to an audio recording of this interview:

Or download the MP3.

Elizabeth Bradfield is the author of two poetry collections: Approaching Ice and Interpretive Work. Her poems have appeared in The Atlantic, Orion, The Believer, Poetry and are forthcoming in Drunken Boat, Alaska Quarterly Review and elsewhere. She has been awarded the Audre Lorde Prize and a Stegner Fellowship, among other honors. Founder and editor-in-chief of Broadsided Press, she lives on Cape Cod and works as a naturalist and teacher.  She is the current Poet-in-Residence at Brandeis University.

In March, Flyway’s nonfiction editor Lindsay Tigue had the chance to sit down with Elizabeth Bradfield, who was in town for Iowa State University’s Symposium on Wildness, Wilderness, and the Creative Imagination.

Flyway: In your bio, you describe yourself as a “poet and naturalist.” As a naturalist participating in marine field research and in-field presentations, you also describe yourself as an “aspiring generalist.” Can you explain a little bit how you see those terms working?

EB: I work as a naturalist in multiple ways. I work locally on Cape Cod on short, three-hour whale watches and that’s very clear cut, but the other naturalist work I do is on expedition ships—ecotourism—so I’m with a team of other naturalists and we travel with people from a week up to three weeks in places like Alaska, the Amazon, Antarctica, and the Arctic. The “aspiring generalist” part comes in because all the naturalists I work with have their expertise and my training is not in science. I came into this work through the back door. It was always my interest though, and in college I studied marine biology, but didn’t end up with the paper to prove it. In the field, before working as a naturalist, I helped out with various projects. I spent a lot of time in the marine environment, in particular with marine mammals. And so now, the more I think about it, the less interested I am in claiming an expertise. Because I feel like the more I look, the more mystified I am. For instance, studying whales got me really interested in pelagic birds.

Flyway: It gives you a wider scope.

EB: Yeah. So, what I’m interested is everything (laughs). It’s the culture. It’s the nature. It’s the birds. It’s the whales. It’s the lichen. It’s the tundra ecosystem. It’s the barnacles. It’s the nudibranchs. The reason I’m interested in both poetry and natural history is I don’t want to weight them differently. They’re all interesting to me. They’re all important. And if I throw them into the big jumble and allow them to tumble around in there, then it gets interesting to me. If I try and limit myself too much and say, “I am looking at entanglement rates of gray seals on haul outs of Cape Cod.”—Yeah, I’m interested in that, but I’m not a narrow-focused kind of gal.

Flyway: It doesn’t satisfy your curiosity for everything else?

EB: Yeah, I’m like the dog in Up, looking at the squirrels. “Squirrel! There’s a squirrel over there!” My attention is distracted by something else. I want to honor that distraction, that desire to be a more traditional naturalist and person in the world—a generalist. I think being a generalist is a wonderful thing and I think in our society, we are moving toward specialization. In the medical field you see it. You also see it in other fields as well—certification programs for this, that, and the other thing. I am much more interested in not being certified and doing things that I’m interested in. It’s a very selfish desire! I’m doing what I want to do.

Flyway: So then my next question is how do you balance or pinball between being a poet and a naturalist?

EB: Awkwardly (laughs). Awkwardly. I like being a spy. Having a secret life. Here I am sitting with you and talking about poetry and, in my secret life, I’m thinking about gray seals. And when I’m in the field as a naturalist, talking about gray seals or whales or birds, then my secret life is being a poet. I don’t do both at once very well and I’ve tried to integrate them and recently I’ve been able to give a couple of talks that address that kind of jumble, talking about, in particular, Arctic science and the poems that have come from that investigation. I think I’ve been able to talk about that because I’ve come into it both as an experienced naturalist and an experienced poet. Immersing myself in the Arctic has been a place where I’ve been able to combine the two a lot more successfully. But when I’m working as a naturalist, I’m not writing poems and when I’m working on poems I don’t want to think like a naturalist per se. I want to think a lot more loosely and have language rather than consequence be at the forefront. So, I seesaw.

Flyway: What role does research play in your work, if most of it is more hands-on field research or if you do a lot of book research as well? Did your research process change or differ between Interpretive Work and Approaching Ice?

EB: Honestly, in a weird way, I see those two first books as my one first book. A lot of the poems were written concurrently. Interpretive Work was finished first and accepted first and there were a few things I needed to finish up before Approaching Ice became a complete manuscript. Really, though, there were many years when these poems were both moving forward and accumulating and rumbling around.

There are two really different modes for me composing poetry manuscripts. I find myself now in a similar position. I have two manuscripts that I’m working on, one is closer to completion and the other is a little bit further away. One is more from daily life and personal experience, which is true of Interpretive Work and the other is more driven by a concept, a research project, some of the research being book research, some of the research in this case, unlike Approaching Ice, being more like investigative journalism, going to places and experiencing things. I don’t want all of those things in the same book, but I like having a project that I can move forward with, however long it takes me—five years, ten years. You know, I am working on poems about polar exploration and then these other things kind of come in and suddenly I realize, “Oh wow, I have a lot of these. Maybe they are a book…. What are they saying? What’s going on with those?”

Fyway: When you’re beginning a new poem, where does the idea come from? How long of a writing process goes into each poem, or does it vary?

EB: I used to say—and it used to be true—that it was sound. A first line of a poem would come to me and it would be kind of incantatory and it would stick around in my head and I had to follow it. That still happens to me sometimes, but I feel like as poets it’s our job to be tuning forks, right? To be ready to resonate in one way, shape, or form. What I am interested in now are the moments of resonance that are deeply strange. I overhear something, or see something, or read something, and think, “Wow, that is really weird and a little bit messed up.” That, to me, is an exciting moment for a poem. Something I can’t wait to come home and tell my partner about: “Can you believe this?” There’s shock, uncertainty, and curiosity in a confusing, emotional jumble. Those are the exciting materials to work with in poetry.

Flyway: Does it ever happen for you that what starts the poem ends up getting cut from the final version?

EB: Oh yes. Definitely. Some poems—a lot of poems for me—take a very long time to write. That doesn’t mean I sit down every day and work on them, but the time that I put a poem in a drawer and leave it for a month or a year, that’s important too, that sitting there and being there and letting other things happen in my life and then pulling that poem out of the metaphoric drawer and looking at it again and seeing if it still feels fresh and it still has the surprise and the weight that it felt like it did when I first wrote it. That time away is really critical for me in my writing process. Very few poems fall right onto the page.

Flyway: So it can vary, but for the most part you have to give poems a little space and come back to them?

EB: Space and time. I’m slow. Slow, slow, slow!

Flyway: When reexamining your poems throughout the process of writing your two published books and your works-in-progress, how do you feel you’ve evolved as a poet? When you go back and read earlier work has anything changed in the way you approach both individual poems and large-scale projects?

EB: That’s a really good question. I think it’s easier—well, it’s easy to draw parallels between Book A and Book B and Book 1 and Book 2. So, if Book A is Interpretive Work, the collection that I’m finishing now, that I think is going to be titled Once Removed. Those feel in conversation to me and what’s changed from Interpretive Work to Once Removed is an interest in coldness. I mean coldness not as in a temperature the body feels, but in terms of tone. I’m not allowing my vulnerable and romantic self to be the main speaker, but my more cynical self. I’m still looking at engagements of the human and the natural world, the social self and the biological self, and how that’s all muddy and messed up. I’m still looking at family and place in the world, but with a colder eye.

The poems of Approaching Ice were very armchair-traveler poems. With this new book, I want to have a lot more at stake personally. The poems of Approaching Ice were the poems of an obsession. I was obsessed with this polar travel and why they did it. I didn’t have any skin in the game. I hadn’t really traveled very much to either pole. I hadn’t traveled to Antarctica at all; I’d spent a little bit of time in the north. Now I’ve spent more time there and I want to write about my own experiences more directly set against the explorers and not just judge them and imagine them, but try and have a real and felt contrast between the two.

Flyway: What poets have influenced you? What contemporary poets’ work currently excites you?

EB: I was very lucky as an undergraduate to study with Linda Bierds. You never know when things are going to converge, but she for me is an amazing role model and poet. She was someone I had a natural resonance with, the way that she worked and the way that she approached poems. I admire her so tremendously. She’s a touchstone for me.

I have huge admiration for Eavan Boland—for her intellectual clarity and the grace of her lyric. Recently, I’ve been reading Stephen Dunn quite a bit and I love his hard-boiled vulnerability, the blend of cranky and romantic that he finds in his work. Anyone who can write a villanelle about Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan wins in my book. I think that’s fantastic.

Those are poets that are important to me and there are so many others. There are so many. Philip Larkin. Not all of his work, but some of it I find really stunning. Coleridge was really important to me as a younger writer. T. S. Eliot.

And now, recently, books that have just knocked my socks off have been Maurice Manning’s Bucolics, I think that’s a stunning book. Also, Cecily Parks’ book Field Folly Snow. Amazing, amazing book. I’ll read anything that Carl Phillips writes. I’ll buy all of his books. I always want to know what he’s up to. And I’ve been loving—I don’t know that they’re in a collection yet—but I’ve been really blown away by the recent work I’ve bee seeing by Ellen Bryant Voigt in The New Yorker. I don’t often respond to poems in The New Yorker, but she’s been doing these amazing, dense, winding, syntactical poems, that I just love.

Flyway: In an interview you did with Connotation Press, you said living in Alaska made you realize how important the “edge of roadlessness is to [you], how wonderful it is to walk in places where wild animals like bears and moose are present and demand your attentive respect.” I thought, since you are visiting for the Wildness Symposium, I wonder if you can talk a little bit more about your relationship to “wildness” and how it informs your work.

EB: I think that idea of the world demanding attention is an important one. I think this is why I enjoy spending time on boats. If you don’t pay attention to the weather, you’re an idiot. You really need to pay attention otherwise you can get into deep trouble. And that sense that you can’t enter the interior fully if you’re not attentive, you’ll become physically endangered.

Flyway: What I notice for instance about being on a boat is that you focus in on different things, your ability to pay attention changes in different wild places.

EB: Yes.

Flyway: I just really liked that idea of demanding “attentive respect.” I think that’s something we think about a lot here in terms of, “What is wilderness, and how do you know when you’re in it?”

EB: Yeah and living now on Cape Cod and away from Alaska, it’s all about the water. In the woods, the predators are different. The predators are ticks and Lyme disease; they’re not bear and moose. That’s a different kind of attentiveness, but because that spit of land is so vulnerable—because it’s all sand, because it sticks out there into the Atlantic like a sore thumb, because it’s dangerously low in terms of sea level, weather and climate become their own wildness. They demand that attention. Anything in which your attention is yanked back to the physical present is wildness; whether that’s urban, or rural, or untrammeled.

Flyway: I wanted to talk a little about your editorial venture, Broadsided Press. In an earlier interview, you described it as a “literary/visual collaborative grassroots/virtual press.” Can you explain that a little? What role do you envision the combination of visual art and poetry serving?

EB: (laughs) It’s a long slash definition, right? I started the press in a large part out of envy. (laughs) Envy for the tools and the play and the visuals of visual art. I feel that entering an artist’s studio and they’ve got all those little rolled up tubes of paint and boxes of things—

Flyway: It’s so tactile.

EB: (nods) —and you never know how it’s going to be used, but there’s this visual richness of things you can play with. If you enter a writer’s room, sure you’ll have some pictures and maybe some notebooks, but it’s boring.

Flyway: Sheafs of paper (laughs).

EB: Yes, it’s not visible. It can be so fun to enter that visual landscape. Poetry, for me, is so important as a way of understanding the world, as a way of making sense of emotion and politics and strange moments in our lives and yet (and I think maybe this is becoming less so), it’s so shut off into a cordon of “highfalutin-ness.” That breaks my heart and I don’t think it should be that way. People are not afraid of art like they are of poetry. How can art help poetry be heard? And how can poetry inspire artists? What I wanted was to show how these forms can reverberate against each other. So the press really started because I wanted to see what visual artists would do with poems—“God, what would someone do with one of my poems? What would they see? What might happen and how can I get poetry into our visual culture in a way that will make someone stop like a poster for a band or an advertisement might?”

So it came from that and then also increasingly, we’ve been doing “Collaborators Q&A,” where we ask the writer and the artist (who have no input over the final product once they send their stuff into me). I wanted to know how it felt to respond, to be responded to. What happens when the two come together, does it change? Is there some kind of shift that happens when the two are resting together visually on the page?

Flyway: The MFA program here at Iowa State is unique in the fact that it is a program in creative writing and environment, which allows us students to explore interdisciplinary subjects relating to the environment that interest us, whether science, art, architecture, history. What are some of your favorite “environmental” writers? How or if you define an “environmental” writer, or would you?

EB: That’s a big question. Well, there are so many that I feel so indebted to. I was talking about Charles Scammons with one of the other students here. He’s an environmental writer I’m super interested in. There’s this wonderful new book out by Eva Saulitis that I’m reading, Into Great Silence: A Memoir of Discovery and Loss among Vanishing Orcas. I think Carl Safina does amazing books. I think Scott Weidensaul’s Living on the Wind is an amazing history of bird migration. I’m all over the map.

I’m more subject-driven when it comes to environmental reading then author-driven. When I think about writers who I really admire in terms of how they formulate a question. Richard Nelson who wrote The Island Within and also Heart and Blood about the lives of white-tailed deer in North America. I think he’s a really interesting writer because he allows the complexity to be there and he also—I think sometimes with nonfiction and environmental writing there becomes this valorization as the self as character moving through understanding and I’m very suspicious of that. I’m interested in the writers who sidestep that one way or another.

Flyway: Recently, I was at the AWP conference, in the panels and readings I went to, the theme of community and its importance to poetry came up again and again—how crucial it is for fellow poets to share poems and a love of poetry and how the work of a poet can at times feel isolating, as it is work that often sees little audience beyond other poets. This is something I have been thinking a lot about lately myself, how I will retain a poetry community after the shelter of an MFA program. I am wondering what role a larger poetic community plays in your work and in your life as a poet?

EB: I think that idea of the journey of retreat and return in wilderness writing is also true for me in poetry. I rarely share work in progress. I have a lot of friends who are writers and talking with them generally about what we’re working on, what we’re struggling with, what we’re going to do, is really important, to feel like I have peers engaged in the work. But I don’t often look for feedback until pretty far along in the process because I think that solitude of being with the work and not having an outside influence too soon is really important to me, to be able to tumble it around and kick it, and pull it apart and put it back together—

Flyway: On your own.

EB: On my own. It’s important to me. I enjoy that process. I don’t want that taken away from and I don’t want someone else’s imprint on it too soon. I need the shape to be a little more firm. A writing community is really important to me, but not poem-by-poem. The sense that there are other people out there engaged in the work is almost one of the most important things.

And then there’s this other excitement that happens like when you’re at a conference like AWP, the ASLE conference, Bread Loaf, or Sewanee. A gathering of writers. When those people come together and there’s that energy of all those people bringing forward their concerns and starting to see trends in the conversation, whether it’s aesthetic or subject, that’s really fascinating, too. And I love to immerse in that and then run away.

Flyway: (laughs) I definitely felt like that after AWP this year.

EB: Oh, it’s overwhelming, right? The running away is important, too.