Interview with Elizabeth Bradfield, 11/10/11
Award-winning poet, naturalist, web designer and publisher. I had the pleasure of talking with Elizabeth Bradfield via email about her writing life, current and future projects, and her fascination with polar exploration, including her upcoming voyage to Antarctica. She is the author of two books of poems, Interpretive Work and Approaching Ice, and the founder of Broadsided Press, which “attempts to pull literary work out of journal and put it on the streets.” For more about Elizabeth, her poetry and press, you can visit her websites ebradfield.com and broadsidedpress.org.
Could you share how you make time to write? How do you make poetry a priority? Please describe your writing practice.
I tend to work episodically—that is, I think always about writing, but my productivity on the page goes in waves. When I’m in the thick of naturalist work, I tend not to write. My mind is occupied with that field, with thinking about how to present materials and information, with logistics. The benefit of the work I do is that it, too, is episodic. I have a web design job, immerse myself in it, then leave it. I go work on boats for a month or so, then come home. Home, in the quiet periods, my writing mind is free to be loose and to dominate my world, and that’s when I get most work done. When I’m writing, I tend to work best in the mornings, reading and writing in longhand. Then I do computer work and revision throughout the day.
You have an MFA in poetry. As a creative writing student, I’m curious to know how a graduate degree has benefitted your poetry. Do you feel writers and poets need an advanced degree?
The community of peers that I had during my MFA was phenomenal –they challenged and inspired and prodded me into ideas and work that I’d never anticipated. Many are still friends and people I rely on as a writer. Teachers, too, brought ideas and influences that I’d most likely not have found on my own. Those factors, as well as the dedicated time, are things I’m incredibly grateful for. My MFA program also required a good deal of critical writing – our thesis had a critical component. This line of thinking is something that I would not, in all likelihood, have sought out on my own, and I’m grateful that I spent the time bending my mind in that direction. I think it expanded my writing world. The degree itself is not necessary, but I do think that writers need community and conversation to push them and inspire them.
Do you have any mentors or teachers who have inspired you in your writing journey? How have they helped you?
Oh yes—people who I knew personally and teachers who I learned from only via their words on the page. I stand on the shoulders of so many phenomenal writers. They have surprised and delighted me with their craft and dedication and, perhaps just as importantly, they have shown that a life can be made—an admirable life—in dedicating oneself to words. I also remember acutely the first “real” writer who encouraged me to take my own writing seriously. It was a transformative moment, a pivotal one. I will be forever grateful to him.
How do your poetry and work as a naturalist come together?
At times, it seems like they are worlds apart, yet they are the two halves of my life that feel like true vocations: work that recharges me and feels like a true and direct connection with the world. In working as a naturalist, I am constantly learning—from animals, from researchers, from the experiences of people that I’m teaching. All of that influences my writing and provides me with inspiration and subject matter. At the same time, I try and bring poetry to my work as a naturalist, for I believe that we come to the natural world with our entire social selves. Sometimes a poet’s view of ecology/natural history can open the door to a more technical, scientific investigation… and vice versa.
I’m interested in what inspired you to write the poems about polar exploration in your collection Approaching Ice.
Pure personal obsession. I had been reading about polar exploration for many years before beginning the poems of the book. I found the lives of the men and the motivations behind their ventures completely fascinating. As I read more, their lives seemed like an interesting avenue by which to investigate the broader idea of how we come to understand places, how we hold certain places as “apart” and rare.
Could you talk about the publication process for your poetry. How did you get started? As a fiction writer, I know I will eventually need to find an agent in order to find a publisher (for novel-length fiction). Is publication for poetry similar? Different?
Oh, so different. Agents can’t make money from poetry (unless we’re talking Billy Collins or Mary Oliver), so they don’t often represent poets. Poets don’t make much money from their books, either. My publishing began, like most writers of any genre, by publications in small literary journals (my high school, my college) and then expanded outward from there. In poetry, book publication is largely achieved through the contest model, and I sent my manuscripts out to many contests. However, both books were chosen for publication outside of that model. In the case of Interpretive Work, an editor passed my name on to a publisher, who contacted me and asked to see the manuscript. For Approaching Ice, I sent the manuscript to a publisher whose other books I admired.
I will say that I think sending out work is important. It pressurizes and, for me, spurs me to give that extra-critical look at work. Then, when published, it keeps me in conversation with other writers and with readers, which is incredibly important to me.
Please talk about Broadsided Press: “web-enhanced grassroots guerilla art.” How long have you worked on this project? How did you come up with the idea for these broadsheets?
I began Broadsided in 2005, when living inAlaska. The idea came from several sources: from the inspiration I myself got in working alongside visual artists; from my frustration with the lack of literary journals in local bookstores and, at the same time, with the huge proliferation of literary journals in the same format (did we really need another one?); from my knowledge and sadness over the fact that poetry was not something most of my community members would ever seek to think out, would ever think might have relevance to their lives. I decided to do a web-based publication that was grassroots distributed because I loved the idea of people investing themselves in the project – and also because, on a practical level, I wanted the project to be sustainable financially even if I didn’t receive outside funding.
You’ve seen a need for grassroots art, grassroots publication. With so many options for publication now (traditional print, webzines, e-books, self-publication through any medium), do you have any thoughts on the future of publication? How can writers/poets continue to connect with an audience?
I think the future of publication will be vastly varied in terms of aesthetic, audience and media. Which is great. And we’ll connect readers and writers through all those media – in-the-flesh readings, radio, web publications and podcasts, literary journals, books (e and print). I’m excited to see how things develop. I think there will be more cross-platform publications in our future, too. There has been a huge surge of public art projects involving poetry, from organized readings to poetry-on-the-bus.
In addition to your websites, do you use any other social media? Have you found these effective?
I have a Facebook page for myself and also for Broadsided. Is it effective? I don’t really know. This is something I think about quite a bit and really wonder about. I don’t, in all honesty, see Facebook translating into much on-the-street involvement for Broadsided (if you have suggestions, I’m eager to hear them). But maybe just getting the presence out there is enough. For myself, it’s easy to connect with other writers via Facebook… but I’m one of those gals who is a bit shy of self-promotion, so I don’t use it as aggressively as others do. And that’s fine with me, really. I’d rather be writing.
What are your current projects?
I’m working on poems that I think will become a couple of different books — one series/collection about Arctic explorer Donald B. MacMillan, who grew up where I now live, on Cape Cod. The other a more reactive collection that focuses on natural history and interactions with the natural world. I’m also planning on starting a general interest nonfiction book this spring — it’s very new in my mind, so I don’t want to say much. Broadsided: more vectors! better financial support! public art projects! and, really, I want to foster and develop a better way to interact with and reflect the experiences of the Vectors. As I said earlier, I’m very open to suggestions and ideas — so let me know if you have any!
And lastly, could you tell me more about your upcoming trip to Antarctica? Is this your first visit there? How long and what will you be working on while there?
I will be down for six weeks working as a naturalist on a small-ish ecotour vessel. It will be my first time there physically — mentally, I’ve spent a lot of time there! I’m eager to see how the reality clashes with what I created in my mind. While there, I’ll be leading walks, driving Zodiacs, giving lectures (focusing mainly on pelagic birds and marine mammals, which are my two main fields of interest/field work). I get back in early January — so it’s the height of their summer down there. The bird and seal rookeries should be full of chicks and pups!
Prompt Writing, Fall 2011. The following is an assignment I completed for a class, in which we wrote about something we loved.
“Try it. You’ll be amazed with the results.” My blonde-goddess friend Gina introduced me to the gym one late-August Friday morning two years ago. I stepped into an unknown world: the boot-camp workout gym. No endless rows of treadmills and elliptical machines going nowhere. No women with too much mascara and too little sweat. This gym meant hard work. My first hour there, I ran. I rowed. I held a ten-pound plate over my head and attempted three rounds of sit-ups. When the trainer called time, I collapsed on the floor, muscles screaming and sweat pooling on the black rubber floor underneath me. My shorts and shirt stuck to my skin.
“You’ll need lots of Advil,” the trainer said. “See you Monday.”
It was love at first visit. I hobbled into my house, fell asleep on the sofa, then texted my husband upon waking to convince him that despite the exorbitant cost, I needed to belong to this gym. I returned Monday, muscles aching like they had during high school soccer pre-season training. Credit card in hand, I joined.
The cool metal of the barbell under my hands. Tightening my stomach and jerking my shoulders back, eyes forward. Thighs steady. Prepared for the perfect Olympic lift. The pull-up bar bit my tender palms and ripped open my skin, which eventually healed, forming tough calluses. The exhilaration of jumping—leaping over hurdles and crouching atop boxes, straightening up to realize the ground was far below. (Had I really jumped that high?) The burnt stink of the damp rubber floors. The weight of the dirty tires. I loved it all.
Suddenly, I was more than a suburban stay-at-home mom—I was Wonder Woman. I flipped tires! Dead-lifted 200 pounds! My gym was perfect. I was its acolyte. I adopted its “acceptable” eating plan (an abundance of protein, no dairy, no grains). I convinced my husband to join and encouraged more friends to go. Running had terrified me; after I joined the gym, I signed up for road races. Slacks I never thought would fit following two pregnancies slipped over my hips with ease.
I ignored the pains in my hips, the crackling in my knees. My palms were raw after a hundred pull-ups, but I only did more. The gym. The gym. The gym. Gina and I dissected the workouts, gossiped about the trainers. My husband and I spent hours praising the gym with our best friends—they soon opened a franchise of their own. It was love—a mad, passionate, insane love that I had for this place.
Then, everything went wrong. The knees hurt, no mere cracking and popping. My left ankle throbbed following a 5K race. “Shin splints,” the orthopedist said. For two months, I reclined on the physical therapist’s table while she massaged my inflamed leg and ran an electric current through an anti-inflammatory pain patch fixed above my ankle. I avoided my beloved gym, resorting to slow neighborhood walks and gentle stationary bike rides. When I returned to the gym for three weeks, I was no longer anyone special. New faces surrounded me; I hovered over the light weights, ignored by women I used to out-lift. I no longer dropped off the pull-up bar with an elegant, efficient swing of my body. A raised box caught my drop, and I still couldn’t put my full weight on my left leg. The calluses had healed, and my palms were soft.
When I cancelled my membership in an email, I blame my injured leg, my perpetually aching hips and knees. I didn’t acknowledge my bruised pride, or the humbling experience of being less than I had been.
These days, the gym continues without me. I run into the friends who opened (then closed) the franchise—we have little to say to each other. As we wait to meet our children at the end of the school day, Gina rattles on about the crazy, exhausting movements she and the rest of the class endured that morning. “I don’t care,” I want to say. Instead, much like hearing news about a former lover, I nod my head and smile. Congratulate her. My eyes drift to the waning gibbous moon in the western sky, to the spider weaving his web amid the pine needles. Gone are the beauty of the perfect overhead press and the rhythm of leaping lunges.
I eat grains now. The faded skinny jeans hide in the back of my closet. My left leg still aches when I jog on the soft, red mulch trail at a nearby park. I miss this former love of mine, those hectic two years. I think about returning someday when I’m truly healed, even though I know I’ll risk re-injury.
No. Not worth it.