By serendipity, I was introduced to the fine work of poet, naturalist and publisher Elizabeth Bradfield. She is the author of “Approaching Ice” (Persea, 2010) which was a finalist for the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets (and which is featured in “The Polar Adventures of a Rich American Dame A Life of Louise Arner Boyd”) as well as “Interpretive Work” (Arktoi Books/Red Hen Press, 2008) which won the Audre Lord Award in 2008 and “Once Removed” (Persea, 2015).
Like Louise Arner Boyd and yours truly, Elizabeth is beguiled by the cold and the ice. I’m delighted that she dropped by to answer some questions about her fascinating work.
JK – Your poetry collection “Approaching Ice” (Persea Books, 2010) resonated deeply with me and other readers who love polar regions. In particular, the poem ‘Polar Explorer Louise Arner Boyd (1924)’ was really inspirational for my biography. Can you tell me a little about what this poem means to you?
EB – I was so thrilled to “discover” Louise Arner Boyd. Looking back at my notes, my first draft of the poem was written in 2004, which is fairly far along in the making of the collection. At that point, I’d spent nearly a decade reading “the boys” of polar exploration, and to at last come upon a woman was, in all honestly, a relief. But reckoning with what her story meant to me was difficult. I think that, like many people who write into a narrative in which they themselves are a marginalized figure, I was hyper-critical of Boyd because of our similarities: not just women, but non-traditional women scrabbling into a life that does/doesn’t have a space for us. Poor Boyd — she had the burden of having to represent all of my hopes and dreams.
JK – Your research for the collection is commendable. Did your understanding of the role of women in polar history change over the course of writing these poems?
EB – First, thank you! The book began after about eight years of obsession with early polar explorers, beginning with Shackleton. I was reading and reading and reading… just because it fascinated me. I wasn’t “researching,” per se. There was no direction to it then, and I didn’t have an idea of writing anything myself. In 2001, that changed. In a moment of kind of dumbfounded “duh,” I asked myself why I wasn’t writing poems. So I began writing with the idea of a book in mind, and at that point I reached out deliberately beyond the easy names (Shackleton, Scott, Amundsen) to find other stories — Nobu Shirase, Matthew Henson, John Cleves Symmes. One of my fascinations with polar narratives was always the lurking “could I have done it?” and, tied to that, the realization that, as a woman, I’d not have been welcomed on those expeditions. The ways in which ideas of purity, challenge, manliness, and femininity overlapped and shifted were absolutely core to what I wanted to investigate. Once we get into modern Antarctica — women at research bases as scientists and forklift drivers and cooks — the dynamic becomes more familiar and, in many ways, less interesting to me. I know there is plenty to engage with there, it’s just not where my fascination yearns.
EB – The role of women in the north is much more complicated, of course, because it was and is a peopled land. For as long as there have been people in the Arctic, women have lived there. Right now, I’m quite interested in mapping and unpacking the way indigenous women were perceived by Arctic “explorers” of a certain era and what that said, too, about the men’s relationship to their wives back home.
Stay tuned for the second part of this fascinating dialogue!
Check out Elizabeth Bradfield’s website at www.ebradfield.com