Part two of my fascinating discussion with poet Elizabeth Bradfield


JK – For me, as a reader, each of the poems in the collection- each small intense jewel – stirs up something deep inside. What did writing these poems mean for you personally?

EB – Each poem was an exploration. I wanted to try to imagine myself into its world. I wanted to emotionally investigate my own love of ice and of places remote from the worlds in which I grew up and later came to settle — namely, suburban and small-town temperate coastal American communities. It’s important that each poem I write risks something and in some way feels vulnerable, so I tried to be as open as I could in balancing gut, thought, dream, song, and fact

JK – As a poet, how do your feelings about the Arctic differ from your feelings about Antarctica?

EB – As a naturalist and as a poet, they differ wildly. As a naturalist, the ecosystems are so different — most notably, the Arctic having a greater diversity of land-based plants and creatures. I have such a love of musk ox and moss campion, such a thrill at the cacophony of fulmars nesting. What’s more, my connection to the Arctic is made palpable during winters on Cape Cod when I see some of those very birds winging over my home waters. The Arctic feels rich, storied, close in an intimate way. The Arctic is also much more complicated socially and historically – there are different cultures, peoples, and nations occupying the far north and have been for millennia. Colonialism and extraction are part of the Arctic’s story both historically and presently, and I am intimidated by the complexities held in those truths. I’m also drawn to them. Now that I’ve spent some time in the Arctic, I’m trying to write into that experience in a way that feels honest and ethical.

Antarctica has such a different resonance — the idealistic legal framework of the Antarctic treaty, the iconic nature of the continent in environmental imagination, the primacy of tourism, the lack of an indigenous human history, the ocean-centric rather than land-centric biological richness. As a poet, I felt freer to imagine myself into Antarctica because in many ways it’s always been a site for human dreams, whether it’s the dreams of whalers or scientists. The written record of people in Antarctica telling their own stories can be found in any library, that frees me to explore more widely on the page. People can set my interpretation alongside others and come to their own conclusions. I also wonder if we belong there at all, particularly as tourists. What is the cost of human presence in Antarctica? Is what is gained by our presence there worth it? That, to me, is an important question to ask of Antarctica.

JK – Like Louise Arner Boyd (and myself!), you naturally gravitate towards these extreme regions. Why?

EB – Oh, that is the million dollar question. I have asked myself that very thing so often, and I don’t know. It’s not a genetic connection. As far as I know, I have no Arctic ancestry in my family. It’s not because as a kid I spent time in the mountains — we were water people and spent our time on the Salish Sea. But ice and tundra thrill me. Maybe it’s because of the same reason I love being at sea — treeless horizon and arching sky. Expansiveness. It’s heart-opening. I don’t know that there is any logical answer I can provide, but my body sings when I’m there, particularly in the north.

JK – Tell us about your upcoming collection “Toward Antarctica” being published in the spring of 2019.

EB – When I wrote Approaching Ice, it was an armchair-traveller’s book, wholly imagined. I’d lived and worked in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska, but never in the Arctic. I’d never been south of the equator, much less as far as Antarctica. In 2011, I was first offered work as a naturalist on a ship in Antarctica, and I jumped at the chance to at last experience a place I’d so deeply imagined. While aboard, I found myself compelled to write, and started using haibun, a form invented by the Japanese poet Basho to chronicle his long forays into remote Japan in the 17th century.

Toward Antarctica uses lyric writing and photographs to explore what it’s like to work as a naturalist-guide on a ship in Antarctic. Antarctica is no longer remote, in many ways. Satellite connectivity is the norm. In the 2015-2016 season, 30,922 people visited Antarctica as tourists. It is time to try and get beyond the romance of Antarctica and see it clearly. Toward Antarctica challenges iconic images of Antarctica and tropes of travel writing. It offers a complex, layered, politically aware view. It examines our relationship to journeying, remoteness, discovery, temporary societies, service economy, and “pure” landscapes. Because of this critical lens, it is my hope that the moments when the beauty and jaw-dropping wonder of the place are rendered become all the more moving. I hope I have done it justice.

Marvellous! Thanks so much, Elizabeth for visiting with us. Can’t wait to read “Toward Antarctica.”

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