Episode 7: Elizabeth Bradfield

Elizabeth Bradfield

9 April 2019


[Peter] Hi, you are listening to Open Book: An English Department Podcast. My name is Peter. I am one of the UDRs for the English Department. In this podcast, we’re interviewing different faculty in English and creative writing. Today, we’re really lucky to be with Liz Bradfield, from creative writing. How are you?

[Liz Bradfield] I’m good, how are you?

[Peter] I’m good. Thank you so much for joining us today — or joining me. I keep saying us, but it’s just the two of us, so…

[Liz Bradfield] Well, and the future ‘uses.’

[Peter] Yes, anyone listening, please feel included in my pronoun of ‘us.’ So, I wanted to start by asking you, what book is currently on your nightstand, or on your proverbial nightstand, but a book you have open?

[Liz Bradfield] Well, I have a stack of books that are open, ’cause I just went to the AWP Conference the weekend before last, but the top books are — I’m gonna butcher some of the titles, but Lee Ann Roripaugh’s new book of poems, Tsunami Vs. the Fukushima 50. That’s the top of my pile. And also, Felicity Aston’s book Alone, which is a memoir chronicling her solo crossing of the Antarctic continent on skis. And, the third — I can’t remember the title, but it’s this fascinating novel about a mid-twentieth century epidemiologist who goes to a fictional Micronesian island and gets into a bunch of trouble.

[Peter] Wow, that’s an eccentric array. These questions have a little bit of a logic to them. They start, I guess, in somewhat of an earlier time. I wanted to start by asking you if you can remember a poem that you read early in your life or in your writing career that you mark as a turning point for you.

[Liz Bradfield] Yeah, I can actually. My grandmother, Grandma Phyllis, gave me a book of the poems of John Fowles, who’s most known for his novels like The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which was made into a movie. And there was a poem in there that I just fell in love with, and I don’t know how old I was when she gave me this book. I’m not sure. But I memorized it. It’s called “The Bedouin.”

“Searching we came to a place
and found ourselves alone
utterly lost in wilderness
in meaningless blank stone

and the words had gone like water
under a desert sun
our mouths had lacked all discipline
and let the goatskins run

no hope in the wordless waste
no camel-pools to aid
no poems thoughts or apothegms
to give a little shade”

And it goes on. And I just, I loved that poem. I loved the rhythm of it, the rhyme of it, and I had an earlier fascination with desert and Bedouin culture anyway, so it was all coming together for me in that one poem. And it’s really sad and dark and bleak, and I think that really spoke to me as… I must have been in junior high, as a junior high kid.

[Peter] That’s a good time to have some bleak poetry to validate and legitimize.

[Liz Bradfield] Oh, yeah, as a container for all the scary, big emotions.

[Peter] Speaking of earlier days, this is a question I’ve asked in every podcast I’ve had and was recently told is a cruel question. What were you like in high school, if you had to describe the person you were?

[Liz Bradfield] I was a goody-goody nerd soccer player band kid.

[Peter] What did you play in band?

[Liz Bradfield] Clarinet. I still play sometimes.

[Peter] Oh, good.

[Liz Bradfield] I loved it. I loved it. We actually had a really good band in my high school, and I’m not talking about marching band — although I was in the marching band also, with a really interesting costume — but it was a concert band, and we had an amazing conductor. He really pushed us. We played hard.

[Peter] What was the marching band costume?

[Liz Bradfield] Well, we had a shako. So, you know, the regular pants with the stripe and all that, but we had a huge shako hat, which is those hats that the guards at Buckingham Palace wear.

[Peter] That sounds heavy.

[Liz Bradfield] It was hot.

[Peter] Yeah, it sounds like you would have a sweaty head. So, this question is a more open one. Think about a piece of media — like, it could be a song, film, anything like that — that you feel has some kind of insight into who you are as a person, or that you might recommend to someone who is seeking some truth about you.

[Liz Bradfield] Okay. Then, I also want to amend my “what was I like in high school” answer first.

[Peter] Sure, please!

[Liz Bradfield] Because all of that is true, and then also… dark, subterranean, rebellious river that hadn’t found its outlet yet.

[Peter] Yes.

[Liz Bradfield] Anyway, there’s a resurgence of nostalgia right now for riot grrrl aesthetics, and that was really formative for me in college in the 1990s. I was in Seattle and Oregon in those college years, so the music scene was really, really strong. So, bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, that music and then its aestheticized anger and rebellion, was really formative. At the same time, classical music, you know? So, some mash-up of beautiful, traditional classical music, maybe Mozart, and riot grrrl. Those two things together.

[Peter] Here at Brandeis, you teach poetry, and we’ll be talking about that, but I also know that, more so than almost any other professor I think I’ve met, you have such a vibrant career doing so many things, and I wanted to ask you about some of the things that you’re doing in your off-season, or when you’re not here on campus, which I guess may be just as “on.” But, I would love to hear about some of those other gigs.

[Liz Bradfield] Yeah. What I love about my particular position here at Brandeis is that it’s a half-time position, so I get to live my split life, which is kind of how I see it. So, half of my life, or some percentage, is about books, reading, writing, the fostering of engagement with literature as a publisher, editor, as a teacher, all of those things, and I love that. That’s really important to me, even more as a vocation than a career, you know? It’s a passion. And then, in my other half of my life, equally important, is my engagement as a naturalist, as a student of biology in many ways. I get to volunteer and help with some biology fieldwork projects where I live on Cape Cod. I get to work as a naturalist guide, both locally on Cape Cod and on ships. This summer, I’ll work for a few weeks in southeast Alaska, and I’ll also work for a few weeks in the High Arctic around Greenland and the Eastern Canadian Arctic. So, those are the two worlds that I kind of swing between. The shorthand for it is ‘books and boats,’ and they’re both really important to me, and they’re important as a balance for each other.

[Peter] I wanted to ask about that balance. If they do, how do those two worlds connect for you? How do you bring them together?

[Liz Bradfield] Sometimes, I don’t want to bring them together. I like that they’re separate. The intellectual work of writing, teaching, scholarship… it’s really demanding and challenging, in terms of self-confidence and esteem, and I need sometimes to step away from that and just do some physical grunt-work. And there’s a lot of physical grunt-work in the other half of my life, and being out and looking for things, looking at things, hiking, taking data, dealing with whatever I’m dealing with, wrangling a seal… that is a real respite and recharge for the other life, and also, I hope that in some of my writerly life, I can explore and share some of that naturalist work and mindset in a way that opens new conversations for people.

[Peter] I know another thing you mentioned is being a publisher, and I know that you have a press that you run, correct?

[Liz Bradfield] Yeah.

[Peter] Could you talk a little bit about that, and what kind of work you’re doing with your press?

[Liz Bradfield] Yeah, it’s called Broadsided Press, and when most people here “press,” they think of books, but that’s not what we do. It’s more in some ways like a literary journal. We publish broadsides, which are, simply defined, any piece of paper printed on one side, meant to be displayed on a flat surface in public, or semi-flat. And a more refined definition of that would be literary art pieces that are meant to be hung on a wall. So, at Broadsided, we have open submissions of writing. Anyone can submit writing to us for consideration. And once we choose the writing, we have a team of artists and we send the writing out to the team, and one person on the team says, “Hey! I want that. I want to respond to that visually.” And then, we put them together as a single broadside and we release one a month, free, for anyone to download, and we release them as PDFs, because our goal is to not make something that costs a hundred dollars, but that anyone can download and print on regular old equipment and then put up in their communities.

[Peter] You have so many different talents here, so I’m not in any way with this next question implying that you need more, but my next question is: If you could pick up another skill or talent with minimal effort, but just something you’ve been wishing to learn or acquire, what would that skill or talent be?

[Liz Bradfield] So many!

[Peter] Sure, you can name as many as you choose.

[Liz Bradfield] Alright. I would like to… I’ve been thinking for the past few years that I’d like to re-engage with the clarinet actually, and find some kind of woodwind quintet or something like that. I would really like to learn how to operate, and get to operate, deep-sea submersibles. I would really like to go as far down as I can go in the ocean and explore there. I don’t think that’s a realistic goal, so that’s not quite on my hobbies scale. I’ve been trying to encourage myself to draw more when I’m in the field, in the spirit of a naturalist’s notebook, you know, field sketches and writings and bringing all that together as a different way of looking. I would like to learn to ride a motorcycle. That’s high on my list. I don’t know. The list goes on. There’s a long list.

[Peter] You mentioned the music that you came up into this world with. What kind of music do you most often listen to now? If you just have your headphones in, what’s playing?

[Liz Bradfield] I don’t. I can’t read and listen to music, and I can’t write and listen to music, so I don’t. I love music, and I think that’s why I can’t listen as I’m reading or writing, because it takes too much of my attention away. Even if it’s music without words. But I’m very lucky in that my partner loves music, and loves playing music really loud, so when she’s in the house, putting on her playlist, I love that, so I listen to whatever she’s playing.

[Peter] What is something that you don’t like, that everyone else seems to like?

[Liz Bradfield] Podcasts. Podcasts, I can’t make myself listen to them. The other thing that I don’t like that everyone else seems to like are TED Talks. I don’t enjoy them. They’re formulaic, and it’s a kind of weird celebrity culture, and I know that there are really smart, amazing things being said and discussed, but I feel totally trapped when I’m asked to sit and watch a TED Talk. So, those are two things.

[Peter] I agree with both, but unfortunately we are on a podcast!

[Liz Bradfield] I’m sorry!

[Peter] But the one podcast I listen to is this when I edit it, but I agree, especially about TED Talks. And so, on the flipside of that question, what is something that you love that maybe would surprise someone who doesn’t really know you?

[Liz Bradfield] I feel like I’m a pretty open book. I can’t think of anything that would be surprising. I’m not really a fan of feeling like I have elements of my life to hide. I do find myself professionally, not in my teacher life but in my naturalist life, often I do surprise people when they find out that I’m not straight, that I’m a lesbian, and I think it’s always surprising. In that world, there’s still more men than women who are working in the field, it’s still more straight than not, it’s still more white than not, so I think I do often surprise people with that information, and I enjoy surprising them with it, because I think it’s important to keep advocating for visibility.

[Peter] I wanted to move to asking you some questions about poetry here at Brandeis, and about what you teach and what you do in your classroom. What is a poem that you love introducing students to?

[Liz Bradfield] Recently — it changes a lot — but recently, one poem that I think is just so phenomenal and delicate and powerful is Ross Gay’s poem “A Small Needful Fact.” It’s a poem that talks about Michael Brown and his death in a really beautiful, investigative way that upends kind of the powerful shout of a lot of directly politicized poems, and that does so much really potent work. So, it’s a short poem, it uses syntax in really amazing ways, it uses research in really amazing ways, and it’s just an exciting model for what a poem can do.

[Peter] What are some elements of a workshop class that would make it a great workshop — a really happy, productive space for you?

[Liz Bradfield] Students who are just really, really into writing. That’s it. Into writing, into reading, into vigorously debating the poems they love and don’t love. A workshop in which there’s a real sense for everyone in the room that what we’re doing really matters, which it does.

[Peter] I know that, as part of creative writing here, you bring poets onto campus to read to students and other members of the community. I was wondering, if money and geography were no issue, what would be a dream living poet that you would love to see here on this campus?

[Liz Bradfield] Oh my God, so many!

[Peter] Sure! Again, feel free to throw out multiple!

[Liz Bradfield] So many! I would love to have Natalie Diaz on this campus. Her work is just so powerful, and not only her poems on her page, but the work she’s doing in the world. I think it’s really important to have a balance of new voices and elders. I think there’s a lot of exciting new poets out there, and then there’s a lot of people who’ve been practicing for years and years and years and just have so much legacy behind them. I would love to bring Jane Hirshfield. I would love to bring Robert Hass. I would love to bring Eavan Boland. Can I bring people back from the dead?

[Peter] Yes!

[Liz Bradfield] I would love to bring Lucille Clifton. I would love to bring Ross Gay. I would love to bring… there’s just so many amazing writers out there. I would live to bring Li-Young Lee. I would love to bring Natasha Trethewey. I’d love to bring Kay Ryan. The list goes on.

[Peter] On your mind currently as a writer, what has been sticking? What has been occupying or stuck in your head?

[Liz Bradfield] A couple of things. I tend to work on a couple of different planes at the same time. Usually, I have a few things going at various stages, and that feels right to me. Like, I have poems that are just coming as they come, and so I’ll work on those, and then I usually have a project that I’m also working toward, and right now, my new book will be released on May 9 [2019], so that’s finished, but there’s a lot of ancillary work to do with getting the book out and launched. So, that’s preoccupying some stuff, but I’m looking ahead to the next project-type book that I want to do, and having internal debates with myself, trying to figure out when I can really dive in. I don’t want to say much more than that. I can’t talk about it too much until it’s a little bit more realized, if that makes sense.

[Peter] What is your ideal environment to be sitting and writing in?

[Liz Bradfield] For drafting, I like to have a poetry chair, where I sit in the morning and have coffee and read, which I do, so I love my poetry chair, but it can happen anywhere, right? I mean, on a walk, or rarely here in my office, at a café sometimes — the noise sometimes is too much. On a walk, drafts often start for me, so walking outside.

[Peter] Do you speak your poems while you write?

[Liz Bradfield] Not usually the first draft. When I’m revising I do, obsessively, because I think the sound and the rhythm is such an important driver of a poem, so when I’m trying to figure out the final form for a poem, when I’m working through revision, I read aloud kind of constantly.

[Peter] You spoke earlier about some of the places that your work as a naturalist is going to be taking you this summer. I was wondering if you have any favorite places in the world, big or small.

[Liz Bradfield] The place that I find the most complicated and jaw-dropping and awe-inspiring and alluring is the Arctic, the North. And I think the Antarctic as well, but I think, if I have to weigh those two, what bumps up the Arctic for me is the complicated layers of human culture in the Arctic. Indigenous culture, colonial culture, exploratory culture, military-industrial culture, you know? The good, the bad, and the ugly of those layers, weaving through and over a place that’s often thought of as remote. It’s not remote. So, that complication is really engaging for me, in the far north.

[Peter] What was your first time there, or when, and how?

[Liz Bradfield] Well, I lived in Alaska for five years, but that doesn’t really count. That’s still sub-Arctic. I lived in Anchorage. So I’ve experienced tundra and headed north from there into the actual Arctic. But my first real experience of the Arctic was in 2008, when I worked for a company no longer in existence called Cruise North Expeditions. It was an Inuit-owned company out of Canada. They were great, had a cruddy old Russian ice-reinforced ship, the Lyubov Orlova, which has since drifted out and become refuse, but I worked with a largely Canadian crew and passengers going up along Baffin Island, down along some of the northwest passage, Devon Island, Somerset Island, so that experience of the Canadian Arctic was my first true immersion for myself, although I’d been immersing myself vicariously for a long time before that.

[Peter] My last few questions I have for you are more thinking outward, I guess. The first is, do you have any goals or hopes, not only for your next steps as a poet, but just for what you want to see out of poets and poems in the next years, in the next part of your career and life?

[Liz Bradfield] There’s so much going with poetry right now. There are so many vital voices and presses and aggregations of people, festivals and residencies and conferences. I just want to see that keep going, you know what I mean? I think what’s happening right now is so beautiful and vibrant in the poetry world. And, for myself, this new book that’s coming out is not a conventional poetry book, because it has photographs and it’s using this hybrid poetic form that has both prose and poetry embedded within it. I want from poetry, for myself, I don’t know. I just want it to keep feeling like it’s really, honestly grappling with things that feel vital: questions, issues, confusions, moments. I just want to keep that honesty in my own work. 

[Peter] I think one thing that we’ve had conversations about, in my UDR capacity, and that generally seems to be a lot of the talk of English and creative writing and other humanities and creative arts majors on this campus, is a sort of anxiety about what comes next or what this world is inviting us into as we leave these wonderful programs that give us so much privilege in this kind of space. I’m wondering how you address these kinds of questions with students: what kinds of advice you give, what kinds of optimism or contribution or concern or anything you bring into this kind of conversation.

[Liz Bradfield] For me, I think that the beautiful thing about a writerly life is that it can be led by such a range of people. The trick for leaving an institutionally-supported and guided experience is, how do you keep it going? And the answer is manifold: To be a writer, all you have to do is keep writing. A job helps, but the best job might not be an academic job, or a job that’s directly related to writing. Depends on the individual. I think the best reassurance that I can offer is that, for students who really want to pursue a writerly life, all they really need to do is make sure there’s food on the table and they’ve got a bed, and to keep writing. So, however you manage to do that, there are endless opportunities. The other thing that I think is really important to make clear to anyone who wants to write, is there are publishers and editors out there who want to discover good work. It is not an East Coast, nepotistic, elite conversation that’s happening. I think cynicism can rise, disappointment can rise in writers, but I’ve seen so many examples of writers having their work published, advocated for, because of cold call, over-the-transom submissions. This idea that you have know somebody to get into X, Y or Z publication, it’s not true. That is not true. Just do the good work, and keep sending it out there.

[Peter] My final question is also for a piece of advice. Thinking beyond even just those on this campus who are writing, if you can think back to your own college days, what do you want all Brandeis students to be keeping mind, if you could give a piece of wisdom, just about being where we are and doing what we are doing?

[Liz Bradfield] I think acknowledging and celebrating the various selves you embody, whether, maybe, geography is really important to you, where you came from in the world, the community you came from. Maybe religion is really important to you. Maybe some other vocation, whether it’s dentistry or neuropsychology, I don’t know. Strange hobbies that you have, like hacky sack comes to mind. That’s maybe not a strange hobby. But those selves, that unique aggregation of interests and knowledge that you embody, that everyone embodies — exploring that and celebrating that creatively through your work, using that to guide you, not tamping down any of those aspects or thinking that they’re not suitable for artistic exploration. Don’t do that. Celebrate them all. Put them together in the same pot and see what happens, because that unique amalgamation is where the magic is.

[Peter] Thank you. I think that is a beautiful note to end on. I really appreciate this conversation and your time that you’ve contributed to this podcast, and I’m really excited to share this with the rest of the community here.

[Liz Bradfield] Thank you.

[Peter] Thank you!

[Liz Bradfield] It’s really nice here… I mean, who doesn’t love to sit down and talk about poetry and its vitality in the world, you know?

[Peter] Thank you so much.

[Liz Bradfield] Thanks, Peter.

[Peter] It’s been wonderful.