Fostering Curiosity: Professor Elizabeth Bradfield’s life as a naturalist and poet

Elizabeth Bradfield

Elizabeth Bradfield, professor of creative writing, is the author of five poetry books. When she isn’t publishing her stories or encouraging students to write their own, she can be found outside, leading whale watches or interpretive walks on Cape Cod (or not found at all).

When did you first discover your passion for poetry?

Honestly? Poetry was how I survived high school. It was a safe space for me to explore my huge, dramatic feelings. It was an important outlet when I was dealing with a lot of questions and problems that were really difficult.

However, I think I became a poet when I took my first undergraduate poetry workshop in college. Then, poetry became not just a personal release, but also a craft. I discovered I could satisfy both my intellectual and emotional sides through the practice of poetry.

In your time away from teaching, you can be found working as a naturalist. What are some experiences you’ve had in this role?

I love marine science. Before I came to Brandeis, I worked full-time as a naturalist, at home and afar. I worked (and still work) locally on whale watch boats out of Provincetown, and I spent five months out of the year at sea on small ships, leading eco-tours focused on ecological awareness to remote (that is, inaccessible by road) places. In that work, I led passengers on hikes, spent time scouting for wildlife, drove Zodiac tours, and gave presentations about wildlife, environmental issues, and local societies. I still do that work, though less often. These smaller ships usually hold fewer than 100 passengers and travel to places less accessible by land. As a naturalist, I have worked in Southeast Alaska, Baffin Island, Baja California, Antarctica, the Peruvian Amazon, and many other amazing destinations.

Because of the pandemic, I’ve stepped away from this work to focus more on local opportunities. I currently lead whale watches and other small expeditions on Cape Cod out of Provincetown Harbor. In honesty, the pandemic has also allowed me to step back and reconsider how I might better align my love of boat travel with my support of social and ecological justice.

How does your passion for marine conservation mesh with your love for poetry?

Oh man. Going out there on the water and being alive - it’s a vital part of my life. Without it, I feel stuck. Grounded.  Time on the water–hopefully in a way that gives back to the beings I love–feeds my ability to write, in direct and indirect ways.

If you think in the context of music, my experiences on the water are like the quiet back beat of percussion, driving my energy. I may not always write about my time at sea, but it’s still the engine for the poetic side of my life.

What made you choose to live on Cape Cod?

I first came to Cape Cod in the 90s because of love. I wasn’t originally interested in the East Coast; it wasn’t a place I was drawn to. I grew up living in the Pacific Northwest, and I loved that place. However, once I came out here, perhaps reluctantly, l fell in love with this place and its complexities.

I split my time, now, between literary and marine work. But the Cape is the foundation;  all of the different waters–salt, fresh, bay, ocean, pond–inspire me, as does the undeveloped land we’re fortunate to have because of the Cape Cod National Seashore. Also, I really appreciate the history of Provincetown, as it is one of the oldest art colonies in the country as well as a place with a strong queer history and fishing community.

The arts, marine science, undeveloped lands, and queerness all converge here in a way that is so unqiue.

Can you share a special Cape Cod moment you’ve recently experienced?

There are too many to name!  But, if I think in terms of recent moments, during this time of year, North Atlantic right whales travel through Cape Cod Bay from their winter breeding grounds off of Georgia and Florida to their summer feeding grounds up north. These whales, with only around 350 in their population, are one of the world’s most endangered large whales. They come through Cape Cod Bay to take advantage of the bloom of plankton every spring. Right now, we’re seeing them from the beach, which is so amazing!

In February I was out at Race Point Beach in Provincetown, bundled up to block the blistering winds, and I was able to see twelve or so right whales from shore, feeding and socializing (ahem, that’s a polite way of saying “having sex.”). A couple of weeks later, I walked out to the same spot with friends on a foggy day.  We couldn’t see anything, but we heard the “moo” of feeding right whales, something I’d only heard reports of but never experienced myself.  The moo!  The whales happily (?) chowing down.

I always venture out in hopes of seeing something like that, but I’m happy if I even discover tracks of spadefoot toads in a vernal pool.  I’m pretty obsessed right now with spotted salamanders. Whales can’t steal the show.  There are the early blooms of shadbush, the herring runs, the return of gray seals to their seasonal haulouts….. The fact of the matter is, it’s all special. The more I go out, the more I see.

What is your proudest accomplishment?

I just picked up my recent proudest accomplishment - Broadsides Press: Fifteen years of Poetic and Artistic Collaboration, 2005-2020, an anthology I co-edited and was published by  Provincetown Art Press. This anthology contains 50 broadsides and interviews drawn from 15 years of publication at It’s a gorgeous book. I felt so happy hearing one of the poets say “I never thought my poem would be featured in a coffee table book.”

I’m so proud seeing this beautiful volume and how it honors the works of all who trusted us with their work over the years.  It is humbling. I’m grateful.

What is your favorite thing about teaching creative writing on campus?

I love seeing a student suddenly catch a spark and just go with their writing. Seeing someone discover writing in that way is just a thrill.

I also love how amazingly supportive and insightful our students are when responding to one another’s work. Everyone is so appreciative of their classmates and peers. It’s a very supportive community.

You balance living on Cape Cod, being a naturalist, and a creative writing professor. What’s an average day in your life like?

Some days, like today, I spend most of my time proofing manuscripts, editing papers in google docs, and answering emails. Other days are spent outdoors doing field work. I’ll grab my binoculars and head out to survey whales or seals, lead an interpretive walk, or the like.

This is where my work as a professor connects with my experiences as a naturalist: in both realms I try to foster curiosity among travelers and students. My hope is for students of all sorts to ask questions, notice what’s new to them, and run with that curiosity.

What is your advice for a student looking to try poetry?

Try it. It’s that simple.

Come to a reading, go to a workshop, or try one of the creative writing courses on campus. With so many voices in the community and types of poetry to discover, you’re sure to find something that will light your fire. Poetry is a way of investigating understanding.  It’s a way to share and explore.  It will enrich your life.

Categories: Arts, General, Science and Technology

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