Getting to know Elizabeth bradfield and her new book Once Removed
When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?
I was always a reader as a kid—stories and novels, for the most part. I had a copy of A Child’s Garden of Verse, which Robert Lewis Stevenson edited. I liked the rhymes. I think that I might have liked the beautiful cover even more, though. It was a really pretty book. It felt special—hardcover, with a paper slip over it, a curly font to the title. I was drawn to that specialness as much as anything.
In elementary school, I remember being selected to attend a camp for creative kids—poems opened that door, but “poetry” didn’t have a huge and resonant place in my life then. It was a game, a playing with words, but not what it is now for me, a vital and essential part of my existence. It became that in high school, when I had a lot of feelings that needed expression. Poetry offered permissible passion. It was okay to rage and howl in poems, and I needed to rage and howl.
I don’t think that I became a poet, though, until I took a poetry workshop as an undergraduate at the University of Oregon. The teacher, a graduate student named Shelly Withrow, opened my eyes to the magic of revision. She helped me see that poems could be crafted not to just express what I was feeling, but to possibly engender those feelings in readers through sound and rhythm and form. I loved the focus of revision, its serious attention was a revelation to me, as was the fact that intellectual play and passion could be yoked to pull together. That, I think, is when I dove in fully. It’s when I was hooked.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
Mornings are my best time—right after waking up, before the day’s business has discovered I’m awake. I make coffee, sit in my chair, and read. I don’t necessarily write poems every day, but I try and hold space for poetry every day.
Once a week (more often if I’m lucky), I walk down the street to my neighbor’s house. She is the sculptor Janice Redman, and we have “studio days.” She works on her art; I muddle around with words—we’ve been doing this for about a year now, and it’s really been a gift to work alongside another artist. We don’t talk much, but being in that room together is something I’ve come to rely upon for getting work done. Her presence—our shared engagement—gives me courage to stay in the room, to not walk away when things bog down or get difficult.
Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?|
It used to be that sound drove them—some line would come to me, and it just rang. Like a tuning fork. It thrummed. That still happens sometimes, but more often now I find myself trying to stay alert to moments of flabbergastment. Things I experience, read, or overhear that leave me dumbfounded—either at their beauty or their horror or their ridiculousness—there’s usually a poem in them.
Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
I have learned from so many poets—through falling in love and living with their words. Often they go in oppositional pairs for me. Philip Larkin and Mary Oliver. Carl Phillips and Kay Ryan. Linda Bierds and Linda McCarriston. Walt Whitman and Elizabeth Bishop.
Tell us a little bit about your new collection: what's the significance of the title? are there over-arching themes? what was the process of assembling it? was is a project book? etc.
Once Removed emerged from my life as a naturalist and is deeply tied to place: Cape Cod and Alaska are central to the book. They are home to me, and I feel deeply embedded in complicated and nuanced conversations about community and environment in both places.
The title points to a post-Edenic state (what happened once that apple-eating pair was booted out of the garden and into awareness?) and to the strange proximity of certain relationships (I never understood and was always intrigued by the idea of a “second cousin once removed”—what is that?? Where were they removed from? Who removed them?). Because personal relationships are so often a mirror for other intimacies, the poems investigate how we are off-kilter in our relationships to our environments, both personal and ecological.
I had been writing toward a few different ideas after Approaching Ice was published by Persea Books in 2010. But the poems of Once Removed are not from a project or concept; they are poems that entered through the cracks of experience, springing from startling moments. As time went on, I realized I had a critical mass of poems exploring our veiled, subjective, flawed interactions with the natural world and each other. In many ways, the poems extend the conversation begun in my first book, Interpretive Work. They are hard-eyed, sometimes wryly despairing. I hope they are generous.
The middle section of Once Removed is a bit different, though. They came from collaborations with visual artists, three from the videos of Demet Taşpınar, one from a sculpture by Janice Redman. These poems feel, as the section title “Interlude, Adrift” suggests, like a mindstate apart. The poems there are less pointedly narrative. They are more exploratory, more interior, more associative. I wanted the book to allow that softness as well as the more analytical/intellectual dowsing of the other poems. I wanted to allow space for wonder, to admit my own yearnings for a state of being not removed, but connected and whole.
Read a sample poem from Once Removed and view a recording here:
On the Habits of Swallows
A month since I swam out to the middle of the pond toward a flock
of swallows, trying to convince the sky I was a turtle, a log, a bit of
nothing. Hoping murk would hide the pale articulations of my legs.
A month since I knew I had to try and write it. What were you waiting for?
It happened more than once. More than once? The second time
I swam out hard, teeth clamped, because someone—a woman
with three kids—had found the path and five-foot beach
I’d come to consider mine. The girls were loud and presumed
their splashes cute. And were they? From the middle of the pond,
distant, I guess they were. Some manifestation of human joy, messy
and concerned with its own bright surfaces. Okay. Sure.
But is that it?—No.
But I want to suspend for a bit, hover
like I did treading, oaks ovaling the sky, road-sound almost
ignorable because the rest of it was so still, so idyllic, so self-in-a-painting.
Get on with it. I almost can’t. To put it down lets you evaluate,
opine, judge. Get over yourself. Okay. I was trying to be nothing
to startle from because in the low light of not-quite-sunset
close to a hundred tree swallows rose, gathered,
then came low to hit the water,
hit the water, like skipped stones
that could lift and shake themselves and rise to circle again. They were going
for water-striders, which covered the surface like spilled pepper. They were
bits of the day given appetite. Around my head, at eye level,
their fist-sized bodies hit the pond then rose through the strange machinery
of their voices. Was it Aristotle who thought they wintered buried
in the pond, somehow breathing there? Aristotle, yes. Well,
summer coming to an end, it almost seemed like they were
making forays toward that. Linnaeus thought it too, you know.
Even him. The point is, I was in the water
and they, beaks audibly snapping, blue neck-feathers glinting—not
really blue, of course—they hit and hit the surface
around my head, and at last—listen—at last I
was the surface, too. Or as close to that as I could ever get.