I met Kierstin Bridger when a mutual friend introduced us around the time our first books came out in 2016. We had each written a volume of persona poems that sought to reclaim lost voices of women in western American history. When we discovered that our books had much in common, we set up some readings around Denver when she was in town.
Her first book Demimonde gives voice to saloon girls and prostitutes who worked in Old West mining towns such as Telluride and Aspen. Published by Lithic Press, an inventive small press from western Colorado, the book also includes a series of antique photographs from that era, printed on vellum pages. It is a gorgeous book, an art object. She expands her fierce feminist sensibility in her second book All Ember, a collection of personal poems centered on her life growing up in rural Colorado.
Bridger lives in Ridgway, a small town in the valley below the snowy peaks of Telluride. She co-directs the Open Bard Poetry Series, a monthly reading series and open mic that features poets from around the West, including yours truly this past March. She is also editor-in-sheaf of Ridgway Alley Poems, a public art installation of poems hanging in the alleys around town. And she co-hosts the Poetry Voice podcast with Denver-area poet Uche Ogbuji.
I caught up with Bridger via e-mail this spring. – Teow Lim Goh
In your readings that I’ve attended, you preface your work by saying that you’re a Colorado girl. What does that mean to you? How has this place shaped your writing?
The landscape of pinion and cottonwood feels like home to me. It is the backdrop to my full-length collection, All Ember. The West is my ethos, my raw material. It’s where it all went down, both the vinegar and the sweet. I grew up half wild, coming home at dusk and only to the sound of a parental whistle after being gone most of the day with neighborhood kids. We liked to ride our bikes along gravel roads flamed by what we called Indian paintbrush, which I know now as Castilleja coccinea.
When I think about childhood I think about yucca blossoms and tumbleweeds along the walk to the cemetery behind our house. I grew up tasting the sour stalks of wild rhubarb, biting into fist-size bitter crab apples and sucking sweet nectar from the blossoms of bright red fairy wood trumpets, Ipomopsis aggregata.
When I was between the ages of six and ten, we lived “west of town” outside the city limits of Buena Vista, a leathery little berg at the base of the Collegiate Peaks. It was a tourist hotspot in the summer but in winter it assumed a quieter facade. On the surface, under heavy snow, church events and potlucks seemed to occupy our time but in truth, by the time I was a teenager we were sipping Mad Dog by raging woodsy fires, sneaking into unoccupied summer houses and driving our cars too fast on windy mountain roads.
Being a Colorado girl means more than understanding something about icicle-hung pine cabins and ski slopes. It’s more of a relationship with the crisp air, a romance of sorts; knowing an alpine lake hike can seduce with snow peaks and wildflower reflections one minute then turn into a deadly lightning field the next. This kind of frenzy stuck in my veins, formed me.
When I speak or write from my truest self I can hear palm-size granite stones breaking the ice crust on the edge of the Arkansas River. I can smell the sap-laden smoke from my grandmother’s woodstove and taste the chokecherries my cousins and I spit out in her yard, or the grape bubble gum I chewed on my first climb. There is something about the way dust and grit clung to my teeth while I lay beneath cactus-lined BMX bike jumps as the boys sailed over us, Evel Knievel-style, never landing on us, not once.
For most people, the Old West conjures images of cowboys and gunslingers, white men who triumph over the land and its people. I read Demimonde as a counter-narrative to this dominant story. What strikes me most in these poems is their intimacy. We hear these women’s private thoughts, things they would not tell another person. We feel the textures of their days. Why was it important for you to tell these stories from this point of view?
First of all, thank you for your close and careful reading. It is a counter narrative. I have such a soft place in my heart for these women. I absolutely did want their voices to be heard. Saloon girls were icons of the Old West when I was a kid. During summer festivals I remember girls wearing feathers in their hair and saucy satin dresses trimmed with fringe or cheap lace. Under the excuse of celebrating the Old West, we were twelve-year-olds allowed to wear corsets and black lace-up Victorian–style boots and parade down main street with the rest of the faux floozies and men in buckskin. Saloon girls were flat caricatures though. Not the real workingwomen of turn-of-the-century mining towns.
In order for me to tell the bare bones humanity of their stories, without ignoring the brutal truths of their lives, I needed to imbed myself into the historical context of the day. I needed to know the cut of their perfume bottles and the size their apothecary drams. I needed to imagine what they must have been staring at outside their leaded glass windows. So, for example, I studied maps of how Telluride’s town grid was laid out. I saw muddy clear-cut where pine forests stood. It is where the aspens of our era have filled-in nearly a hundred years later.
If I had inserted my own twenty-first century views and experiences on these women and their choices, it would have come off as didactic and, frankly, shortsighted. I had to dive deep in the muck.
To appreciate how journalism worked at the time, I had to interpret how newspapers used crime reports to create advertising; salacious enticements to draw customers to the red light district. It also helped to learn about women’s rights during this time – what laws were ignored or leaned on in order to slander and punish the women, whether by way of fines, legal fees, or hiked rents.
One of the most chilling poems in Demimonde is “Telluride Marshal,” in which a saloon girl tries to hold a neighborly conversation with the town marshal and he shoots her dog dead instead. It is an extremely cruel punishment for what, crossing the unspoken bounds of respectability. How did you enter this poem?
This story comes from an anecdotal book of Telluride. This sheriff was notoriously hateful. Shooting the dog in the street for all to see… I wanted to dramatize this cold, brutal act of casual violence. His posturing says, “Look what I can do in broad daylight and with impunity. You may rule in the dark hours of the demimonde, madam, but see how quickly with a squeeze of my trigger I can put you in your place!”
I also have to say that I was looking at photographs taken by E. J. Bellocq and other photographers. I was seeing and reading about the unflattering wraps prostitutes actually wore. Not the fancy costumes with the hiked up bust and chokers but the utilitarian style women of the cribs would wear. In many of the photos, the women posed with a small pet. I thought of the animals they clung to as symbols for what felt safe to love, what brought their sense of nurturing to the surface. The pets kept them in touch with their humanity and brought a certain solace to otherwise grim days. So many of us can relate to that kind of tenderness.
People sometimes ask what it was like for prostitutes in the turn of the century Telluride and I have to say that it depends greatly on the exact year they worked and which government officials were in power. There was a point in the early days when mining camps were just beginning to settle into townships, before wives and children came in, before the power balance shifted, when prostitutes served a much needed feminine niche. Though prostitution was legal, the term “laundress” served as a euphemism for camp prostitute. They were also cooks, and nurses, and confidants.
As wives came into these towns and social groups were formed, “respectable” women wanted to set themselves apart from the world of vice. I think these soiled doves were an easy target for scorn. They were the scapegoats for the community’s self-righteousness. The men who sought their services – and often profited from the “sporting life” – remained above reproach.
I am astounded by how much money was made on the backs of these women: taxes, fines, sky-high rents, doctor’s fees, etc. The money the miners made was recycled back into towns like Aspen, Telluride, Salida, and Leadville. Prostitution was extremely lucrative. Everyone wanted a cut. This poem, like all poems, is attempting to respond to the inequality and the dogged perseverance these women displayed in the face of such double standards and harsh existence.
On the surface, Demimonde and All Ember are very different projects. But as I read them again, similar themes emerge. In particular, the women in both books are fighting to seen and heard. In the acknowledgments to All Ember, you write, “For all the girls who burn, who turn embers into fire, fire into fuel.” Can you talk about this?
I am glad to know you saw a bridge between the books. Both share themes of fierce survival, hot temper, sexuality in all its robust and broken iterations, and the generational aspect of women learning and unlearning what it means to be female in this world. There is a nod to double standards here too but in both works there is an exploration into how the tenor of desire throbs, all the ways we feed our hungers.
In Demimonde, freedom is less about the celebration of surviving in the margins of society. It is instead in recognizing that the heritage of living in the wilds of the west came at great cost. As a “western” writer I have internalized a sense of freedom as my birthright. Though as soon as I write the word freedom I think about the price. Native populations were decimated in the name of manifest destiny, women were bought and sold to satisfy the imbalance of community, and foreign workers were imported as “disposable” labor to create railroad tracks through the heart of America. Freedom was by and large a carrot dangled by and for white males. All others had to fight tooth and nail for it.
In the era of Demimonde, mining, with all its casualties and shattered dreams, became a hot ticket on the fast train to prosperity. I am a daughter and granddaughter of miners. My family came to Colorado because of the lure of the mining industry. My mother spent her first years in a coal camp in Kentucky. I open All Ember with “Manifest,” which addresses the highways we chased to reach here. That said, “freedom” looks like the open road, the burning vista, the promise and scorching pull of the vanishing horizon.
Tell us about Ridgway. When I was there in March to read at Open Bard, about 40 people showed up – more than in many of the readings I’ve given in bigger places. You also run the Ridgway Alley Poems. Many artists feel that they need the stimulation of cities. But it seems to me that Ridgway is also a meeting-place of artists and writers.
Absolutely! Our little town is a loose plaid of dirt roads crosshatched with cattle and yak pastures. Throw in a sage-colored river, wandering deer, bugling elk, a gaggle of artists, spiritual seekers, endurance athletes, yoga mamas, wiseacres, and ranchers and you’ll come close to seeing the intricate and wooly fabric of Ridgway, Colorado. Not without rugged charm, our toothsome Cimarron mountain range underscores our east side, San Juan peaks horseshoe the south and west flanks, while the aching vistas of blazing aspens create the perfect base to nurture and nest all types of creatives.
Within the city limits we safely boast a population of roughly 900. We have exactly one stoplight and alley poems decorate the leaning centennial structures. Yet as small and rural as we may seem, every first Thursday of the month we have a sweet and eager crowd! Perhaps it is the magnetic pull of the open mic – and a warm audience reception for beginner poets as well as experienced lyric devotees – or maybe it’s the allure of our historic Sherbino Theatre, a hundred-year-old granddame.
We offer a twenty-dollar “Bard Card” during the first four months of our season. (Students and teachers are always free). The decision to charge admission was scary at first, but I think many people feel committed to the series. They know it’s special. Did I mention we serve booze at our events? My co-director Beth Paulson and I have a small army of volunteers and community supporters who act as door greeters and set up the tables. Ridgway supports the arts in a big way. Our sound and light guy is the mayor! He is also a glass artist and Mac specialist. We also like to cross-promote our events. Other non-profits volunteer to be “Bard-tenders” on our nights. They invite their people and raise tips for their organizations.
Teow, thank you for your thoughtful questions. It was so good to have this conversation with you. I hope we do more readings and collaborations together.