Finding An(other) Way: An Interview with Jennifer Bartlett by Ellen McGrath Smith

by Leslie Anne Mcilroy

Photo of Jennifer Bartlett

Photo of Jennifer Bartlett

Jennifer Bartlett was born in the San Francisco Bay Area and educated at the University of New Mexico, Vermont College and Brooklyn College.

She is the author of Derivative of the Moving Image (University of New Mexico Press 2007), (a) lullaby without any music (Chax 2012) and, most recently, Autobiography/Anti-Autobiography (Theenk 2014). Bartlett also co-edited, with Sheila Black and Michael Northen, Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. In December 2014, she co-edited, with Professor George Hart, a collection of the poet Larry Eigner’s letters and participated in a “roundtable” on disability and poetics for Poetry.

Bartlett has received fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, Fund for Poetry, and the Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut. She is currently writing a full-length biography on Eigner, and recently had a residency at the Gloucester Writer’s Center. Bartlett has taught poetry and disability awareness at Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, United Cerebral Palsy, the Multiple Sclerosis Society, and in the New York Public Schools.

Photo of Ellen McGrath Smith

Photo of Ellen McGrath Smith

Ellen McGrath Smith is a poet who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and in the Carlow University Madwomen in the Attic program. Her chapbook Scatter, Feed was published in 2014 by The Seven Kitchens Press, and her book-length collection of poems, Nobody's Jackknife, in 2015 by West End Press. Smith has lived since childhood with bilateral sensorineural hearing loss.

This interview was conducted over a period of 9 months beginning in 2014. Smith and Bartlett have collaborated on readings and roundtables, developing a friendship. The interview was a way of learning more about Bartlett's labor of love, a biography of Larry Eigner, as well as about Bartlett's most recent collection of poems. As one of the leading voices in the current disability poetics movement, and one who does not shy away from confrontation, Bartlett has fused her activism and aesthetics in powerful ways.

Ellen: You’ve been working over the past few years on a biography of the poet Larry Eigner [1927-1996, author of over 75 books and broadsides]. How's it going? What have been a few of the biggest discoveries you've made in your research and what are a few of the biggest questions you want to answer?

Jennifer: In the years working on the biography, I have had many exciting moments. I found an old documentary on Eigner circa 1970 that has long been out of circulation. To my knowledge, I have the only copy. One thing that is interesting about the film is that the filmmaker, Leonard Henny, decided (of all people) to have Allen Ginsberg read Eigner’s poems. This created a situation where the über voice was displacing the impaired voice. What is also interesting is that no one, including the Ginsberg foundation, knows about the film, although I guess they do now!

I’ve also been looking through a bunch of archival information and books about how children with cerebral palsy, like Eigner, were treated medically from 1920-1940. I discovered a book called Children Handicapped by Cerebral Palsy. It is based on studies at Boston Children’s Hospital at the same time Eigner was getting treatment there. There is a small chance that Eigner was included in this study, although this is one of the threads I followed that came to a dead end.

Through reading over 40 years of Eigner's letters with the poet Cid Corman, I have an insider’s view to his personality. He could be very supportive, but at times overbearing and gossipy. I also discovered that Cid Corman attended high school and formed his radio program with Nat Hentoff [American historian and music reviewer for The Wall Street Journal]! That was a surprise.

The biggest question I want to answer (just offhand) is how Eigner’s work fit into the climate of New American Poetry and what links were formed between him and the other writers of the time.

Ellen: Tell me about how you discovered Larry Eigner's work and what it meant to you.
Jennifer: I honestly can’t remember the first time I encountered Eigner’s work. My father is a poet, critic and was an English professor for a long time, and he must have told me about the work. In my late thirties, largely through Lisa Jarnot, I became interested in Robert Duncan, and through him, Black Mountain Poetry. Since Eigner was somewhat in that circle, largely through correspondence, my eye gravitated to him.

What Larry Eigner’s work means to me is more than just his poetry. It is extended into a way of living and an appreciation for him as a “person of letters.” Of course, cerebral palsy (mine mild, his severe) exists as a commonality between us, and it is interesting to see where my experience intersects and diverges from his socially. Yet, the real connection is in the way he related to art, reading and letter writing. Because he was somewhat “housebound” (a term I hate) he copiously used literature and correspondence as a way of engaging the world. This is something that attracts me. To get inside the mind of a person who had this kind of existence interests me.

Ellen: Could you talk about that term, "housebound," a bit?

Jennifer: Well, I put "housebound" in quotes for lack of a better word. It is the name for “people like” Eigner at the time, and continues to be used to some extent.

"Housebound" may have been originally meant to be a descriptive word for the living conditions of people with severe disabilities. The term, however, is somewhat exaggerated when other poets refer to Eigner’s life, because he actually did go out quite a bit for a person who would have been impaired by the pre-ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) environment; his family took him to Gloucester and on regular trips to Boston. He attended school for the sixth through eighth grades, and later, took many trips to visit his brothers in St. Louis and San Francisco. However, as Denise Levertov noted in a letter to Robert Duncan:

There are many, many places they just can’t get his wheelchair into, and other places where the excitement it wd. be to him forbids him going as it wd. be bad for him & a disturbance for others — for instance, he has seen few stage presentations & even fewer movies (except on television) because the fire laws forbid wheelchairs in the aisle & and if he were lifted into a regular seat he’d go into uncontrollable spasms.

What is problematic about Levertov’s statement is that it makes the responsibility of accessibly that of the individual body versus the culture or environment. Hence, the term “housebound” becomes a disparaging term for a person with a disability rather than a descriptor. The way society uses such terms — lame, crippled, housebound, blind, deaf, retarded and so on — as metaphors has been vastly ignored. These metaphors and terms are still very present in our language as negative markers, and they perpetuate the perception of disability in our culture.

Ellen: Can you share a poem of Eigner's that means a great deal to you, saying a few things about it that you'd like readers to notice?


They nod at me and I at stems
Yes, I agreeBut I flower myself.
Or can’t change
Yes, passes.     As I, pass on the air
As i, pause
As i dream, sight
I have been on all sides
    My face and my back
Disappears any time a world can
Reality         dissolve
        Abstract, abstract, O little
Seeing that word
Blue against the stack
O I walk I walk
The pavements
Assume they are yellow
The flowers seem to nod

This is one of the poems I love … I love it because it alludes to Eigner’s disability, which people said he didn’t write about, but he did!

Ellen: So while working on Larry's biography, you've continued to write and publish poetry. You've published your third book of poetry, Autobiography/Anti-Autobiography [Theenk Books, 2014]. Could you talk a bit about your work over time? In this newest book, you seem to be more up front about identifying as a person with a disability (PWD). Looking back at your work over the years, what concerns have you had about this sort of identification? And what has led you to address the politics and poetics of disability in a more head-on manner in this later work?
Jennifer: When I was 25, I was “obsessed” with Jorie Graham. I traveled to Iowa City to attend a summer workshop she co-taught with James Galvin. Galvin told me that I shouldn’t/didn’t need to speak about disability directly in my poetry. He said that my disability would be manifested in everything I wrote.

This was great advice, and not. On the one hand, he was correct, and part of this new book explores my movement through the forms of the poem. But it was also not the best advice. People with disabilities are often encouraged not to speak about their lives. As a person with a disability, I went through a long transformation beginning with pretending that my disability did not exist, that I was “like everyone else.” Sheila Black, in fact, was the person who taught me that saying “We don’t think of you as disabled” was offensive. People don’t mean it offensively, and in Buddhism, there is a lot to be said for intention. We are taught to believe these are kind words, but what they really mean is a sort of denial of who you are. As I learned more and grew, I ended up entirely claiming my cerebral palsy and being happy with it. This is a radical approach that even many people with disabilities do not accept.

That said, I am slowly becoming known as and sought out as a poet with a disability. This does make me uncomfortable. I was raised in a poetic family; my father is the poet and critic Lee Bartlett, and Nathaniel Tarn is a close friend. It was sort of beat into me that poetry has to expand beyond the self.

Minority poets, of any minority, who build their work exclusively on their experience don’t interest me personally. I think the work is valid and necessary, but I resist poetry that is purely political (I’m trying to say this in the most mindful way, without devaluing anyone’s work). What I mean to say is, that’s not my own path. My path is about language and lyricism. What a poem is “about” is irrelevant if it’s not an interesting poem. Sometimes, I feel uncomfortable getting attention because I’m disabled. I want to get attention because I can write … if I can … or if people think I can. On the other hand, who doesn’t have their tricks to be “seen” in the poetry world? And ultimately it doesn’t matter. No one is going to remember me as a disability poet; if they remember me at all, I think/I hope my work transcends that.

Ellen: In the December 2014 issue of Poetry, you participated in an “Exchange” on Disability and Poetry with John Lee Clark, Jim Ferris and Jillian Weise. How necessary and long overdue! Each of you has quite a different take on what it means to identify as a poet with a disability. Weise expresses her ambivalence about it, especially because it often takes away her ability to enjoy the distance between self and speaker that is sacrosanct in the ableist poetic world. Clark discusses the burden of having to get into the same arguments over and over again, which saps one's creative strength. But Ferris underscores its importance as praxis: “If we don't write disability, the normies will keep doing it for us. It's crucial that we don't keep leaving the field to them, even when we love them. Even when they tell us it's for our own good.” What would you want to underscore about that exchange and what, if nothing else, readers should take away from it?

Jennifer: Yes, all of our opinions on how to approach poetry and disability differ greatly. This is why I think that it is so wonderful that Poetry gave us all an opportunity to share our opinions.

What I would like readers to take away, primarily, from the exchange is that it is the responsibility of editors who subscribe to the diversity model of publishing to include writers with disabilities. It is not the responsibility of poets to be sure they are included.

Ellen: Let's talk a bit about what makes an interesting poem to you? What makes a poem arresting and unforgettable for you? Can you refer to a few poems that have, over time, remained touchstones for you in terms of something you hope you're doing in your own work?

Jennifer: At first, I was thrilled by this question. Then, I realized how difficult it is to answer it concisely. Many, many poems have “struck” me. I’ve written this before: I think I tend to be less prejudicial than most when it comes to what I like or don’t in poetry. I can be taken by a Beat poem as much as by a poem by Emily Dickinson or Charles Bernstein or Frank O’Hara.

However, I am very interested in music and feeling. What I want to do in order to answer the question is name a few poems that have stuck with me throughout the years and see if there is a commonality. These are poems that do not necessarily help me write but more help me live: “Monday Night” by Anna Akhmatova, “The Day Lady Died” by Frank O’Hara, “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver, “What the Living Do” by Marie Howe, “What You Mourn” by Sheila Black, poems from O'Clock by Fanny Howe, poems from Like Wind Loves a Window by Andrea Baker, The Maximus Poems by Charles Olson, and fragments of Robert Duncan’s work. I guess I want a poem to help me look into myself and find peace or a new idea. On that note, your essay in Beauty is a Verb, “Hearing A Pear: The Poetry Reading on a New Frequency,” has always stuck with me as well for many of the same reasons.  

Ellen: Thanks, Jen. It seems as though poetry these days is subject to “branding” or what we used to call "schools" of poetry before we stopped pretending literature wasn't part of consumer culture, whereas the person attached to the brand is subject to categories of identity. And these two components of the contemporary literary field sometimes combine or collide. Sometimes we’re part of a reading or anthology because of our identity, sometimes it's because our work is selected in a seemingly identity-free process of selection; sometimes it’s a combination of those factors (setting aside Michael Derrick Hudson's bad-faith imposture, which sadly earned him a place in the 2015 Best American Poetry). But it seems to me that the work you're doing in Autobiography/Anti-Autobiography tries to fuse the identity with the text/poetics, or they infuse each other? Michael Davidson sees a similar co-infusion in Eigner's work, though for Eigner, disability wasn't so much an outwardly claimed identity; still, as Michael Davidson puts it in his essay in Beauty Is a Verb, it is possible to read his work as “[unseating] normalizing discourses of embodiment” by virtue of its being rooted in a non-normative body.

So I guess what I'm asking is, are there any connections you see between your identity as a poet with a disability and your poetics (the “brands” or “schools” your poems might be said to participate in)? How do you go about “unseat[ing] normalizing discourses of embodiment”?

Jennifer: This is a difficult question for me because I feel very outside the stream of things. I’m not in academia, and my books tend to be published by smaller presses. I think an issue with my work (in general) is that it has never fit into an exact “school” or “group.” I think (but am not sure, really) that magazine editors tend to focus on one aesthetic. Since my poetry has always been a mixture of aesthetics, I think that has added to my difficulty publishing.

I don’t consider myself an identity poet nor a “crip poet,” but I do have to say, writing directly about disability has helped bring me into “the fold.” Before Sheila, Michael, and I published Beauty is a Verb, I had two poetry books out with good presses (University of New Mexico and Chax). But these books were pretty overlooked. Beauty gave me a platform from which to operate. I think this is partly because the book does mix all kinds of schools and genres. I think it’s also because many poets are political and Beauty has brought awareness to folks in a non-aggressive fashion.

Ellen: In your 2007 book, Derivative of the Moving Image, disability floats in and out, as in the short lyric, “Ornithology”:

Being disabled is not what you think.
Limitation exists only within the context of others
as the only language the body knows
is that which it tells itself.
Movement appears painful from a distance
when rather it is just the body reiterating itself.

Here, the poem does the important work of educating away from the ableist trope of the “tragic cripple.” You've recently been playing with the #IAMNOTAMETAPHOR hashtag, and it joins forces, for me, with the title of Harilyn Rousso's memoir Don't Call Me Inspirational: A Disabled Feminist Talks Back (Temple University Press, 2013). In all civil rights movements, there are waves of firm but gentle consciousness-raising, as in the poem I quote above.

But it is equally important — all civil rights movements reflect this — to get the message out in a more aggressive, urgent register. Yet, by virtue of being a minority, activists are not generally permitted their anger. Disability rights activists have pointed out, for example, the pressure on them to be affable lest the ableist world brand them, à la Richard III, as "bitter." This is in part why I like this affability-shattering moment in the “Autobiography” sequence of your more recent book:

so that, the mother might
say your child must be angry

because you are disabled

so I told her, your child
must be angry

because you are a bitch

I heard you read this at the University of Pittsburgh to a mixed audience. It was a surprising moment, a great moment. It changed things, I think. What are your thoughts on the different registers necessary to generate understanding and, ultimately, change?

Jennifer: I actually am not sure about this. Because of disability and my own history, I struggle with feeling like people are listening. I have tried to be aggressive and vocal because that is my nature. For example, I was in the middle of an argument on the Internet (which I started!) that challenged Paul Guest for using a blurb in which John Ashbery referred to his work as an “invalid’s rage.” In the argument, Guest was polite, non-political, and genteel. I wasn’t “mean” but arguing what was a highly controversial point, even to many disabled people. As a result, I was attacked quite a bit by Guest and the many people who took his “side.”

Then there were two other incidents of Internet bullying that I did not provoke. When I was teaching at Montclair State University, I wrote a post on my blog about the use of the word “retard” in the media. A chat/listserv group found me, and posted my photo on their Web site with a bunch of comments about my appearance and intelligence and how “retarded” I looked. The men from the Web site then e-mailed me, both at the university and my personal e-mail, to make sure I had seen the conversation.

More recently, the Tucson poet, Jefferson Carter, posted something about having been at a reading in Tucson that I did. He complained that he couldn’t understand a word I said and said that “there should be a limit!”

The first example was one that I cultivated by speaking up. The latter two were just from being in the wrong place in the wrong time, and falling “victim” to the rage of men who felt unsuccessful. But all these share a commonality: if you speak up, even if you act as a successful minority (in this case, a disabled woman) people are going to freak out.

The point of my VIDA article was that I don’t have a personality that can take that easily. It affects me deeply. Therefore, the conclusion I’ve come to is that it’s best to just write, write, and write. When I write that poem (above) people have the option to like or dislike it, to have me read or not read, and listen or not listen. But, unlike activism, particularly on the Internet, people aren’t able to freak out. I could write those same words on Facebook and get in all kinds of trouble, or worse, not be listened to at all. But, people can’t fight with a poem, a memoir or Larry Eigner’s biography!

Ellen: Let's talk about intersectionality. A common effect of ableism is the desexualization of persons with disabilities. In the “Anti-Autobiography” section of your new book, sexuality is an irrepressible part of the content. Can you say a few things about sexuality as both a political and an aesthetic gesture?

Jennifer: Right now, I’m entering what is famously called "middle age." I’m starting to look back on my life and think about my relationship to my own sexuality and sexuality in general. Ironically, my son is turning 13 this October, so I guess I’m searching for a way to help him navigate these questions too.

The desexualization of people with disabilities is very embedded in our culture. People with any kind of disability are thought to be unattractive and often asexual. Attraction to folks with disabilities has been labeled as “fetish.” Margaret Sanger, who is lauded as a great feminist, is rarely critiqued for her participation in the forced sterilization of women with disabilities, despite the fact that that is on her Wikipedia page.  I grew up processing these messages and believing them, and as consequence developing a low self-esteem about my body in sexual terms.

I think everything for me is a political gesture. It shouldn’t be this way, but when people express surprise that I have a child or can teach or have a Masters degree or am married — all of the mundane things many, many people have —  every mundane task is turned into a political gesture by those around me. I am exceeding the expectations of a bunch of folks by doing such glamorous things as grocery shopping or the laundry!

Right now sexuality, being a sexual being, feels like the most complex and important of these mundane things. It is very important to me that I see myself as a sexual being and that others view me in this way. It’s a touchy subject for me because I don’t want to say too much about how I accomplish such things. I think the easiest way is to write poems because you can always say you made it all up!

But I do think it's a crucial topic. I’ve noticed that it's something even women are uncomfortable talking about. I feel very strongly that the dominant narrative is men sexualize and objectify women and women have to resist. But what about women who haven’t had that experience and want to play with being sexualized? Doesn’t this side have a voice too?

People tell me again and again that sexualizing and desexualizing are different sides of the same thing …  but it doesn’t feel that way. I feel good when men look at me. I feel empowered and happy, not like a piece of meat. Of course, I can feel grossed out or scared, but I take a lot of attention with a grain of salt.

I’ve had some sexual attention and a lot of sexual dismissal. For me, the dismissal is a lot more painful. When nutty stuff happens and men are weird or objectify me, the strange thing is, I don’t think men are bad; what I think is this is how abled-bodied women get treated. I meet it with wonder and fascination.

Ellen: Your new book allows for both “autobiography” and “anti-autobiography.” Is that a tense coexistence? How did you come to decide on having two seemingly antithetical sections in this collection?

Jennifer: The book, which is loosely named after Lyn Heijinian’s book My Life, begins with one person’s specific experience, mine. This is an experience of someone with cerebral palsy who is a mother, wife, New Yorker and poet. The first part of the book also speaks about reaction to disability in general — experiences that I have read about or heard other people with disabilities speak about.

The second part of the book means to move away from my own experience into the realm of how each person’s experience relates (or doesn’t relate) to everyone else’s. We all have our individual experience and our common experience. The second half of the book tells the story of the latter.

Ellen: You teach workshops in New York and elsewhere, including a workshop at The Poetry Project last fall called “Movement as Poetry: A Workshop on the Somatic and Dis/Ability.” Can you explain how these workshops are formatted and what your experience has been leading others to explore a more embodied poetics?

Jennifer: The workshop was partially inspired by CA Conrad’s work with somatic poetry exercises. Conrad has a book of complex physical activities to lead the poet into writing. I don’t want to speak for Conrad (at all), but what I take from the book is connecting the body and movement directly to one’s poetry — so that the poetry moves through the body onto the page. Anne Waldman had us do similar exercises at Naropa, doing walking meditations and so on. This was my idea (largely) behind the workshop. I guess I want to consider how poems might derive from different bodies — including bodies with “disabilities.”

But the workshop took another turn. What we ended up focusing on was making a “safe” psychological space so that people could feel comfortable sharing their exact experience — whether that experience be queerness, illness, disability, or something entirely different. I think even in poetry it’s hard for people to truly explore who they are. And, as you hinted at before, the “branding” in poetry is so present. How does poetry/a poet exist outside these norms? Well, the answer is you struggle and struggle and find your own way because none of the traditional ways are available to you.

That’s what I want my workshops and work to be about: finding another way.