Interview with Jennifer Bartlett
WG: Jen, one of the first things that comes to mind when thinking about your work as a poet is its connection to Larry Eigner. How did you get interested in Eigner's poetry and what has been his influence on your own writing?
JB: I am very interested in writing about Eigner as I have a particular viewpoint from which to do it. I think there is something interesting about a poet with cerebral palsy writing on another poet with cerebral palsy. The so-called condition of cerebral palsy strikes me as such a particular one; even in terms of disability it seems to be an odd bird. I think of cerebral palsy as a disability without any real meaning. Instead of an exact bodily condition, 'the palsy,' as Robert Grenier refers to it, describes a form of movement. However, the ways that this movement is manifested are vast.
Each poet writes through the body - there is no way to get around it because writing is a physical act - and how the breath/body moves across the page is particular to every poet. Although Eigner's physical movement was more restricted than mine - I do think that there is a commonality in the experience of living in a body that is compromised in some ways, but, more interestingly, is not compromised in the way society thinks it is. There seems to a misguided equation between the movement of people with cerebral palsy and intelligence (meaning the lack of intelligence). I think, perhaps, more than other people with disabilities, people with cerebral palsy are assumed to be stupid. This creates a particular, added, frustration.
Like Eigner, I have (until very recently) never been interested in thinking about my cerebral palsy as an extension of my poetics. As a young person, like many young people, I wanted to deemphasize not emphasize my disability. This changed in my thirties when I was an editor for WeMedia and subsequently a poetry teacher at United Cerebral Palsy. In my thirties, I became an activist and 'proud' of my disability. But, I am still not comfortable tying that into my poetics because, like Eigner, for me, poetry is about language, music, beauty, and form. Not identity and not story. Each of my poems does tell a story - but the story is always illusive and secondary.
WG: Previously, you've mentioned being influenced by the Black Mountain poets - with whom, of course, Eigner is often identified. What is it about the Black Mountain and Language poets that interests you?
Overall, I am intrigued by a poetics that changes the course of poetry and language itself. Both of these "schools" accomplished this. I am probably in the minority, but I actually feel by breaking apart and rejecting the narrative, language poetry deepened a sense of lyricism for those poets who border the fence between experimental and narrative; so that, through abstraction, poets like Fanny Howe and Brenda Hillman are able to maintain a narrative while not being driven by it. As Louis Zukofsky notes, "The poet's major aim is not to show himself but that order of itself will speak to all men." I also relate strongly to the idea that poetry is not something that should be or can be commodified. As I become involved in disability poetics, this becomes even more interesting to me because 'disabled' poets with mainstream presses tend to enforce the predominant notion of disability as tragedy. To me, this becomes tied in with marketability and telling the public what they want to hear.
Of the Black Mountain poets, although the Maximus Poems is one of my favorite books of all time, I am most interested in Robert Duncan. As a lyric poet, I am drawn to much of Duncan's work, but I also am interested in Duncan as a manual for life. Someone to emulate, not only poetically, but in daily existence. What interests me is how Duncan struggled to reside in ambivalence - about war, poetry, domesticity, and even his sexuality. Rather than reject or criticize his ambivalence, he struggled to accept it as part of life. Duncan was also informed by the magical - silly concept that I utterly buy into.
WG: When you sit down to write a poem, what is it that you are trying to accomplish? How do you know when you've succeeded?
JB: For me the process is much like Spicer describes in the Vancouver lectures. I feel like when I'm writing, really writing, the self becomes lost in the process. When I was young, the process was more fabricated and conscious. Now, it's as though the work is coming through me like a radio transmission - or as Spicer likes to note, the Martians. When I write, I'm actually not trying to accomplish anything other than to write a decent poem.
WG: What is the process of writing a poem like for you? Can you illustrate it for us by taking us through a specific poem that you have written?
JB: Process for me is largely a time of waiting. My husband and I talk about this all the time; he is a great fiction writer and he tells me that I should just go write something! But, for me, writing means not writing. It means getting up, taking my son to school, doing the dishes, talking on the phone, taking care of the numerous animals we live with etc. I also spend a lot of time reading poetry, poetics, and novels. In order to write, my mind has to come to a very quiet place, and it takes a long time to get there. However, once I'm there the poems usually come quickly and easily. I used to move things around quite a bit; but now I've learning to pretty much write the poem(s) in the order in which they are going to stay. I do have some ongoing projects with which I periodically practice. These are what I call re-translations of texts. The primary one that I've been working on for three years is reforming Paul Auster's translation of Pierre Clastres' Chronicles of the Guakayi Indians into series of poems.
WG: You are now in the process of editing an anthology on disability-related poetry? Talk a little bit about that.
JB: Working on Beauty is a Verb has been difficult, but wonderful for me, It has been a joy, not only getting to work with poets who work I love and admire, but getting to know the work of many people I haven't read before and, in this, forming an appreciation for a poetics different from my own.
I think there is real value in the collection as it opens readers up to the idea of the normalization, for lack of a better word, of disability. There are so few poets with visible disabilities publishing. And, as I mentioned above, the ones who tend to get attention more or less follow the prevalent belief of disability as personal tragedy within the context of the narrative poem. While this is valid, I think it is crucial for society to be exposed to a alternate point of view - and an alternate poetics.
This is why I'm glad poets like Denise Leto, Norma Cole, and David Wolach are in the anthology in addition to Jim Ferris, Petra Kuppers, and Vassar Miller. Poets as such come from a place of not only breaking down disability and the body - but also breaking apart traditional form. It reminds me of Hélne Cixous' concept of écriture féminine. I'm invested in the idea of breaking apart stereotypes of disability not only through content, but through form. This is what, ultimately, I think I was trying to do with Autobiography/ Anti-Autobiography. Is an interesting question; if the sonnet, say, can be considered a extension of patriarchy, can the narrative poem be considered a symbol of able-bodiedness?
WG: That sounds like a question that could provoke some spirited debated - perhaps a topic for a future interview. In the meantime I want to thank you for your time and for doing this interview. Good luck with both the anthology and Autobiography/ Anti-Autobiography.