Getting It Together: A Film on Larry Eigner, dir. by Leonard Henny

with a commentary by George Hart

Getting It Together: A Film on Larry Eigner, directed by Leonard Henny (1973).
© Estate of Leonard Henny. Used with the permission of Alexander Henny.
from the PennSound Cinema & Eigner pages


Abridged Version featuring only Larry Eigner:

Media SAS mirror full film: MP4

Media SAS mirror excerpt of Eigner only: MP4


George Hart
Context for Getting It Together: A Film on Larry Eigner, Poet 

In his fulsome annotations to Larry Eigner’s correspondence with Jonathan Williams, Andrew Rippeon describes Getting It Together: A Film on Larry Eigner, Poet as “difficult to find” (Letters to Jargon 293). Well, not anymore. Now that Getting It Together is digitized and accessible on  PennSound, this astounding document of disability history needs some context. Most of this will be published in Jennifer Bartlett’s forthcoming biography of Eigner, and Letters to Jargon, along with a few comments made by Eigner in interviews, have so far provided the most information about this strange and compelling film. Jack Foley published his transcription of the narration in the Larry Eigner entry in Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series (vol. 23, 1996). Jennifer and I have worked extensively and deeply in Eigner’s unpublished correspondence, which is vast and scattered among various archives and personal collections. Doing research for two books, my ecocritical reading of Eigner and her bio, we have only begun to understand the intersection of disability, ecology, poetics, Jewishness, place, and community contained in Eigner’s life and writing.

Eigner’s correspondence reveals that he had a much more active social life in Swampscott, in the 1960s and early 1970s, than either of us were aware of. On June 6, 1970, Eigner participated in a reading at Frank Minelli’s Marblehead bookstore, The Parnassus Bookshop, with Vincent Ferrini, Judy Steinbergh, and others. A young participant read Eigner’s poems to a public audience for the first time.[1] In November, Eigner began attending a writing workshop sponsored by the Water Field Free School.[2] The workshop met at Minelli’s bookstore.

On March 19-20, 1971, Leonard Henny and Jan Boon shot footage for a documentary film, Getting It Together: A Film on Larry Eigner, Poet, in the bookstore. Henny’s production company was called Films for Social Change. The documentarian’s activism is likely what connected the filmakers to Eigner’s brother Joseph, a biochemist at Washington University in St. Louis, who was also actively involed in social and political causes with his wife and colleagues. During his visits with his brother’s family (the letters show Eigner’s avuncular relationship with Joe’s children, reading the poems his niece writes and offering suggestions, telling them riddles, etc.), Joe and Janet often brought him along to rallies and speeches. Eigner was resistant to the idea of being featured as a poet with disabilities because he had already seen a film on the Irish writer Christy Brown (whom Eigner once exchanged letters with).

On March 22, 1971, Eigner described the film shoot to Jonathan Williams, explaining that “a group session was arranged in his bkshop […] and we’re to get together with Ferrini later and mail a tape to st louis” (Letters to Jargon 293). Eigner had a trip planned to visit his brother Joseph and family in St. Louis from July 30 to August 9.[3] On August 15, Eigner wrote to Alexandra Mason, the special collections librarian at the University of Kansas who supervised Eigner’s repository, and explained why he wanted “a group session”: 

Film done March 19 and 20, with talk and attempted reading at Frank Minelli’s store, The Parnassus Bookshop, where the sound equipment was. Converse like Brownian Motion with Frank M.. and 2 or 3 others, and as it turned out I did all the reading (Henny has by now it seems filmed the tss – and my guess is a mike should not have been near my voice box. ... Wow! I wrote Henny of the film of Christy Brown I saw, but he still wanted to do one with me, and i tried to face things again. I had in mind a group thing too, rather than myself a star, and as much relevance as possible got to otherwise, and Frank M.. another “jam session” such as he considered the time we had one January evening at the bkshop (a workshop in The Water Field Free School). Leonard H (Films For Social Change, 5122 Waterman Blvd, St. Louis Mo. 63108 – but now he’s back in his native Holland, Sociological Institut, in Utrecht i guess) wanted to make a happy rather than protest film for a change.

Eigner was willing to do it, as long as he was not the “star,” and as long as he could get to “as much relevance as possible.” Eigner had no control over the aesthetics of the film (the time lapse flowers, musicbox, and doll indicate that); the narration includes inaccurate information (some of which was corrected by Eigner in annotations on the transcription made by Jack Foley); some of the subtitles are inaccurate or incomplete. But in the documentary sections that capture him reading, talking with his friends, sitting in his wheelchair, and so on, we can see Eigner asserting his will to make what choices he was able to. He didn’t want to feature disability; he wanted to talk about ecological issues: pollution, food shortages, overconsumption, overpopulation. In the last scenes of the film, he reads “a descriptive piece,” “Walt Whitman’s cry at starvation” (CP2: 709), whose refrain is the recombination of the terms consumption, conservation, and population. He must have prompted one of his interlocutors to ask about his fast day idea, in which a brief fast is made into a weekly ritual to remind people of the scarcity of resources and the need to share. Perhaps most emphatically, Eigner grafts an enclosed porch in Swampscott onto a cabin at Walden Pond: “living like Thoreau . . . sort of a regular . . . Me!” Visitors to Walden Pond can enjoy a replica of that cabin; everybody can now get a glimpse of that porch. Eigner the Stoic.

Eigner’s parents are present at the reading in the bookshop, as well as Judy Steinbergh; she is the young woman holding the cat. Others in attendance included Will Pirone, Bill Downey, Jay Mollishever, and Roberta Kalechofsky, who was a member of the Water Field workshop. The participants are listed in the Kenneth Spencer Research Library guide to the film (Letters to Jargon 293). In Rippeon’s citation of that guide, Kalechofsky is misspelled and Bessie Eigner is not identified as being present; she is behind Eigner next to her husband Israel through the whole bookshop scene.

Writing to Ron Silliman on August 28, 1973, Eigner says that Henny recorded Ginsberg’s narration and recitiation of Eigner’s poems for the soundtrack “while Allen was in Rotterdam 14 months ago.” In the same letter, Eigner reports that on August 25, 1973, two screenings of Getting It Together: Larry Eigner, A Poet were held at Salem State student union.[4]