John Rufo: An interview with Jennifer Bartlett

cover photo by Emma Bee Bernstein

[Jennifer Bartlett is the author of several books of poetry, including, most recently Autobiography / Anti-Autobiography (Theenk Books, 2015). With Sheila Black and Michael Northen, she co-edited Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, an anthology of poets who happen to have primarily visible physical disabilities. This anthology was one of the first of its kind, marking a historical gathering together of poets who had usually not been identified as disabled, such as Bernadette Mayer, and those who are publically affiliated with disability poetics.


In addition to writing her own poetry, Bartlett is also at work on an extensive biography of Larry Eigner, an extremely influential poet of the Black Mountain School and the Language movement, who lived in Swampscott, MA for his entire life as a poet with cerebral palsy. Eigner corresponded with many poets throughout his life and wrote dozens of books. Jennifer Bartlett happens to have cerebral palsy.]


John Rufo: You’ve said you’re responding a bit to Larry Eigner in your poetry, because obviously you’ve been working on the biography for what, four years now?


Jennifer Bartlett: Yes, four years.


JR: And you’re at the archive at NYU library reading his letters in order to write the biography. Could you talk a bit about writing poetry in terms of archival work? You’re almost resurrecting a person through documents. What’s that experience like in terms of the work of collage? I know you said you had a bit of anxiety about the biography because, when it comes out, people’s versions of Larry may not be the kind of version you assemble of Eigner in the book. How do you feel about being a poet and working in the archive? Because typically the archive is for the academic, you know, it’s the place of the researcher, but you’re going in as an artist into the archive – what does that feel like? Or is that experience surreal or strange for you?


JB: When I go to the Fales Collection I do feel like a researcher, though I’m not exactly. What’s interesting is that I’m not really on the outside. A scholar is on the outside, but I’m sort of on the inside because I go in there as a fellow poet. For example, I found some letters that belong to a friend of mine in New Mexico. That happens all the time with the people who are alive, because I probably know them. And there’s a lot of weird overlaps. Do you know who Cid Corman is?


JR: Only through some of your own work, actually.


JB: Cid lived in Japan and edited a magazine called Origin. I’ve gotten to know him through the letters: he was Larry’s longest correspondent. They corresponded weekly, pretty much, or daily, from 1949 until Larry died. So I got to know him very well through the letters. Here’s the funny thing: in the early 90s, I went to Naropa to take some summer classes. And I got a scholarship but I didn’t really have a place to stay. So they ended up putting me in this apartment with Cid Corman, who absolutely did not want to be sharing the same apartment with me. Totally grumpy. He did make me tea, though. It was very weird. And I had no idea who he was. And I didn’t know who Larry Eigner was either. But Corman being at Naropa is detailed in letters to Larry. Larry’s letters are particularly difficult. He has a lot of typos and he uses a lot of abbreviations. I found while I was writing the biography, I sort of read around Larry and read whatever other people said first…it was easier to understand. From what I can see, it was this stream-of-consciousness talking where he would just like do a monologue and go on and on about all of his different things…and because he only had use of one of his hands on the typewriter, he was making so many errors, and writing things with brevity.


JR: Did the people he was corresponding with know that he had cerebral palsy?


JB: They all knew. Well…that varied but mostly. I don’t know if they concretely knew that he had cerebral palsy but they knew his situation: he lived with his parents and he used a wheelchair. Last week I went through a bunch of old Evergreen Reviews and I was really surprised by how much information was in them. Larry was sitting in Swampscott and he was very isolated, but publications like the Evergreen Review featured dance, visual art, poetry and there was a lot of information coming through these journals to him. He sent out work constantly. Larry’s situation was one where he was free to focus entirely on writing. Also, Larry really wanted relationships (via visitors and letters) with editors and other poets.


JR: I think we can talk about Larry Eigner for a long time, but I want to talk about your own work too, if that’s okay? In your new book – Autobiography/Anti-Autobiography – which came out last summer – it’s got…is it Emma [Bee Bernstein] on the cover of it?


JB: No, no…that’s a photo that Emma Bee took of her friend Courtney.


JR: That cover photo made me think of your father’s critique of the presentation of an author’s photograph on his or her own book, to use the image of the beautiful poet to sell the book.


What I love about the photo on Autobiography/Anti-Autobiography is that the photo is not of you, it’s of someone else. I think that resonates powerfully with the very end of the book, which feature italicized lines that read:


            the persona is erased

            so that, this could be, not my autobiography per se,
            but the autobiography of any girl

JB: I never thought of that connection!


JR: Because you finish the book, you close it and go back to the cover, and of course, it’s another person on the cover, it’s not you, but it could be anybody. And of course the book is these two long movements: Autobiography and Anti-Autobiography. When you were writing the book did they come out as individual poems that you re-shaped as something longer? Or did it come out like a monologue almost?


JB: No, no. Both parts of the book are each one long poem. It was totally written together.


JR: And was the process of writing those two long pieces sort of sporadic? Or did you do it almost in one go?


JB: No…when I write books they’re generally written over a few weeks. It’s all in one. But it takes a few weeks…And two weeks isn’t a long time! Some people work on their books for years. It takes me years to get it published…that’s the problem! Like I’m sitting on a manuscript right now that I finished…I must have finished it two years ago.


JR: When did you write Autobiography/Anti-Autobiography? So it came out last summer, but when did you actually compose it?


JB: I wrote it in 2010.


JR: A lot of poets will put out a book and feel the release of that work into the world and it’s kind of calming to have the book be done, but then the work almost feels dead. Do you feel like the work isn’t active anymore? Do you feel like you have to move onto the next thing?

Or do you feel like the work in Autobiography/Anti-Autobiography still feels fresh and alive for you?


JB: Oh it’s very alive for me.


JR: It is an energetic book in a lot of ways, with these very short sections that feel like bursts. And it reminds me too of the way that movement is talked about in the book, where movement is all stop/start and sudden. Birds take off, while the speaker realizes that s/he does not move like a bird. There’s the looking out into the field of geese [in the lines “looks out on the field among / the geese, this will all be over soon] but the speaker does not have that kind of movement. Or in the first lines of the book: “to walk means to fall / to thrust forward.”


And there’s a lot of white space around these movements. When you’re designing the poem for the page, how much is the blank space contributing to the movement of the poem itself?


JB: It’s completely contributing. But the new book is all in couplets. And it’s also very narrative. It’s narrative to the point where I read it somewhere and I asked if it was too narrative. I mean I’m not exactly in any hurry to publish it; it’s kind of a controversial book, because it’s about an affair. Even though it erases the person it’s talking to. It has series of letters all starting with “Dear” and then the person’s name and then a comma. And it goes on erasing the “Dear” … like then it’s “ear” and then “ar” and then their name…It has a letter running through it. It has lists, drawings, narratives, and letters but it’s all done in couplets. And the last line of the book is something like… “It must weird to get so many emails in couplets!” So it has this hint that actually the whole book is just a long email. But there’s just a hint of that.


And mainly it’s about the mixed identity of “Jennifer Bartlett,” me and the other Jennifer Bartlett [the painter], and that it’s also mainly about how people are really good and really bad. Because the character is really good because she loves all the little animals and helps people but she’s really bad because she let herself fall in love with someone who’s cheating on their partner. And so trying to figure out how these two things can reside in one person. And it could really be anything that you view as really kind and compassionate and not kind or compassionate residing within a person. And there are funny asides: talking about my dad and his animals, with pictures. I’m really excited about this book.


And mainly it’s about the mixed identity of “Jennifer Bartlett,” me and the other Jennifer Bartlett [the painter], and that it’s also mainly about how people are really good and really bad. Because the character is really good because she loves all the little animals and helps people but she’s really bad because she let herself fall in love with someone who’s cheating on their partner. And so trying to figure out how these two things can reside in one person. And it could really be anything that you view as really kind and compassionate and not kind or compassionate residing within a person. And there are funny asides: talking about my dad and his animals, with pictures. I’m really excited about this book.


JR: I know your first book is called Derivative of the Moving Image and I’m interested in your drawings incorporated in this new book.  Do you see your poetry as ekphrastic?

JB: It’s really inspired by my friend Andrea Baker, who wrote a book called Famous Rapes and it’s a history of rape featuring images made with packing tape. The whole thing is art done with packing tape. Also lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Muriel Rukeyser. Muriel wrote a biography of a scientist, she wrote a couple of novels, she wrote something about Houdini. She was a socialist, an activist, a mother, and a great poet. And for Muriel, and for Andrea, and some other people, I’ve been thinking about how being a poet…you just don’t have to write poems, you can write about whatever you want! So I’m very, very involved in this biography and then I’m also very slowly writing a memoir. That’s something I have a lot of anxiety about. But I am slowly working on it. And then, who knows if this will come to pass, but this summer my husband and I are supposed to make a graphic novel about our son Jeffrey.


JR: And what does Jeffrey think about that?


JB: He hasn’t really paid much attention. But poetry is everything. And that’s where I think Andrea’s the most influential. Because she’s an antique dealer, she restores paintings, she writes poems, she writes memoirs.


JR: Your preface in the anthology Beauty is a Verb titled “Exit Through the Gift Shop” has the line: “Poetry is something slightly more complicated than my half-fare subway fare.” Being able to put the poetic into a lot of different instances, almost, or even looking at the creation of an anthology of disability poetics as kind of collaging, too, makes it more exciting. And in the introduction to Beauty is a Verb, you wrote that before doing the anthology you didn’t know that much about disability poetics.


JB: As a category, yes. To me, Crip poetics and Disability Poetics are genres, even though they not recognized as genres. If you go on the Academy of American Poets website, you’ll find that Cowboy Poetry is there as a genre, but Crip Poetry is not! And it’s very much a genre… people like Jim Ferris, Petra Kuppers, Neil Marcus…


JR: I think it’s Jillian Weisse…she wrote in a piece titled “the Disability Rights Movement and the Legacy of Poets with Disabilities,” about someone coming up to her and asking if she’s a crip poet. She just said “yes” because she thinks they just want to hear that affirmation. She’s not really feeling comfortable using this term. And I was wondering if you could illuminate the difference between “disability poetics” and “crip poetry” if there is a difference between the terms?  


JB: When I say Disability Poetics I mean Crip Poetics: I mean the same thing, though I’m not the person to ask. I’m coming into this as an outsider. Even though I’m disabled and write disability poems sometimes, I’m a Black Mountain scholar. I adore Robert Duncan. And Robert Duncan had myopia. That influenced his work in all kinds of ways. He was ill for a long time. I believe he had kidney failure and he was on dialysis later in his life.


JR: Duncan’s myopia is present in his work as a literal and metaphorical device. You were the first person who mentioned this to me: the use of blindness and of deafness in hundreds of years of English language verse as metaphor. Even contemporary poets like Louise Glück or Frank Bidart have done it. Able-bodied poets putting on a persona.


JB: Jillian Weisse writes about Louise Glück’s poem in the anthology. There are different categories. Using poetry as a persona; using impairment as a metaphor. And impairment as a metaphor is deeply, deeply embedded into our society. I mean I get on people all the time but it’s actually not that big of a deal. There are words you shouldn’t use, like “retarded” or “crippled.” If you say “blind date” or whatever it’s not that big of a deal. But what is a big deal is it keeps up the negative perception of how people view disability. I just feel frustration of not feeling listened to. For example, I had to meet my friend in Soho yesterday and I went to American Apparel there, and not only were they not wheelchair accessible, but they had these stairs with no banisters so I could barely walk up them. I’ve been a lot more conscious of this since I had my knee surgery because it’s very hard for me to navigate going up and down stairs.


JR: And you share a lot of your frustrations in your Facebook posts, especially, which I love, although you don’t really use Facebook as much anymore. You were posting online about Submittable, for example, and you expressed concerns that Submittable doesn’t accommodate for poets with disabilities who can’t see the screen or navigate the system.


JB: I hate the Internet…I really wish it didn’t exist. But I do have to say it’s very special for people with disabilities because there are people with very significant disabilities who can’t even leave bed, and can’t leave their house and can communicate with others and also have a voice. Not as much of a voice as I would like, but it’s really a place for people who are very marginalized with disabilities to be able to communicate and hear each other and all of that.


JR: It opens up that space, right?


JB: I was recently sent a video of this guy who uses a wheelchair and adopted a dog who is paralyzed in its back two legs, and the dog would scoot around. And it was inspiration porn. It was all about overcoming your disability and it was schlocky. But I was like, you know what? I love it anyway! It’s adorable. I can relate to it. I have a handicapped dog. It’s very sweet and is kind of inspiring. It’s also totally gross and patronizing….


JR: Like you recognize the wrong vocabulary that’s being used, and you recognize the patronizing or condescending way it’s being shot or presented, but then you also realize the sentimental feeling of it. That complicated feeling of being two ways at the same time…Now I’m not saying that that video is poetry…but I’m asking if that feeling of being pulled in two different directions at the same time is something poetic to you?


JB: Yeah.


JR: I always remember the section of Autobiography / Anti-Autobiography:  


“Drag my bones out to Coney Island and feel free to make an example out of me. Perhaps people will pay a nickel to get in. I'm tired of giving the show out for free. Drag me through the field of saints. Bless me, pray for me, or rub my head for good luck.”


It’s this horribly kind of funny and really sad section at the same time.


JB: People keep telling me “God bless you” at least twice a day. And so I just go “God bless you!” And they look a little puzzled. And I say it with a lot of enthusiasm. Because it’s a put-down. It’s horrible. So I give it right back.


[NOTE. The preceding interview by John Rufo is the first in a book of conversations with experimental poets on matters of race, gender, sexuality, and disability. (J.R.)]