March 9–15, 2015
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 (UNM Press, 2007), (a) lullaby without any music (Chax Press, 2012) and Autobiography/Anti-Autobiography (theenk Books, 2014). She also co-edited, with Sheila Black and Michael Northen, Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. 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 of Larry Eigner and recently had a residency at the Gloucester Writers Center. Bartlett has given lectures on poetry and disability at Hamilton College, Brown University, CUNY Hunter and School for the Visual Arts.
is it true that the crippled
are much closer to enlightenment
by the mere gesture of
getting through this world
that want for silence
these bones as if birds
tiny things that at any moment
could take off in flight
there is a body
and this body is gross
it drools and itches
desires and desires
it shits, pisses, bleeds, eats
the machines now do these things for it
the mind is left
to wander and drift
there is a soul and sometimes this
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
and the children ask
why do you talk like that?
and I ask them
why do you talk like that?
and children grow up
knowing this is ordinary
–From Autobiography/Anti-Autobiography, theenk Books, 2014 (excerpts originally in Brooklyn Rail).
Tell us about the making of this poem.
Autobiography takes its title from Lyn Hejinian’s My Life. The collection is about resisting the narrow terms that society puts on the “disabled” body. But more than that, it’s about the flexibility and ambivalence of persona: persona in a poem and persona in life. And it’s about language and music, always music.
The first line in the first poem resists the argument I have heard people make that disability is the result of “negative karma.” I think it’s easy for people to believe this nonsense because it’s difficult to view disability in terms of neutrality (or positivity) rather than negativity.
Conversely, the third, fourth and fifth “stanzas” are a reaction to my own body and impairment. Getting through this world has dual meaning in that it refers to both the fragility of my body and having to navigate society’s negative perceptions. As I move through the world, my intelligence and strength are often questioned.
These lines express both the inner and outer. I do feel fragile; I could fall down and burst apart at any moment. Yet I feel hesitant to confess any weakness. The world insists that I am weak, so I am forced to only reveal strength.
The third “stanza” is about longing for my son, Jeffrey, to turn down the television.
The second poem is about a beautiful body/person, in illness, being pared to the essentials, yet remaining the same beautiful person.
The third poem is pretty self-explanatory. The last lines reflect how something like a speech impediment is merely a social construction. Adults have a prejudice against my speaking voice. This prejudice has made my life hell from time to time—particularly in the job market. But small children do not have set ideas of how one should sound or move. They ask because my voice is a kind they may have not encountered. But once they have an answer, they are able to accept and move on. It reminds me of when my son was three and asked my husband what “sex” entails. I can’t remember my husband’s answer, but my son’s response was “OK. Can I have a bagel?” I wish more adults would just ask about my speech and move on rather than assuming I am drunk or on drugs or not intelligent or any list of other mysterious things they cook up.
What are you working on right now?
For the past four years I have been working full-time on a biography of the poet Larry Eigner.
What’s a good day for you?
A good day for me is one spent at the New York Society Library. It takes an hour to get there, but once I am there, I am able to write for 5-7 hours. I usually stop at Butterfield Market to get a cream cheese brownie and orange juice. I hide out in a cubicle in the poetry stacks (stack 9!). Sometimes there is internet; sometimes not. The days the internet isn’t working are the best days because I do not like the internet.
How long have you lived in Brooklyn? What neighborhood do you live in?
This July will be my 16th year in Brooklyn, all of this time spent in Greenpoint in two apartments.
What do you like most about it?
The thing I love most about Greenpoint is that it is my home. I know all the neighbors and store owners. Everyone knows my kid. My kid’s best friend lives two doors down, and my best friend lives a block away. I also love the feeling and look of desolation we get from our approximation to the river. There is a lot of empty postindustrial space, although this is changing.
I really shouldn’t write this, but I live next door to one of the major art handling companies in the city. I am very passionate about visual art, and the art world is full of quirkiness, particularly in the handling business. Not only do I get to watch major art works toted across the street on a regular basis, but I’m privy to an unusual world.
I also love the Polish culture that inhabits Greenpoint. It’s difficult to explain but it’s like straddling two cultures. I live in an environment where people are not necessarily speaking English; when I go to the doctor everyone is speaking Polish. There are Polish signs all over the neighborhood. I only know a handful of Polish words, so my experience makes me feel simultaneously comforted and excluded. Living in two cultures somehow reminds me that the world is much more expansive than our own experience. Also, the Polish people in my neighborhood tend to be Catholic and grumpy. I am also Catholic and grumpy, so it’s a good match.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad or in between.
One defining “Brooklyn experience” was being hit by a truck while crossing in the crosswalk with the light. I had had knee surgery the previous month and was walking with a brace and cane. It was a block from my house.
Favorite Brooklyn poet(s), dead and/or alive?
Andrea Baker is my favorite Brooklyn poet. Charles Bernstein is my second favorite Brooklyn poet. I love Lisa Jarnot—although she currently lives in Queens, she is definitely a Brooklyn poet. I don’t want to embarrass her, but I’ve always loved Farrah Field because she seems shy, quiet, gentle and writes poems with lines like “Convenient you’ve got the perfect dick.” That’s the ideal woman!
Favorite Brooklyn bookstore(s)?
Spoonbill and Sugartown. I love one of the owners, Miles! They have been super kind to me and have excellent taste in books. It’s a real “thinking” bookstore.
Favorite places to read and write in Brooklyn (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I love the pier off of Radio Transmitter Park. In spring and summer, my son fishes there all day. I sit with him and read or draw the Williamsburg Bridge.
Favorite places to go in Brooklyn not involving reading or writing?
Coney Island is a very important place to me: the ocean, the Wonder Wheel, the Cyclone. It represents something in my nostalgic imagination derived from watching too many Woody Allen films. I often have dreams that I am walking from Coney Island to Fire Island—another favorite place.
In my neighborhood, the Pencil Factory, Duke’s Liquor Box, The Garden, The Mark Bar and Propeller Coffee. I love Dandelion Wine! They deliver! Two of my favorite places have gone out of business, the Greenpoint Coffee House and Papacitos.
In Williamsburg, I like Teddy’s, although they drive me a little nuts. I am friends with a number of visual artists so I really like the small galleries in Williamsburg—specifically Front Room and Southfirst.
Last awesome book(s)/poem(s) you read?
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate Joel and Jeffrey,
And what I fish you should fish,
For every fish for me is as good a fish for you.