A Conversation with Jennifer Bartlett
UNM roots figure into poet’s oeuvre
By August March
At some point in history, the University of New Mexico was referred to as Harvard on the Rio Grande; the appellation can either be seen as a reference to the many Harvard grads in residence at the school as it advanced toward mid-century and beyond, or as an indication of the level of excellence the institution was trying to sustain.
Nowhere on campus was the latter more evident than the English Department. With heavy hitters like Shakespeare scholar Mary Bess Whidden and Chaucer expert Patrick Gallacher, the department also included a world-class creative writing department that featured poetic notables in teaching and mentorship roles.
Those folks included Rudy Anaya, Joy Harjo, Gene Frumkin and a fellow named Lee Bartlett. Bartlett was a first-hand participant of West Coast beat poetics who had affiliations with major players in the literary movement. His biographical research on William Everson, AKA Brother Antoninus, is still considered a formidable discourse.
Bartlett also has daughters. Among them is Jennifer, a poet herself. Jennifer became part of the community of writers, researchers and teachers there. As she came into adulthood, she began her own journey as a poet, moving past UNM, influenced by the language poets and writing lyrically, with a hint of magical realism, about her life and the lives of other poets.
Her latest book is titled Autobiography/
As a result of her cerebral palsy diagnosis, the writer recently focused her poetic gift to advance a discourse on disability; the result was 2014's Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, which she edited with Michael Northen and Sheila Black, a poet from Las Cruces, N.M.
Bartlett just finished work on organizing the disability caucus at the Association of Writers and Writer's Programs Conference. Additionally her latest poems have just been published in Poetry Magazine. She's working on her fourth book while being deeply engaged in family life and American politics. Weekly Alibi caught up with Jennifer as she prepared to head off to the Split This Rock Poetry Festival in Washington, D.C.; she was the featured reader on Friday, April 15.
Weekly Alibi: What's important to you right now, about your work?
Jennifer Bartlett: For four years now, I've been writing a biography of the poet Larry Eigner, who was part of the Black Mountain College school of poetry. He was sort of adopted by the language poets. Right now, I am studying his work intensely, as well as other Black Mountain poetry.
How did you decide you wanted to focus on biography and autobiography as a grounding aspect of your poetics?
I didn't know much about Eigner's work, I knew he had severe cerebral palsy because I have cerebral palsy. So I was curious about what he wrote about. I always wanted to write biography, I've always been very interested in the lives of people I know. My father also wrote biographies. William Everson was his mentor. For a long time, Muriel Rukeyser was one of my favorite poets. Her life had a lot of intersections for me because she was bisexual, she had a child, she was a communist, she was part of the New York poetry scene. She also wrote biographies of some important historic figures, like English astronomer Thomas Harriot. Then I met Lisa Jarnot, Robert Duncan's biographer, she is a New York poet as well. I learned about Duncan at her house by reading her work on his life. One time I was in Portland for a reading of Charles Olson's Maximus Poems; that had a huge impact on my desire to write biographically.
How did growing up in Albuquerque and going to UNM influence your work?
I loved living in Albuquerque and going to UNM. I actually grew up in the English department, well sort of. We moved to New Mexico when I was 16, my dad was department chair at that time. When I got to UNM, I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I didn't know if I wanted to write fiction or poetry. They had this great writing faculty; I had Anaya for my fiction class and Harjo as a poetry instructor. My dad got me really interested in language poetry. Language poetry has never been something I completely understand, it can be very difficult to understand. But it expanded my mind, especially with regards to what a poem can be. I was very influenced by my father's colleague, the poet Nathaniel Tarn. I also took a lot of art history classes. The school had an amazing art history department at the time, with people like Flora Clancy teaching there. Also, UNM press and Albuquerque writer V.B. Price have been supportive and influential to my evolution as a writer.
With that kind of background and experience, how did your work evolve?
My first book was heavily influenced by the natural environments of Portland, Oregon and Albuquerque. It's about my husband and my son. My new book confronts disability directly … how people perceive me. It's divided into two chapters, one about perceptions, the other a collage of themes related to disability. My current project is about me. It's a story told in the third person about a character named Jennifer. These are poems about human relationships. I did drawings for it and wrote about a friend of mine who died from a brain tumor. We named our cat after her. In one of the poems, the cat loves to chase birds who are laughing at her. My poems have a sense of magical realism to them.
So, you're trying to navigate the world, physically and poetically, is that an accurate statement?
Exactly. On a base level, it's like, oh, god, a pet poem, no way. But all these things go beyond the surface, they're important events in a life.
You're much more direct about disability. How does that contrast with the other work you do?
Those poems about disability are very clear, they'll reach a wider audience, I think, an audience that isn't so much involved with poetry but with the commonality of experience for those with disabilities. I'm sort of at a stopping point, but it was a new feeling to write poems that include drawings, that are in the third person. I'm not going to write poems about disability anymore. I'm just not. Those works exposed my activist side, but they sound so different from my other voice. My work doesn't fit into any neat categories. It's lyrical yet experimental, but people really like certain parts of my work, the more narrative parts. I'd like my poetry to reach a wider audience. Really, I can't believe that it happened [being a poet]. That's awesome.
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