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'Disability Poetics' hit Rocky Neck

Gloucester Daily Times - 11/30/2023

Nov. 30—Jennifer Bartlett radiates joy when discussing her work, and this Thursday from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Cultural Center at Rocky Neck she'll talk about her recently biography, "Sustaining Air: The Life of Larry Eigner."

Like Eigner (1927-1996), Bartlett is a poet; like Eigner, she has cerebral palsy and like Eigner, she has made of her disability a muse, producing a body of work that has been recognized with fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, Fund for Poetry, and the Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut.

Eigner and Bartlett are considered stars in a literary constellation academically known as "Disability Poetics." But unlike Eigner who was severely affected by cerebral palsy, Bartlett is only moderately so, and the difference is reflected in their work.

Eigner, by all accounts quite the joyous character himself, observed the world at close range from a wheelchair, producing poems which — as suggested by Bartlett's title "Sustaining Air" — were made of the very elements of life itself; air, sky, wind, water, shadows, clouds, trees, leaves, flowers, as in this poem: A bird flies under leaves close in the heavy day-long rain still keeping up the roofs glistening.

As one critic observed, his poems are "locked in the meditative moment." His world was mostly what he saw out the window at his parent's house in Swampscott where he grew up and lived for most of his life, key stroke by key stroke, letter by painstaking letter, pecking away on his manual typewriter, using only his index finger and thumb.

In the latest 1970s, Eigner spent several years in San Francisco where he was influenced by the likes of modernist poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Here, he was also befriended by Gloucester'sCharles Olson, a key figure in the Black Mountain New American Poetry movement. Olson became Eigner's mentor and urged him to push at the limits of disability to create poetry that redefines "seeing."

All together, Eigner produced no fewer than 3,000 poems, many published in collections. Some were but a few words, some were long and graphically scattered all over the page. and as Bartlett's title "Sustaining Air" suggests, what all have in common is poetry that makes of the very air and earthly elements, poetry.

Bartlett, on the other hand, being less disabled, has lived a life engaged with a fast-tracked world, teaching in New York City, living and raising a family in Brooklyn. Her work refers more to the challenges and frustrations, observed as in her poem "To walk is to fall" in which she writes "a movement spastic and unwieldy is its own lyric and the able-bodied are tone-deaf to this singing."

A California native, Bartlett was introduced to Eigner by her father, an English professor at The University of New Mexico, which she also attended. Drawn by their commonalities, Bartlett began a research journey that brought her close to Eigner's family, giving her readers a profound look into the creative life of a poet whose creative force pushed at the limits of disability — as well as society's limited understanding of his condition.

Learning of Olson's relationship to Eigner, Bartlett was drawn to Gloucester, specifically, the Gloucester Writers Center. She is the author of many poetry books, among them "Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability."

Bartlett will be joined at the Rocky Neck Cultural Center, 6 Wonson St., by Eric Parkinson of the Gloucester Writers Center, for what is being billed as "A Dialogue." The event is free, but donations will be accepted.

Joann MacKenzie may be contacted at 978-675-2707, or jomackenzie@gloucestertimes.com.

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