Thursday, February 21, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Jennifer Bartlett

Jennifer Bartlett was born in Northern California and grew up in New Mexico. In 2005, she was a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow. She was editor of Saint Elizabeth Street for five years. Her first collection, Derivative of the Moving Image, was published in 2007 by UNM Press. She currently resides in Greenpoint, Brooklyn with the writer Jim Stewart and their son, Jeffrey.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

Derivative changed my life pretty significantly. I was writing poetry for 18 years before the book came out. The oldest poem was written when I was twenty; I am now 38. ‘Birthing’ the book was an enormous lesson in patience and persistence. It didn’t go into production until four years after it was accepted by UNM Press, and, as with any book, the production process was grueling despite the fact that I worked with genius editors and designers.

The day I received the book, I thought I would be full of anxiety and unmet expectations. Just the opposite, I felt completely at peace. It was as if my life had been missing something for a long time and it was finally complete. Ideally, shouldn’t work this way, but the book also made me feel like I’d finally gained validity as an artist. People are beginning to take my work seriously.

2 - How long have you lived in New York, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

I have lived in New York for eight years. This geography does not have much impact on my work. My work is largely internal. The external environs of my new work have to do with the natural world – specifically ‘other homes,’ Oregon and New Mexico. Even when New York is a backdrop for the work, it’s about what’s under the urban system. I have written poems that reflect Central Park and the American Museum of Natural History. But, my work is largely about humanity and how people do and do not fit together. I guess this does describe my city on some level!

I don’t write about race. I’m a boring white girl. Gender has come into my new work as I am writing (in an oblique way) about motherhood and all the difficulties and contradictions that come with that. My new work isn’t about the stereotypical idea of the child as the ‘perfect fulfillment.’ It’s more about the messiness and grotesqueness that comes with motherhood. The splitting of the consciousness that derives from having a child; what Alice Notley referred to as a Doubling.

I also am exploring the idea of alternate movement and the body, as I have cerebral palsy. How the world perceives one’s identity -- or body - - versus our true identity.

3 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

This has changed. I used to write long poems. Derivative definitely has themes, but it’s pretty much just organization of these separate works. (a) lullaby without any music, for whatever reason, was written as a complete ‘book.’ It just came to me this way. Most of the pieces are very short, and might be awkward standing alone. For the future, who knows? At this point, I just hope I CAN write another poem!

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?

Public readings are the first time that I hear my work aloud. That helps me in tweaking it or locating typos. I work for weeks/months on poems and usually do not read ‘fresh’ work at a reading.

5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

I don’t think of questions as theoretical, but urgent. How do I deal with my different body and people’s ridiculous reactions to it? How do I deal with the constraints of domesticity? How do I keep myself psychologically and spiritually afloat? Also, how do poets deal with the terrible state of the world? These questions are too serious to take in an academic way. That is why I want people outside of academia to read my work – and every poet’s work!

6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I prefer to have my work ‘done’ before anyone, including my husband, sees it. I went to undergraduate school for poetry. I got an MFA. I spent years bouncing work off my friends and working in groups. I finally feel like I’m in a space where I need to be self-sufficient.

As far as magazines, I actually don’t believe in editing poems. I say this as an editor and a poet. I think a poem is a fine-tuned thing, and an editor should be prepared to take a poem ‘as is’ or not at all. The problem with workshops, editing, and all this is that poets, teachers, and students have a hard time seeing the work on its own terms. Ultimately, poet/teacher/editor organically may want to ‘fix’ the poem in the way they would write it. This makes teaching and editing complicated.

Books are more complicated. Of course, a good editor can make suggestions of poem order and such. But, I still think person has to be deeply invested and intimate with a poet in order to make good changes to her poems. My best editor is my father. As scary as it sounds, he can get inside my head. He can change a word or a comma, and I think, “Yes! That is what I meant!”

7 - Where is your favourite place to write?

The same as my favorite places in life: bed and museums.

8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?

I don’t like pears.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Don’t try to fit in, wait for the crowd to come to you.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to reviews/critical work)? What do you see as the appeal?

I can’t write fiction to save my life, but I do write prose pretty cohesively. I love writing essays, and I worked for a while a writer. This confidence has made it comfortable and enjoyable for me to teach my composition classes.

I keep a pretty comprehensive blog. In the tradition of Amy King [see her 12 or 20 questions here], Ron Silliman, and the Poetry Foundation blogs, I try to stick to short essays. I find prose writing a way to release thoughts – about disability, teaching, and the world – that I can’t quite make concrete in my poetry. In poetry, language, image, music, and sound have to be primary. This limits me. The excess flows into the prose. I have more room to bitch and moan about perceived -- or real – injustices. I can’t bring myself to say something like 75% of people with disabilities are unfairly unemployed or I want to kill myself because none of my college students know who Jack Keroauc is in a poem. It needs to be said, but poetry is not the place. Thank God for ‘the blog.’

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

I do not have a writing routine. I struggled with this when I was young. I believed that one should write for x number of hours at x time. One should ‘go to work’ as if going to the factory. I still idealize this method and envy people who can do it. I can’t. I just soak the world in and wait and wait. When it comes, I have no choice but to write it. It becomes urgent.

To tell a secret, I am flooded with anxiety when I wake up. I’m not a ‘morning person.’ My husband leaves very early, and getting my kid to school is always a struggle. After that, I fall into my routine. I teach two days a week and work at home the others.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

When I am stalled, I write prose or don’t write. I don’t push it.

13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

The two books are actually very different. Derivative is about coping with not getting what you want. (a) lullaby is about coping with getting what you want. (a) lullaby is a much more mature book. I’ve been told that my lyricism has deepened in a real way.

Derivative was written when I was a baby. Now, I’m an old lady!

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

I love this question. I am very interested in film. photography, and painting. All of these played an extensive part in my first book, Derivative of the Moving Image. I worked in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and dated a filmmaker during the years when many of the poems were written. Visual art is the framework for most of the poems. Some influences are Diane Arbus, Joseph Cornell, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Robert Frank, Helen Levitt, Francesco Clemente, Lucian Freud, and Andy Warhol. In film, I love Fellini and Olivier Assayas, and Woody Allen, but it’s more of the technical process of a film – of a story told through light – that finds its way into the first book.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

This list might be endless, but I would say, mainly poetry: Michael Palmer, Nathaniel Tarn, Brenda Hillman, Rachel Zucher [see her 12 or 20 questions here], Muriel Rukeyser, Denise Levertov, Jorie Graham, Lisa Jarnot [see her 12 or 20 questions here], Maryrose Larkin, Lorine Niedecker, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, Fanny Howe, Robert Hass, Anna Akhmatova, and on and on.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

I’m pretty proactive person, so I’ve accomplished most of what I need. Last year was huge because I realized three big goals: my book, learning how to ride a bicycle, and getting an adjunct position. But, a list of undones might include living in Oregon, visiting St. Petersburg, donating more money, learning how to swim, and having dinner at Per Se. A large, unreachable goal is to make a film of Another Country by James Baldwin with a soundtrack by Rufus Wainwright.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

I never wanted to be anything but a poet and a teacher. One day, I would like to teach poetry, but it’s not a primary goal.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

My father, Lee Bartlett, is a well-known writer and critic. William Everson was my sister’s godfather. It’s in the blood.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

I recently read The Awakening and Howl because I’m teaching them. I also was reading To the Lighthouse, but there is a transition in the second part where the book becomes very, very sad, so I put it aside. I think Woolf is the best prose writer to ever live. I told my husband that she killed herself because she was too talented to live in society.

Strangely, the last ‘great film’ I saw was Short Bus. I really resisted seeing it, but relented for my husband. I haven’t seen anything in such a long time that exposed and studied the human condition in such a true, poetic way. AND it featured the Hungary Marching Band. What more could you ask for?

20 - What are you currently working on?

I have been trying to be a good mother to Derivative, doing readings and such. Meanwhile, I did a guest editorial for How2 on poetry and mentorship, which should be published in March 2008. My second manuscript, (a) lullaby without any music, is being considered by a significant poetry press.

I am working on a collection of essays, I’m with the DJ, about disability, poetics, and teaching. I’m also considering including the interviews I did for Saint Elizabeth Street with Andrea Baker, Kate Greenstreet, Bruce Covey, and others. I’m trying also to be a good daughter/friend/citizen/wife/professor/mother/poet and find a house to live in for summer in Oregon and do the family taxes. I’m a busy woman!

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