I have always been drawn to biographies and the mysteries of how people live, particularly artists and poets. I grew up in rural California where the lack of activity and culture frustrated me. Hence, I was always interested in reading about how other people lived. As a teenager, I read dime store like biographies of movie stars, notably Rock Hudson and Marilyn Monroe. As a teenager, I read every biography of Andy Warhol that I could get my hands on. However, the first biography that profoundly affected me was Mark Rothko: A Biography by James E. B. Breslin. Breslin not only wrote about the painter Mark Rothko, he detailed the history of the abstract expressionism and modern art movements in New York City, including the founding of the Whitney Museum for American Art and the Museum of Modern Art. This model of including the culture around the artist, as well as the individual life, influenced me as I began to write about Larry Eigner.
In the 1980s, while I was still in high school, my father, Lee Bartlett, wrote The Life of Brother Antoninus, a biography of his mentor, William Everson. I fondly remember “hanging out” on Telegraph Avenue for hours while my father made yet another trip to the archives in the mysterious Bancroft Library. For years, I longed to write a biography myself. My first choice was Muriel Rukeyser, someone whose work and life I have an affinity. Rukeyser was my first love in poetry. I wrote my thesis on her during my MFA program, and I was interested in the intersections in her life of mother, activist, and documentary poet. In the end, Larry Eigner seemed like a better choice. ,I have lived the life of a poet with cerebral palsy. Cerebral palsy is a neurological condition acquired from brain trauma at birth or in the first few years of life.
“Cerebral” refers to the brain and “palsy” refers to the spasticity that accompanies the condition. Cerebral palsy manifests in a number of ways. It can affect all limbs severely or just one side of the body and only slightly, making the disability barely perceptible. It can affect strength, balance and the ability to control one’s muscles to the extent that those with the condition may not be able to walk unassisted or care for themselves in typical ways. While my impairments are much less severe than Eigner’s, an awkward gait and a speech impediment, I felt that I could lend a particular insight to his life and poetics.
In researching the project, I was distressed at how much misinformation about Eigner’s disability was taken for granted among his readers, publishers, and champions of his work. The realities of his life were unknown most of his readers, including myself. Before I began researching Eigner's life, I did, myself, not know that he could walk, that he attended middle school, or that he could write by hand, kept notebooks, and often wrote marginalia in his books. I had no concept of the number of other poets and editors he corresponded with and his influence on modern poetry. I had heard stories that he learned to speak later in life, the he never traveled, that he didn't give poetry readings or appear in public; all of which turned out to be false.
As I wrote, I felt pressure to downplay Eigner’s cerebral palsy. Some critics and scholars wholly ignore his disability -- perhaps as reaction to their own discomfort. Others consider the palsy to be the sole or primary influence in his life and writing. There are a handful of scholars who explore Eigner’s work within the context of his disability in a holistic way. This biography also falls into that category.
The daily reality of any person with a severe disability remains a mystery to nearly everyone. Only a handful of people who live with severe disabilities have the opportunity to share their experiences with the public. Most with a disability as severe as Eigner’s live isolated lives with their families -- what was once called "housebound"-- in group homes or hidden away institutions. When Eigner was born, it was routine for people "like him" to be put in institutions for life. Therefore, I wanted to tell Eigner’s story to the best of my ability. In reading his correspondence, I was able to cast aside mythology and piece together an accurate picture of his relationships, education, poetics, impairments, and capabilities.
As I wrote, I realized how different -- and how much alike -- our situations. Until the age of 51, Eigner lived with his parents; his mother, Bessie, was dedicated to taking care of him. He was not required to engage the world in typical ways such as having a job, doing housework, or raising a family. He was unable to travel out of the house alone, and although he did attend culture events and gave more readings than critics assume, he spent most of his time at home on the glassed-in porch that his parents converted into an office for him. The Americans with Disabilities Act, which would have made it easier for him to inhabit public spaces, was enacted only six years before his death. Although he wrote often of solitude, he was never able to be truly alone other than for short periods of time.
Due to the circumstances of his life, he also was largely protected from ableism or the prejudice against people with disabilities, and some claim he was immune to it. Eigner's close friend Professor Arnold Goldman noted that Eigner did mention being teased by school children who passed by enclosed porch, but he responded lightheartedly, and after a time, the children lost interest. I argue that he was not immune to prejudice, but simply lived a life where he was protected from it.
In part, this book was written as a response to my own experience of attempting to navigate the world as a person with cerebral palsy. Unlike Eigner, I have lived the life of a typical person. After college I moved from New Mexico to New York City, got married and had a child. I earned two Masters degrees and embarked on a dream of being an inner-city high school teacher. My difficulty in convincing others that I was a valuable employee coupled with the barrage of daily prejudice sparked by my speech impediment and awkward gait became too much to handle. I left the NYC Department of Education after five years of teaching English. I briefly taught First-Year Writing, but after twenty years of fighting for gainful employment, I dropped out, if only temporarily. I needed to have an outlet for my boundless drive and energy, but I no longer had the emotional or physical energy to beg for a place in the world.
Like Eigner, if the typical world not have me, I would create a world. So, I allowed myself to live on Social Security Disability, and like Frank O’Hara, I began to “make my own days.” I joined to New York Society Library on Manhattan’s Upper East Side – a place that remains seminal to me—to have an office space, a “social life” in the company of other quirky people book-obsessed individuals, as well as access to some of the research material I needed. I began this project with no institutional backing or formal education on how to do research. With the help of my father and a few others, I taught myself how to do research and build relationships with librarians.http://www.uapress.ua.edu/product/Calligraphy-Typewriters,6487.aspxThroughout my process, I had two colleagues who continuously helped and supported me: Andrew Rippeon and George Hart.
The job was further complicated because Eigner’s correspondence is archived in numerous places: Stanford University, Brown University, University of Kansas, The Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut, SUNY Buffalo, the New York Public Library, and a private collection. Further, while it is difficult to interpret any correspondence that is not your own, Eigner’s correspondence is particularly difficult due to consistent typos, quirky abbreviations, and hundreds of references to books, radio and television programs, poets and political figures.
The biography only utilizes a relatively small selection of Eigner’s vast correspondence. It focuses on a few of his primary literary and private relationships. It traces his reading, engagement with culture, and influence of such on his poems. His poems are interspersed throughout the manuscript in order to highlight his life and creative process. It is, by no means, a comprehensive biography, nor is it a critical biography.
Eigner’s first known piece of literary correspondence was a postcard to the Boston poet, Cid Corman. In December 1948, Eigner and his brother Richard “happened upon” Corman’s [JS3] radio program “This Is Poetry” on WMEX in Boston. The postcard sparked a 40-year correspondence, ending only shortly before Eigner’s death in 1996.
In my early research, I spent months attempting to locate this initial postcard. It has been lost, despite the diligent archiving of both parties. However, Eigner’s archive at the Dodd Research Center does include their earliest correspondence as well as initial correspondence between Eigner and Robert Creeley. In some ways, it was unavoidable that Corman become nearly as much a part of the biography as its subject due to the length of the correspondence and the influence Corman had on Eigner’s early work. Eigner spent time with most of his correspondents at some point in person. Vincent Ferrini, Charles Olson and Denise Levertov all lived near Swampscott for long period of time. Jonathan Greene, Ann and Sam Charters, Robert Grenier, and Allen Ginsberg traveled to 23 Bates Road to meet him. When he traveled to the San Francisco Bay Area, he spent time with David Gitin, Robert Duncan, Robert Grenier and Kathleen Frumkin, the latter two he eventually lived with for ten years.
Corman was an exception. The two met in person only a handful of times, if that. Although Corman lived in Boston for many years, he spent most of his life out of the country, moving throughout Europe, finally to settle permanently in Japan. However, they corresponded on nearly a daily basis and Corman was responsible for introducing Eigner to most of the poets and editors he would read and publish with throughout his life.
As I worked on the biography, I realized there was one poet whose work is continuously mentioned. This poet is Charles Olson[. When I began the book, it was with the knowledge that Eigner is thought to be an exemplar of Projective Verse. As my research unfolded, I became aware of the full impact of Olson’s writing on Eigner’s thinking and work. In a letter to Corman, Eigner writes, “I wish I could go up to BMC to hear O’s voice.” While Eigner was never able to visit Black Mountain College, he spent a lifetime attempting to hear that voice. He consistently went to secondary sources to further understand Olson’s work and spoke of this often in his letters. He wrote essays on Olson, and in one of these, made the endearing argument that Olson should not have given up politics for poetry and should run for president. His own copy of Olson’s Maximus Poems was heavily annotated. Later in life, Sherman Paul’s “Olson’s Push” was among of his most beloved books. In some ways, Olson personified the male archetype and it is possible that Eigner idealized this archetype which was so different from his own experience.
In short, this biography is different from biographies that catalog a poet’s comings and goings, love affairs, and travels. It is arguable that Larry Eigner lived life largely in his boundlessly and expansive mind, not exclusively because of his physicality, but simply because some poets are like that. In this, Limits/ are what we/ are inside of [a quote taken from Olson’s Maximus Poems which Robert Grenier believes best explains Eigner’s life] means to make a map of that mind and the poems that derived from it.