An Interview with Bernadette Mayer by Stephanie Anderson (part 1)
We are thrilled to bring you an interview with Bernadette Mayer that will run in three installments. Much in the spirit of Mayer herself, we will run the interview conducted by Stephanie Anderson with limited edits. Throughout Anderson’s interview she discusses Mayer’s involvement with small press publishing, the Poetry Project, and Mayer’s poetry— all of which has forever altered the landscape of poetry.
Bernadette Mayer: I always like the way that trees like that look on grey days. So my view is of a skeleton.1 I can see three skeletons. Actually, the tree looks more yellow today than it does on other days. And all the green parts are gone.
Stephanie Anderson: So. You say that you and Vito [Acconci]2 started 0 To 9 because you wanted to envision a space where you could publish? It was more eclectic than some of the other mimeo mags of the time.
BM: Yeah, and it was a perfect environment. [It was] just interesting to mix poetry with conceptual art in a particular way. We couldn’t really get all the conceptual artists we wanted to be in the magazine.
SA: How did you try to get them?
BM: By letters. Yeah. [chuckles]
SA: Do you feel like doing the magazine changed how people reacted to you?
BM: [laughs] No! I think they continued to be totally crazy, refusing to accept [me], you know, because they figured, “Well, she’s really young, you know, doesn’t know what she’s doing.” I couldn’t have been more than 20. I think I was younger than that. It was the poets I had the most problem with. Our problem with the conceptual artists was that they just wouldn’t accept us because we were weird and we were these… poets. And we weren’t even typical poets; we were like these weird, idiosyncratic, Catholic… you know. I mean, who… The person who did accept us lovingly was Jerome Rothenberg. Which, I thought 0 To 9 was very much like his magazine, Alcheringa, except that there was more poetry in it.
SA: Yeah, I mean there’s the kind of anthropological work in the first few issues.
BM: Well that’s where we found the great poetry that we could, you know, ensconce everything in. Poetry of the American Indians. Our audience, whoever they were, didn’t really know it that well, so… I always thought that was great poetry.
SA: Do you remember how you and Vito divided the editing responsibilities? Was it pretty equal?
BM: I wouldn’t say it was equal, but, how it was divided—I don’t know the answer. Vito did a lot of work ferreting out manuscripts. And I just used the ones I happened on by chance, and I didn’t really seek them out. Which was probably a mistake, but I didn’t know how to do it.
SA: Was the poetry scene really centered around the Poetry Project at that time too?
BM: Probably; I really don’t know. I really didn’t have much to do with it. My world was the different world of, at that point in time, the weird conceptual art and performance work—kind of “happenings” type art, and not really poetry.
SA: What was your favorite happening?
BM: Oh god. Oh god! I’m sorry I mentioned that. [laughs] My favorite happening was when the Living Theater got possession of this storefront in downtown Manhattan, and lived in it. I thought that was so great. I used to go and look at them every day, living their lives. What could be finer? [chuckles]
SA: You’ve always been fascinated with humans, it seems.
BM: Oh yes. Well, how could I not be? It’s all we have, when we have no money. We have other humans. Or ourselves.
SA: Do you think of the Street Works as the culmination of 0 To 9?
BM: Oh no, by no means. They were great though. I loved [them]. We had whole different performance things going on as part of that world. It was the street works, the theater works. And they were all very interesting ways to get writing things away from the page, pretty much. But—“culmination”… funny word. Sounds like a car crash, right? [laughs] “It all culminated in a car crash…”
SA: Speaking of words you don’t like, why don’t you like the word “performative?”
BM: Oh, performative! I hate that word! Performance, I don’t mind. Performative… it’s like a made-up, unnecessary word. It’s like you suddenly want to seem a certain way. That’s all I’ll say. [laughs]
SA: Do you feel like being an editor/publisher changed your status as a woman, or a woman working in the scene?
BM: [pause] You mean… in what way?
SA: I don’t know. I guess I’m asking what it was like to be a woman. [laughs]
BM: Oh! Well. When we were editing 0 To 9, I typed all the stencils. This was a very womanly reaction, or role to play. [laughs]
SA: Right. I feel like so much of the talk of typing stencils is, like, it’s in the domestic sphere, it’s at home. But I guess then you have to go find a mimeograph machine somewhere. You guys were going to some place in New Jersey, right?
BM: Well, we did for the magazine, because we were using Ed Bowes’s father’s mimeograph machine in his law office.
SA: Did people help?
BM: Oh yeah, we had to have helpers. As soon as we ran off the pages we had to collate them, because we only had one night to do it all.
SA: Was there an army of young poets to help?
BM: Well, there wasn’t an army though; my sister helped, I can’t remember who else helped… Ed helped… Hmm. We must have had other people. We had at least four people. We didn’t want to have so many people that it would… it was a very small space. So it would seem too crowded.
SA: You didn’t want it to turn into a party?
BM: Well, there was that aspect of it too, but since we just had that one night, we were very covetous of our time. It could have turned into a party I guess. [chuckles]
SA: Because Maureen Owen talks about the mimeo collation parties for Telephone being kind of…
BM: Yeah, they were fun!
SA: Did you guys have release parties for 0 To 9?
BM: No, no.
SA: It just got distributed?
BM: Yeah. We would pack it up, and send it out pretty much as soon as it was printed. To various bookstores and people, individual people.
SA: Alice [Notley] talks about sending CHICAGO to all the people she admired and wanted to be friends with. [laughs]
BM: Yeah, exactly! [laughs] It was fun. It was fun to have the magazine finished.
SA: I can imagine. Would you turn around right away and start a new one?
BM: Well, we’d start gathering work for a new one. I mean, some work we had leftover from previous issues. So. Definitely. I don’t know how people do a lot of issues—like, of The World there were a lot of issues. I don’t think I would even want to have that stamina.
SA: 0 To 9 petered out after what, six issues?
BM: Six. Yeah.
SA: In the introduction,3 both of you say like you don’t remember deciding to stop, it just kind of stopped…
BM: It just kind of ended; I think Vito’s reluctant to explain that he just completely lost interest. And I couldn’t see any point in continuing on, because I was doing all these other things too, so… We still had no place to publish, though. [laughs] So it didn’t work, as you might say.
SA: Did Hannah [Weiner]’s work get more attention through 0 To 9?
BM: Gee, you know, I have no idea. I don’t think 0 To 9 had that kind of effect on anybody. You think?
SA: I don’t know, but… because it’s now reprinted by Ugly Duckling in that big beautiful book, I think people think of its impact as being really important.
BM: Yeah. Well it’s much more important now than it ever was then. [chuckles] When we were doing 0 To 9, this magazine started coming out… Well actually, it might have started after we finished. It was like a glossy art magazine, called Avalanche, and the publishers had lots of money, and they had ads… And it was like this conceptual art magazine. And I was jealous. But you know, not really. [laughs]
1 Halloween decorations strung up on the porch, visible from the window of the “winter study,” where the interview took place.
2 Co-founder of 0 To 9.
3 To the reprint by Ugly Duckling Presse.
Bernadette Mayer (born May 12, 1945) is an American poet, writer, and visual artist. Mayer edited the journal 0 TO 9 with Vito Acconci, and, until 1983, United Artists books and magazines with Lewis Warsh. Mayer taught at the New School for Social Research, where she earned her degree in 1967, and, during the 1970s, she led a number of workshops at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in New York. From 1980 to 1984, Mayer served as director of the Poetry Project.
Stephanie Anderson is the author of In the Key of Those Who Can No Longer Organize Their Environments (Horse Less Press) and several chapbooks, including the forthcoming Sentence, Signal, Stain (Greying Ghost) and LIGHTBOX (The New Megaphone). Her poems, prose, and interviews have recently appeared or are forthcoming in 6×6, The Conversant, Lana Turner, Mimeo Mimeo, not enough night, Tarpaulin Sky, and elsewhere. She is the editor of Projective Industries and currently resides in Tokyo.