An Interview with Bernadette Mayer by Stephanie Anderson (part 2)
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.
SA: How did you keep in touch with the New York scene when you were living up here and in other, more rural places?
BM: Well, different times, different ways. When I first moved to the country, I rented somebody’s summer house in Great Barrington, and I rented it for the winter. It was the only thing I could afford. And I started inadvertently writing, so on the desk where I had my typewriter I put the pages that I was writing, in reverse order. So it wasn’t really an intention to do anything, but a lot of the poets, including Anne Waldman and Gerard [Malanga] and I don’t remember who else… Actually, John Weiners visited once… [they] came to my house because they really wanted to get away from the city, and they knew that they could stay at my house, for free. And I welcomed the company because I was living there alone by myself, so it was kind of fun to have people around then. But anyway, Anne came to visit me once, and she saw all these pages, and she started reading through them. And she decided that she would like to publish this work. So that became Moving. So that’s a way that I kept in touch with them—or with some representative of them. But I didn’t really see too many other people. I saw a lot of Hannah at the time, and… I didn’t really see too many people at all in the house in Great Barrington. People thought I was crazy. Like, “Why is this young woman living by herself in the middle of nowhere?” I mean, this is insane.
SA: This is before Lewis [Warsh] 4 and kids and United Artists, but after 0 To 9?
BM: Oh, yeah. Grace [Murphy]5 came to visit me, and one day we were inhabiting the house, and a raccoon started hanging upside-down from the screen door of the kitchen. So we went to the door, because it was banging, and we thought it was a bear! [laughs] Because it looked so tall! Its head was… [gestures up high] We had never seen a bear before! So, we had fun. Ed Bowes, who I was living with at the time, used to come up whenever there was a hideous snowstorm, of which there were many. And he would try to induce me to come back to New York City. And I would say, “This is the moment when I would most like to stay here!” But eventually I did come down, and you know what? I regretted it. Because you drive on the Taconic Parkway—there’s not even any car tracks to follow. It was terribly maintained at the time, and probably still is. I don’t know why I did it. It took us maybe… nine hours to get from there to New York City? And I said to myself, “This is not worth it.” I was a nervous wreck the whole time. [chuckles]
SA: Did you ever miss editing a magazine, or books, while you were in Great Barrington?
BM: No. Not at all. I mean, I knew I could do it any time I wanted. Or any time I could afford to. Yeah. “Miss”—funny word. What I missed was human companionship. But, at the same time, it was a great pleasure not to have any. [chuckles] The people next door to me—whenever there was a big snowstorm, they would get together with their neighbors and play cards. So they invited me over one day to play, and I very—probably, in retrospect—impolitely, refused. Declined.
SA: That seems like a situation though that might be hard to escape from once you’re in it.
BM: Well I didn’t really like the playing of cards. But it was really quite beautiful there. I was there from September through May. So I got to see, right before I left, the apple blossoms. I took a lot of photographs there. I was very happy there. I would have stayed longer, forever maybe, if I could’ve gotten a job. But I really didn’t know how to look for one; nobody that I knew wanted me to stay, so they didn’t help me… I don’t know, I just blew it somehow, and I had to come back to New York City.
SA: What did you do when you got back?
BM: I was living in a loft on Grand Street, like SoHo area before it was SoHo, and… nothing. I just thought to myself, “How horrible the city is.” I was ready to leave it. [laughs]
SA: How long was it before you left again?
BM: Well, I stayed in the city until Marie was born. Yeah. A long time. But I was busy; I had to figure out how to have Marie, how to get pregnant, you know, this was not something that would take a small amount of time. I had to find the right man, that I wanted to be pregnant with. So it turned out to be Lewis because he was so hot to have a baby. I mean, he was the only man I knew who really wanted to have children. So it wasn’t that difficult to figure that one out.
SA: United Artists started when you were living outside of the city? Or it was just what Angel Hair morphed into?
BM: No… it became an extension of Angel Hair because of Lewis. Because he had been involved in Angel Hair Books. And I always thought that Angel Hair was really stupid, because they did all these really precious things, like with the letterpressed covers, you know, and I thought that was dumb. I was not a very… you know, a kind of person who’s tolerant of others. [laughs] Especially things like that. I mean, part of Vito and I, our… impetus to start 0 To 9 was this idea that the poem doesn’t belong on a page surrounded by white space, like a precious object. And that was what was going on in that other part of the world. They were going in that direction. Not the mimeograph books so much. But just the tendency of poetry towards that kind of thing. I felt that very strongly. And I couldn’t understand why nobody understood how strongly I felt about it. [laughs]
SA: So what did you envision for United Artists? How did you want it to be produced and be different?
BM: I thought it was kinda great the way it was. I mean, I didn’t really have any desires for it. Except that everybody would contribute to it that we thought of. You know, I’ve always had this problem. I always think that any of my thoughts… that everybody knows what they are, so I don’t even have to say them. [laughs]
SA: [laughs] You’re not an extremely transparent person, Bernadette.
BM: [laughs] I know, I know! Well that’s why I started writing things down. Vito was very mad—well, I wouldn’t say mad, that’s probably the wrong word—when I showed an interest in continuing to write only. Because his tendency was to get away from writing and my tendency was to get more into writing. But I mean, there was no way to tell when I first met Vito what was going on with him. And I don’t think he knew either. Because he went to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and all that. I mean, I didn’t really object to that—although I did in retrospect.
SA: Is there a United Artists book you did that sticks out in your mind?
BM: Hmm. I really liked… I don’t know what year this was, but Jim Brodey’s book, Judaism. I thought that was a great book. And everybody kind of doubted… Well, I was a big fan of Jim’s work, even though it was the first time in my life I realized that there could be a poet that you really didn’t like personally who wrote great work. [laughs] I don’t know. I hated all that. Well, hated is maybe too strong a word. I didn’t like the poets who were accepted in that realm as poets, because it always seemed like their work was… kind of thoughtless, and maybe sometimes at its very worst, cynical and… weightless. You know? I mean, I’m reluctant to say anything that will be horrible. [laughs] The whole New York School scene just seemed flimsy to me. I didn’t like it.
SA: Did you have a hand in typesetting the books?
BM: Oh, the books. Probably. We just did it by mail. McNaughton & Gunn. There were these same [street] corners adjoining three different publishers who were all printers for all these poetry magazines. So McNaughton & Gunn was one of them. I never went there. I’ve just heard about this. No, the nice thing about any form of publishing, including mimeograph, is that you feel like you can do anything you want. Mimeograph extremely so. Because you can do it instantly. But other forms of publishing… I mean that’s kind of what people want, is to have a book published. It’s a weird idea, but yeah, we’ve learned to live with it.
SA: But by the time you reprinted Berrigan’s The Sonnets… that was all offset, right?
BM: Yeah, it was all offset. All those books were offset.
SA: Did you allow the people you published to have a lot of say in how they wanted the book to look?
BM: Yeah, as much as they wanted!
SA: Do you feel like editing—having a hand in all that process—changed your own work at all?
BM: Well, actually it was great to get to know, so intimately, or so thoroughly, all those kinds of poems. So it was useful in many ways. But yeah, I don’t think it really affected what I was writing. But I liked it; I enjoyed it very much. I never could understand why anybody thought then, or thinks now, that a manuscript for a book is valuable in any way.
SA: You mean the actual manuscript?
BM: Yeah. I loved it; I loved what I was doing. But if I were doing it by myself, I would have done it completely differently. I would have published different things. I mean, because it seemed like, with United Artists—presses are always seeming this way—that it seems like you have to publish this or that. And it’s like you never even think about it. You know what I’m saying?
SA: Yeah. It’s not even like pressure from a single person, it’s just, like…
BM: Yeah, weird. It’s weird.
SA: How did United Artists get funded?
BM: For United Artists magazine, we would get these little grants. It was an organization at the time called CCLM—Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines. We would just apply for a grant every year.
SA: It seems like a lot of little magazines in the 70s and 80s were funded that way.
BM: Yeah. It was pretty inexpensive to keep it going.
SA: Who thought of the name United Artists?
BM: [chuckles] Well you know, we did a little catalogue, and we used on the cover the drawing that Paramount Pictures does? We thought of it together. I mean, that was the idea. But I don’t think anybody ever noticed the joke we were making. [laughs] Nobody ever mentioned it.
SA: Did you do other books like Ted’s Sonnets, reprinting things that had gone out of print?
BM: Gee. Probably not. I don’t remember doing anything like that. Oh! We did print—not as a United Artists book but in United Artists magazine—a serialized version of a work called “The Relation of My Imprisonment.” Russell Banks was responsible—it was an imitation of an old seventeenth century manuscript. So we thought we’d try, in United Artists, serializing something. But like all those things, you don’t get much response. I mean, you would think…
SA: Oh? It’s not like Dickens?
BM: Yeah, people would write to you and say, “Oh, I always thought you should do serializing…” Right? [laughs]
SA: Did you like doing the books better, or the magazine? It sounds like you liked doing the magazine better.
BM: I liked doing the magazine better because you could really touch it more. I mean, you touch each piece of paper. Pretty interesting. I mean, pretty great for paper on which is printed writing. [chuckles]
SA: You like concrete objects.
BM: Yeah, I do.
SA: Did you ever work with writers to edit the work?
BM: Probably. But I can’t think of any instances. It was fun. We had fun. It never seemed really overwhelming, to be doing all these things. I don’t know.
SA: And raising kids?
BM: Yeah, right! [laughs] Yeah.
SA: [adjusting the telephone, which is recording the conversation] I get nervous with the device.
BM: Yeah, having a device. And we decided that yours was the kind of device where you can get apps, right? [laughs] Apt to get an app.
SA: There should be more poetry apps.
BM: Are there any?
SA: There must be, but… I bet there are some really cheesy ones.
BM: Yeah. Well, I’d be happy to… If I knew anything about designing an app, I’d be happy to design a bearable poetry app.
SA: What would your ideal poetry app be?
BM: You’d just get introduced to a new poem. Every day, or how often you felt it was usable. Right? Wouldn’t that be fun? To have on your device a poem. Your device has room enough to read a poem on it?
SA: Yeah. So, do you remember any particularly memorable stories about working with writers that you published?
BM: When we published this book by Clark Coolidge, the cover was a picture of Floyd Collins, who is a famous old spelunker—which means cave explorer. You know, I have to get straight his story. I think he was buried alive in some cave somewhere, and it was a big publicity thing. Maybe in the 30s? 40s? But anyway, the book is called Own Face, so everybody wonders if that’s Clark’s face. [chuckles] Simple-minded, right? But I really enjoyed doing that book. Nobody was really publishing Clark’s work at the time yet. So.
SA: And you and he had a cave project.
BM: Oh, we’ve worked together on many things! But yes, that one was published. We went to explore this cave in West Stockbridge, because he was living up here at the time, and in order to get to it—it was on somebody’s private land—so in order to get to it we had to first get permission. And then we had to do all this bushwhacking to get to the cave, because nobody knew how to tell us where it was. But we knew approximately where it was. And when we got there, I couldn’t go in. I was terrified. And we went with Ed Bowes, who was going to make a film in the cave, and Clark’s daughter Celia and his wife Susan, and I had my period. And I started bleeding so profusely…You know? Have you ever had a period like that? [chuckles]
BM: And then later on Clark read, in some nineteenth century book about exploring caves, that women who have their periods should never go into caves. For that same reason. Interesting. I don’t think anybody knows that. So when everybody came out of the cave, I was sitting on a rock, bleeding. I mean, it seemed to me like that was all I ever did, was bleed. I got into Clark and Susan’s car, which was a Volkswagon camper-type car, and they put down a towel for me on the back seat, so the blood wouldn’t get all over the car. [laughs] And we went back to Clark’s house, and Clark and Susan gave me a brandy. Because everybody thought if you lose that much blood… it’s kind of threatening, maybe. I felt fine. But yeah, it was kind of scary for others. You know, did you ever notice that? When something happens to you, and it’s scarier for other people than it is for you?
SA: Oh yeah, totally.
BM: I’ve never gotten used to that. Jennifer [Karmin]7 did that to me once. We were walking around here, and I fell in the creek over here, the Kinderhook creek. And it wasn’t very deep at all. And the worst thing that happened was that I got my cigarettes wet! So I get out of the creek, and that’s all I’m thinking of. I mean, it was the kind of creek, you know, where the water was like up to here or something. [gestures low] It wasn’t a big deal. But Jennifer made such a big fuss about it, and I’ve thought ever afterwards that it’s really scary, other people’s reactions to what happens to you. So nobody wants to be responsible for your injury. [chuckles] I think that’s weird. I still think that’s weird, and I’m old.
SA: Did you and Clark do other collaborations that aren’t published?
BM: Um. Not actually written down. Yeah, I can’t remember what they all were. Mostly we talked. We just talked incessantly.
SA: And wrote letters incessantly.
SA: Was he your main correspondent about poetry then?
BM: He was for a while. Because I didn’t really agree with anybody else. So Clark and I had great conversations.
SA: You were both kind of… on the fringe of things.
BM: Well. If that’s… if that’s something that has a fringe, yes, we were. [laughs]
SA: Did you publish any of your own books with United Artists?
BM: Oh, quite a few! Yeah.
SA: Your audience like was fine with you publishing them yourself, right?
BM: Oh yeah.
SA: Because there’s such a stigma around self-publishing now.
BM: Nowadays there is. But you know what, there was then, too. But you’d just ignore it. I mean, it’s the stupidest thing. I mean, what is that all about? Capitalism, perhaps? [laughs]
SA: This idea that if someone else likes your work enough to publish it, that it’s like valid or something?
BM: Yeah. I’ve talked to a lot of people in the history of my time being a poet, and they would all say they would prefer to have a book, and they would say, uh, and I would say to them, “Publish it yourself!” And they would say to me, “No, no, no. I want somebody else to publish it.” I mean, even Phil [Good]8 says that to me. I can’t believe that. I mean, why? That is so insane. Plus the fact that who cares if somebody else likes your work enough to publish your book. But I’m saying this as a total spoiled brat, because when I was a kid, not a kid but like, in my twenties, I got a letter from Barbara at New Directions asking me to be a New Directions author. So I said, “Wow! This is great! I’ll never have to think about this again!” [laughs] And it turns out that it’s true. Yeah. I was happy. To be a New Directions author. My first thought was, “Wow, I get to be in that great catalogue, with William Carlos Williams, and isn’t it amazing.” I get to occasionally look in New Directions’ office, where they have all the books by New Directions authors, and… it’s amazing to see them. And one of the great things about being published by New Directions is that you can get any of their books for free! So it’s hard for me to walk out of that office and be able to carry what I really want. [chuckles]
SA: Yeah, I always thought that when you are a publisher you should keep sending free books to the authors you’ve published. But it gets hard when you’re doing little books, because the print run is so small these days…
BM: Well, you figure that into your print run, how many you need to send to all those people.
SA: How did you guys distribute your books?
BM: Well, it’s always different every time. I used to save envelopes with return addresses on them. I had this huge pile of envelopes. And I would just use that and hand-address… well, typewriter-address all the books. But, you know, then Phil threw them away, because I had these overflowing—maybe falling-over—piles of envelopes. So now I just use my address book. But I mean, that’s doesn’t include everybody. Someday I’ll figure it out. [chuckles]
SA: Were there release parties for those books?
BM: No, we never had any parties. I mean, I was always someplace else… And if there was a party, it probably should be in New York City, and I was never there, and I didn’t have any money. So, that’s why we probably never had… but I mean, we would have had a party. Just for the sake of party. Right? [pause] I always felt sorry for my kids, because they grew up in these houses filled with books, with all this publishing activity. I mean, they must have thought that their parents were kind of… remote from them.
SA: How so?
BM: Because we were doing all these other things. [chuckles] I’m sure they had fun, though.
SA: So you typeset 0 To 9, but were you also the one who typeset the United Artists magazine and books?
BM: No, because Lewis was able to do that. He could type stencils! Isn’t that great? So I shared that work with him.
SA: He wanted to have babies and type stencils! He’s like the dream guy!
BM: [laughing] Yeah! Well, when I first met Lewis, he had edited a magazine with Bill Corbett called Boston Eagle, and that’s how we bumped into each other the time before we had kids together. Because he had put something of mine in the Boston Eagle. And I was really impressed by his ability to type stencils. [laughs] I don’t know, easily impressed, right? Or weirdly impressed. [pause] But Bill Corbett and a lot of people that I met have this idea that mimeograph books are not as good as—what we used to call them at the time—“books with a spine.” [laughs] Right? That would be a good title for a poem. “Spineless Books.” There is a publishing company called Spineless Books.
SA: Was anyone interested in sewing books?
BM: Well, we sewed… when Phil was editing this magazine called Triangle Shirtwaist Fire—it was like a small size. And we sewed the bindings.
SA: Nice. And he called that “the last mimeo magazine?”
BM: No no, that wasn’t mimeograph, that was offset. It was on a kind of folder paper, really small. “The last mimeograph magazine” that he was talking about is a magazine called Blue Smoke. Which was done on my mimeograph machine. Phil and his friend Bill DeNoyelles asked me if they could have it. And I said sure. Because then we knew we weren’t going to use it anymore. And Lewis said, “Well, how much are you going to pay me for it?” So I think in the end they did pay Lewis something for it. But what it was, I couldn’t tell you. Anyway. I knew… it’s like your children, right? I [always] knew where the mimeograph machine was. [laughs]
SA: It was an extension of you. But you’ve never had a desire to edit a magazine with Phil?
BM: You know, it’s never come up. Yeah, it’s a good idea. I’ll mention it to him. We have a little money now, so we could do that. I don’t know if he’d be interested. And now editing a magazine is really kind of negligible. You just collect the manuscripts, put them in xeroxable order, and bring them to Staples. And you design a cover. There are a lot of people these days doing sort of imitation mimeo magazines. Meaning, offset magazines that are stapled. It’s a cheaper way of doing it. Because Staples does charge you money for binding something. I mean, all of that too is a negligible cost; everything’s kind of cheap at Staples. Did I ever tell you that Staples is a business of that guy Romney?
SA: Yeah. That’s too bad.
BM: It’s kind of disconcerting. I have this magazine called The Tasawassans, and I’ve done two issues. The whole magazine—to make, like, I don’t know how many copies I make; maybe two hundred?—[costs] a hundred dollars. But if I put a color cover on it, it’s three hundred more dollars. But it would be great to have every page be in color.
SA: You’ve always been always a fan of writing in color, right? I feel like your letters were always in colored pens…
BM: Well, it’s because I have that funny form of synesthesia, where you see every letter in color. You know, but I realized the other day that—you may have heard me telling somebody this. I bought some delphiniums—I was going to raise them in the garden—because I have great memories of delphiniums… somebody down the road. Oh look, the sun. Wow, it’s going to get even hotter! [chuckles] They were raising them down here, and they were beautiful—blue, bright blue delphiniums. So I bought some thinking that they were all blue. Well, the ones that I got were kind of this funny shade of pinkish grey. So I realized after that that all I care about in the world is color. I mean, I get so profoundly disappointed when something’s the wrong color. This is insane. It’s not the way humans are supposed to be.
SA: When you see letters in color, does it mean that each letter… like, ‘e’ is always green, or does it change?
BM: No. It’s always the same. But it’s not the same for anybody else who sees letters in color.
SA: What’s your favorite color of letter?
BM: Lately I’ve been liking the ‘s’ best. Which is a bright yellow. I don’t know; I just like the shape of it and the way it looks when it’s yellow. Sort of like a tree. Not really. This time of year drives me crazy; nothing is in color. I mean—terrible! [chuckles]
SA: Now I’m going to think about the ‘s’s of my name in bright yellow forever on and that’s lovely.
BM: Yeah. You have a great name. Because the ‘e’s are green, the ‘a’s are red… so, it’s a really pretty name. And the ‘r’ is orange. I have a great name for that too, ‘Bernadette Mayer.’ It’s a very colorful name. Some people have just, like, yellow and brown names. [laughs]
SA: Did you ever tell Joe Brainard about your colors, your synesthesia?
BM: I don’t think we ever talked about it, no. Joe and I didn’t really talk that much. Neither of us liked to talk. So we’d just hang out together. I would see him in front of St. Mark’s church; he would come to the readings. He had terrible social anxiety disorders, and so did I, so we would just stand there together and smoke cigarettes. I never felt any need to talk to Joe. I mean, unless something vital had to be said.
4 Co-founder and co-editor of both Angel Hair and United Artists.
5 Friend of Bernadette’s.
6 See The Cave (Adventures in Poetry, 2008).
7 Poet and friend of Bernadette’s.
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.